The Billboard Wars: Good Without God
Good Without God
Did you ever hear the expression “an idea whose time has come.” It means that somehow an idea, once too undiscovered or too controversial, is finally becoming mainstream. The notion that people do not need God in order to be good may just be an idea whose time has come. Let’s call it the “Good without God” idea.
A conversation started using billboards and bus ads. It got a little crazy and a little funny. And it got people talking. Let’s call it “The Billboard Wars.”
For, lo, it came to pass that all of a sudden, out of nowhere, and for no godly reason, signs of freethought started springing up all over the United States.— Fred Edwords, Director, United Coalition of Reason
Beware of Dogma
The first billboard appeared on October 2, 2007. It was put up by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. A 18-foot billboard, in blazing color, mimicked a stained-glass window and warned, "Beware of Dogma."
The billboard appeared to be taken as a shot across the bow by some religious groups. They put up a counter billboard showing a black child saying the Pledge of Allegiance along with the words “Why Do Atheists Hate America?”
The "Why Do Atheists Hate America" Billboard
Wow! Low blow! And a non-sequitur, to boot. The Freedom from Religion (FFRF) billboard didn’t say anything about hating America. It only offered a suggestion reminding people to be careful about dogma. Dogma is defined as "a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true." Maybe it is not a good idea to trust an authority that insists something is true, doesn’t present evidence, and refuses to answer questions. Maybe people should beware of dogma.
The FFRF was not deterred. Their billboard brought in contributions, and they were able to erect many more billboards in cities all across America.
A New Billboard Goes Up in Philadelphia
Soon others got into the act. A Philadelphia businessman funded a billboard using a design, developed by Jan Meshon and Joseph Stewart. It went up May 1, 2008, which just happened to be the National Day of Reason in Philadelphia.
The businessman arranged for the billboard to be cosponsored by a number of atheist and humanist organizations, both local and national, that came together as the Philadelphia Coalition of Reason PhillyCoR).
The billboard got a lot of publicity and more donations flowed in to pay for more advertising.
The "Don't Believe in God?" Billboard
The PhilyCofR Billboard Brings an Irate Response
Shortly after the PhillyCoR billboard went up, the group received an irate e-mail from an offended woman who was a member of a church called the Lighthouse of Oxford Valley. It seems that, just up the road a piece, that church had earlier erected a similar billboard of its own featuring a blue sky background. However, the church’s billboard said “Experience God.” They thought that the PhillyCoR billboard was deliberately mocking theirs.
The similarity in design was just a co-incidence. It’s not surprising that two different artists would do a billboard referencing God with a picture of blue sky and white clouds since this is a visual synonym for heaven.
The "Experience God" Billboard
The Philly "Miracle"
This story has a happy ending. A dialogue began between PhillyCoR and the Lighthouse of Oxford Valley church. This in turn led to the two groups joining forces to feed the homeless at Philabundance, a local food pantry. And, because PhillyCoR drew from the combined membership of all the groups in the coalition, they were able to get out as many people to the project as the church did. Each of the two factions wore its own T-shirt to the event.
The event brought more favorable publicity to PhillyCoR.
London's “Atheist Bus Campaign”
Meanwhile, across the pond, some atheists in London decided they were going to put some ads on buses. They were tired of being threatened with damnation, so they decided to fight hellfire with hellfire.
In October 2008, they launched the Atheist Bus Campaign. The media story went global about how, under the sponsorship of the British Humanist Association, the campaign was planning to put ads on London buses that would read: “There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
The "There's Probably No God" London Bus Ad
The announcement alone generated tremendous publicity--so much so that the group raised--in a single month--a whopping £120,402.00 (about $180,000 U.S.) all before the first bus ad actually appeared in mid-January 2009. This gave them enough money to launch a full advertising campaign across the entire country.
The American Humanist Association Response
The success of the bus campaign in London lit a fire under the American Humanist Association (AMA) in Washington DC. It developed its own slogan and hosted a well-attended press conference on November 11, 2008. The group began enjoying non-stop publicity with a Metro bus campaign that asked rhetorically, “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.”
A little take off on the Christmas jingle just in time for the holidays. The ad was adorned with little snowflakes in keeping with a winter holiday theme.
The "Why Believe in God?" Bus Ad
The deluge of media attention led to such a spike in the volume of visitors to the special campaign website that the web server crashed twice. The AHA received a deluge of interview requests. Representatives of the AHA appeared on Fox and Friends, CNN Headline News,The O’Reilly Factor, The Laura Ingraham Show and many others.
The AHA received a thousand new memberships by the end of the year.
More Publicity From The Counter Response
A local Catholic stay-at-home mother of four decided to launch a counter campaign: same type of bus advertisements, same number of buses, same topic. Her slogan? “Why believe? Because I created you and I love you, for goodness’ sake.” The sentiment is signed, “God.”
The "Why Believe?" D.C. Bus Ad
The AHA loved this ad. And why not? Her ads kept the AHA name in the news and the new memberships flowing in.
The Iowa Campaign
About a month after the British ads first appeared, the United Coalition of Reason was created to export the PhillyCoR revolution all over the country. The UnitedCoR launched its first billboard campaign in late March.
