Your beliefs are silly. Don't like hearing that? Defend them or change your mind.

American Atheists have some new billboards up.  They pretty much follow the past trend for AA of being pretty in-your-face.  I love it.

My enthusiasm is not shared by Rev. James Martin.

“That billboard makes the most common high-school error when it comes to atheism,” wrote the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, in an e-mail to CNN. “It’s not arguing against the existence of God, but against religion. The American Atheists need to go back to school on this one.”

Leave it to a Reverend to tell us what atheism is.  Also, why the diss at high schools?  High schoolers can be pretty smart people.  A lot of the members of high school secular clubs have better grammar and ideas than I.

This just in, Reverend: vocal atheists argue against the existence of god.  You know the institution saying god exists?  They’re called “religions.”  I chuckled reading Martin’s condescending line in which he fails to make that connection.  Arguing against god’s existence doesn’t keep us from lambasting religion too (one could even argue it was necessary, since religions are the ones making the claims of gods we have to debunk).  We can do both!  Sometimes we can even do them at the same time.  We so cray.

Martin also questioned the language used on the billboard: “And as for ‘promoting hate’ they’re doing a bang-up job themselves with that billboard.”

Hate?  We think your beliefs are silly and that you’re capable of doing better.  We’re not trying to suppress your rights.  We’re not the ones saying that failure to agree with us means you deserve some kind of punishment either temporary or eternal.  We’re saying your religion is silly.

Terryl Givens, a Mormon professor at the University of Richmond, called American Atheists “petty and vindictive.”

“If this example of adolescent silliness is what atheists mean by being reasonable, then neither Mormons nor other Christians have much to worry about,” he said of the billboards. “When atheists organize to serve the poor and needy of the world, they will be taken more seriously.”

Well Terryl Givens, atheists do organize to serve the poor and the needy.  However, that isn’t why you should take us seriously.  You should take us seriously because your beliefs are completely indefensible and ours are supported by reason and evidence.  It wouldn’t matter if Christians gave a billion times more to charity than atheists, your beliefs are still wrong.  That’s the point of the billboard.

Likewise, it doesn’t matter that Christianity correlates to people opposing the rights of normal human beings with sexual practices that don’t align with their religion.  That gives us motivation to oppose Christianity, but doesn’t make your Christianity untrue.  The actual claims of the religion accomplish that.

The accuracy of your beliefs is the foundation of your very life, Mr. Givens, and the foundation for the lives of millions of believers.  Clearly, it is at least implied that the accuracy of beliefs is very important to all of you.  Well, they’re important to us too, and we think each one of you has massively failed to live up to even a crappy standard of accuracy for your most paramount truth claims.  You can’t call us petty for holding beliefs to the same level of importance to which you claim to hold them.  Well, you can, but it makes you look silly.

So play the victim card all you like.  Your beliefs are silly.  Don’t like it?  Defend them or change your mind.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • invivoMark

    While I can’t agree with the billboards from an aesthetics perspective, these criticisms are baloney.

    “It’s not arguing against the existence of God, but against religion.”

    The existence of a god is what atheists argue. Religion is why we argue.

  • baal

    While mocking and condescending are related words, I generally like the former and dislike the later. Mocking serves to highlight sillyness (especially when that sillyness is foisted off as a serious matter). Condescension implies superiority; I’m better than you so I get to tell you that you are wrong (or sometimes silly).

    I see the billboards in the mocking camp and the religionists quotes in the condescending one.

  • Rory

    “It’s not arguing against the existence of God, but against religion.”

    What’s cute about that line is that I have yet to see an atheist (or anyone rational) argue that there’s no such thing as religion. We all agree there’s religion; we just think it’s silly. Maybe Rev is the one who needs some schooling.

  • Robert

    These billboards reinforce the belief that some religious folks have, that atheists secretly do believe in god but are angry with him/her/it. Statements such as “God is a space alien” are not compatible with “God does not exist.”

    • Beff

      Robert, the “God is a space alien” line is simply an example of what Mormons believe. No atheist would suggest such a preposterous idea. It’s on the billboard to highlight the ridiculous and unreasonable beliefs of Mormons.

    • Nik B

      “God is a space alien” refers to the Mormon belief that the “heavenly father” is indeed a being from another planet / galaxy. It is simply mocking LDS doctrine. It reinforces no such “atheists hate god” cliche’.

  • Kaoru Negisa

    “When atheists organize to serve the poor and needy of the world, they will be taken more seriously.”

    The problem with this is that when he says “serve,” he generally means “convert.” It’s like those skewed studies that show that religious people give more money to charity, but “charity” counts as giving money to their church.

