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Imagine No Religion? Atheist Movement Gains Momentum

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is using quotes from famous atheists to spread the message in its national billboard campaign.
 
 
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This month, San Francisco's public transit system was enlisted in the battle against organized religion.

A publicity campaign by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to fighting for the separation of church and state, covered the sides and interiors of 75 city buses with the anti-religion quips of assorted atheist wordsmiths.

Here's Mark Twain: "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."

Clarence Darrow: "I don‘t believe in God, because I don't believe in Mother Goose."

Richard Dawkins: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in allfiction."

Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy in Gone With the Wind: "As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion."

The bus campaign is part of a wider push by FFRF to promote atheism around the country. In the past few years, the organization has put up billboards in Denver, Detroit and Seattle. FFRF billboards have even popped up in the Bible Belt, asking Alabama residents to "Imagine no Religion."

AlterNet spoke with FFRF co-founder and co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor about the organization's efforts to push atheism – or "free thought," as Gaylor says -- in the most religious industrialized nation on earth. Also discussed was: why many atheists know more about the Bible than do a lot of Christians; if liberal Christians are worse than right-wing fundamentalists; and whether "New Atheists" Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are annoying.

AlterNet:What's the thinking behind the San Francisco bus campaign?

Annie Laurie Gaylor: It's free thinking. We want to bring our message to the masses. And we've been censored for so long. For decades we tried to put up billboards, and we were denied access.

That's slowly changing -- we have a national billboard campaign, and now we're moving to the buses, and that's taken from the British bus-sign campaign, which made a big splash. So that's been a global movement.

We're not the only ones doing it. But we have a very generous member of our group on the West Coast, suggesting that we use her donation either to place bus signs in San Jose or San Francisco. And so, it was cheaper in San Francisco, so that's where we went, and we wanted to also reach tourists. Also, we knew we were going to be reaching a very sympathetic audience.

AlterNet: You've also put up billboards in places like Alabama and one of the more conservative parts of Southern California. What's the reaction there?

ALG:Usually we get a pretty good reaction. We get crank mail on our state/church litigation and death threats over our work with state/church. But mostly, with the billboards, we hear from people who like us. But in Alabama they were more hateful. Our Alabama chapter head got about 50 not-very-nice e-mails. But she also got some nice e-mails. More nasty than nice though.

And there was an interview on one of the local TV stations with what, frankly, looked like a stereotyped redneck, where I felt a little shiver of fear for our chapter head because he was saying, "They don't belong here. They shouldn't be here." But we've never had any violence. We've never had a violent attack on a billboard. The one from Alabama is unscathed. We now have it up in Indianapolis.

So we've been surprised at the lack of problems with billboards. But we have been censored. For example, we put one up in Rancho Cucamonga, [Calif.].

And then we have a lawsuit where we are claiming city censorship: The city asked to please take our billboard down (they were engaged with negotiations over billboard space). And they're claiming it wasn't censorship but just conveying information. So that was quite a shock. To me that's like something that would happen in a dictatorship, not a democratic republic. That's the only such incident.

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.

There was a relatively recent study -- 2005 -- by the University of Minnesota, where they took polls on unpopular people. This included gays, Arabs, blacks, women -- analyzing, would you vote for these people, what do you think about them?

They found the bias against atheists and agnostics dating to the 1960s had not changed, while so many attitudes have greatly changed, fortunately, about African Americans, gays, even Arab Americans.

We're at the bottom of the totem poll when it comes to social acceptance in America.

And I think about Julia Sweeny, from Saturday Night Live. She has that one-woman play, "Letting Go of God," and she likes to tell this story about how she called her parents, who were devout Catholics, and at some point told them, "I don't believe in a god anymore," and they kind of accepted it.

But then she spoke at some event, and a story went out around the wire referring to her as an atheist, and her mother called her up and said, "this was too much!" The word atheist: that's what not believing in a god means, but until her mother heard the label, she was able to tolerate it. It's a pejorative in our society. And we're trying to change that.

Our members are atheists, agnostics, skeptics, but we're trying to change that kneejerk reaction that somehow people who do not believe in a god are bad people. Or you don't know any of them, or we're immoral; that's the greatest stereotype that we face.

I don't know why these people, who don't go to church, think atheists are so bad, but most people don't go to church in our society but still have these prejudices.

When I talked to the researcher, Penny Edgell at the University of Minnesota, what did she think accounted for this? What she said was, she believes most of these people don't realize they know atheists and agnostics. And that's 'cause we're afraid to speak out. We don't wanna ruin a party or speak out socially -- don't want to offend. We're being polite.

And I think free-thinkers are becoming more direct. They realize it's time, like the gay movement, to come out of the closet.