Later, in August 2009, UnitedCoR worked with a local group in Des Moines, Iowa, called Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, to put ads on buses that would run the route that took visitors to the Iowa State Fair. The ads went up and received a lot of publicity.
Then the bus company got complaints. So they took the ads down. Initially, the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers were angry, but it turned out to be a good thing for them. More publicity. The UnitedCorR got a lawyer to call the bus company, and the local ACLU leaned on them. And the ads went back up! You can’t pay for publicity opportunities this good!
The "You Are Not Alone" Iowa Bus Ad
Next Stop, New York
Would the ads work in New York City or would the Big Apple media be too sophisticated to go after a subway ad campaign? When the New York Times announced on October 19 that BigAppleCoR was putting up ads inside select subway stations declaring, “A million New Yorkers are good without God," the press coverage went through the roof. Reports were not only citywide, but nationwide and worldwide. Even Al Jazeera and the China Daily covered it!
Around the same time the UnitedCofR put ads inside subway cars in Boston and put up billboards in New Jersey and Chicago, all continuing the “good without God” theme.
The "New Yorkers are Good without God" Bus Ad
The “One Nation Indivisible” Campaign
In late June 2010, the North Carolina Secular Association launched its “One Nation Indivisible” campaign in five cities across the state. Simultaneously, and without their awareness, a local Florida group launched its own “One Nation Indivisible” campaign with similarly-designed billboards. This lucky coincidence enhanced the publicity efforts of both.
In North Carolina, the billboard in Charlotte was put on the biggest highway in town—which happens to be called Billy Graham Parkway. The North Carolina Secular Association was accused of insulting the retired evangelist.
The "One Nation Indivisible" North Carolina Billboard
This billboard attracted some graffiti. Someone wrote in “under God.”
The North Carolina Billboard with Graffiti
There was also a counter-response.
A Billboard Response: One Nation Under God
Dallas- Fort Worth Church Bus Boycott
The Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason had a UnitedCoR-funded billboard launch in March 2009, but in the winter of 2009, they decided to do another one on their own initiative and on their own dime. They were able to afford only four bus ads bearing their unique design that featured the faces of real atheists formed into an American Flag backdrop with their slogan: “Millions of Americans are good without God.”
The "Good Without God" Dallas-Fort Worth Bus Ad
Once the ads appeared, some churches got together and launched a bus boycott, carpooling people to work for the full four-week run of this campaign.
Another religious group hired a billboard truck, displaying their opposing message, to follow one of the godless buses around. And a third group ran their own ads on Fort Worth buses. All of this brouhaha generated so much publicity that the groups in DFW CoR gained hundreds of new members.
After that the city council voted to ban all religious advertising on Fort Worth buses so that this could never happen again.
A Private Bus Follows the D-FW City Bus
The "American Atheists" Response
The American Atheists are an in-your-face kind of group. They put up a billboard at one end of the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City with the bluntest message so far: “You KNOW it’s a Myth. This Season, Celebrate REASON!”
In reaction, William Donohue of the Catholic League placed an opposing billboard at the other end of the Lincoln Tunnel.
The publicity this campaign generated was overwhelming, resulting in the American Atheists president, Dave Silverman, appearing on numerous network television shows into the new year. Attendance at the American Atheist conference doubled that year.
The "You Know it's a Myth" New York City Billboard
Law Suits are Filed
When the UnitedCoR tried to launch the Central Arkansas Coalition ofReason in Little Rock with a bus ad campaign during their May 2011 Riverfest celebration, the bus company threw up roadblocks and then finally refused outright. So a law suit was filed in federal court, charging viewpoint discrimination by a government agency. This was, of course, accompanied by a press release. And the local CoR got a lot of coverage. On August 11, a preliminary injunction was issued by the court to force the transit authority to run the ads. The news coverage for this was overwhelming.
In November 26, 2013, UnitedCoR filed a federal lawsuit against the Port Authority of Allegheny County for refusing to run $5,700 worth of bus ads saying that the text of the advertisements didn't comply with the Port Authority's ad policy. In the end, they agreed to settle, paying all of the UnitedCofR legal fees plus giving them enough money to take their ad campaign elsewhere. They also agreed to modify their ad policy so it more consistently prohibited religious ads.
Freedom From Religion Foundation Billboards
What do you believe?
Do you believe that people can be good without God.
This Chapter of the Billboard Wars Concludes…For Now
The billboard wars have helped to raise the public profile of the United Coalition of Reason and its affiliated groups. It got people talking. It made people aware that a person can be a moral person and a good citizen without a belief in God. And it proved the old adage, “There’s no such thing a bad publicity.”
Greg Epstein, former Harvard Humanist Chaplain, has written a great book about humanism as an alternate "life stance." He explains the moral and ethical values of humanism in a compelling way. I enjoyed his breezy style of writing--it felt like he was having a one-on-one conversation with me. Whether you are a long term humanist (as I am) or you are just discovering the topic, I think you will like this book.
I would like to thank Fred Edwords for his research and editorial assistance and for graciously permitting me to use his photographs.
A Short Video from Greg Epstein, Author of "Good without God"
© 2014 Catherine Giordano