Atheists vs. Charlotte

The group American Atheists has come out with some new billboards in Charlotte, North Carolina in advance of the Democratic National Convention next week… And they lasted less than one week before being pulled down due to a huge backlash of threats against the group and the advertising company that allowed the ads to be posted.

That’s a pretty fast turn-around, but not necessarily all that surprising. Check out the billboards in question:

These are actually two separate billboards, one mocking Mormonism and one mocking Christianity (which, for purposes of these billboards, I suppose doesn’t include Mormons?)

You may remember this group as the ones that posted a series of billboards proclaiming “You Know It’s a Myth” near Christmastime two years ago. Their latest billboards went up on Monday of last week in Charlotte, which is drawing in huge crowds and lots of press because the DNC opens there next week. A few days later, so many threats had come in by phone and email that the group released this statement:

“It is with regret that we tell our members and all of those who treasure free speech and the separation of religion and government that American Atheists and Adams Outdoor Advertising have mutually agreed to remove the billboards immediately,” Amanda Knief, American Atheists’ managing director, said in a statement last week.

That’s right, folks — Christians in Charlotte disagreed with American Atheists, so they did what Jesus would’ve done: threatened to beat the hell outta the atheists for saying something the Christians disagreed with. Like Jesus said to do.

They didn’t even get as far as posting and then removing the ads in Tampa, where the Republican National Convention opened this week… No billboard provider in the area would agree to take the American Atheists’ business for such a controversial ad during a high-publicity time like this.

Defending the choice to put these ads up in the first place, David Silverman, president of the group, had this to say:

“Presidential conventions are for ideas, not ideology – platforms, not platitudes,” Silverman said. “If a person believes stupid things, we have every right to question his or her judgment, and that directly impacts how the nonreligious voter votes.”

Look, I think it’s perfectly appropriate to try to foster a reasonable discussion on the subject of faith, critical thinking, science, etc. I think challenging preconceived notions is a good thing, and I think that any faith or belief should be able to handle being questioned without it prompting threats of violence.

Having said that, let’s not for a moment kid ourselves into thinking that American Atheists didn’t know damned well this would create a firestorm… I think it’s fair to assume that they were banking on the resulting publicity. Maybe that serves a useful purpose for them, as they’re hoping to make more non-believers aware of their existence, but clearly these images were meant to offend and provoke a reaction. Which they got, so I suppose, job well done.

Professor Terryl Givens from the University of Richmond, who is a Mormon, had a somewhat sharp-tongued response:

“If this example of adolescent silliness is what atheists mean by being reasonable, then neither Mormons nor other Christians have much to worry about,” he said of the billboards. “When atheists organize to serve the poor and needy of the world, they will be taken more seriously.”

Zing! That’s actually a pretty good come-back, in my opinion. Of course, we can get into a discussion of the pros and cons of organized religion, how it helps the community and how it hurts it, at another time… But I will say that at least the professor responded with a sharp retort rather than threats of violence.

And as I frequently lament, it’s a shame that more Christians aren’t focused on things that Jesus advocated for, like feeding the hungry and sheltering the poor, and instead are so focused on the nerve of some people to question their beliefs or to flagrantly be gay in spite of condemnations from highly selectively emphasized portions of the Bible.

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