Atheist Billboard in Grand Rapids Generates Surprising Controversy

It’s amazing that anyone would find the Center For Inquiry’s billboard campaign controversial, but it’s already been ejected from Knoxville, Tennessee and it’s the subject of a lot of media attention in other places.

This is the billboard CFI put up in several cities:

“You don’t need God — to hope, to care, to love, to live.”

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, just look at how some of the coverage has been:

when it comes to discussion, billboards can also bring a whole host of topics parents may or may not be prepared to handle, like sex or religion. But child psychologists say parents shouldn’t shy away from the tough stuff.

“If the child is old enough to ask and formulate the question, I think we as parents should be able to answer the question, the amount of information we provide may depend on the kid`s age,” said Dr. Steven Pastyrnak, of Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

Sending your children to Sunday School? Not controversial.

Exposing children to the fact that you don’t need a god to be good? Controversial.

That’s Christian logic for you…

Here’s another one:

Of all the phrases they could’ve used, they took out “You don’t need God…to live”? It sounds downright scary when they phrase it like that…

Not bad coverage and discussion, though, for a completely mild billboard in a religious city.

As long as people complain about something so innocuous, these billboards will continue to go up. They will only stop being effective when people start ignoring them.

But, thanks to churches, that’s not going to happen anytime soon :) They can’t cope with the idea that we exist and we’re increasingly vocal about our atheism.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

    I think, maybe, the next round of billboards need to be more overt. Maybe not all the way to the ones from Brazil with the Twin Towers or Hitler. But less fluffy than “we exist you know”

    Clearly no message is fluffy *enough*

    Once a billboard goes up saying, for example, “Science flies you to the Moon, Religion Flies you into buildings”, it will be hard for anyone to say “Good without God” is offensive.

    I believe it is called the Overton Window.

    • Anonymous

      Yes the Overton Window is something we all need to understand well. I think David Silverman understands it well and hopefully will take his comments up a few notches in the coming months.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=529995114 Trevor Smit

    I live in the Grand Rapids area. The comments left on Facebook for the coverage that one local TV station gave it were ridiculous.  “Christian compassion” apparently has no place in this town.

  • Revvie

    Grand Rapids is or was the home to a significant publisher of Christian books, literature, Sunday School curriculum and Bibles.  The people who own this company – Gospel Folio Press – are some of the most fundamental evangelical churches around (Gospel Hall aka Plymouth Brethren).  I’m not surprised to see the billboards getting a rough ride there.

    • Anonymous

      I’ve lived in the area my entire life and never heard of any of them. Also, that press moved to Ontario in 2001.

  • Jonas

    I like it — ‘you don’t need god to live’ — what did they think we were, Zombies?

  • Michgirl56

    I was very pleased to see Grand Rapids as a site for the billboard.  It is practically the American epicenter of the Dutch Reformed Church with a congregation on every corner and a disapproving look for every activity that isn’t completely church sanctioned and not much fun to do.

  • GustavSnarp

    So Christian parents find this billboard’s message difficult to talk with their children about? A child who must be at least old enough to read? Meanwhile their kids have been proselytizing to my 3 year old on the playground. Now that he’s five he hears “under God” everyday on the morning announcements at his public school. As an atheist, I have to deal with my child being bombarded with Christian messages from the time he can talk, even from my supposedly secular government institutions, I think they can handle explaining a billboard to their little readers.

    • http://www.facebook.com/otakumommy Sheila Tagavilla Davis

      I hear ya – your reasons are EXACTLY what I mean when I tell people that I we have Christianity shoved down my throat every day whether we like it or not. I dealt with so much crap as a child, not because I was a proclaimed atheist at that point, but for the sheer fact that my family didn’t go to church and I was less than knowledgebale on religious topics. I am outraged when I see my young kids dealing with the same thing – from a boy telling my son that he was going to die because he doesn’t believe in God to little girls whispering behind my 7-year-old daughter’s back about rumors of her godlessness. And yes, that damned pledge. I, for one, am sick of keeping my beliefs undercover. I tell my kids that if they want to keep their beliefs quiet, I understand; however, they have every right to share their beliefs if others choose to share theirs.

      • Anonymous

        :( 

        That is so sad that your kids have to go through this. How are they handling it? 

        “The damned pledge” is right. I used to say “under god” but it meant nothing to me. By the time I started high school it was “one nation, mumble mumble” and sometimes I didn’t even say it. 

