Outreach for atheists

philly billboardAs a believer, I am not quite sure how a nonbeliever would react to Thursday's story in the Philadelphia Inquirer about an interstate billboard intended to reach out to atheists and nonbelievers in the area. See here how the story introduces the billboard:

With its image of blue sky and fluffy clouds, the rectangle floating lately over I-95 near Allegheny Avenue suggests something dreamy, almost heavenly.

At least from a distance.

Drivers headed north toward the giant billboard might first discern the words God and Believe and suppose this to be the work of a fundamentalist church.

But this is the work of no church.

"Don't believe in God?" it asks. "You are not alone."

Think of it as a sign of the times.

So people who don't believe in God can't use blue sky and fluffy cloud imagery to express their non-belief? Instead of a straightforward description of the billboard or a viewpoint, the story's lead compares atheism with church-goers. Fair comparison?

And exactly how is this billboard a sign of the times (whatever that means)? Last time I checked, interstate billboards are generally seen as a tacky way of getting one's message across.

Unfortunately, the story's lead is hardly the highlight, at least from a critic's point of view. Check out the description of the local business who donated the $22,500 to mount the billboard campaign:

No horns poke through Rade's wiry gray hair. He is tall and bony, quick to laugh, and dressed for the office -- he is president of Wireless Accessories Inc. -- in shorts and sneakers. He has the restless energy of a teenager. He is 70.

"I'd like everyone to believe what I do," he said, referring to his "absolute certainty" that there is no divine being running the universe and no life after death. "I think it would be a better world if they did."

That's really great for the reporter to point out that Rade has no horns because I was really wondering about that. Thanks for clearing it up for us.

In all seriousness, this is what we do not need our news stories about issues of faith to do for us: highlight unfair misconceptions about a group of people.

Speaking of groups of people, check out how the group is characterized near the end of the article:

Fred Edwords, spokesman for the roughly 10,000-member American Humanist Association, said he thought it was easier for atheists and agnostics to be public than in previous decades.

"In the 1980s, people were saying we're part of a great conspiracy, trying to take over the schools and courts."

The recent spate of best-sellers bearing such titles as The God Delusion, God Is Not Great and The End of Faith suggests a broader public interest in religious skepticism, Edwords said. "But we still feel we're the last minority group it's OK to say bad things about."

The last bit about atheists and agnostics being a minority group is interesting and probably should not have been included in an objective news story without a deeper explanation.

A key element in the definition of a minority group has traditionally been in inherent unchangeable characteristic. Now, I am not saying that people who do not believe in God are spiritually incapable of believing in God. Nor am I saying that they can't choose to believe in God. That's a world of messy theological debates that has no place on this blog.

What I am saying is that reporters should be very careful before they use loaded terms such as "minority group" without referencing an accurate definition to support exactly what that term means in this context.

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