I’ve been struggling to figure out the intended purpose of belief driven billboards. For example “Jesus is Lord: And You Know It”or “Reason over faith, always” or “Jesus is Muslim (yes we used the present tense.)” Who exactly is the intended audience for such billboards?
Taken at face value the obvious answer is others—in these cases nonChristians, nonatheists, and nonMuslims. In the case of the first two slogans the message is clearly proselytizing. But does anyone believe this proselytizing tactic actually works? Does anyone believe that someone driving down the road will see a statement that Jesus is Lord and have a conversion experience then and there? Or perhaps the idea is more subtle—like advertising. Just get the name out there—brand name recognition. Still, it seems like a lot of money for very little return.
In the last case the message seems to be directed at Christians specifically in order to foster a positive relationship between Christians and Muslims. But that too doesn’t seem quite right. Are anti-Muslim Christians going to believe a fact on a billboard that goes so wholly against their worldview?
I’ve entertained the idea that billboards in this style are actually directed at the in crowd—reminders that there are other Christians/atheists/Muslims are out there. This certainly makes sense for minority groups—such as atheists and Muslims—who might to seek each other out for the sake of sanity and safety. But that doesn’t explain the Christian billboards. (Unless you buy the “persecuted Christian”narrative that the “War on Christmas”is illustrative of.)
The organizations themselves have made statements about the motivations for their billboards. Answers in Genesis, for example, said that their controversial “Thank God for Freedom”campaign is to “point out the fact that this nation was built on freedom of religion and freedom of speech as outlined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution.”American Atheists have said in response to at least one of their controversial billboard campaigns—“Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is to skip church! I’m too old for fair tales.”—that the message is not intended for the faithful, but for atheists to know that they are not alone. Ask-a-Muslim.com—behind the “Jesus is a Muslim”billboard—has said that the intention is to encourage people to learn about Islam.
No, these explanations don’t make sense. After much deliberation, the only thing that makes sense to me is that these billboards are designed to pick a fight. If the goal were actually to start a conversation or to let people know there are others out there like them there are a hundred other ways to get that message across.While identifying Jesus as a Muslim is theologically correct—at least from the Muslim point-of-view—doing so will make very few people interested in learning about Islam and make very many people angry. For many, it only confirms a misguided belief that Muslims are deceitful, no-good human beings and their thoughts on the matter go no further. Similarly, calling religious people’s dearest beliefs about how the world works “fairy tales”only serves to piss people off. Honestly, who would not feel attacked?
But the very same Ask-A-Muslim.com and AA campaigns have related billboards that are not bear-baiting. “Muslims love Jesus too”ignites the same conversation as “Jesus is Muslim”without provoking nearly as much anger. Here is a sentiment that might intrigue people. It might inspire people to learn more. And it doesn’t automatically turn people off in the way that declaring one’s Lord and Savior, the Son of God a Muslim does. It simply doesn’t.
“I can be good without God.” does double duty in bring visibility of other atheists for people who feel isolated in their religious communities and in addressing the misguided stereotype that atheists are inherently evil people. And it does so without attacking other’s beliefs. It’s a positive affirmation of one’s own belief rather than a negative denigration of another’s. Of course there will be people who are offended by what an atheists says no matter what they say, but number of offended religious people is significantly smaller with this message than the first one.
The point is be positive. We will much sooner manage to all live together if we start holding ourselves up rather than putting other people down. Not only is that healthier discourse, it’s more productive discourse.
The comedian Michael Ian Black, whatever you think of this other work and if you can excuse some profanity, has illustrated this situation perfectly in one of his standup routines . He says
I was driving down the road. I saw a billboard. The billboard said this: “Jesus Christ is the only Lord and Savior.” Now, what does it say about me that my reaction to reading this billboard was to say, out loud—and keep in mind driving by myself—was to say this, “Fuck you.” It’s a horrible thing to say to a billboard. I’d seen a lot of other billboards during the drive that day. I didn’t say, “Fuck you” to any of them. … I saw a bumper sticker —same message. Not what you say, how you say it. I had a a totally different reaction to it. I was totally cool with it. The bumper sticker said this: I <3 Jesus.” And I was cool with that ‘cause I heart shit.