Inoffensive Atheist Sign Gets Vandalized in Virginia; It Was Spraypainted and Burned

For seven years now, the Shenandoah Area Secular Humanists in Virginia have put up a display alongside a Nativity scene on the Warren County courthouse lawn.

Their sign reads:

With reason and compassion as our guide, let us work together to produce a world in which peace, prosperity, freedom, and happiness are shared by all.

That’s not only completely inoffensive; it’s something a religious group could have put up and no one would have batted an eye. There’s also a quotation from John F. Kennedy regarding church/state separation and a declaration of the principles of Secular Humanism underneath the message.

So guess what happened to it?

(Jeb Inge – Northern Virginia Daily)

Authorities said Thursday the sign was spray painted overnight on Dec. 16 and then damaged in a fire in the early morning hours of Dec. 21.

Gene Rigelon, coordinator of the Shenandoah Area Secular Humanists, said the partially burned sign will remain standing through the holiday season and then be replaced next year. County workers removed the spray paint after the first incident, he said. The fire left both panels of the sign with slight smoke damage in the front and heavily charred in the back, he said.

Rigelon said “a whole bunch of rags” soaked in gasoline and used to set the fire were found behind the signs.

The sign cost $300 and was paid for by the Washington Area Secular Humanists.

Not that it’s ever ok for an atheist display to be vandalized, but I’m astonished that this particular sign worked some people up enough that they felt the need to destroy it.

You have to wonder what the reaction would’ve been if the message was more aggressive.

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.

  • thompjs

    Blaze L – Where are you now?

  • Denise A Wz

    It’s not the message on the sign that offends them. It’s that we (nonbelievers of all stripes) have the temerity to exist that offends them.

  • jdm8

    It shares the spotlight that many of them feel should be exclusive to them.

  • Ryan Jean

    Precisely. Remember what happened with the ad (I think it was on a bus) that just said “Atheists” and nothing else? Our existence is a threat to their dominance, because it invites questions that are inconvenient to the maintenance of their flock.

  • Angelia Phillips

    Sad that people feel the need to destroy anything that makes them think outside their own personal little box or question beliefs that they have been spoon fed since birth. To me it shows just how very weak they are in their “faith” that they must destroy anyone or anything that challenges it even slightly.

  • Philbert

    I like that message much better than the FFRF one about how religion is stupid. I’d rather no sign gets burned as you say, but this one really leaves no room for doubt that it was attacked for who placed it and not for what it said.

  • nkendall

    I agree that this message is so much better. I am okay with challenging their beliefs and standing up for ourselves, but the FFRF one just seems needlessly aggressive and does nothing but stir the pot: it isn’t helpful in anything but pissing them off and driving away would-be allies.

  • anniewhoo

    A class 1 misdemeanor in Virginia is punishable by up to 12 months in jail and/or up to $2,500 in fines. If people aren’t prosecuted for such crimes, I’m afraid they will just continue to vandalize. Any word on whether or not there is an open investigation?

  • Ibis3

    I think the idea is to be so aggressive that authorities will choose to have no displays at all rather than give atheists a space to say something Christians may find offensive. Personally, I prefer a multicultural, positive approach to holiday displays, but I acknowledge that this strategy does work to achieve its goal.

  • MichaelBrice

    Would the charge be vandalism or arson?

  • Bill Haines

    The fire marshal is investigating the arson, the sheriff is investigating the spraypainting. I doubt anything will come from either of them. :(

  • Bill Haines

    Both: two separate incidents, possibly even separate perpetrators.

  • Bill Haines

    First the billboard down in Salem and now this in Front Royal; religious bigotry still alive and well in Virginia, home of the Statute for Religious Freedom. :(

  • coyotenose

    Cue the desperate liars whinging about that we can’t be sure it was vandalized for religious reasons, that we don’t KNOW it wasn’t a Jew or a Muslim and therefore we’re bigots, that atheists do worse things in the nation of Anecdoteland, that Christians are persecuted in other, faraway countries and therefore bigoted violence close to home doesn’t count, and that ATHEISTS WHO TALK OUT LOUD ARE MEAN.

