Is It Rude to Tell an Atheist He’s Wrong?

This week a sparkling new digital billboard went live on Times Square.   On the corner of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, the large sign features white letters on a blue background reading:


The animated billboard in Times Square joins several low-tech stationary versions in New York and San Francisco funded by Ken Ham, the founder, CEO and President of the creationist organization Answers in Genesis.  Ham’s organization, which teaches young-earth theory and disputes evolution, also funded construction of a creation science museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.  Ham hopes that busy commuters will see these new billboards and will visit AiG’s website to read articles and watch a video that present the case for God’s existence.

Ken Ham hopes to change hearts and minds with his billboard campaign.  In a statement released Monday, he explained,

“In a friendly way, we want to reach out to people in secularized parts of the country and share the hope we have in Christ.  Atheists live in a world of ultimate meaninglessness and purposelessness.  But the good news is that God sent His Son to offer the free gift of salvation. There is purpose and meaning in life.  And we thank God for that.”

When critics challenged Ham regarding his abrasive approach, he fired back on Tuesday against what he termed “ridiculous accusations”, insisting that:

“This culture needs to hear from Bible-believing Christians who stand for the truth.  We continue to make public challenges and statements to get people talking about God and His Word….  Right now the national news is focused on politics—we need to get people focused on the real issue:  this nation has turned its back on God in so many ways.”

*     *     *     *

The whole story drew just a “ho-hum” from me, until I read a column in the Huffington Post by blogger Cynthia Jeub.   Jeub, who is a Christian, took offense; in her estimation, this is exactly the wrong way to approach a non-believer.  Jeub wrote:

“…My immediate reaction was one of shock and shame, and I left a quick comment on both my friend’s post and the original post from Ham. Ham deleted my comment, but what I said to the small group of friends was this: ‘This is an awful idea and I’m ashamed that any Christian supports it.’

The first reason I don’t think Christians should support this photo should be obvious. To say ‘you’re wrong’ is unconvincing. It’s also unloving, but while being loving should be first on the list of priorities for people who follow Jesus, my experience with supporters of this kind of thing would say something like “speaking the truth is the most loving thing you can do.”

I’m bothered by three other elements of the billboard campaign. First, it points to Genesis 1:1 to make its point, which means the argument is between young-earth creationism and evolution. Second, it says ‘thank God’ on it. Third, it calls atheists ‘our friends,’ and proceeds not to treat them in a friendly way.”

Cynthia got me thinking about it in a new way:  I guess she’s right, that the billboard is the sort of “in-your-face” provocation that religionists have wielded against one another without good effect.

So, what of the billboard?  Is it counterproductive and offensive, is it lighthearted humor, or is it just another billboard on a crowded street in Gotham?  Or is it a merciful truth-telling, which might, as Ham hopes, lead to the person’s investigating the faith and possibly converting?

What do you think?

 

  • Dale

    I don’t think the audience for the billboard is atheist. I think the message is directed at Christians. The words are not intended to persuade, they are intended to “score points.”. It is a way to rally the troops, to shore up flagging spirits in the face of similar billboards from atheists.

    The author of the HuffPo article has a point that to address atheists as friends and then not speak to them in a friendly fashion is not something we should be comfortable with. It is uncharitable at best and could rightly be called exploitative of these so-called “friends.”

    However, I think the discomfort the author has with Young Earth Creationism has no relevance to the billboard. Christians are unlikely to look up the verse which is cited, and even if they do, they will bring to it an more extensive knowledge of the Bible and how the verse is to be understood. I suppose an atheist might need to look up the verse, and might reject it on the basis of partial understanding. But, again, I don’t think the billboard is meant to persuade atheists. Its real message is “Hooray for our side!”

  • jenny

    I think that we are all created to believe in “something” above us, stronger, better, beautiful, etc….and therefore we come into this world as “believers”.

    That “something” has different names, depends on where we are in space and time.
    When we get very hurt by life experiences, we may reject that “something”, out of anger, lack of hope, or because of the feelings of insecurity or injustice.

    And I think that this is the point when we become “atheist”. But, if we get the chance to resolve that emotional/physical damage, we may become again “believers”.

    So, the billboard above may have different interpretations, based on where we are in our journey in life….

    • Donalbain

      That is not at all what I experienced. I never believed in a deity. I have always been an atheist.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I don’t see anything wrong with it. I live in New York City and atheists have done similar advertising, and usually in a ridiculing sort of way. That advertisement was way kinder than the atheist ones I’ve seen. Now that said, people who deny evoluton are the wrong people to be debating atheists.

  • Kelly Thatcher

    Cynthia is “bothered” because the message uses the word “God” in it? Okay…(very weird, is what I mean). Cynthia is “bothered” by the reference to the BIBLE? Okay…(very weird, is what I mean). To say “you’re wrong” is unconvincing? Indeed it is! Nevertheless, Jesus used the same words throughout His ministry. And even worse. (For those of you who believe Cynthia’s point, do a google search on the word “woe” in the Biblical section.)

    Sorry, Kathy. I guess you think she’s right…and I guess we disagree.

  • Matt

    The answer to whether it’s insulting or wrong is simple. Imagine the same sign with these words:
    “To all our Christian friends” THANK ZEUS YOU ARE WRONG

    Now ask yourself – is that insulting, or just petty? Would you be annoyed at is as a Christian? You now have your answer.

  • Ambaa

    Eww. That is horribly offensive. Here’s what my billboard would say… To All Our Christian Friends: You’re Pretentious, Narrow-Minded Jerks.

  • Derpington_The_Third

    As if this billboard would convince non-believers anyways.

    Everyone atheist worth their salt knows AiG is a fringe, unsupported quack group.

