In the past two weeks, two atheist groups, American Atheists and the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, have put up three billboards, one of which seems to be fine, another which has been moved to a nearby area because of a refusal to allow it to be put up by a local Jew, and the last which was vandalized not 24 hours after it had been displayed. Already my mind returns to the American Atheists’ patriotic signs which were run in a small segment of thestates they had planned to spread their message last July . While that went somewhat better than this recent series of outreaches to Jews and Muslims along with protests against legislation of 2012 as the “Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania, the opposition to it is not so different, though the defaced billboard was a bit more charged with emotion than the one reaching out to many Jews who hold the culture as important, but internally reject the spiritual side of it. Each one of these billboards should be talked about in some detail to explain the circumstances and why atheists should continue to fight back against prejudice that still remains acceptable in this day and age.
The message and image that held the most controversy was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with the first in a prepared series of signs that protested the House of Representatives in the state signing a bill that would declare 2012 the “Year of the Bible”. The sign has a picture of a black person in what I can only assume is some ancient device to keep them in bondage. At the top of the billboard is a quote from the bible, specifically Colossians 3:22 “Slaves obey your masters,” Technically this isn’t what the entire verse says. A quick check of a few online bibles yields this as the full text, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord,” The point seems the same; obey your masters all the time and do it because you love God. Apologists for the verse say that Paul, the author of the particular book of the Bible, was talking to a particular group and was not referring to slavery as we understand it today, but something more involved with military conquest. And of course, there is the argument that true Christianity wouldn’t advocate slavery, even though we have historical evidence that devout Christian slave-owners used this verse, among others, to justify their practice for centuries in America. But this is irrelevant and fallacious to the point the verse is establishing: if you are a slave, don’t seek liberation in the physical world, but wait to be liberated by God as you are obedient to it. This is a message of passivity, in contrast to what developed later on in America with black slaves in relation to the Bible. They saw it as a message of liberation and this even inspired people like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth to work towards freeing slaves and advocacy of abolishing slavery in this country. But the billboard also had this included to make the point clear about what the message was: “This lesson in Bronze age ethics brought to you by the Year of the Bible and the House of Representatives” Part of what probably inspired people’s indignation at the sign was that it had three parts to it, two of which were easily recognizable and legible even when driving. The third part, the last I mentioned, might have been neglected by many passerby in favor of the image or the quotation of the Bible they most likely hold in high regard. Some people even went so far as to call the billboard a hate crime, which is so painfully ignorant it almost induces a headache. Most of what made this billboard such a controversy is because it was set up in a black neighborhood and, predictably, most of the populace in the area reacted negatively and made this about racial persecution instead of what the billboard was supposed to be about: racism in a supposed holy text. Even if the image was toned down in some way, people might object that the verse wasn’t complete or that the message was still racist, not even realizing that the creators of the sign opposed racism as much as those who reacted with immediate anger at something that admittedly struck them at their core in a sense. But this should not motivate people to commit property damage to make their point. As a local constitutional scholar observed, they could’ve funded a billboard of their own for a month, which is how long the Pennsylvania billboard was supposed to last. This act is just another example of how hypersensitive an issue race still is in our culture, even nearly 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. People will immediately leap to irrational conclusions after incomplete observations of a situation like this and perpetrate the stereotype that black people are always looking for insults to their character, which is partly a stereotype of Jewish people as well, ironically.
The second billboard to have an issue involving it, though not nearly as serious as the first, was in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. American Atheist president David Silverman was there to see it erected, but it didn’t. The cause? The Orthodox Jewish landlord refused, which was admittedly his right. But was it justified? I don’t think so. But coincidentally, the billboard was moved to an area with even more visibility and still relatively near the Jewish demographic the sign is directed towards. The sign in question has the word “God” in Hebrew as well as the phrase “You know it’s a myth…and you have a choice” in both English and Hebrew. At the very least, the Muslim community, including an imam in the area, had no problem with the sign in their area, with the same words and message in Arabic. This would no doubt surprise many alarmists about Muslims trying to infiltrate America in some insidious way. Overall, the development is a sign that atheists are making some headway in being respected by parts of the religious community.
But there is something to be said about one billboard being vandalized and another one subtly protested and then ironically making itself more well known. If people would just ignore atheists, then they wouldn’t get such good publicity, so in a sense, even negative attention is welcome if only to get the activism noticed and recognized by the public at large. So in the grand scheme of things, American Atheists and Pennsylvania Nonbelievers got the message across, even if many found it offensive, which is inevitable no matter how simple the message is. Even if you simply try to communicate that atheists believe murder is bad, someone will spin it in a way that makes them seem better or makes atheists seem bad by comparison, such as associating us with Joseph Stalin, as if we’re the same as a power mad dictator. The plan is still to do at least 8 to 24 more billboards, likely in other areas in the coming months, protesting the Year of the Bible. If people realized that the Bible is not such a perfect text at all then maybe they’d realize how wasteful it is to declare this year special and give it the ignominious mark of being associated with such a book of twisted morality as the Bible. Not to mention, shouldn’t you want to keep your holy text sacred and not denigrate it by using it as a political tool? Two strikes against this on both sides, methinks it should be supported by both sides too. Until next time, Namaste and aloha