The Least Offensive Atheist Billboard Ever?

With our own Richard Wade providing the inspiration, Justin Vacula is one step closer to putting up what may be the Least Offensive (But-I’m-Sure-Someone-Will-Still-Complain) Atheist Bus Ad Ever:

Just one word. And yet, someone in Scranton, Pennsylvania is bound to get all huffy about it.

“Various ads placed by atheists on billboards, buses, and elsewhere — no matter how innocuous they may be — throughout the United States have been called ‘offensive’ by theists. This led me and others to question if some theists are offended merely because atheists exist and are promoting a message (regardless of its content),” Vacula says. “Instead of theists reacting to messages from atheists with vitriol,” Vacula explains, “they should take some time to learn what atheists have to offer and what individual atheists believe. In the case of the NEPA Freethought Society, all persons have the opportunity to visit our website, read our content, listen to our podcast episodes, and even listen to a recent respectful debate I had with a Methodist minister. There’s no reason to be angry with us.”

The ad will be sponsored by individual donors, the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society (NEPA), and American Atheists.

All Justin’s waiting for is the green light from the bus company’s board of directors.

If they reject this ad, how newsworthy would that be…?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Anonymous

    Atheists existing is the thing that is offensive to people. If we have to exist, we are expected to keep our views to ourselves.

    • Greisha

       Ideally everybody (christians, muslims, jews, atheists, …) should keep they views to themselves in secular/religion neutral society.  I probably will not live that long.

  • ReginaldJooald

    Holy crap, a 10368×2160 image. Can you resize that, by chance? It’s super slow to load.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      The sizing is right on my site, but the link goes to the full image…

      • ReginaldJooald

        Your site is displaying and loading the full-size image; the browser resizes it for display, but it still has to download the whole thing.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

          Fixed!

  • Tyler

    I like this.

  • Liz Heywood

    Awesome. I was sort of hoping for blue sky & puffy clouds, though…

    • ReginaldJooald

      I like the minimal design. I’d associate the sky and clouds more with the United Coalition of Reason’s ads at this point anyways.

  • Olaff422

    I’m telling you, the best billboard for us would be “Have a Great day! -Americanatheists.whatever”

    • Alex

      For some reason, I can so envision a bus proclaiming “Have a Great day!” passing by some horrendous car wreck and getting caught on tape.

  • Matto the Hun

    In some ways I seriously hope that ad would be rejected (and the rejection makes news). Our point couldn’t be better made.

  • Steve

    It’s innocuousness is just so… smart-assed, that it’s the best campaign ever.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002924592194 Lundy Johnson

    We exist! U mad?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

     .

  • Erik Cameron

    Admit it, we want this one to start controversy.
    We get off on being the more mature ones in ‘debates’.

    • Skyler Jackim

      Oh yeah! We could prove that they are all just huffy that we are here and are willing to promote our ideas.

  • Alex

    The transportation authority will most likely approve this; however, when some ideologically challenged citizen (I think it’s only a matter of time) complains, hilarity is bound to ensue.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    We have one more potential step.  We could put up completely blank billboards, and just let it be known that they are indeed ‘atheist’ billboards.

    There was someone in the Jessica Ahlquist case seriously arguing that a blank wall a a display of the ‘religion of atheism’.

    • Anonymous

      Yes. Adorable.

    • Alex

      “This empty sign is sponsored by Atheists of America” in fine print. Hm, I like that :)

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      Just occurred to me, the ‘Atheists’ sign is ripe for vandalism.  Maybe we should start a pool?

      a) ‘suck’
      b) ‘will go to hell’
      I was going to add c) ‘have no morals’ but I think that’s too many syllables for your average ‘tagger’.

      • John

        “Have no morals” and “will go to hell” have the same number of syllables genius.

  • Onshay

    Sorry to be Debbie Downer here but all the hype so far is atheists (I’m one) postulating that this is going to enrage theists everywhere and be a controversy because of that.

    Well what if no one says a thing? What does it mean then? Is this just a move to antagonize believers into doing something so we can jump on them and scream “persecution!”?

    I honestly love being an atheist because we have a kickass community but the marketing campaign needs a lot of work. Some ads like those encouraging closeted atheists to come out are lovely and well-intentioned. The motivation behind this one, however just seems a bit juvenile…

    • HA2

       Well, if nothing happens, then it’s still a an atheist billboard that went out and pointed people towards the local atheist group, same as the many others. It should definitely run in an area where such a thing is needed, so it’s not just banking on the  controversy.

    • Bob Becker

      I like it. Does two things simply, and instantly:  (a) establishes that atheists are present, like it or not, and (b) provides information about how to reach local atheist group and national one for those so inclined.  Simple, clean, clear, effective.  Works for me. 

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Onshay, with respect I think you don’t understand the motive, at least my original motive, which is clearly shared by Justin Vacula. Please go to his website linked at the top of this page, and read his reply to my comment. We’re not gleefully waiting and hoping for the theists to make fools of themselves. It is an experiment, just as I first said, to put to a test the assumption so widespread among atheists that theists will take offense simply because of the word atheist being either in the text or in the sponsor’s name, regardless of the entirely innocuous nature of the rest of the message. That should be tested more than once, not just presumed to be true.

