Yes, Atheists Still Face Censorship

Nothing fills my heart with Christmas cheer like seeing atheists’ holiday ads, so I was glad to hear of a new campaign starting up in Texas, courtesy of the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason. Starting this month, they’ll be running ads that read “Millions of Americans Are Good Without God” on Fort Worth city buses.

Millions of Americans Are Good Without God

But it didn’t happen without a struggle. Just look at how far the city of Dallas was willing to go to keep our ads off its buses:

“We’d have run these ads on Dallas buses as well,” noted DFW CoR Coordinator Terry McDonald, “but when we approached DART, they chose to stop running all religiously-related ads rather than include ours.”

And even in Fort Worth, where the ads are running, city officials have made clear their desire to censor them:

Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief said Friday that although the city does not fund the transportation authority, he disagrees with its decision to allow what he calls “these divisive ads”….

Granted, this may just be media posturing; proclaiming outrage and then doing nothing is a standard item in any elected official’s toolbox. Even so, it sends a strong message that atheists are political outsiders who can’t expect to get the same support or representation from their government as everyone else. But what really tips the scales of absurdity is the response from the local Christian churches:

The Rev. Kyev Tatum, pastor of Friendship Rock Baptist Church, said not only the community but also some bus drivers have been offended by the ads… Tatum called for a boycott, saying about a dozen churches would try to provide rides for anyone who refused to ride a city bus over the atheist ads.

Tatum accused the transportation authority of putting “profit over principle.”

“So why would you support an enterprise that’s trying to demean the Christian principle?” he said.

Apparently, a message that atheists can be good people is an offensive insult to Christianity. (Another theist quoted in the article calls the ads “hurtful”). The implication, it would seem, is that Christians believe themselves to be the only good people in the world, and that no one else is permitted to act morally without their permission.

And it’s not just in the Bible Belt that atheists face condemnation and censorship for proclaiming their existence. In Pennsylvania, the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia’s annual “Tree of Knowledge” display was banned from the county courthouse lawn. This comes after several unsuccessful attempts by the county to exclude the freethought display by confusingly changing the application process. Finally, the county commissioners changed the rules to disallow all non-county-owned displays – and then, remarkably, the displays that did go up were virtually identical to the ones that had been there before.

Even in Hawaii, a local freethought activist was roughed up, forcibly removed, and arrested after voicing a brief, non-disruptive complaint over official prayers in the State Senate. (The judge took less than an hour to find him not guilty.)

In all these stories, we’re hearing the shrill screams of Christians who’ve discovered that they’re not the only ones allowed to speak in public, and are furious over the perceived loss of that privilege. It doesn’t matter what the actual message atheists are promoting is. No matter how meek, how inoffensive, how conciliatory we make it, its mere existence will draw hatred and fury from religious bigots, because they really want is for us not to exist. Nothing less will satisfy them.

It happens all the time. Two years ago in Colorado, a billboard campaign which simply said, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone,” drew a flood of hate mail and threats directed at the Colorado Coalition of Reason, which paid for the ads. How can you get less offensive than a mere statement that atheists exist?

Don't Believe In God? You Are Not Alone

And in 2006, when the freethinking student Matt LaClair recorded a popular high school teacher threatening his students with hellfire if they refused to convert to Christianity, he, and not the teacher, became the target of threats and harassment. As he later said about the experience, “The nicer you are, the more they hate you.”

We’ll never appease religious people by being nice enough, and in fact, it will only encourage them to attack us more if we give the impression that we can be cowed. What we should do instead is speak boldly, refuse to apologize for our existence, and make it clear that we’re not going away and that we intend to claim a voice in the marketplace of ideas. When society gets used to our existence, when they accept that we’re not going away, the threats, harassment and censorship will naturally diminish and die off.

UPDATE: And as soon as I post this, another example comes along: In Texas, an atheist group joined the town’s annual Christmas parade, playing “Jingle Bells” on vuvuzelas. Not to protest, not to attack believers – just atheists participating in a Christmas parade. The result?

“Wasn’t exactly happy about the Christmas Parade this year, I spent many years teaching my children to love and respect other people and to love the fact that they were children of God and I don’t feel that they should be influenced in any other way especially not at a Christmas parade,” said Tina Corgey, who is a lifelong Bryan resident.

…”If you have younger children they weren’t going to understand but I have older children, a teenager, 8-year-old and they were curious and they asked questions and it was hard for them to believe and understand that there are actually people out there that don’t believe in God,” Corgey said.

That poor, oppressed woman, having to explain to her children that there are people who believe differently. Won’t someone shelter her from the burden of having to be in contact with new ideas?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • L.Long

    I am generally laid back about my atheism. I will discuss with others issues in a calm way. But when the theistards get pissy then all bystanders best back away.
    I will call them just what they are…backstabbing, hypocritical, bigots with out the courage to follow the dictates of their holey buybull and to scared of life to live peacefully and too scared of truth to think.
    They are going to hate me anyway so I give them a reason.

    Happy Saturnalia to all, and enjoy the rebirth of the Sun-God(the reason for the season)!

