Atheists in Religious Communities
American Atheists has had series of billboards in the past year that has been targeted to the members inside of religious communities that do not really believe the things that their religion claims. These billboards usually contain the words “You know it’s a myth” and have caused a media stir wherever AA has erected them. For the most part, these billboards have been targeted to the Christian population of the United States, but now the Muslim and Jewish communities have been explicitly targeted with two new billboards in Arabic and Hebrew.
I have a couple of comments on these. First, I am glad that they did away with all use of ALL CAPS on these. In general, the billboard design is a step up from other billboards that AA has promoted, from a purely aesthetic point of view. My favorite part of these billboards is the phrase “you have a choice.” Not only in Jewish and Muslim communities, but also in many Christian communities, any unbelievers (open or not) in their midst may get the message that they really do not have a choice.
From personal experience, when I was invited back to church after coming out as an atheist I had little doubt that the people in the church (at least some of them) genuinely loved and cared about me. I was not worried that I would be shunned or anything like that, like in the personal stories I have heard from those who were raised in stricter religious environments. However, there was a very strong sense that within the church community I would have to not only keep my mouth shut about what I really thought, but willingly expose myself to constant messages that the way I thought was wrong and evil and sinful. That I was sinful and at least somewhat evil. It was as if the church people were saying to me “We understand if you are having trouble believing, but your disbelief is a bad thing and something you must overcome. At least keep your mouth shut about it and be properly ashamed about your inability to believe.” It was not a message I could live with. I’m not saying that the message was necessarily intended that way, but there was always a strong sense of “we love you and we know what is best for you, even if you don’t agree with our judgment.”
American Atheists has been criticized about these billboards as if being exposed to such a message as “God is a myth” is going to take away all faith and comfort from believers who see it. I would say that if a billboard was enough to take away a person’s faith then that person’s faith was very weak to start with. What seems to be the really offensive thing to the religious is that the atheists are saying that people don’t need God or god, and they don’t need religion to be good people. The religious leaders in particular will rail against this message, as it would make their role insignificant. But when you are the lonely atheist in a religious community, the notion that you have the ability to choose not to go along with the religious message is a powerful idea. That there could be others in your own community who think like you but only fear to speak up is an amazing thought. And the thrill of finding community with others among whom you can speak freely without fear and judgement is the best prize of them all.
For more information on the billboard campaign, visit You know it’s a myth — 2012 Billboards.