Three Atheist Signs Part Three: Rancho Cucamonga

The Sign

The last sign seems the most innocuous and yet it’s the one that underwent government censorship. This sign was part of a bigger campaign of the Freedom From Religion Foundation but the specific sign in question went up in the city of Rancho Cucamonga, California and it was a stained glass window design with fancy calligraphic letters that read “Imagine No Religion.” We go from the combative: “there are no gods!” of the Olympia sign which was stolen, found in a ditch and returned (thou shalt not steal anyone?), to the next sign: “Why Believe in a God? Just Be Good for Goodness Sake,” of the D.C. metro system to: “Imagine No Religion.” I think the last two signs are pretty much on the same level only the D.C. metro system sign provides and answer to its question. People reading the Rancho Cucamonga sign are free to let their imagination inform their own reaction. An extremely religious person could imagine “no religion” as a world with a giant homosexual junky murder party where everybody just does what they want. A more extreme atheist might imagine a world with no religion as a place where nobody flies planes into buildings for their gods, no authority figures ever get away with child molestation and everyone embraces science as the one path to truth and humanity expands into the stars until we evolve into beings of pure light. Those last ones sound good to me but are probably a bit unrealistic; logic reason and science can be misused just like religion. A more rational religious person may see that sign and think “I don’t think I’d like that,” and an atheist can think “wouldn’t that be nice, one less thing to worry about.” And not to beat a dead horse with this series but a newly realized atheist might look at the sign, find out that an atheist organization exists and realize: “Hey, I’m not evil and I’m not alone.”

Here’s the Kicker

The city government of Rancho Cucamonga told the sign company to take it down which they did as well as destroy. Like with the D.C. metro sign I think the best reaction of people who are offended is for them to pay for their own sign that supports their view not take down someone elses. Now the FFRF is suing Rancho Cordova, as well they should (link to the full complaint here). The billboard company would have been within their rights to refuse the FFRF’s money but they didn’t. They took the money and put the sign up. They may even have refunded the FFRF and taken the sign down because of complaints but that might have been a breech of contract. It was the city government, however, that unilaterally ordered the sign come down and the FFRF argues that this action not only deprives them of their first amendment rights but it also violates the separation of church and state. It may seem a bit of convoluted reasoning but they argue that by censoring a message that questions religion, the government entity is publically endorsing religion.

What is offensive about the sign?

Although I believe the folks behind the Olympia nativity scene protest sign were well within their rights, I found their sign unnecessarily inflammatory and a bit intolerant. Even if you do choose to protest a religious display outside a government building, I believe there are more constructive ways of offering an alternative point of view. The same amount of people may be offended but I believe it’s always better to take the high road. The Rancho Cucamonga sign does just that; takes the high road by choosing not to make direct criticism to any specific religion. The sign does not say “Imagine no Christianity” or “Imagine no Jesus.” It doesn’t choose to point out all the instances of the bible condoning slavery, violence, adultery, lying, incest etc. but rather opens a dialogue for those of us who might have trouble with some aspects of our religious upbringing and would like to investigate further whether it suits us or not. Trying to put myself in a religious person’s shoes I can only speculate that the offense comes from a perceived implication that those who choose to believe are fools, but it seems that this reactions reflects more on the insecurity of the believer than on the actual intention of the questioner. I wanted to share some quotes from some of the offended that I lifted from the following forum: (http://www.topix.com/forum/city/jacumba-ca/T9PJEDOBMUFFLR1C2/p4).

1 )“Thank you Rancho Cucumonga. Let’s show the athiest and the ACLU that Rancho Cucuamonga will stand up to them!”

My thoughts: Simple enough sentiment but what this poster fails to understand is their freedom to worship as they please and our freedom to question religion are two sides of the same coin; a threat to one is a threat to the other. Also I find the Anti ACLU sentiment interesting seeing how the ACLU helps protect the rights of religious as well as non religious people. Right now the ACLU is representing a prisoner and ordained Pentecostal minister in New Jersey who is fighting a ban on preaching by prison authorities just to name one.

2) (in response to an earlier post in the forum) “And because Rancho is a “bible thumping” city, as you say, it’s a nice, livable one. Low crime, nice neighborhoods and a church almost on every corner instead of a pawn shop or bar. The only goal of an atheist is to tear down any religion that worships God. Rancho Cucamonga has just told you were to take your sign and stick it. 😉 God Bless you…you need it!”

My thoughts: I believe the first statement is an oversimplification of what makes a place low crime and a nice neighborhood. I have been through high crime neighborhoods that not only had a church on every corner but even some houses between the corners were converted into places of worship. Also in the bay area there are neighborhoods that are very low crime, nice neighborhoods where a large variety of different points of view, religious and non-religious, co-exist peacefully. I would assume that nice neighborhood/low crime has more to do with money and access to education than local faith but the community activities of churches certainly can play a beneficial role. As for the “goal of an atheist,” well the statement just doesn’t jive with my experience. There may be, however, unrealistic atheist extremists that do want an end to all religious activities but most of the ones I know are moral decent people who came to atheism for well thought out reasons. In the same way gay people aren’t seeking to destroy heterosexuality, atheists are not out to destroy religion. Also similar to the gay movement, atheists who have had a really hard time of it, seek to support others who are going through the same things some of us went through when we chose to think differently than the majority. Finally on this post if I were religious, I would be really offended by the words “Stick it” right next to “God Bless you.” It’s shocking to me to see “God Bless you!,” flung like an insult.

Conclusion

I suppose the reason I chose to start writing about atheist signs was that it represented a silent minority that I’m a part of going more public. Since we rarely have churches or gatherings in our local communities (that may be changing) it was a big comfort to look out on the internet and find I wasn’t as alone as I thought. I have to admire Reginald Finley aka The Infidel Guy for broadcasting his internet radio show and helping create an online community of Atheists, Agnostics and free thinkers of many stripes. I live in a very multi-cultural part of the US where I’m much more likely to find myself debating with fundamentalist astrologers than Christians so I always admire the bravery of people who come forward in lest tolerant communities. But in all matters of public discourse I want to say to devout religious folks that if you don’t like someone’s view on an issue then make a case for your own and if all else fails, pray for us. Usually “I’ll pray for you,” the nicest ending to a discussion between a religious and non-religious person. If someone says they will pray for me I go away feeling honored and respected. Instead of taking down my sign, just make a sign of your own or boycott the sign company and any other company that does business with them. In doing research I did wonder if any religious groups had sign campaigns, and do the answer is yes and one of them is a doozy. Just as a teaser I’ll relay that one sign that was part of a bigger campaign was just white lettering on a black background and it read: “Evolution? You’ve got to be kidding me. –God.” (you can see more at http://www.godspeaks.com) A big list of response sign ideas starts to spill from my head but I wouldn’t even consider asking the local government to take the sign down. Let them show all their ignorance on bold white letters. I think it’s foolish for anyone to claim to have all the answers which is why I love science so much. Science is not about knowing the answers; it’s about learning and discovering the answers and then dealing with a whole new group of questions. I’ll end this post with a big thank you for all people of every point of view who can non-violently disagree, debate and work even hard to find common ground to build a better world.

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