    Prof. Givens can fuck off talking about serving the poor and needy while his church only gives 0.7% of its annual income to charity. I’m not sure what the rest goes to, but my guess would be the mission trips they love to brag about, real estate investments that they net over $35 million a year from, and political lobbying like all the money they spent on Prop 8.

    Maybe when the LDS church exists for some reason other than self-perpetuation and afterlife planet distribution they will be taken more seriously.

    • Kaoru Negisa

      h/t to Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True for the article, and fastlane for reminding me that that’s where I read it in the first place.

  • Alex S.

    Using terms like “sadistic” and “useless” will just trigger a knee-jerk defense of the supernatural. The goal is to get people of faith to question their beliefs, not play to their stereotypes of what they think an atheist is.

  • Joe Cogan

    I disagree with the “in your face” approach; in fact, I find it completely counter-productive. I’d be willing to venture that a large part of the reason we atheists have such a negative public image in the US is because of Madalyn’s hyper-abraisive personality when she was leading AA. As has been observed, you can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t arrive at rationally, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in participating on the Usenet group alt.atheism since the mid 90′s, it’s that ridiculing them out of it is even less effective: it only closes their minds further, and makes them think “wow, atheists are real jerks!”.

    The best thing to do, IMO, is to learn from the LGBT community, and just be open about who and what we are, without being obnoxious about it: let the theists know that we are their brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, friends, neighbors. We don’t eat babies, and we don’t want to violate their First Amendment rights, but we will not have ours infringed upon either. It’s easy to hate atheists (or any other group) in the abstract. It’s a lot harder to hate people as a group when people you know and love belong to it. And hey, it’s a lot easier to teach critical thinking skills to someone who thinks “wow, he’s a pretty nice guy! Maybe I was wrong about atheists” than someone who thinks “what a tool. Who cares what he has to say?”.

    Just my 2 cents. I realize that YMMV.

    • Jasper of Maine (I feel safe and welcome at FTB)

      Silverman would argue, quite aggressively, that it’s not about deconverting people. It’s about mobilizing atheists, and within that context, they’ve found it to be fairly successful.

      • Joe Cogan

        “Mobilizing atheists to do what?” would be my question.

        • Jasper of Maine (I feel safe and welcome at FTB)

          To join up. To assist with secular issues. To come out of the closet. To lend their voices.

          We’ve managed to accomplish quite a bit, and the more atheist activists are around, the more we accomplish.

          I would argue that it’s the single most important thing we could be doing right now.

          The more “out” atheists, the more comfortable additional atheists will be in coming out. The more “out” atheists there are, the less effective the theocratic are at simply shouting us down, and the more funding groups have to do more.

          American Atheists is an organization to try to fix the secular landscape. Deconverting people isn’t the goal. Having members is.

          • Joe Cogan

            Well, I’m totally “out”, but I’m not sure that antagonizing theists through ridicule doesn’t offset the gains we might make in recruiting activists. Again, YMMV.

          • Jasper of Maine (I feel safe and welcome at FTB)

            And we thank you for being out – every little bit helps.

    • John Horstman

      Reading back, this is a bit off-topic with respect to the original post, but this meme just won’t die, so I still want to address it.

      The best thing to do, IMO, is to learn from the LGBT community, and just be open about who and what we are, without being obnoxious about it:

      The kinder, gentler, mainstream LGBT rights movement owes its existence to the in-your-face antagonistic tactics of the gay liberation movement that engaged in things like violent resistance to arrest/riots, fuck-ins, and even pride parades (which were considered far more offensive and in-your-face when they started than they are now, though I’m willing to bet the fundies would consider them every bit as offensive as those billboards – just think of how many people you’ve heard say they have no problem with gay people as long as they aren’t in your face about it i.e. they’re fine with closeted gay people only). I agree that this approach will turn some people off, but I think it works wonders in other ways, and a multitude of approaches by different groups within a movement tends to be the most successful strategy for social justice activism. The LGBT movement has not always been the tame, passively-liberal movement politely asking for marriage rights and employment protection that constitutes the core today (and with which core plenty of LGBTQetc. activists are seriously unhappy), so it’s not a particularly good analogy to use here. I’m going to assume you didn’t mean to do so, and you might not even be aware of the full scope and history of (what we would today call) queer activism, but these sort of statements sanitize history and deny the experiences of thousands of activists, some of whom quite literally gave their lives to fight for justice for marginalized groups (I get equally pissed off when people claim that the Indian independence movement was an entirely peaceful, pacifist movement; it wasn’t, and it’s entirely possible that without the underlying, implicit threat of potential violence of which the militant fringes continually reminded those in power, the mainstream pacifist movement would not have succeeded; likewise, without a mainstream pacifist movement generating sympathy from people both within and without the British Empire, an entirely violent revolution may also have failed).

