The Daily Beast
From subway ads to “Blasphemy Day,” nonbelievers are proselytizing louder than ever. But as they draw more converts, are they in danger of losing their unique brand of faith?
America has long dotted its landscape with billboards that advocate a relationship with God. (A Southern favorite: “If you think it's hot here, imagine hell.”) Ads that suggest shunning Him, however, are newer territory.
Yet last week, a consortium of atheist groups rolled out an ad campaign doing just that. Coming a year after London’s city buses were plastered with adverts that stated flatly, “There’s probably no God. Stop worrying and enjoy your life,” New York City’s subway trains were plastered with similar ads asking bleary-eyed commuters, “Are you good without God?”
It’s the latest promotional push by a special interest group that has grown increasingly vocal. Over the past couple of years, atheists have come to see themselves as a cohesive demographic that should advocate on its own behalf. And such efforts seem to be working—the American Religious Identification Survey recently found that the number of people who claimed “no religion” had nearly doubled recently, to 15 percent.
“We've been being nice for decades and look where it’s got us,” says Richard Dawkins, the author and biologist who has perhaps become atheism’s loudest activist, and who was behind the London bus ads. ”Now that we've been taking the gloves off, we seem to be getting somewhere.”
But not all atheists are comfortable preaching the gospel of the nonbeliever. After all, the New York advertising effort could be seen as something most atheists consider repugnant: evangelizing. Dawkins admits to his own zealotry in his fight against what many atheists call irrationalism in his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, in which he compares creationists to Holocaust deniers. “I think it’s reasonable to carry on with a certain amount of zeal when there's evidence that people out there still don't get it,” he says.
But should atheists proselytize with a passion akin to the loudest bible thumpers? It’s a question that has divided the atheist community into two schools of thought. And ironically, it’s a split that somewhat resembles the one among born-again Christians, between those who advocate a fire-and-brimstone approach (“Accept Jesus or burn in hell”) and those who want to bring newcomers into the fold with a gentler message that sells a warmer (and, in the case of younger Christians, cooler) brand of Christianity. For some atheists, the very idea of aggressively spreading the word of no-God is practically sinful.
These two philosophies are fracturing organizations at the top of the atheist activism food chain. Consider the Center for Inquiry, atheism's top think tank and one of the groups behind New York’s “Good Without God” campaign. The Center’s founder, Paul Kurtz, one of humanism's eminences grises, preaches maximum tolerance. His life's aim, he told me, is to “make it so a person can be a nonbeliever in our society and be respected and accepted.” As such, he thinks it’s counterproductive to preach against religion. “You can't begin by calling people names,” says the 85-year-old Kurtz. “It's self-destructive to nonbelievers.” When Kurtz’s own organization supported international “Blasphemy Day” in September (a day dedicated to openly criticizing all things God), Kurtz wrote a column in Free Inquiry magazine, an atheist publication put out by the Center for Inquiry, comparing the day to “the anti-Semitic cartoons of the Nazi era.” He continued, “There are some fundamentalist atheists who have resorted to such vulgar antics to gain press attention.”