Imagine No Religion? Atheist Movement Gains Momentum
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AlterNet: Why do you think that happened? Personal beliefs of city council members, or pressure from the community?
ALG: There were two [TV] stations that covered it. We made a big splash. I believe it was one particular church that some city member officials might have belonged to that were getting calls.
So I think that was sort of an insular, provincial reaction and that they had done this before with another billboard. That wasn't an establishment-clause issue there. Where they didn't like the billboard, and they'd called another company and the company had taken down the billboard. So, I think they are little bit out of control that they're not able to recognize First Amendment rights. We're pursuing that very seriously.
We didn't sue the billboard company. Didn't want to discourage billboard companies from accepting our billboards in the future. We've been waiting 30 years because of censorship from billboard companies (not the government.)
AlterNet: Why are billboard companies willing to use your campaigns now?
ALG: Now, this year, the economy. But we started doing this at the end of 2007, and I think the country is finally changing and waking up, and we are very slowly seeing the kind of change that Europe saw some time ago. We're becoming more secular. Fifteen percent of the population is nonreligious, and that is reflected in billboard companies, in their understanding of their audiences. They're less fearful of an immediate negative reaction from the public.
Also, they probably recognize, you put up one billboard, it gets lost in the shuffle. Maybe they have a sense of proportion they didn't have before. Like we have seven up right now in Detroit, in a very religious community. We'll have seven or nine in Las Vegas next month.
When we get turned down by one company, we find another. But not always; there have been some cities where we haven't been able to get billboards up. Bloomington, [Ind.] is dominated by Lamar. We've worked with all them over the country. But the one in Bloomington wouldn't work with us.
So we couldn't get one in liberal Bloomington, Ind., so we took it to Indianapolis. And the same thing happened in Grand Rapids, [Mich]. That's another national company that we've worked with all around the country, but they said, "Our clients are really the community," and they won't like your billboard, so we're not gonna put it up. And we thought, boy, Grand Rapids needs to hear our message. We had state/church problems we were trying to educate about.
We're still encountering this squeamishness about free-thought messages. That it's taboo to criticize religion, and we're not part of the marketplace of ideas.
AlterNet: That's interesting, it seems to be common knowledge that Americans rarely drag themselves to church -- even if they identify as religious. So obviously, a huge percentage of the population doesn't take religion very seriously. Yet, a lot of times the efforts of public, outspoken atheists are met with horror. Why?
ALG: This has always been a paradox, because the Bible's the best-seller that's never read. Our members probably know more about what the Bible says than most religious people – many of them read it, and then became atheists.
It's paradoxical, but I think that people seem to think there's a civic religion that if you believe in a god or Jesus, you don't have to go to church but you're still supporting religion. And they feel that it's absolutely taboo to be an atheist or to criticize religion.