AlterNet:There's a very common argument, which essentially tells public atheists to shut up: Its main premise is that very vocal atheists are as annoying as very vocal religious people. For example, one columnist called your work with the billboards more like "evangelism than a fight for civil rights." What's your reaction to that argument?

ALG: Well. Boy, I don't like the term evangelist. But it isn't just a fight for civil rights; it's a fight for social acceptance. What we're being told is constantly to shut up. We're constantly told to leave the country. That's what most of our crank mail says.

If you don't like religion, God, Jesus, you're not an American, leave the country. It's just a joke. We ran a page of crank mail a few months ago in our newspaper, Free Thought Today. To make it more humorous, we put all the different countries with all the different quotes together. There were some new ones for me; usually you hear Russia, and you hear China. But this had Pakistan, Afghanistan. Even Canada! Which is a lovely country.

But there's a belligerence that it's wrong to say atheist. I think a lot of religious people think that the word alone is … that we don't have the right to those views, because that reflects badly on them. If we say, "We don't believe in a god," that puts them on the defensive.

And they get angry at us, I guess. But I think that there's a backlash against Dawkins, et al., and they don't deserve it. I think Richard Dawkins and all these people are doing a wonderful service. It's time to speak out and own our dissent from religion. And free thought is an intellectually respectable position. Religious people are the ones who should be on the defensive.

They're the ones who think there's a god. Well, they should prove it. They're the ones who think that the Bible is a holy book. Well, then, we might have to disagree.

And if they would confine it to their own homes and churches, that would be one thing. But when we are constantly fighting a battle against this campaign to inflict dogma in our law, that's a different thing.

That's why our group started. We were so fearful of the campaign to put dogma into our law, like abortion, gay rights and so on. Look how stem-cell research was held up, just because President Bush wanted to kowtow to the Catholic hierarchy.

That's so destructive of progress. It's that war between science and religion that we are continually having to refight. The fact that 50 percent of Americans reject evolution is a frightening figure. And we have a billboard on Darwin -- because it's his bicentennial year -- to fight that.

AlterNet: What do you think about more progressive religious leaders and groups that try to reconcile science and religion?

ALG: Well, we're all for that, if they understand that evolution should be taught in schools. We're not going into the churches, dragging people out of the pews. We're not going knocking on doors like the Mormons and everybody else. We're live and let live, to a certain point.

But, we do think that speaking out and reaching the masses through the mass media is a very powerful thing. Many people who join our group call and e-mail us and say, "I thought I was the only atheist in North Dakota." They feel so isolated. And they feel afraid to let their neighbors know they don't believe.

And we have a classic story out of Georgia, where we have this chapter in Alabama and they have a meeting every year that gets people from all across the country, especially the South, and there were two neighbors, who'd lived side by side for years, and both of them members of our group and not religious. And they never knew it until they saw each other at this meeting at our chapter because they were afraid of the reception, of being stigmatized, or turned into neighborhood pariahs.

And that's sort of a classic case of people, especially in the South, they don't know friend or foe. And they're afraid of the damage that can be done if they're known to not be religious. Especially if they have businesses. It's easier to be a free-thinker in San Francisco. Yet we think a lot of people in San Francisco recognize especially after Proposition 8 the harm of the religion lobby. There's a lot of anger about that. We hope they'll sign up.

AlterNet: There's a very popular argument nowadays that the aggressive atheism of Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens -- at least the way it's presented in the mainstream media -- hurts your cause because it alienates people. And your strategy is to also aggressively present atheist views. What do you think about that?

ALG: I think if people argue that Dawkins hurts the cause of atheism, they have not had the great pleasure of meeting him. Because he's an absolutely charming person. He's somebody whom people, when they hear him lecture, are abashed because they understand his scientific credentials. Maybe they think, "I can't go on talking about the spook in the sky that I believe in, in front of him." And that's good.

AlterNet: Let's go with Hitchens then.

ALG:Well, Hitchens on religion, great. I don't agree with him on many of his other views on social issues. I don't think Hitchens is particularly representative of the typical free-thinker, but I admire his book God Is Not Great and his debating talents. I don't agree with him on abortion or war.

But I don't think he attempts to represent the free-thought movement. I think he represents his own views, and I think that our members agree with that book. But he has a whole body of other work that's quite different.

Free-thinkers are all over the place on other issues. I think Dawkins' social views are more in line with most free-thinkers.

AlterNet: But even as far as their religious views, they're not saying, "Oh, it's bad that Mormons mobilized against same-sex marriage efforts, but otherwise they can believe whatever they want, and we can believe whatever we want." The effort is to alter public views about religion in general ...

ALG: Well, I know former Mormons, and they are damaged people. At least, they felt that religion did so much harm in their lives. And it's such a patriarchal religion. There's every reason for us to criticize these kinds of religions.