    Did I miss any? I’m trying to collect the whole set.

  • David Evans

    I don’t wish to be seen as a desperate liar, but it occurs to me that there are many in America who think that “world…peace, prosperity….shared by all” means a UN communist conspiracy. Not all of them are Christians – though, admittedly, most probably are.

  • Miss_Beara

    Atheists exist?! OMGZ I AM OFFENDED AND PERSECUTED!!111

  • kevin

    Completely inoffensive? Stop playing innocent, and own your intolerance! The sign itself is offensive. It says more than what the words taken by themselves mean, like, “you Christians are wrong to bring your faith to the public square.” The spray paint expresses a symmetrical message of “you non-believers are wrong to bring your viewpoint to the public square.”

  • Birdie1986

    Apparently that message only doesn’t offend if it is attributed to Jesus. I’m sure what they did is what he would have wanted them to do.

  • RobMcCune

    So which part tells christians they can’t bring their faith to the public square? Well I suppose the whole “reason” thing is a given, but do christians oppose being guided by compassion? How about working together, is the inclusion of others really so wrong? Or is it that christians take issue with either peace, prosperity, freedom or happiness or all of the above? Oh, I know christians are excluded because these things are to be shared by all, the fact those aren’t exclusively christian does tend to stick in their craw.

    Never mind, I’ve figured it out you’re confusing the fact the existence of atheists just make you mad with insightful subtext, you’ve probably patted yourself on the back for being so clever.

  • Rick

    I sent the Shenandoah Area Secular Humanists $25 to help buy a replacement for next year. Take that, people of hate and chaos.

  • Bad_homonym

    So you read between the lines! Is that how you make the bible more palatable?

  • Mark O’Leary

    Enough of this victim crap. Most atheists I know are not only intelligent folks, but also very tech-savvy, certainly much more so than the knuckle-draggers who vandalize signs they disagree with. So why is it not de rigueur to set up a web cam on these signs. Let’s prosecute a few of these nitwits so the world can see just who it is that’s fighting against peace, prosperity, freedom & happiness.

  • Joanne Robrahn

    Just goes to show–religion makes people mean and stupid!

  • Philbert

    Vandalism and arson are not “symmetric” to putting up a sign.

  • Renshia

    So it’s okay for christians to promote their belief in imaginary friends. It is okay for christians to encourage people to waste their lives believing in these imaginary friends. But, when a rational person points out the stupidity of those actions, that’s offensive.
    Your hypocrisy knows no bounds.

  • Rich Wilson

    That’s quite some twisted justification. So any time anyone says anything you disagree with, you can make up a ‘subtext’ for it.

    Hey, guess what? All those crosses everywhere are telling me I’m a bad person. So if I go hack them down, that’s just a symmetrical message.

    See how that works?

  • kevin

    Are some non-believers so dense as to think a sign placed at a courthouse is politically neutral because the printed message seems innocuous and plays by the prevailing rules of our sense of tolerance? Those that vandalized the sign did so because they saw the sign as a political attack on their views. Their vandalizing of the sign was also a political act. That is the symmetry.

    Personally, I disagree with both involved parties. We’re in trouble when politics is reduced to holding up symbols/signs at each other. Politics should be an open discussion about what our views mean for each other in real, practical terms rather than hiding behind symbols of religious dogma or tolerance-adhering propaganda.

  • kevin

    Be reasonable. You can’t deny a political subtext when a courthouse is involved. What would you propose as an alternate political subtext for what happened?

  • rg57

    “Their sign reads:”

    Actually, you left out MOST of the sign, which includes the two panels below the one you’ve selected to highlight.

  • Rich Wilson

    Oh, it’s the courthouse that matters. Which sign was first?

    Putting up a sign might be the equivalent to putting up a sign. But vandalizing a sign is not the equivalent to putting up a sign. It just isn’t.

  • Philbert

    So you agree that the Nativity scenes outside courthouses across the land are politically motivated?

  • kevin

    I can’t believe I have to say this, but of course placing a nativity scene outside a courthouse is a political move. I am not in favor of it. Put your nativity scene at your house or church grounds. There are plenty of other places.