    • Casseraclan4

      I agree with you.  I live near Knoxville, TN and I am a relatively “Atheist”  and people around here are way too religious.

      • Casseraclan4

        that should have said relatively “new”.

  • Karen

    Maybe they prefer we put tiny fetuses on giant roadside billboard with wording like “DEATH to INFANTS” and “ABORTION is MURDER”!
    Now, I’ve had some pretty emotional conversations with MY kids based on the poor taste of Christian billboards.

    • Gus Snarp

      There was a clinic across the street from my son’s old day care. The protesters showed up regularly with graphic pictures of aborted fetuses that covered the side of trucks. How do you explain that to a two year old? More proof that some people care more about children before they are born than after.

  • Anonymous

    “But when it comes to discussion, billboards can also bring a whole host
    of topics parents may or may not be prepared to handle, like sex or
    religion.”

    Funny how parents never seem to have a problem discussing religion, except when it comes to anything that questions the indoctrination they’ve put their kids through.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with you Karen & Gustav Snarp.  It’s so f’ing typically hypocritical.  They post billboards and videos and printed materials with ‘aborted fetuses’  all over hell and gone but an innocuous billboard that prompts discourse has got to be shut down.  Silenced. I thought that the prayer and under god crap was removed via Brown v. board of education?  Hmm! guess not.  @Gustav – ask your kids for the names of those proselytizing kids and go to their parents and tell them to STOP!   My mother did.  She even went to the school and demanded that the principal do something about it citing Brown v board of education.   In high school, I joined one of their organizations/churches for a year.  Kept copious notes on what I learned/saw/experienced in their attempts to indoctrinate.  Then I left and wrote a scathing expose article about them in the high school newspaper.  Yes.  I became a mole just to expose them. 

    • Tasuret

      Brown v. Board of Education was the case that stopped racial segregation in schools…

      • Anonymous

        Thank you for the correction.  

    • Rich Wilson

      You’re thinking of McCollum v. Board of Education
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McCollum_v._Board_of_Education

      • Heidi

        Thank you for that link. I’d never read about that decision.

        I find this bit of Wikipedia-language a bit distressing…
        “McCollum—an avowed atheist—objected to the religious classes,”

        Avowed? Why avowed? Why not just “an atheist?” It sounds like she’s confessed to something. You wouldn’t call someone an “avowed” Jew.

      • Anonymous

        thank you for the correction.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.zamecki Joe Zamecki

    Nice billboard.  They should put out a lot more of that design. It looks good. 

  • http://diaryofamessylady.wordpress.com/ Lauren

    OMFSM… That quote, “You don’t need God … to live” just cracked me up so bad. It sounds so ominous and yet so hopeful!

    • Drew M.

      Agreed! It’s a positive reminder that the shackles of religion are worn voluntarily and that you *can* shed them.

  • Cyndi

    I only wish they’d use the word “gods” instead of “God”.  We don’t need any of them to live and love and be good people. That’s the message we need to be sending. No gods at all.

    • Derp

      Baby steps. I think it’s much clearer to Christians this way.

  • http://twitter.com/rosalarian Megan Rose Gedris

    I live in Grand Rapids, pretty close to the billboard.  And the comments made by some of the Christian people here, well, just goes to show how desperately this billboard was needed. That they couldn’t even accept the basic premise that atheists can be good people, that THIS could be such a controversial message… I don’t even know how someone can be that spiteful.

    I have to say, Hemant, reading this site has given me some mental tools to use in defense against this kind of backlash. I was able to calmly explain  to at least a few people that this isn’t trying to tell any religious people to stop believing (maybe in a few centuries one of those will go up in GR) but merely trying to humanize atheists and show they are still good people, and that atheists often feel alone and silenced and alienated. This is to bring comfort to a group of people who often have no voice here. (You know the drill.) And that message got through to a few people, and saying it kept me from going crazy. So thanks for that.

    • Anonymous

      i grew up 45min north of GR and i agree. this sort of thing is desperately needed there, and all across the western side of the state. it’s so much worse now than when i was a child, the fundies have totally taken over and constipated the area with ignorance and religion. i remember when it was totally OK to be a liberal, that’s not the case any more, and tolerance for atheists or freethinking is at an all time low. i have a friend who still lives in the area, in GR, and she is constantly lamenting the fact that she can’t afford to move. she’s a freethinking feminist and single, and hasn’t had a good date with a like minded person in years- they are as rare as unicorns. 

