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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Three Atheist Signs Part 2: DC Metro System

The Washington DC bus sign campagn

The next Atheist or perhaps I should say Humanist sign was part of an add campaign by the American Humanist Association and the venue was the sides and inside of busses in Washington D.C. This one was much simpler than the one outside the Olympia Legislative building, but there were many of them. Most of the signs were simple green and red lettering with some snowflakes falling with the slogan:

“Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.”

My Reaction to the sign

I must admit that if I saw this on the side of a bus I would smile and have warm feelings because I would feel represented and I would know I’m not alone in my views. Also it questions one of the fundamental problems many have with Christianity. It is this assumption that one must believe in a god in order to be a good person. Furthermore, I’ve heard Christians on several occasions say that even if you do charity and good deeds all your life, you’re still going to hell if you don’t believe in their god. That theme always leads me to ask: “is it better to do good because it’s the right thing to do or because you think that if you don’t you will burn for eternity?” In fact you can make the argument that allowing for forgiveness for the worst of human crimes grants enables sinners.

Is the Sign attacking God/Christmas?

Unlike the Olympia, Washington sign, instead of making one sided all or nothing statements, this one asks a question and makes a suggestion. The sign is much more encouraging contemplation and debate than attacking a cherished symbol. Also the images in the signs have no overt symbols. For some reason that I can’t discern, however, the version of the sign that goes inside the bus has a Jamaican looking guy in dreadlocks wearing a Santa suit and shrugging. Definitely a more innocuous sign but still I have to ask, why have a Christmas themed sign at all? For me the one reason might come with the understanding of a former Christian Atheist’s four stage understanding of Christmas.

Stage 1: As a child Christmas is about Santa and Presents.
Stage 2: As the child grows older he/she is taught that Christmas is really about the celebration of the Birth of Jesus.
Stage 3: As an adult Atheist the person no longer believes in the Christian mythology and may feel like a hypocrite for celebrating Christmas.
Stage 4: The person uncovers the many layers of history behind the Winter Solstice and Winter Seasonal celebrations that pre-date Christianity and understands that most of the traditions existed outside of Christianity. Therefore the Christians don’t own Christmas and all the trappings so one is free to celebrate all they want (Yuletide, Solstice etc). We can also enjoy the Christian mythology that is part of our personal history even if we no longer practice the religion it is based on.

This campaign is partly to reach out to our fellow atheist stuck in Stage three. The sign provides the website address http://www.whybelieveinagod.org/ that is full of information about the origins of the Christmas holiday. The website also provides a very concise definition of what a humanist is and what they are about.
Among the active people who found the sign offensive most chose to either complain or create a sign of their own. Many complained to the DC metro system who chose to take payment in return for displaying the signs. One of the response signs answer to the “why believe” question was “because he created you and he loves you.” Now it’s really hard for a non-believer to not add “and you will burn forever if you don’t” but I feel providing a counter sign is the most American way to respond. If someone is out in the world putting out a message you don’t like or believe is dangerous, you have the right to go out and counter that message. Clearly there is a lot more to cover about perceptions of atheists and free speech but I think I’ll try to tackle that in the last section of this series. The D.C. bus system is much more on the right track with its intended goals. It doesn’t spout absolutes but rather encourages discourse and thought. It’s not intended to take Christmas away from Christians but more to reach out to those who have left religion for good reasons and to educate and expand knowledge about the winter holidays. It lets the Atheists/Agnostics etc. know that they are not alone and it offers and alternative to the people on the fence who may feel isolated for even questioning long held beliefs. It may also be a way to gather the non-religious community so we can better exercise our power in politics on issues that are important to us and that has never been about taking away religion from people but protecting the rights of all Americans with regards to religion.