    The actions may not be equivalent if, for instance, one chooses to judge putting up a sign as lawful and vandalism as not. But the actions are symmetrical in what they represent as political acts.

  • Edmond

    Help us out, then. If you’re so subtly sensitive that you can detect “political subtext” in a message which calls for reason and compassion, and which asks for ALL people to work together peacefully, then what message would YOU suggest, that would NOT carry unwanted, offensive subtext? Are atheists allowed to put up ANY message AT ALL? What message would NOT say “more than what the words taken by themselves mean”?
    Would you prefer that we were simply silent?

  • Rich Wilson

    You’re right. It was incorrect to label the sign as ‘inoffensive’ since obviously everything will offend someone somewhere. That adjective should never be applied to any communication.

  • RobMcCune

    So what “politics” were there in quoting the 35th president’s desire for a better world? The Shenandoah Area Secular Humanists can put a sign at a courthouse because religious groups can set up displays, somehow you think this is symmetrical with the crimes of vandalism and arson. One is a metaphorical “attack” and the other is a physical attack, if your going to say “politics” justifies attacks in retribution then you have no real interest in an open discussion.

  • kevin

    I would prefer that atheists talk to their non-atheist friends and vice versa instead of hiding behind signs/symbols. Of course, that assumes that atheists have friends who are non-atheist–is that too big of an assumption?

  • Shawn Phillips

    Actually, he didn’t. This post was about the sign that got burned and spray-painted , which was the sign on top of the other two signs. All three signs were mentioned.

  • coyotenose

    Making speech (putting up a sign) and suppressing speech (destroying a sign) are not symmetrical. This is not hard.

  • coyotenose

    Gah! The illogical, jingoistic conflation of Christianity and Capitalism. It’s so creepy. Come to think of it, it seems like every major conspiracy theory, while not exclusively held by Christians, was invented and made popular by them.

  • Guest

    That’s an excellent idea. We should all donate what we can to help them replace the sign.

  • Bad_homonym

    Actually the symmetry didn’t exist until someone put up the sign. Until then there was only religious privilege. Only with representation open to all you have true equality/ symetry

  • kevin

    I don’t think politics justifies the attack. I already said that I disagree with the actions of all the involved parties. I want individuals to talk with their friends who hopefully have different views about why they find each other’s views strange. Open discussion doesn’t happen when we hold up signs/symbols to strangers; it happens when we talk with friends.

  • Brian Scott

    Sorry, kafka-trapping is a despicable act and won’t be tolerated here.

    The sign said “let’s be reasonable”. Taking it in any other context displays gross incharity and compounds the wrong-doing of the vandals. There is no symmetry here.

  • Joe Zamecki

    Man! That’s a friendly sign. And it got burned. That’s so messed up.

  • Frank Ney

    This is county that is part of the bible belt, which means you get both the bible and the belt, if you know what I mean. This is a county where the high school principal called Catholics “Idol-worshipping pagans” back in the early 90′s.

    Frankly, they’re lucky only the sign was burned. In another time, it would have been their homes, with deer rifles to make sure no one escaped.

  • James Henline

    Which Hement also noted when he said “There’s also a quotation from John F. Kennedy regarding church/state separation and a declaration of the principles of Secular Humanism underneath the message.”.

    Comprehend much?

  • James Henline

    Am I the only one who was more than a little amused by the last name of the coordinator of the Shenandoah Area Secular Humanists? Rigelon, Its almost like it was said “how close to religion can we get my last name”.

    I love it,

    But the vandalism, that is just disappointing, “lets all be nice to each other” NO FUCK YOU, sheesh.

  • Richard Wade

    Here’s the comment I left over at the linked NVDaily website:

    “Such a beautiful, positive and uplifting message that anyone, regardless of their beliefs, should be eager to support. What an embarrassment to whoever, driven by their ignorance, fear and loathing would want to destroy it.

    Has the Christian group that set up the nativity scene nearby or any local religious group made any statement denouncing and repudiating this suppression of freedom of speech, and this defilement of an eloquent expression of peace and good will? I’d like to hear that they have, but I won’t be holding my breath.”