  • jane hay

    “When society gets used to our existence, when they accept that we’re not going away, the threats, harassment and censorship will naturally diminish and die off.”

    Unless, of course, Sarah Palin is our next President, in which case there will be a theocracy, dontcha know. But I would be leaving for Belize then, anyway.

  • Roi des Faux

    If you do not realize that you are privileged (or you think that you deserve it), losing that privilege will feel like discrimination.

    If you do not realize that others discriminated against (or you think that they deserve it), steps to end that discrimination will look like special treatment.

    Same pattern as every other civil rights movement.

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    While perhaps understandable, it still does not excuse willful ignorance of the laws of the land.

  • http://atheistwiki.wikispaces.com Jon Jermey

    In the four or five years since I started taking an interest in aggressive atheism, I have noticed a major change. We have all but conquered the blogosphere; all the most popular and influential blogs and posting forums have been overwhelmed by the responses — usually moderate and rational, but persistent — from atheist respondents.

    One by one we are taking over the media sites, as more and more theists realise they can no longer get away unchallenged with spouting nonsense. From this strong base we can move confidently forward into more publicly visible forums and expect to have our concerns heard and the issues we raise dealt with honestly. It will still be a long haul before atheism becomes the rational default and children are no longer brainwashed into theism: but in the West at least the period will be measured in decades rather than lifetimes.

    Well done everyone, and keep up the good work!

  • Roi des Faux

    I didn’t intend it as an excuse, just a convenient summary.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    I’ve never been a particularly big fan of atheist billboards, nor have I ever opposed them strongly. Nevertheless, whenever theists get their shorts tied in knots about the campaigns, I smile and think, “Good. They need to get over themselves already.” Theists are just going to have to get used to the idea that atheists are here to stay.

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    Fair enough, King. Intent can be hard at times on these boards, after all.

    Wait, aren’t we supposed to be evil? I mean shouldn’t we reword the Tree of Knowledge thing to, say, The “Mwahaha! I am the evil’s minion! I tell people to read books!” Tree?

  • RipleyP

    One of the big things I find is some theists still think atheism in itself is a religion or want it to be for church state separation arguments. This erroneous belief seems to color some of the responses to atheist awareness campaigns.

    I do like the boycott of busses comment; the atheist is also suggesting a boycott. Maybe that’s what is the true hurtful thing, luring the support base into reason.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I’ve updated the post with another example that came to my attention just after I’d written it – not another case of censorship per se, but an example of the bigoted mentality that gives rise to the idea that censoring atheists is a just and moral thing to do.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    It doesn’t matter what the actual message atheists are promoting is. No matter how meek, how inoffensive, how conciliatory we make it, its mere existence will draw hatred and fury from religious bigots, because they really want is for us not to exist.

    Which is exactly why the accommodationists are so wrong.

  • Ritchie

    That final added quote beautifully parallels one of the most common objections to gay rights too: “What if my children hear of it and learn that these people exist?” – always preceeding the unspoken clause “… when in my blinkered worldview I don’t want to accept that they do!” I imagine many other minorities come across it too.

    But the award for most blindly ironic line still goes to “I spent many years teaching my children to love and respect other people…” All together now: ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha…

  • Eurekus

    My condolences to you atheist Americans. Australia isn’t exactly without its problems, but bigotry isn’t as bad as what I’ve just read.

    Thinking about comment 2 above. If she becomes president I’m moving into the outback. I may be safer from a nuclear strike out there.

  • Douglas Kirk

    And don’t forget this lovely collection of christian tolerance:
    http://larianlequella.blogspot.com/2010/12/start-2010-war-on-christmyth.html

  • Joffan

    The original Christmas parade story seems to feature one disgruntled woman compaining about the atheist group. The parade sponsors seem cool with them, and the journalist didn’t find any other Grinches. The atheists come off rather well.

    Corgey’s disconnect on what it means to “respect other people” is hilarious.

  • 2-D Man

    That poor, oppressed woman, having to explain to her children that there are people who believe differently. Won’t someone shelter her from the burden of having to be in contact with new ideas? talk to her kids?

    FIFY. (H/T Louis C.K.… relevant part starts 1:00 in, but the whole thing’s good.)

  • Stephen P

    @Joffan: more precisely, it features one disgruntled woman plus a local TV station that decided to give her air time. And that’s a large part of the problem: that a lot of journalists will take religious cranks seriously and give them exposure (where they would probably treat a flat-earther as a crank).

  • http://killedbyfish.blogspot.com feralboy12

    Damn, I’m sick of people trying to censor free speech because “it’s divisive.” As if forming your own opinion is a bad thing, and disagreement with the majority is automatically wrong.
    Unity is a morally neutral concept.

  • http://daylightatheism.org J. James

    Welcome to the USA. To the various Orwellian haters, gripers, complainers what with their frail sensibilities, I give them the one-finger salute.
    Things are changing, though. As another person said above, we effectively rule the Internet, the Progressive movement, many media outlets, China(by force), and other things that make “theorards’” spines crawl.

  • TEP

    It’s certainly lucky they didn’t put up even more provocative messages. If they’d said something like “Some people are Christians, and some people aren’t”, or the even more inflammatory “people have lots of different opinions about all sorts of different things”, we’d probably have a World War on our hands.

