Dueling billboards: minor skirmish illustrates important differences
By George A. Ricker
A recent skirmish in the so-called culture war between the Religious Right and those who dare suggest there might be other, possibly even better, ways to view the world has been waged in the unlikely town of Chambersburg, PA. Its a battle of dueling billboards that has spilled over into the local media.
This particular incident was apparently sparked by a billboard that asked passersby to Imagine No Religion. The billboard included the web address for the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and was underwritten by an anonymous donor who lives in the Chambersburg area and is a member of the FFRF. Put up before Christmas and moved to another location in early February, the billboard is part of a national campaign by the FFRF, which says it aims to promote free thought. (I should pause here to note that my wife and I are both members of this organization and have been for years. In addition, I have had several articles published in the FFRFs monthly newspaper, Freethought Today.)
A few days after the Imagine No Religion message had been removed, a new sign popped up on a billboard a few blocks away. The new billboard shows a picture of a child saluting an American flag and asks the question Why Do Atheists Hate America? It includes the web address of In God We Trust, (IGWT) a religious advocacy group led by Bishop Council Nedd, who founded the group and chairs its board of directors.
Obviously, both groups have a right to purchase billboard space and post their messages on them, so I have no quarrel with either on that basis. However, I think the respective messages point to a significant difference between the Religious Rightand theres no question Nedd and his organization belong in that categoryand free thinkers, who may or may not call themselves atheists.
An appeal to reason
Consider the message of the FFRF billboard. It asks those who notice it to Imagine No Religion. Playing on the lyric of the John Lennon song Imagine, the billboard invites those who are so inclined to think about how their lives, their society, their world, might be different without religions in them. It doesnt characterize religions as bad or good. It doesnt insist that religions or religionists should be eliminated.
No, the billboard simply asks people to think about something. What if there were no religions? What difference might it make? Certainly, the message is provocative. Clearly, it is chiefly aimed at the religious. The nonreligious, after all, already know what their lives are like without religious belief. Then again, some may not have considered all the implications of an absence of religions from society in general and from their own lives in particular. But this is not an insulting message. It does not demean any person. It does not say anything negative about anything.
Imagine No Religion is an appeal to reason. Nothing more. Nothing less. The message invites people to think about something they might otherwise take for granted.
Now, I dont want to overstate my case. Members of the FFRF, for the most part, probably do think people and societies would be better off without religions. Frankly, its an opinion I share. But all of us recognize the opinion is arguable. Many people who follow religions claim to benefit from them. And it is an undeniable fact that religious faith has helped some people to lead lives that were better and more productive than they might otherwise have been. No doubt the same outcomes can be reached in other ways, but thats not an rationale the religious are likely to find persuasive.
But whatever anyones opinion about the efficacy of religions in the lives of individuals or societies or states, the FFRF billboard takes no position on the matter. It simply invites people to think about it.
Stoking the fire
The billboard put up by IGWT, on the other hand, is clearly aimed at stoking the fires of intolerance. Why Do Atheists Hate America? it asks presumptuously. Theres no appeal to reason here.
Note how the tone and the character of the argument have changed. This ad libels an entire group of people with the claim that Atheists Hate America. The only issue open for consideration, according to IGWT, is why that is so. Apparently the author of the billboard message equates asking people to Imagine No Religion with hating America.
This message offers no food for thought. It simply demonstrates the intolerance and irrationality of a mind slammed shut. If a simple invitation to think about no religion can provoke such reactionary hysteria, the beliefs of the one indulging in the attack must be very insecure.
And what of the claim itself? Do atheists hate America? Hardly. Many atheists, and other nonbelievers who may prefer some other label, have served with distinction in our armed forces. Some have made the ultimate sacrifice or suffered grievous injuries in that service. Atheists have enhanced the well-being of our society through contributions to art, literature and music. We own and operate businesses. We will be found working in all the professions. Moreover, because of our own minority status, we have a great appreciation for the protection of individual rights of conscience that is written into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Hate America? The claim is an intolerable insult to the many patriotic Americans who worship no gods and follow no religions but value the democratic traditions of a free society and work hard to ensure that those traditions survive for future generations. That is why so many of us are so insistent on rebuilding the wall of separation between government and religions. It is why we see great danger in any expression of religious opinions of the part of any government agency, be it national, state or local. And let it be noted these are not just matters of concern for those who have no belief in gods. Many religionists of various faiths, including the members of a number of Christian sects, are equally concerned over the attempt by some to impose their version of Christianity as a de facto state religion.