  • Reverend A. Du Brul

    What makes you think the sign was damaged by believers? Are Christians the only ones that would do such a thing? I think not.

    Some things to consider. The sign was put up by Humanists not atheists. There is a difference. The sign has been placed in the same spot for years without assault or complaint. The message was not offensive to Christians nor were the quotes posted with it.

    It would be my guess that the damage was done by mean spirited vandals that had no religious or non religious motives. This doesn’t strike me as a hate crime, just a stupid crime. The sign was picked because of the media attention and nothing more.

    There is a lot of attention being given to banners and signs of the ffrf (freedom from religion foundation) being vandalized, because they publicize it and not because there is any news worthiness about it. But then, the media isn’t reporting the Christian icons that are vandalized or stolen, and the churches aren’t moaning about it either. They just repair or replace the icons and go quietly on their way.

    I am sorry this incident occurred, but I am sorrier that it has garnered the attention of the media and the haters.

  • Marco Conti

    I am sure by now they have established an inter-agency task force to take care of it :)

  • Pseudonym

    I used to think that, but the more I think about it, the less likely that seems.

    First off, you have to be clear what constitutes “them”. “Them” in this case is very likely to be one lone nutter, or possibly some kid who was just drunk enough to want to do it and just sober enough to do it. Nobody is suggesting that the entire Christian community of Shenandoah came out to set a sign on fire. The United States has a lot of people, and hence has a lot of lone nutters.

    Secondly, assuming there’s a message in this at all (and not just a drunk kid indulging in random acts of vandalism), it can’t be understood without the context of the FFRF signs. Yes, this sign is inoffensive. For what it’s worth, some Republican Party ads weren’t attack ads. It’s still symbolic of a movement, a loud minority of which has decided to be obnoxious and offensive. (Religion and politics are very closely analogous.)

    Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, this blog suffers from a severe case of confirmation bias. Every sign from every non-religious group which is vandalised in any small way is reported here. How many church signs are vandalised every day, do you suppose? How many political signs? How many advertising signs? I don’t know either, but none of them are reported here.

    TL;DR Don’t check your critical thinking skills at the door.

  • Edmond

    So you ARE saying that atheists should restrict all messages and communications to private interactions, and that we should never be allowed a public voice through signs, billboards, or other announcements. The way that ALL religions are allowed. Is that correct?
    And I have plenty of non-atheist (also known as “theist”) friends.

  • TCC

    The two are not mutually exclusive. Also, yes, that is too big of an assumption that atheists don’t have non-atheist (boy, that’s a weird word) friends. I personally have plenty of theist friends (and am married to a theist), and I don’t think I’m weird in that regard.

  • Rich Wilson

    Do you have a theory as to why only this sign was damaged and no others? Oh, you covered that, the media attention. Nope, that doesn’t make any sense to me. Either it was targeted, or it was random. If it was random, it’s odd that they picked one target and ignored the others.

    As for newsworthy, I wonder if the same percentage of nativity scenes and “Keep the Christ in Christmas” signs were being vandalized if we’d hear anything about it.

  • DougI

    If Atheists had the choice to vandalize the secular sign or the nativity scene next to it they’d probably choose the nativity scene. Yet that was completely untouched, as was the case with all the incidents of religious-inspired vandalism throughout the country.

    Nope, it was done by the religious, probably Christians based upon the fact that Christians are in the majority and feel entitled by their religion to persecute those in the minority (yet somehow always claim they are the persecuted ones). In one case a Christian was taped vandalizing a sign put up by an Atheist, then interviewed, and happily admitted his crime against the Atheist sign and not the religious display.

  • Richard Wade

    Reverend, I’m considering the things you list that you said we should consider:

    The sign was put up by Humanists not atheists. There is a difference.

    What are you suggesting by making this observation? That atheists vandalized a humanist sign? Or are you suggesting that believers would only be motivated to vandalize an atheist sign, but not a humanist sign? Or what?

    The sign has been placed in the same spot for years without assault or complaint.