  • Rieux

    Just to clarify the “UPDATE” example a bit: PZ Myers posted an item on “Pharyngula” on that Texas incident as well a few days ago. The comment thread was thereupon filled with observations that atheists marching in a parade was very nice, but vuvuzelas are awful and deserved distaste.

    A commenter claiming to be a member of the Texas atheist group that had marched in the parade then provided a further explanation: she testified that the parading atheists had merely hummed “Jingle Bells” and other songs through the vuvuzelas, using them as long (non-electronic) megaphones, rather than playing the instruments “World Cup-style.”

    I have to admit that this improved my feelings about the Texas group considerably.

  • erock68la

    @ Comment #2: No, Jane, please don’t go and leave me here with them!

  • John Nernoff

    RipleyP says: One of the big things I find is some theists still think atheism in itself is a religion or want it to be for church state separation arguments….

    N: This reminds me of the quip: “If atheism is a religion than the lack of a horse is a horse!”

  • mike

    By way of offering a word of encouragement to all of you: What seems to be happening in the USA in the last half-dozen years or so is distinctly similar to what began to happen here in Britain about 50 years ago, so you might find it encouraging to know that by about 20-30 years ago the fight was over, and today there are parts of society in which it is normal to profess (or in some cases pretend) to have some sort of christian faith, but more people than not regard it little more than a charming oddity. Certainly the days when anyone could be criticised for either belief or lack of it have long gone – and I believe that the same is true in most of the civilised world, certainly including all of western Europe. I suppose the dear old USA will catch up eventually.

  • Corwin1681

    Weird, I don’t remember anyone getting offended over signs that say that atheists are going to burn in hell..

  • Imprive

    I’ve seen ads that i disagree with on buses, and when I was in the south there were many billboards with christian/catholic slogans. These people need to calm down and examine WHY they find this horribly offensive (which it is not!) its not a message telling people to refuse god, or hurt the church, it just says “hey, we have different views!”

  • Colac

    Matt LaClair “the nicer you are the more they hate you”. Perhaps this is because your are doing a better job at following their cannon then they are Romans 12:17-21-”.17Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.18If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.19Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.20“BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK;FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.”21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

  • Jason Hinkle

    i would just be happy if they government would tax churches, and land holds own buy religions.

  • TTT

    If you believe in God, you congregate. If you don’t believe, you don’t have to congregate. You don’t have to clash with any group. You don’t need to be of a group. Strange… This reminds me of the Cathares. Their only crime was not congregating. Yet Catharism was a Christian religion just the same. Catholics had to burn the last of them (more than 100,000 of them were eradicated)

    Atheism is simply the lack of any cause about what others should think! Read history, the simple fact of being against preachings is punishable by death. Those who congregate cannot tolerate those who don’t.

    If I wanted to become rich, I’d start my own Atheist religion but I’d have to tell others what to think and charge monies for it. Oh! Shit! Not again!

  • Amaranth

    Then you wonder how people in their right mind would think that we’re waging a war on Christianity. These people are disgraces to human ingenuity.

  • Azaraith

    “That poor, oppressed woman, having to explain to her children that there are people who believe differently. Won’t someone shelter her from the burden of having to be in contact with new ideas? – See more at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2010/12/atheists-still-face-censorship/#sthash.jvpMU998.dpuf

    I’ve heard similar things from right-wingers about homosexuality – one that I know claimed that we shouldn’t allow gay marriage because he teaches his children that homosexuality is wrong and they shouldn’t be seeing it in public (which would make it appear to be acceptable). In his view, the world not bowing to his backwards morality stops him from imparting it on his kids, thus violating his rights…

  • http://springygoddess.blogspot.com/ Astreja

    The urban centres in Canada are also overwhelmingly secular. There are still religious enclaves in rural areas, but on the whole we tend to look askance at anyone making a big public show of their beliefs.

    I think the religious mania in the USA has already peaked, and 10-15 years from now it should be entering the “charming oddity” phase.

  • Edvardkenfish

    In the words of Louis C.K., “It doesn’t have any effect on your life. What do you care?! People try to talk about it like it’s a social issue. Like when you see someone stand up on a talk show and say, “How am I supposed to explain to my children that two men are getting married?… I dunno. It’s your shitty kid. You fuckin’ tell ‘em. Why is that anyone else’s problem? Two guys are in LOVE and they can’t get married because you don’t want to talk to your ugly child for five fuckin’ minutes?”

  • sane37

    how do you have an Atheist Religion? A religion where there’s no god and no belief in its non-god?

  • Mike 666

    Many Xains on my campus post things that are hatful to non-believers (such as they are sinful etc). Nobody has a problem. Yet when a friend of mine posted satanic posters as a mere joke, oh all of a sudden the RA’s threatened to fine the entire floor of the dorm hall where the posters were found.

  • Mike 666

    The right doesn’t complain that Bundy said racist things, or when the tealiban advocates violence or hate against homosexuals. But when gays or atheists preach love, oh then they get pissed.

    I am starting to think that their religions are cults of death and hate. Or simply put: just poison.


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