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signs of the times

Signs signal changing times
Toward a more rational 21st Century society

By George A. Ricker

While the political flacks and religious hucksters gear up for another round in the fictitious “War on Christmas” that is so beloved by Fox News and the Christian Right in the United States, new ad campaigns in the U.S.A. and England will doubtless be seen as throwing fuel on the fire. We can already see the battle lines being drawn.

On November 11, the American Humanist Association (AHA) announced a new advertising campaign that will place signs that read “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” on city buses in the Washington, D.C. area. The ads will appear on the sides, taillights and interiors of more than 200 Washington DC Metro buses. The AHA launched the campaign by placing copies of the ads in the New York Times and Washington Post.

"Humanists have always understood that you don't need a god to be good," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the AHA. "So that's the point we're making with this advertising campaign. Morality doesn't come from religion. It's a set of values embraced by individuals and society based on empathy, fairness, and experience.”

The AHA’s latest effort comes on the heels of a billboard campaign, sponsored by FreeThoughtAction (an adjunct of the AHA), that has placed billboards in the New York City area, Philadelphia and other cities around the country. The billboards carry the statement, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” According to Jan Meshon, founder of this group, plans are underway to form a national coalition promoting similar messages throughout the nation.

Meanwhile, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has created a stir with its “Imagine no religion” billboard campaign, which was launched at the beginning of the year. I wrote about one of the FFRF’s ads, and the reaction to it, in the essay “Dueling billboards” earlier this year.

Across the pond, the British Humanist Association (BHA) may have inspired the AHA when it launched a bus campaign of its own just last month, one which has attracted a good bit of notice and considerable support. The Atheist Bus Campaign was launched on October 31. Originally, the BHA hoped to raise £5,500, which would allow it to place its sign “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” on 30 buses in London for four weeks. However, thanks to a matching contribution from Richard Dawkins, the BHA was able to reach its goal within 10 hours of launching the campaign and has since raised more than £100,000 to extend and expand it.

Reactions to the AHA’s bus campaign—as well as the others mentioned—have been swift and entirely predictable.

According to a story by Eric Gorski in the Orlando Sentinel, American Family Association President Tim Wildmon opined, “It’s a stupid ad. How do we define ‘Good’ if we don’t believe in God? God in his word, the Bible, tells us what’s good and bad and right and wrong. If we are each ourselves defining what’s good, it’s going to be a crazy world.”

The same article quotes Mathew Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel (a conservative Christian legal group based in Orlando, Florida) as saying, “It’s the ultimate grinch (sic) to say there is no God at a time when millions of people around the world celebrate the birth of Christ. Certainly, they have the right to believe what they want but this is insulting.”

Needless to say the perpetually offended William Donohue of the Catholic League delivered yet another of his non sequitur-laden rants on Fox News, calling the AHA gutless for failing to launch their campaign during Ramadan and claiming the secular philosophy espoused by humanists was responsible for all the horrors of the 20th century. Frankly, it is hardly surprising to see Donohue in high dudgeon. That seems to be his preferred state of mind. But it is amusing to hear him castigate others for their ignorance when his own is so palpable.

Consider that none of the ads in question attack the personal religious beliefs of any individual. They simply raise questions and ask people to think. The AHA doesn’t challenge the existence of “God” at all. The ad simply suggests it isn’t necessary to believe in a god in order to be good. And though the media continually repeats its mantra that “92 percent of Americans believe in God,” the truth is altogether different. The notion that there is a meta-concept of “God” on which the majority of believers agree is simply false. And, although it is irrelevant to the issue at hand, some estimates place the number of non believers in the United States closer to 20 percent than the 8 percent suggested by that mantra.

Now, it is also true, and very much worth repeating, that many religious believers are not at all put out by these campaigns. Some regard them as entirely acceptable exercises of free speech. Others welcome the questions and find them thought-provoking. It is important for those of us who do not believe in gods or religions to understand that those who do are not bound to exhibit the knee-jerk reactions illustrated by the Wildmons and Donohues of the world.

What most interests me in all of this is the existence, in spite of the best efforts of conservative religionists, of an irrepressible desire on the part of a great many people to pursue these issues rationally and in a spirit of good will and honest inquiry. For people with some sense about such things, there should be nothing even slightly offensive about such statements. Asking people to imagine no religion or to consider the possibility of morality without gods ought not be the cause of any controversy, regardless of one’s religious opinions. Suggesting those who don’t believe in a god are not alone or that there probably is no god and the best course of action is to get on with life may be provocative, but it hardly rises to the level of personal insult.

No doubt such things will be regarded as tantamount to acts of war by the professionally offended like William Donohue or media hacks like Bill O’Reilly, but they should hardly be matters of concern for rational people who have a genuine interest in dealing with the issues raised thereby. It is entirely appropriate to raise such issues in any society at any time and never more so than now. In the first decade of the 21st Century we need more clarity, not less.

When I was a much younger man, these matters simply were not raised at all. Any who dared suggest there might be a question about the existence of “God” were quickly shouted down and shunned or worse by polite society. Freedom of religious expression, here in the good old U.S.A., has, until fairly recently, largely consisted of the freedom of Christians to pontificate about the veracity and the benefits of their “one, true religion” and the freedom of everyone else to keep their opinions to themselves. We still hear some of that these days. However, as more and more atheists and other non believers speak up and demand their right to the same consideration as that extended to those of a more religious persuasion, it is becoming more possible to be open about the lack of belief in gods and religions.

It seems increasingly apparent to me that a large part of the antipathy directed at atheists and other non believers is based more on fear and ignorance than on outright hostility. Many religious people simply do not realize how many of us exist and do not understand what our position really means. There is an element of insecurity involved, I’m sure, but there is also an absence of recognition. Many religious people are shocked to learn that the next door neighbor they liked or the favorite aunt or the grandparent or the old high school chum or the ____(you fill in the blank) does not believe in a god.

Billboard campaigns that provoke thought and invite questions, books that challenge the preconceptions of religious dogma, and open admissions of atheism: all make it possible to hope that the 21st Century will see a return to more rational discourse and less of the fear-mongering and hatefulness that has been characteristic of many religious leaders who fear a loss of both privilege and prestige once our society regains its sanity.

© 2008 by George A. Ricker

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