    And that suggests… what? How is that evidence supporting likelihood that a believer did not do this, which is the overall thrust of your comment? People come and go in communities. The perpetrator could be a newcomer.

    The message was not offensive to Christians nor were the quotes posted with it.</blockquote

    Sadly, that makes no difference. From the many incidents over the last few years of atheist and humanist ads and displays with innocuous, not antagonistic messages being prohibited, protested, and vandalized, it has become abundantly clear that the content of the message is not what provokes the hatred, but merely the identity of the sponsoring group.

    It would be my guess that the damage was done by mean spirited vandals that had no religious or non religious motives. This doesn’t strike me as a hate crime, just a stupid crime. The sign
    was picked because of the media attention and nothing more.

    The sign was targeted twice. It was spray painted on Dec. 16, and then it was set afire on Dec. 21. The perpetrator/s focused their attention on this and only this display. If it was just for mindless meanness, why not vandalize the nativity scene as well? If it was for “media attention,” burning down a nativity scene would have generated an enormous amount of media attention, even national attention. If you mean that the sign was targeted because of previous media attention that it had gotten, or because of media attention about signs by the FFRF, then the animosity clearly would be because of the identity of the group sponsoring it, and/or the association with a similar group.

    Your complaining about “media attention” sounds like you wish that people just didn’t hear about these things. You compare the vandalism against nonbeliever property to that of believer property as if they’re equal in severity. Atheist billboards, banners and displays have been completely defaced or destroyed. If damage that severe was done to nativity scenes, there would be an explosion of outrage, and my voice would be included in the outcry.

    Your implying that FFRF’s publicizing the vandalism against their banners is “moaning” sounds like you think that people who face prejudice and oppression should just shut up and quietly take it, as if that’s some kind of heroic act of stoicism. No it’s not. It’s the kind of passive, cowering appeasement and subjugation that ruling classes always want the underclasses to practice. Nonbelievers have been there, done that for too long, and we will never, ever return to it. If you think the reactions here are those of “haters,” you’re misreading it. It’s not hate, it’s anger and a determination to never again allow ourselves to be made to feel ashamed or afraid to speak our minds out loud.

    I appreciate that you are sorry that this incident occurred, and I too am sorry that it occurred. My sorrow feeds my resolve to work harder to prevent it from happening again, TO ANYONE, believer or nonbeliever.

  • Rich Wilson

    No Reverend, it is not “just a stupid crime”. I’ve had trouble voicing that because I don’t want to admit how deeply it affects me. That sign is more than just stuff. It represents an important part of me and my community. That sign is me, and all the signs being vandalized are my non-theist family. It’s not an attack on property, it’s an attack on us.

    And yes, it does happen to theists as well. And it does make the news. And while I appreciate your speaking out against the act, your dismissal of it as anything other than a random petty property crime is a dismissal of our humanity.

    I think I’ll leave the last word to Father Samuel Hanna

    That’s my own home. That’s my heart. That’s where I praise God. And for them to destroy that, it affects me very much

  • phantomreader42

    So, kevin, is there ANY public statement or action by an atheist that could EVER be acceptable to you? And why is it that you only whine that atheists must remain absolutely silent for all eternity? Oh, yeah, because you’re a dishonest little piece of shit who can’t stand the fact that your sick death cult can no longer burn people at the stake for questioning your moronic lies!

  • phantomreader42

    If your fellow death cultists are going to demand that we treat the idols they illegally erect on public property as politically neutral no matter how nonsensical it is to do so, then we have an equal right to make nonsensical demands of you. And the entirely reasonable request to STOP BREAKING THE LAW, ASSHOLES should be so much easier for you and your brethren to comply with. But, of course, you can’t STAND it when anyone outside your cult has even the slightest chance of getting the tiniest fraction of the deference you demand for your tacky graven images, so you turn to fire, as you always have, and fantasize about the good old days when you could get away with burning anyone who dared disagree with you alive for your depraved entertainment.