  • Anonymous

    I have three kids and here is how you do it Christian parents! “Honey, some people don’t believe in the same religion that I do, but that isn’t an excuse to be mean to them. We should be kind to everyone, even those who don’t share our religion. People who believe different things from us are still good people.” Why is that so difficult for them to say?

    There is a church in my city that has a banner advertising a class called, “How to Love Your Muslim Neighbor.” The class lasts an hour and a half. Does it really take that long to say, “Hey everyone, you should just be nice to people! Class d@facebook-827900159:disqus smissed.” I am going to assume that the class is not actually about how to love your neighbor, but how to slyly attempt to convert your neighbor.

    • Anonymous

      Evangelical Christian have a perverted understanding of the word love. For them it’s showing love to harass atheist or to proselytize in general because they are somehow concerned for people’s souls. For them it’s showing love to torment gays because they think they can turn them to the right path. Religion has warped their entire world view and sense of morality

      • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

        People who believe different things from us are still good people.” Why is that so difficult for them to say?

        Because the same people (parents and preachers) who told them that atheists are evil also told them that a god exists. If they acknowledge that they were lied to about atheists, it implies that they might have been lied to about a god as well. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/DocMonkey Mick Wright

        It’s exactly the same attitude toward souls that let the Inquisition convince its members they were doing the right thing. Once there’s an infinite reward and infinite punishment, any suffering you put them through on earth is *by definition* better than the alternative – and the simple belief in an afterlife allows them to desensitise themselves to the finality of death, and the immorality of killing. Life after death may be the single most dangerous idea ever invented by humanity.

        • Johnandpattydoyle

          I firmly belive I will be reunited with my late brother one day.  I’m sad that my nephew may not join us.  Dangerous?  Hardly.

    • Drew M.

      Once again, this is proof that Bill and Ted are superior to the bible.

      Be excellent to each other!

      (and party on, dude)

  • melissa

    I’m glad something like this is happening in GR; all this controversy means anyone who wouldn’t see this billboard will definitely hear about it. It might even cause them to think! ;)
    I grew up there with no idea that the place was uber religious compared to the rest of MI until I brought my then-boyfriend-now-husband to the area and he remarked on how many churches there were verses the east side of the state.  (And he bemoaned the distinct shortage of bars!) Now as an atheist I think back on how crazy religious my public school and the people in my town were. Yuck. I hope this billboard reaches at least some people.

  • Rich Wilson
  • http://twitter.com/summerseale Summer Seale

    I think that the next billboard should say:

    THERE IS NO GOD.

    GET OFF OF YOUR KNEES.

    (As a bonus, although I doubt it would be allowed, I’d put in a third line:)

    AND WIPE YOUR CHIN.

  • Themindofwallett

    It is the privileged position religion has, you can slate someone for which sports team they support, about which political party they follow but question their religion in the same way is seen as controversial and going too far. Is this protected position because most people can reasonably defend their choice of team or party but struggle to defend their belief in any rational way?

  • Anonymous

    “But when it comes to discussion, billboards can also bring a whole host 
    of topics parents may or may not be prepared to handle, like sex or 
    religion.”
    How do you NOT talk about sex to your kids? I mean, I understand it’s possible in principle, but kids are pretty curious. Unless these people are after grandkids ASAP, in which case it’s prolly a good policy…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alan-Cartier/1547388515 Alan Cartier

    It’s amazing how when someone gets corrected on here they welcome the correction and it is merely pointed out, not exclaimed in a harrassing manner. 

  • Anonymous

    Reactions like this are out of fear.  Once they feared the Jews, and they feared the Catholics then they became commonplace.  They are afraid we may be on an equal footing and fear losing their special rights.  So like they have done with religious minorities in the past they’ll do what they can to keep us down so the more we because their siblings, their children, their neighbors and their friends the harder it will be to ignore/deny/hate us.

  • Sasufire

    So is it wrong for Christian’s to have their opinion on the billboard? No its not, its opinions, I could care less on either’s opinion Atheist or Christian, I feel though the billboard would have not been so insulting to the Christians if it would have said You don’t need to CHOOSE God, and then continued with the rest. Anyway, it doesn’t matter who believes what will be decided to where they go in the end once they have died, its not our choice nor will it ever be, but guess what the pledge of aledgence was not written by christian’s necassarily nor is it trying to make your children christian cause guess what, it basically boils down to GET OVER YOUR SELF! cause this is a pointless argument, the pledge of aledgence will probably always be said in middle schools.


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