Hate America? The claim betrays an ignorance of atheism itself. Atheism is not about hating anything. Atheists dont believe in god(s). They have no god-belief. There is nothing about atheism that requires one to hate and certainly nothing about it that should lead one to hate a whole nation. The notion that all atheists must hate America, which is the clear implication of the IGWT billboard, is an insult to the common sense of everyone who views the message.
The difference in the two billboards was not lost on the editor of Chambersburg Public Opinion newspaper, who wrote
so while we support In God We Trusts right to expression, that doesnt preclude us from exercising our own right to characterize this particular message as manipulative pandering and craven defensiveness. 1
The editorial went on to characterize the IGWT billboard as simple playground taunting, and offered the hope the residents of Franklin County (where Chambersburg is located) would take it all with a grain of salt.
This led Bishop Nedd to offer a strange defense of the IGWT billboard in a letter to the editor. 2 Claiming that the FFRFs Imagine No Religion sign was tantamount to calling for the disappearance of all people of faith.
Nedd asked, First, how is Imagine No Religion different from Imagine No Christians or Imagine No Jews? The anti-religious bigotry is more obvious, but otherwise the statements seem interchangeable.
Unable to distinguish between a call for critical examination of belief and a call for the extermination of believers, Nedd insists the FFRF is on a crusade to ban religion and those who practice it. Having constructed this straw man, he uses it to justify the claim that all atheists hate America.
Nedd goes on, We dont address racial issues by all pretending to be black. We dont address gender differences by all pretending to be women. So why on earth should we address our Constitutions guarantee of religious freedom by all pretending to be atheists? Now thats going overboard.
So in asking passersby to Imagine No Religion, what the FFRF is really doing, according to Nedd at least, is to call on everyone to pretend to be atheists. That there is no merit to Nedd's complaint can be verified by taking a look at the FFRFs web site. The organizations primary focus is to protect the wall of separation between religions and government that has been so badly damaged by organizations like Ned's, admittedly political, IGWT, and to speak out for rational discourse and the right to dissent.
In fact, the notion that the FFRFs billboard insults millions and millions of Christiansa claim attributed to Nedd in an article by Roscoe Barnes III in Public Opinion 3is itself an insult to the sensibilities of Christians. It suggests they are so defensive as to be unable to appreciate the nature of a simple request to think about their beliefs and imagine what their lives would be like without them. Indeed, it can be argued that such introspection might lead a believer to strengthen, rather than weaken, their beliefs and the basis on which they are held.
Nedd must know that. So what really bothers him about the billboard?
What upsets the Bishop
If the notion that anyone who calls on folks to Imagine No Religion must hate America cannot be taken seriously, what can be taken seriously is the vitriolic nature of Nedd's attack on the FFRF and its members. Clearly, his vitriol is not prompted by the message on the billboard but by the notion that a group of atheists would have the audacity to make any sort of public statement about religion.
Nedd is quoted, in the Barnes piece, as stating that the FFRF is not simply a group of nonbelievers that wants to be left alone but is a collection of zealots who are determined to drive religion underground. Since the statement mirrors other claims by Nedd in his own letter to the editor and on his web site, it seems to be an accurate reflection of his view of the matter.
Like many fundamentalists, Nedd doesnt mind atheists and agnostics as long as they dont go public with their views. If they just stay quiet and fly under the radar, then there will be no need to demonize them. But let a group of nonbelievers have the courage to speak up for their views, and believers like Nedd are instantly offended and insulted. It is truly remarkable that, in a nation whose public discourse is filled to the brim with all manner of religious opinions, the merest suggestion of a demurral, such as that embodied in the phrase Imagine No Religion, could engender such a response. If the Bishop finds such innocuous verbiage to be so threatening,, then how insecure must he be in his own beliefs?
The truth of the matter is that fundamentalist Christians, like Nedd, are deathly afraid that the American people are beginning to look critically at both their claims and their actions. They fear public challenges because they are unable to counter them rationally and must fall back on the sort of hate-filled screed epitomized by the IGWT billboard.
The available evidence suggests there may be reason for that fear. Every objective survey taken over the past several decades indicates that American society is becoming more and more secular and less and less inclined toward the kind of religious extremes suggested by Christians like Nedd. Most recently, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has released its U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which suggests, among other things, that more than 44 percent of Americans change their religious affiliations during their lifetimes and the vast majority of that change is away from more restrictive traditional faiths and toward those that are less dogmatic. The second largest group identified in the survey (if you consider individual protestant denominations) is those who claim no religious affiliation at all. Among those, 4 percent identify themselves as either atheists or agnostics.
In spite of a constant drumbeat of propaganda, the latest version of Creationism, Intelligent Design, has been unable to gain any real traction in public school districts and has been soundly repudiated in many of them. Although some politicians dont seem to have gotten the message yet, indications are that the American people have grown leery of the culture war being waged by the fundamentalist minority on science and rational discourse. Many of them are especially weary of seeing their childrens education's held hostage in the struggle.