      I have no emotional investment in the results one way or another. If the public shrugs their shoulders or has no reaction, that is information that is just as useful as if they make a big show of “offense.” Either way, we will have a better idea if the assumption is correct or not. Knowing that might help to guide future attempts to publish messages that have more substance.

      If there is a strong reaction of “offense” against the proposed signs, some atheists will probably use that in future arguments when theists voice their outrage over ads that are more substantive but still are not at all intending any offense, such as the “You’re not alone” billboards. I have no problem with that, because it would be a strong illustration to show theists the absurdity of their reflex objection.

      If there is only a tepid or insignificant public reaction to the signs, then we might start thinking more about the precise content in the messages, and how they might inadvertently stimulate offense.  We will also have more information to consider when pondering how much we should even be concerned about offensiveness.

      If other people are eager to see these billboards and signs antagonize theists to support a contrived claim of persecution that is not genuine, I haven’t seen anything resembling that so far, and if there are such people, neither I, nor Justin, nor Skepticon can help that. Every group has its juvenile members who may have less than mature motives, and the adults just have to keep moving forward. We were all juvenile once.

      • Anonymous

        Glad you clarified that before I got my panties in a bunch about it (<:-/ me.) I must be cross-eyed from blogsurfing all night.

        It's just an experiment to see how people will react? I don't see the harm in that. People do get offended by some really weird shit. It's not juvenile to test an unfamiliar audience.

        I can recall some truly bizarre examples of advertising gone wrong overseas. One was a baby food company, selling their product in an African country, where a large % of the population is illiterate. Local companies knew enough to put pictures of food on containers beside the words. However, this American company had no clue that putting a picture of a baby on a jar of food would cause so much outrage. 

        My favourite was the attempt to translate "Pepsi generation, come alive" for a Thailand market.  Instead, their slogan told the Thai consumers that Pepsi would bring their ancestors back from the dead :-D

        Is putting an atheist billboard in front of whatever group of Xtians likely to stir up outrage akin to that kind of culture clash? Probably not. But some of those American religious zealots are odd enough that I feel like I'm on another planet when I have to talk to them. Food for thought :-)  Yes, test them first.

  • Keulan

    I’m pretty much convinced that atheists simply existing and being open about it actually is “offensive” to some religious people.

  • Anonymous

    OFFENSIVE?!? Don’t even get me started on the offensive shit that the Xtians have been pushing on their misogynistic, xenophobic, imperialistic, gaybashing followers. And they actually get gvt. and corporate funding to further their hatecrimes!

    Deep breath… but yes, Alex may be right, too. I try to remember how amusing ideologues can be…er, when they’re not injuring, killing and/or enslaving people.

    I just came from the silliest blog ever.  Abunch of quibbling, overeducated, pedantic ivory tower types–both the atheists and the xtians–going on about some passage in the bible about JC’s crucifixion. Bah. Must be nice to have the time, money and energy to entertain such a useless debate when people are starving and dying in the streets. Have you read the story about the Wisconsin man who killed himself in his repossessed house and rotted inside it for 4 years before they found him? Imo, his death is a little more important right now than some guy who *might have* died over 2000 years ago.

    Keep plugging away with the Foundation Beyond Belief. People need solutions, not prayer, empty rhetoric, and indignation over a 3 syllable word.

  • Anonymous

    btw, I disappeared for a while and came back with a new gravatar. I’m still trying to figure out how to log in under my old name, Xena.

    Xenaresurrected is in the spirit of those funny commenters who call themselves jeebus and post crucifixion gravatars? Yes? No?

  • TiltedHorizon

    I love it. What I love more is that it will be on buses in MY area which means I can get involved should this turn sour.

  • Wild Rumpus

    FINALLY!  an atheist billboard that has excellent graphic design.  I can totally get behind this.  It has a clear, simple message and it actually looks good.  Nice font, nice balance…. wow!!!!!

    • Alex

      Goes on to show that good design does not need to be complex. In fact, usually the simpler it is, the better.

  • SJH

    I’m sorry but I still do not understand the purpose of advertising atheism. I can understand a PSA about critical thinking or the value of using reason but what does atheism have to do with those two notions. It somehow implies that only atheists uses these values. These values and Christianity are not alien to each other. In fact, they have been in close union for centuries.

    So really it seems to me that somehow these organizations want to proselytize and convince people that God does not exist for some reason and I don’t understand why. Someone please explain.

    • Alex

      While I agree that it’s silly to try to convince people through billboards, I think you misunderstand the purpose of the billboards themselves. They advertise atheist organizations, not atheism. Skepticism, questioning authority, and yes, atheism is something people come to on their own; it doesn’t need any advertisement, other than, perhaps, a reminder to think with one’s own brain, as you mentioned in your comment.

      Also, you can think of it as a public announcement essentially saying “By the way, atheists exist, and we are among you,” because while pretty much everybody understands that there are unbelievers, many people have this abstract notion that “oh, it’s them other folk, we have none of that here.” Just like in the LGBT movement, changing public (mis)perception is critical in order to achieve greater public acceptance.