    • Amyc

      “[Y]ou can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t arrive at rationally.”

      I was reasoned out of being a Christian, and I by no means became a Christian for rational reasons. Ridicule was also very effective for getting me to let go of my creationist views (long before I dropped Christianity altogether).

  • Anonymous

    Confused. If your an atheist you dont believe so why do you care what I believe?

    • Kaoru Negisa

      I got this one.

      Irrationality leads to terrible decisions and inhuman behaviors. Trying to get people to abandon beliefs based on nothing but their desire for them to be true, following traditions with no basis in fact means there will be fewer people who deny reality in favor of their preferred vision of how the world works.

      • baal


        I hit send without refreshing first.

        • Kaoru Negisa

          That’s ok, your explanation was much better than mine. Anonymous, please read Baal’s answer below for a more detailed explanation of why atheists care very much about other people’s beliefs.

    • baal

      Hi Anonymous,

      I assume you’re new to FTB and the “confused” is self-referent. In short, I care about your beliefs since I’d like you base your actions in the real world on real world considerations. By definition, the supernatural (god, jesus, all them saints) are not part of the real world and can’t impact it.

      Let’s take just one example from today on JT’s blog.
      JT has a post today that TN has passed a 10 commandments bill. This bill looks like it’s a clear violation of the first amendment’s prohibition on the State endorsing a religion. Would you be ok if the law called the 5 pillars of Islam ‘historical’ and you kids were made fun of for not knowing them? That’s what’s going on.

      If you all would be so kind as to not constantly push your beliefs on everyone else, we’d be less interested in what those beliefs are.

      I also invite you to go read 5-10 of the links on Greta Christina’s blog in the important links section (to her writings). She is easy to read a passionately and clearly explains why your beliefs are a tremendous concern for non-christians.


    • Jasper of Maine (I feel safe and welcome at FTB)

      Someone get this hominid a copy of Geta Christina’s “Why are you atheists so angry?”, stat!

      Whenever someone asks this question, I have to wonder if they’re entirely ignorant about what religious people are doing in the world. Hint: It’s a ton of bad things.

  • Tony •King of the Hellmouth•


    Confused. If your an atheist you dont believe so why do you care what I believe?

    Let’s see, those beliefs have been justification for war, slavery, homophobia, and sexism.
    Those beliefs give religious people justification to deny queers the right to marry or adopt.
    Those beliefs have given religious people justification to deny women the right to work outside the home, to teach, take public office, vote, and control their own bodies.
    Believers use their religion to spread misinformation about condoms and contraception in Africa and other places around the globe.
    Those religious beliefs cause many people to think it’s harmless to tell someone they’re going to hell.
    Those religious beliefs result in children dying, whether by denying them a blood transfusion or beating them to death as a form of corporal punishment.
    Those beliefs result in politicians constantly trying to introduce creationism into schools to be taught in place of (or alongside) evolution, despite creationism not being proven at all.

    Does this help you understand why religious beliefs are harmful?
    If not, this list can be extended quite a bit.

  • fastlane

    “When atheists organize to serve the poor and needy of the world, they will be taken more seriously.”

    Says the representative of the Mormon church:

    The authors show early on in the article that direct charity is actually quite small for many churches (the Mormon Church, for example gives only 0.7% of its annual income to charitable causes[.]

    From here:

    h/t to Jerry Coyne for pointing to this study last week.

    • fastlane

      And I see Kaoru Negisa beat me to it. That’ll teach me to read the whole thread before I post. And Kaoru Negisa managed to get the html right too….

      • Kaoru Negisa

        Timing is everything. Thank you for reminding me where I read it as well. Going to append the h/t to mine for appropriate credit.

  • Sheila G

    Statements like this on these billboards are what helped me abandon 40 years of Christianity! When one is constantly surrounded by others who believe the same way; when one’s community all believe (and vote) the same way; when one’s family is all of the same fundamentalist beliefs, it is very helpful for SOMEBODY out there to point out how obviously silly and ridiculous these all-life consuming beliefs are.

    Those who weren’t raised in an insular community such as I described cannot understand how totally the immersion is; all the teachers at school, all the politicians, all the radio disc jockeys (at least the ones who discuss it), the locally owned television stations, the local newspaper, etc. are all of one voice. Then I was sent to a Christian college (egads), where all the professors and students were of the same mind.

    I began to read Fark comment threads about religion and they made me angry but many also made me laugh. I realized how goofy the stuff I believed was, and that it was no better than the ‘crazy’ beliefs people of other religions held.