If you look at the power of the pope -- with one word he could really end the population problem by endorsing the use of contraception, and everywhere he goes he creates more misery. That's the history of the Catholic Church.

Not just when it comes to reproductive rights, but with warfare and persecution. Think of the women killed as witches because of one Bible verse. It was also the Protestants. So they're not … they have a lot of the blame. But religion has a lot to answer for.

So yes, I'm not going to have an argument with my neighbor next door because she goes to the Episcopalian church. We get along fine. She's pretty liberal. But if someone asks me about doctrine and how I disagree with it, I'm going to be very open. I think it's very important.

There should not be a taboo where you can talk about everything else and debate everything else, but somehow it's not allowed to talk about religion and analyze it, like we do everything else. Making known that you dissent is not allowed.

It's just indoctrination from an early age to not only believe in religion, but to think that it's a sin to criticize religion. So how can you overcome that unless you are very public, writing books like the God Delusion, unless you're putting up bus signs and billboards and doing your own media, which is what we're doing? And we think it's a public service.

And we think there's nothing more important than working for the First Amendment. And I think those of us who are not religious tend to be purists on this topic of separation of church and state. So we think freedom depends on free-thinkers.

And free thought is a term we like. It's an umbrella term. It means people who form their opinion based on reason, rather than faith, tradition and authority. And so that encompasses atheists, agnostics a few deists in the classical sense, like Thomas Paine.

And we very much believe in what we do around here. We don't believe in a god, but we believe in this world. And that's the message behind "imagine no religion." Think about how much better off we would be without clinging to the supernatural and expecting a god to do what we need to do for ourselves.

Investing all your best energies in some other afterlife instead of this world. And being concerned about how we leave this world for our descendants. I think religion has been so destructive in that regard, taking our minds off the real world. Just working in the imaginary realm.

AlterNet: What about the very progressive religious groups that use that ideology to perform services in the real world?

ALG: Well, I think that's great, and they get a lot of tax exemptions to do good works. It's not usually a huge percentage of any church budget. The Unitarian Universalists … I don't consider them … when we're talking about the Freedom From Religion Foundation, we're usually not including them, because they're creedless. And the UCC has been good on gay marriage, and that's great.

But it's taking a long time for the other Christian groups to catch up on that issue, and you know most of the mainstream Protestant groups support abortion rights, just not the Catholics! But the evangelicals and the fundamentalists combined, they're the people calling the shots on the social agenda.

So I'm wondering if the fact that the liberal religionists share the same Bible isn't really just making them as responsible for the fact that they're trying to get that Bible into our lives. In the sense the very liberal religionists give credibility to religion.

So we've had a whole clique of former ministers in our membership. We had a couple of former Episcopalian priests. One of them is still alive, in San Francisco. That's Dick Hewittson. But we have another member who also left the Episcopalian fold. And he has given speeches to our group where he felt we should be harder on the liberal religionists than the fundamentalists, because they know more, and in a sense are more responsible. That they're picking and choosing the verses they like and trying to ignore the rest, but that they give credibility to the fundamentalists.

So we get along with them. But they're using that same Bible. They're also trying to say there's this authority in the sky that we owe some kind of allegiance to. And we don't … we're like Margaret Sanger, whose motto is: "No gods, no monsters," and we think that kind of master/servant hierarchy is a bad thing.

AlterNet: You don't think there's any context in which religion can do some good?

ALG: Oh yes. People can do good things in the name of religion, but professor Steven Weinberg, the Nobel laureate in physics a few years ago -- he became our first awardee of this award called "the Emperor Has No Clothes." We give it to the person who makes his or her dissent from religion known publicly. And he was our first awardee.

He made this really astute observation: He said that good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good peopleto do bad things, that takes religion.

And that's the danger. Because if you give up your mind to some other supernatural mind, you have to obey its laws and dicates. And you want to be a good person, and you're told be religious to be a good person, think of what you can do in the name of religion, and we've seen that throughout history. They thought they were doing the best thing when they were drowning and burning witches, and killing people in the Crusades.

And so I think that's a very memorable way to look at it.

But, as I said, we're all for the … we get along. We're all for the free exercise of religion in this country. But our establishment clause means freedom from religion in our government.

AlterNet:So not that there should be no religion. But in an ideal world?

ALG: In an ideal world … we just want people to just for a moment imagine what if there were no religion? And some people are just horrified at the idea.

We're just thinking, well, you would put all your focus on this world. And you wouldn't be fighting wars over what you imagine God wants you to do. And why can't we just be humans and stop trying to pretend there's a divinity up there telling us what to do.

And that's a good exercise for everyone.

Tana Ganeva is an associate editor at AlterNet.