      • SJH

        Perhaps you are correct but it seems to me that the vast majority of the advertisements have the organizations name in very small print and their message in large print. This implies that the message regarding atheism is more important that the organization itself. Although, I agree that this sign in particular is not saying much of anything about atheism or religion it still holds true that the names are in small print. If they are trying to market themselves then they are doing a very poor job. When was the last time you saw an advertisement with the branding as the smallest part of the advertisement? Maybe i am wrong but it seems to me that they are marketing the message and not the organization.

        • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

          Hi SJH, I always appreciate your earnest and sincere questions, because you really ask in a spirit of wanting to understand us. At the end of our comment above, you asked,

          When was the last time you saw an advertisement with the branding as the smallest part of the advertisement?

          Google “christian billboard” (here’s a link) https://www.google.com/search?q=christian%20billboard&oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hl=en&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi&ei=P1A0T5G6GMaMiAKt_uWzCg&biw=1143&bih=876&sei=RFA0T5aLIYfXiQKpp_CWCg  and see how many of them have very small sponsor names, and how many don’t even have the specific church named on the billboard at all. Their message is their brand. Apparently, they are doing so well that they don’t have to compete with each other; they just generically promote the use of what they offer.

          Atheist ads are at a very early stage. Currently, I see three intended purposes: Most are merely shout-outs to isolated, closeted atheists who think they’re completely alone in their community, to let them know that they have resources for fellowship and support, as in the “You’re not alone” series.  Some ads are trying to counteract the pernicious negative stereotypes against atheists that are perpetuated by demagogic theists, both clerical and political. A few ads are trying to contradict widespread assumptions and assertions such as, that belief in god is required to be good, or to be patriotic, or that this is a “Christian nation,” implying its laws should not be secular and religiously neutral.

          As time goes on, I expect that some atheist media expressions will increasingly present straight-forward promotion of questioning religious faith and will offer secular alternatives. I don’t see anything wrong with that, since theists have been doing that unchallenged for centuries. The marketplace of ideas is now an open and free market. Religious ideas, just like brands of products, will have to stand on their own merits without special privilege, and compete with all sorts of other ideas.

          We have much to say because we have been silenced against our will for a very long time. Many of us still pay serious penalties for speaking out even mildly. We’re still finding our voice, so we’re still experimenting with how to speak and what to say.

          But we will never, ever be silenced again.

          • John

            I’m not sure what the point of atheist organizations are. I’m guessing you think society is served by offering your message, but I’m not sure how. Whether or not you agree with the Church’s version of morality, you must notice that they are preaching some form of morality. Yet when atheists “preach” they just seem like they are criticizing religious people. I’m an atheist, and I think its tragic that we tend to be so negative. Most religious people are just going about their day to day lives. They’re not really worried about conspiracy or anything like that, they just want to be happy. Church gives that to them. We need to try to make people happy instead of picking fights. We also need a central message instead of disjointed criticism.

            • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

              We also need a central message instead of disjointed criticism.

              Are you trying to demonstrate your point by doing what it is you say we shouldn’t be doing? I can’t tell if you’re serious or not.

            • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

              Hi John,
              I’m glad that apparently you have not had the kind of difficult experiences that make it necessary for atheists to form organizations. Consider yourself fortunate to need it explained.

              Just like the religious people you describe, most atheists are just going about their day-to-day lives, and they just want to be happy. Unfortunately for many of them, they live in a hostile, toxic environment. Their religious friends reject and reproach them, their families harass them, and their co-workers shun them. It’s often difficult for many to have a simple conversation about an unrelated topic without these same religious people insinuating their disapproval into the dialogue. This is a lonely and stressful place to be, so the most common purpose of atheist organizations is simple refuge, support, companionship and fellowship.

              Some atheist organizations also organize charity work and efforts to benefit their local community. Atheists can care about their fellow man as much as religious people do, and they want to pool their resources and express that caring as a group. Churches are very good at organizing such things, but atheists are sometimes not welcomed to participate, or they do not want to support the proselytizing that often accompanies the actual aid that is being given. They just want to help with no strings attached.

              Some atheist organizations work to dispel the misconceptions and false negative stereotypes about atheists that are at the root of the fear and loathing they must face each day. This is one of the things I do in my local atheist group, reaching out to religious groups as a guest speaker to help them see that their atheist friends and family members are not demons or degenerates, encouraging them heal their relationships that have been damaged by that kind of fear and ignorance.

              Some organizations also work to counteract the incessant unconstitutional intrusion of religion into government and public policy, which threatens the freedom and civil rights of everyone, not just those of atheists.

              I hope this helps you to understand what the point of atheist organizations are. I also hope that some day such organizations will no longer be necessary, because nonbelievers will be accepted and treated respectfully as all people should be, and because all people will respect the principle of freedom for everyone.

  • http://kpharri.wordpress.com/ Keith

    I think the most common reaction to this sign is going to be “Huh?”.  

    All of us here on Friendly Atheist get the point of the sign because we all know about the controversy surrounding other atheist signage. But the average person in the street is, I’m guessing, going to be plain confused. I think it’s a silly idea.


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