I do not propose that most Americans have, or are likely to, abandoned their religions. What I am suggesting, and I think we are beginning to see solid evidence of it, is that the attractions of extreme dogmatism and fundamentalism have begun to wane. We also are seeing a stronger willingness on the part of many Americans to consider alternatives to the religious paradigm.
Keeping the lid on
And that seems to be the real reason for the extreme reaction to the Imagine No Religion billboard by Nedd and his organization. By blasting anyone who dares suggest believers analyze their beliefs, the Religious Right hopes to keep the lid on and silence any voices who advocate a rational approach to such matters. For decades, such bullying tactics have been the preferred approach by those who insist our secular society must conform its institutions to their religious beliefs. It is also why they have been so desperate to wrap their religions in the flag and, by so doing, to suggest any who dont support their dogma cannot be patriotic Americans.
Ironically, most of the traditional practices that get cited in this exercise are only a bit more than a half-century old. It was not until the 1950s that the U.S. Congress inserted under God into the Pledge of Allegiance, and the phrase In God We Trust appeared on our paper currency and became a national motto. At about the same time, the Congress also mandated there must be a National Day of Prayer. Caught up in the anti-Communist hysteria of that era, the American people were presented, by political leaders and clergy alike, with the ludicrous notion that the chief difference between our free, democratic republic and the totalitarian Soviet Union was that our nation believed in God and theirs did not.
However, in spite of the reflexive invocation of religious references in any national crisis, our society has continued to become increasingly secularized and religious opinions are seen as matters best left to individuals and the religious congregations to which they belong. While some members of the U.S. Congress continue to attempt to shore up the importance of religions in our national life by overstating their contributions to our history and culture, most Americans view these efforts with a jaded eye. There are a few occasions on which governments may actually lead societies. Most often though, and this is certainly true where government and religions intersect, the role of government institutions is reactive and reflexive. Our political leadership, as often as not, is behind and out of step with the mood of the people.
While most Americans say their religious opinions are very important to them, most also insist they do not want government agencies dictating those opinions. The free exercise of religion is mandated by the Bill of Rights. And that must mean, if it means anything at all, the right to exercise no religion. The mission of government, then, must be to protect the rights of conscience of all Americans, not just those whose religious opinions are in conformance with the majority.
It may seem we have wandered far away from the site of those billboards in Chambersburg, but the truth is there is a profound connection between the war of words being waged there and the larger struggle to ensure the rights of conscience of all Americans. What is more un-American than the vilification of ones fellow citizens because their religious opinions differ from your own? What is more injurious to the spirit in which this nation was founded than the assertion that those who dont conform to your dogma must hate America?
In his, previously cited, letter to the editor, Bishop Nedd claims to respect the diversity of America. He states that his organization believes it is wrong to try to imagine an America where the people who disagree with us have all disappeared or been sent away. Of course, the FFRFs Imagine No Religion said nothing about people either disappearing or being sent away. But Nedds rhetoric suggests he wants nonbelievers to disappear. He wants to bully them into silence by accusing them of hating America.
Among the perpetually offended in the fundamentalist minority, Imagine No Religion may be a bothersome phrase. However, I doubt most Americans are so thin-skinned as to find an insult lurking in the words, regardless of their religious opinions.
John Lennon asked us to imagine a world without countries and without religions, one with nothing to fight or die for and in which people could live in peace. That vision may seem whimsical to some and far too idealistic for others. But the invitation to think about such things ought not engender the sort of hateful response that appeared on the IGWTs ad in Chambersburg. Asking people to Imagine No Religion seems far more in keeping with the free exercise of those rights of conscience all Americans enjoy than the negative campaign of character assassination and hysterical rhetoric of Nedds organization.
So the dueling billboards illustrate a difference that is significant. The FFRFs campaign appeals to reason. It urges people to think about something and imagine it not being there. The IGWTs ad plays on fear and ignorance. It lies about atheists and libels them in the bargain.
Which approach seems more likely to spread hatred?
1. Our View: Defensive billboard goes a bit overboard, by Matthew Major, on behalf of Public Opinions editorial board, Public Opinion Online, Feb. 10, 2008.
2. Letter to the editor: Editorial puzzles billboard sponsor, by The Rt. Rev. Council Nedd II, chairman, In God We Trust, Public Opinion Online, Feb. 12, 2008.
3. Battle of the Chambersburg billboards, by Roscoe Barnes III, staff writer, Public Opinion newspaper
© 2008 by George A. Ricker