    It’s petty, it’s stupid, and it’s a waste of money.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

    Just a couple of thoughts from an atheist perspective. I strongly support Ham’s right to state his opinion, and getting the discussion out in the open can be good.

    As for the offensiveness, it doesn’t bother me too much, but I appreciate your concern. The basic Christian message (“You know you’re going to hell, right? Forever? But that’s OK ’cause God loves you!”) is inherently pretty offensive.

    Finally, Ken Ham’s young-earth Creationism should embarrass all thoughtful Christians. Believing in Iron Age superstition may not be all that crazy (am I actually saying that??) if you’re in a culture that accepts it. But evolution denial in the 21st century makes the position ludicrous. Even within Christianity, evolution denial is a minority opinion. We’re not going to get anywhere on Christianity, but let me encourage you to Just Say No to the Creationism.

    • Dale

      Hi Bob, thanks for stopping by.

      I agree that it is good that Ham has the freedom to state his opinion. Freedom of Speech is one of our most valuable liberties. What Ham said is regrettable and even embarrassing. But I have been embarrassed by other Christians before. :-/

      However, I did want to correct a misunderstanding about the basic Christian message. As Catholics we do not believe that we can say whether anyone or not will wind up in Hell. Such knowledge is beyond the human capacity to know. From a Catholic standpoint, we talk of someone putting their soul in peril, but the final call is God’s. The central message of Christianity is that God loves us, he sent Christ to redeem us, and by following Christ we have hope of salvation.

      Non-Christians, regardless of faith or non-faith, are not condemned to Hell simply because of their erroneous beliefs. The Catholic doctrine of “there is no salvation outside the Church” does not mean that non-Catholics are going to fry. It means that the Church inerrantly presents God’s Will for us as humans. Following the teachings of the Catholic Church is a sure path to following what God wants for us. There is theological speculation that, at the Final Judgment, we will all be given full, clear knowledge of God and of how we have fallen short in our lives. A that point we will make a final decision, and only then will God pass judgment on us.

      I apologize for the sermon. But chances are very good that almost all of us, with the exception of saints, will spend some time in Purgatory for our sins. But, again, that is God’s call, and we really can’t know in advance.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

        Christianity is a big tent. Thanks for the summary of your views, but I’m sure lots of other Christians would be happy to tell you that you’re nuts.

        To me, this humility on your part doesn’t do much to minimize God’s insane fury for putting his beloved in hell forever.

        The church’s presentation of God’s will may be inerrant, but it certainly isn’t unambiguous. The number of Christian sects is 42,000 and counting.

        Purgatory? I thought you guys dropped that idea. I know Limbo is out. Is Purgatory still in?

        • Dale

          Limbo was never Catholic doctrine, and was never a belief binding on Catholics It was a popular theory to explain what seemed to be a dilemma. I learned this 35 years ago when I converted, so the more recent news stories about Limbo weren’t actually news.

          Purgatory, however, is Catholic doctrine.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

            OK, thanks. The idea of a proportional punishment (or trial) makes sense. That’s what human justice looks like. The binary aspect of hell is nuts.

          • jenny

            Yes, Limbo was a belief binding on Catholics …

            Millions of people in the catholic church….in various parts of the word lived based on the “Limbo existence” , as taught by priests to parents seeking the baptism of their children; it was taught to First Communion classes; priests and bishops acted based on this bounding belief on a regular and consistent basis….
            The teaching of the existence of Limbo was a vey, very real fact……in many parts of the world……and if Vatican changed anything regarding Limbo, how do they make sure that every person is informed about the change… ?

          • Dale

            Jenny, yes, you are correct. The concept of a limbo of infants was often taught. It seems the concept of Limbo was a doctrine of the Church at one point, but it was never a dogma. That is to say, even when officially taught, private disagreement with the idea was acceptable. Limbo, even as doctrine, was not a binding concept.

            I suspect that some priests, in their desire to impress upon parents the need for baptism, may have claimed more authority for the concept of limbo than it deserved.

            Quoting from an interview which Cardinal Ratzinger gave in the 1980s:

            “Limbo was never a defined truth of the faith. Personally – and here I am speaking more as a theologian and not as Prefect of the Congregation – I would abandon it since it was only a theological hypothesis. It formed part of a secondary thesis in support of a truth which is absolutely of first significance for the faith, namely, the importance of baptism.”
            http://jimmyakin.com/2006/10/limbo_in_limbo.html

          • jenny

            thank you, Dale…

  • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

    What is the objective and purpose of telling all atheists they’re wrong indiscriminately? Is such a wild generalisation likely to be productive or more counter-productive?

    How can we tell atheists they’re wrong if we don’t know their position thoroughly, especially what they mean by ‘God’?
    (See David Bentley-Hart’s New Book, The Experience of God, where he argues that if we’re going to debate God in the Public Square, we need to have a common grasp on what we mean by ‘God’)

    Both sides in this scenario are likely to be working from (false, or at best, erroneous) presuppositions about the other and, to the degree they do that, they are wrong, because they simply do not know what they are denying but making wild assumptions about the other’s viewpoint.

    I would suggest that any form of generalising simply objectifies persons and goes against the Personalistic Norm. The ‘atheists’, like the ‘Christians’, when the boot is on the other foot, knows they’re being objectified irrespective of any propositions.

    In short, the atheist or the Christian who partakes in this sort of thing is, at worst, simply firing off ad hominems, or at best, tilting at windmills, because neither has any real knowledge of the other’s position.

    The difficulty is that ‘Non-normative Christianity’ (Non-denominational, non-doctrinal) is necessarily as protean as the atheism it is attacking in the advert. It’s the pot calling the kettle black, it seems to me.

    If your Christianity is non-normative, you’ve got a problem that needs fixing before you even begin with ‘the atheists’!


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