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.”

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Replies to This Discussion

I agree with Kurtz. Name-calling, taunting etc. won't make any friends. But as an artist, I hate censorship, especially censoring the truth. I fully support letting the world know what we believe and why. They don't think inserting messages about Jeebus into government meetings, t-shirts, comics, movies, music, etc. is offensive, so our message, when delivered sincerely and proudly, is equally okay.
My feeling is that we need to send the message of atheism out in all kinds of different ways, because there will be people out there who will respond only to some levels and not to other levels and we don't know what these levels will be and which levels work for different people. So, different strokes for different folks.

But I don't think we need to oppress others who hold different beliefs, I prefer a positive approach that is attractive. Two wrongs don't make a right, right?

That's why I'm not really crazy about the word atheist, even though I regularly use it, that means we're against something rather than for something, such as the word humanist means we're for humans. I believe that's why Humanistic Judaism didn't call itself Atheistic Judaism, it preferred to call itself Humanistic Judaism, and likewise I remember Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the founder of HJ, when he first wrote one book he thought about calling it Judaism Without God, but changed the title to Judaism Beyond God to make the title more positive and attractive.

I think oppressing others will only cause them to stick to their current beliefs even harder and less likely to open their minds and question their beliefs.

I never heard of Blasphemy Day before. What would have been a better name than Blasphemy Day? Did Kurtz ever suggest a better name for that day if he didn't like that name? Did he also suggest doing that day differently in some way, and if so in what way?

And incidentally, why is this posted in Atheist Humor? I see nothing humorous in the article above.
Maybe it was meant to go in the Atheist News group, but got mixed up?

I agree with you on the different strokes for different folks thing. I don't see any contradiction in using multiple strategies for differing markets.

Your comment about oppression was a little unclear for me, however - were you suggesting that religious people are being oppressed in some way?
Just because they're oppressing us doesn't mean we should give them a taste of their own medicine (unless it's the only way to wake them up). Two wrongs supposedly don't make a right.
I posted it here because I thought it should be posted and I am only a member of a few groups on the nexus. Based on the post by Aaron, I will join the news group and post related things there in the future. My apologies.

Also, I find the name Blasphemy Day humorous.
It may be a small point but how can a public spokesman be an eminence gris, a term first used for a particular.clergyman working behind the scenes and controlling the French state?

In many ways I agree with Ted. Taunts are counter-productive. We have a rational approach to life, therefore we should argue rationally. We've got all the evidence on our side. Leave the histrionics to the God Squad.

Mind you, I'm not adverse to a little satire. If you can't take the piss out of religion and politics.......


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