Approaching Holidays Prompt Atheist Campaign
WASHINGTON — An unusual holiday message began appearing this week in the nation’s capital on the sides of buses and trains.
“No god? … No problem!” reads the advertisement featuring the smiling faces of people wearing Santa Claus hats. “Be good for goodness’ sake.”
Over the next two weeks, 270 of the ads will go up on city buses and trains in the Washington area as part of the holiday kickoff to campaigns sponsored by secular groups in cities around the country and abroad. If last year was any indication, the signs are likely to spark a theological war of words.
“We don’t intend to rain on anyone’s parade, but secular people celebrate the holidays, too, and we’re just trying to reach out to our people,” said Roy Speckhardt, the executive director of the American Humanist Association. “To the degree that we are reaching out to the godly, it’s just to say that you can be good without god. So their atheist neighbor down the street shouldn’t be vilified as though he is immoral.”
Signs similar to those in Washington are being placed on buses and billboards in New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, and near the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, as well as in London; Barcelona, Spain; Genoa, Italy; and Toronto, Montreal and Calgary, Canada, Mr. Speckhardt confirmed.
Last year, a similar campaign by the association drew strong reactions.
The head of the Catholic League linked secular humanists to figures like Hitler and the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. The publisher of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” complained about the signs. In Cincinnati, a billboard that said “Don’t believe in God? You’re Not Alone” had to be moved after the owner of the billboard property said he had received threats. In Moscow, Idaho, a sign that said “Good without God. Millions of humanists are” was vandalized twice in three weeks.
“It is the ultimate Grinch to suggest there is no God during a holiday where millions of people around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ,” said Mathew D. Staver, founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel, a conservative religious law firm, and dean of Liberty University School of Law in Lynchburg, Va. “It is insensitive and mean.”
Aside from sending an alert to members, Mr. Staver said his organization had no legal or other action planned in response to the advertisements.
After signs went up last year in Washington, religious groups took out their own ads. One featured the famous Sistine Chapel image of God’s finger reaching out to Adam along with the words: “Why Believe? Because I created you and I love you, for goodness’ sake. — God.” Pennsylvania Friends in Christ placed an ad reading: “Believe in God. Christ is Christmas for goodness sake.”
City transit officials said they had so far not received any requests from religious groups to post their own signs this year.
Elsewhere, this year’s secular signs vary in tone.
In Seattle, this year’s signs say “Millions are good without God.” In Las Vegas, signs to be put up this week will say “Reasons Greetings” and “Yes, Virginia … there is no God.”
The sponsor of the Las Vegas signs, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, created a furor last year with its sign that read, in part, “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” Its location was next to a Nativity scene at the Capitol in Olympia.
The campaigns come against a backdrop of a growing number of nonbelievers. Fifteen percent of Americans identified themselves as having “no religion” in a 2008, up from 8 percent in 1990, according to a study by the Program on Public Values at Trinity College in Hartford.
The number of campus affiliates of the Secular Student Alliance, a group that promotes secular values at universities, have grown to 174 in 2009 from 100 in 2008 and 80 in 2007.