    And if your cult thinks the appropriate response to a dissenting opinion is arson, then maybe we should melt one of your precious idols to slag every few hours until the vandal confesses. Smash the baby jeebus with a hammer first, and burn the pieces publicly. Or would you be able to bring yourself to object to vandalism if it was perpetrated by someone who isn’t a member of your cult?

  • phantomreader42

    It is hard for one who, like kevin, has offered up his conscience and his brain as a burn sacrifice to his imaginary god, so that he is unable to even imagine honestly addressing reality.

  • phantomreader42

    What could POSSIBLY lead anyone to think that the sign was damaged by believers? Well, maybe one of these:

    1. Believers vastly outnumber non-believers (not as vastly as the believers would like to pretend, and the gap is narrowing, but there are still a lot more believers). If the vandal was somehow a randomly-selected person (which you seem to think even though it doesn’t work that way), chances are they’d be a believer just due to the fact that there are so many.

    2. Believers have an obvious motive to commit this crime, while non-believers have no such motive (you would know this already, reverend, unless of course you are a delusional conspiracy nut, which frankly would not surprise me).

    3. Believers have a documented history of thinking the law doesn’t apply to them, especially when they hallucinate that their god wants them to do something.

    4. Believers regularly threaten violence against atheists, and have carried out such violence in the past.

    5. There have been MANY documented incidents of vandalism of atheist/humanist expressions, far more than one would expect if such acts of vandalism were all random isolated incidents with no motive as you insist we pretend in flagrant disregard of all evidence.

    6. Despite there being more religious displays than non-religious ones (see again point 1), there does not appear to be a proportionate amount of vandalism of such displays, as one would expect were acts of vandalism like this all random isolated incidents with no motive as you insist we pretend in flagrant disregard of all evidence.

    So, reverend, which do you think is the more likely culprit? A member of a large majority with a history of lawlessness and an obvious motive? Or one of a small minority acting for no actual reason? Hmmm, think, think, think, what could it be? Will your cult even ALLOW you to think, reverend?

  • NickDB
  • NickDB

    Or one of a small minority acting for no actual reason?

    Exactly, as some one already said above (I think Richard), if it was an Atheist, which would they more likely burn, the Humanist sign or the Nativity set?

  • Antinomian

    Massive fail in try to make the bench “burn in hell you atheist scum”. At best it was a singe on the sidewalk.

  • jabhawiya

    You Christians are wrong to bring your load of bullshit to the public square.

    There, I said it. And I mean it. I’m so tired of having to look at it whilst living in fear that I’m going to get thrown out of a moving bus again for refusing to allow the driver to proselytize to me.

    Stupid Christians and their snap judgements.

  • Pseudonym

    Hemant only reported that story because the church sign was vandalised with an atheist message.

    BTW, I’m not complaining about Hemant not reporting on all vandalised signs everywhere in your fine country. What I’m pointing out is that it’s well-understood that gathering information selectively can result in cognitive biases, such as attitude polarization.

    I don’t want Hemant to stop giving us a new vandalised atheist sign every week. I want everyone else not to let it distort their thinking.

  • c smythe

    big deal! still ain’t no gods, alien ufos, sasquatch or ghosts . . . they can burn the whole town but this remains the truth . . .

  • Doubting Thomas

    You all sure seem to get a lot of publicity out of these “vandalized” signs.
    Very curious.

  • Richard Wade

    If you have a point, say it clearly and unambiguously. What is the meaning of your scare quotes around the word “vandalized”? Is that an insinuation that they were not really vandalized, or what? What is “Very curious” supposed to mean? It kind of sounds like you’re suspicious of a nefarious scheme or ulterior motive. Please speak your mind frankly.

    The vandalized signs get more publicity than the signs that are left alone because local news people rightly know that a controversial thing that has been reacted to with a crime is more interesting to the public than a controversial thing that is ignored or given only tepid commentary by people who dislike it. The vandalizing also serves to emphasize the necessity of the signs, bringing to focus the suppression of freedom of expression as well as the original statements made by the signs.

  • Dan Ortiz

    “You have to wonder what the reaction would’ve been if the message was more aggressive.” Could it not be that other more aggressive messages propagated the attack?