Three Atheist Signs Part 1: Olympia Washington

            The first sign made a big splash in the news and I first heard about it on the CNN website.  The link to the article read: “Anti-God Sign Placed Across from Nativity Scene.”  The sign itself read:

 

At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE may reason prevail.  There are no gods, no devils, no angels no heaven or hell.  There is only our natural world.  Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

 

            Like me, most people reading just the headline and sign probably already have an opinion and most likely a strong one. This all went down in Olympia, Washington and rather than paraphrase the article I’ll first go into my reactions before even reading.

 

The Sign Itself

 

Even though I agreed for the most part with the content of the message, the tone and some of the wording of the sign came off as immature to me.  The statement, “there is only our natural world,” sounds terra-centric and unscientific.  Without going off on a long semantic discussion what the author meant by ‘our natural world’ I’ll just say that replacing the word world with universe would fix some of the problems but even then science can’t say for sure that ours is the only universe.  We could live in one of infinitive universes each with their own native physics.  “Religion is but myth and superstition,” I’m fine with that bit but the absolute statement “that hardens hearts and enslaves minds,” is unflatteringly absolutist and dismisses the positive contribution of religions and myth.  I used the word unflattering because it makes us atheist look just as closed minded and dogmatic as the religious fundamentalists we find ourselves at odds with.  I think it’s true that myth religion hardens hearts and enslaves minds but it also inspires beauty and opens hearts.  Through metaphor, mythology can teach us about ourselves and our history and help us work out problems and moral dilemmas.  Of course being in the Atheist camp, I’m a firm proponent for teaching folks to draw a line between fact and myth because I find the biggest danger is when folks take the myth as literal truth.  To quite Joseph Campbell there’s are the ones willing to “die for a metaphor,” and we’ve all scene where that leads.

 

The Tone of the Sign

 

            The next bit that rubs me the wrong way is the confrontational nature of the sign.  Now don’t get me wrong, I believe there are situations when the non-religious need to fight religion head on but I don’t think protesting a nativity scene is the best use of our time and resources.  I think the battles in public discourse really only need to happen when the religious get out of line.  The easiest example is the fundamentalist creationists’ attempt to redefine science and dilute scientific knowledge.  Now a case can be made that the nativity scene constitutes religion getting out of line which I’ll get to in a bit but even if you assume that the atheists are 100% right and the Christians are 100% wrong, is that the way you really would want to go about making your point?  For some the answer may be yes but not me.  When the author writes: At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE, I get the impression of someone trying to shout over the word Christmas.  Imagine a group of carolers singing “We wish you a Merry Christmas,” while some guy stands beside them singing “We wish you a Merry THE WINTER SOLSTICE,” at the top of his lungs.  I’m personally against the “under god” bit of the pledge of allegiance so I can choose to not say it or I can try and shout out all the others by saying “one nation, THERE IS NO GOD, indivisible.”  If I stay silent it only becomes an issue if someone notices me not saying it and tries to force me.  I tend to think dignity and clarity will have more sway than belligerence and if you have to shout chances are you’re yelling at someone who won’t hear you anyway.   So I wouldn’t have worded the sign with such absolute one sided language and I wouldn’t have taken a confrontation attitude against a display of one of Christianity’s more peaceful symbols.  In fact I probably wouldn’t have even raised an eyebrow except for one thing:

 

The Location of the Sign

 

            That’s right, I was ready to write off the whole stunt as a bad idea until I read the whole article and found the nativity scene was placed in front of a government legislative building.  It’s one of those all or nothing issues.  If you’re going to let someone put a religious message in front of a government building, then you have to allow for all other religions and points of view.  If it were my call to make I would err on the side of nothing; keep the building and decorations secular.  It would be more a pragmatic than an ideological decision.  If you allowed a decoration for every metaphysical point of view, nobody would be able to get into the building for work and you open the door for Scientologists, yikes!  Finally on the double if train, if I felt the need to offer a different pint of view and if I chose the Olympia legislative building to make my stand, my sign would read something like:

 

In this country, you are free to hold any religious belief.  But know also, that if you choose NOT to believe in any gods, if you choose reason over mythology, if you choose science over superstition; you are not evil and you are not alone this holiday season.