    So for those who think snark, and “rudeness” don’t work? For some of us, these were the very things that made us re-examine ourselves. Snark enveloped in humor is even better, i.e. The Life of Brian. I’m sure it turns some people off, but those are the types who ‘turn off’ anytime a view opposing theirs is presented.

    • kagekiri

      I concur. Ridicule turned me off at times, but it also made me embarrassed when I wasn’t able to answer atheists’ (or evolutionists’) questions or insults. It pierced the bubble of Christian thinking I’d been immersed in, and made me realize that I had to PROVE the infallibility of the Bible and God to non-believers.

      That made me re-examine my beliefs and theology to try and make it more consistent and true…and religion and consistent truth don’t mix well.

      I mean, it wasn’t a magic bullet, but knowing that reasonable people have real problems with your religion and see no reason to respect it is a pretty strong motivator to either double-down (which unfortunately happened a lot to me, as my church trained me to expel “evil” thoughts from the mind, and that obviously included doubts about God) or to take another look at if you’re wrong.

      • Sheila G

        Exactly, it was definitely uncomfortable! But, it worked.

  • vinimarques

    While I may agree with the information displayed on these billboards, mainly because I already share those beliefs and know what they mean, I’m afraid the general public, which is who billboards are aimed at, won’t. I don’t blame them: these AA pieces all come across a bit unprofessional, whiny, childish, and pedantic. Kind of like that eccentric “athiest” uncle who the rest of the family avoids because he has no social skills. They need to seriously class up their advertising strategy to come with something smarter. In all the subjectivity of a good advertising campaign, simplicity isn’t always easy to achieve, so a good (or better) ad agency might help them shape their messaging.

  • christophburschka

    I really don’t like these billboards from a design perspective (get rid of that rambly wall of text, just go with “Atheism: Simply Reasonable” or something). But I figure if they ruffle believers’ feathers they’re doing something right.

    • Sheila G

      Have to agree with you there; I think the billboards do good by causing lifelong religious like myself to question beliefs. But, these are too busy and too wordy; unless the billboards are placed at an intersection next to a traffic light, people driving past aren’t able to even read the whole thing, much less think about it.

      • sqlrob

        Exactly. I think these are great banner ads.

        Billboards? Notsomuch.

  • ottod

    I have a couple of problems with these billboards.

    First, they’re almost like attack ads. They’re taking shots at members of groups who aren’t likely to change their minds. The whole underwear thing? And jeebus on toast? Really? Seems to me that these manage to perfectly integrate sophomoric and cliche. Wouldn’t a positive message to doubters be better?

    Second, these things aren’t even billboards, they’re PowerPoint slides, and not particularly compelling ones either. They’d better be placed by stop signs or on walking paths or nobody will have time to read the whole thing.

    I love the idea of aggressive billboards. I don’t love these billboards.

    • Jasper of Maine (I feel safe and welcome at FTB)

      The billboards are meant to recruit atheists. Do you honestly think that they think that a obscure insult and a link to their site will deconvert a theist and have them join AA?

      I think you’re misunderstanding their target audience.

  • bartmeltzer

    I love these billboards! I want to see many more of them. Maybe when religious institutions and individuals give everyone else the courtesy of staying out of our lives and criticizing us, we’ll give them the same courtesy.

    I doubt they will grant us that courtesy anytime soon. More billboards!

  • Bridget Gaudette

    My blog addresses this: The Closeted Atheist & The Billboard

  • Randomfactor

    “Your beliefs are silly” should be the opening gambit whenever confronting Christians.

    It doesn’t really matter if their silly beliefs motivate them to acts of charity–my unsilly beliefs do that as well.

    “Silly” belief in Santa causes good behavior too. For a while.

  • TGAP Dad

    I see that American Atheists have STILL not hired a graphic designer. These designs are awful.
    If anyone from AA is lurking here, take heed:
    * Keep the design simple
    * Keep the message simple. To wit: which of these is your message: 1) Mormonism/Christianity is wrong or stupid, 2) atheism, simply out is reasonable, or 3) please join American Atheists (especially if you’re a graphic designer)?
    My dream design would be a take-off of the ubiquitous white text on black background signed by god, but with actualatheist quotes attributed to actual people. How awesome would it be to see this on your morning commute:

    The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than a drunken man is happier than a sober one.
    - George Bernard Shaw

    THAT should ruffle a few feathers!

  • Amyc

    I have to concur with those here telling AA to hire a graphic designer. My brother-in-law is a graphic designer (not currently working in that field though). Maybe I should give them his number…