The argument between believers and atheists has found a new and very public forum in recent years — billboards.
Pro- and anti-religion advertisements and messages have been appearing on the sides of buses in places as diverse as London and Dallas, on billboards in Australia and California, and now in New York's Times Square.
Paid for by the evangelical group Answers In Genesis, an electronic billboard there displays what the New York Times describes as “a friendly jab” at atheists: “To all of our atheist friends: Thank God you're wrong.”
The battle of the billboards has also been used provocatively, as when an atheist group paid to have the message, “You Know it's a Myth: This Season Celebrate Reason,” about Christmas, put above the Lincoln Tunnel in New York. Within a few days, a religious organization answered with, “You Know it's Real: This Season Celebrate Jesus” at the other end of the tunnel.
Q: What do you think of the opposing sides advertising their beliefs in such a way?
Context is everything, isn’t it? The experience of historical works, movies, television and novels is heightened as the viewers or readers have knowledge of the background, circumstances and frameworks in which a piece might have been composed. It is the overriding reason that Westerners are so influenced by pop culture. Humans are bombarded by not only the news, but also the media version of the milieu in which events happen, thereby also heavily informing the perspective that is derived from any event or series of events.
Holy seasons are a heady time, a time when beliefs and cultural practices come out of cardboard boxes that have been stored in the cupboard all year long. Those beliefs are checked to see if the lights are still working from last year, and then strung up on houses, places of worship, and of course now even on signboards. Spiritual believers must work hard to learn the contexts in which their beliefs were formed.
For instance, for Christians, it is important to be aware that the treasured stories of Christ coming to Earth more than 2,000 years ago in a tiny, repeatedly conquered little kingdom where spiritual legalism was proving less and less effective are chiefly the stories of God seeking to be seen in a new relationship with humans. Rather than a God of vengeance who bellowed “I’m right, so you must be wrong,” the early Gospel writers sought through Mary, Joseph and their baby to introduce hearers to Emmanuel: God, no matter how divided we are, or who is in power, a God of peace who is available to all of us; indeed, God with us. Any sign that in any way pits us against each other or causes us to take sides is a sign that misses the overriding point of the telling of the Christmas story: Love is real, therefore God is real.
The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel
It seems to me that these particular billboards aren’t just people advertising their beliefs, but pro- and anti-religious folks attacking each other’s beliefs. Even if you call it “a friendly jab,” there’s a whole lot of thinly-veiled unfriendliness behind such campaigns.
The Lincoln Tunnel billboards would be fine if the atheists’ just said, “This Season Celebrate Reason;” and the other said, “This Season Celebrate Jesus.” There’s nothing wrong with advertising what you’re passionate about, and letting people decide whether they find your message persuasive or inspiring.
But it’s cheap and small to denigrate someone else’s faith or reason. I wish that atheists would just say whatever it is they believe, instead of expending so much energy denouncing Christianity, which seems to be their particular target. And I wish that religious people of all persuasions would stop defining themselves by what they’re not — “We’re not like those misguided idiots over there; we’re much more liberal/conservative/moral/cool than they are” — and start simply saying, in a positive way, what it is that gives their lives meaning and beauty.
If the atheists will forgive my using Scripture to address the issue, it seems to me that Paul’s admonishment applies: “We must no longer be children … but speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way” (Ephesians 4:14-15).
Just speak your truth; don’t trash someone else’s.
The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George’s Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge
There’s a biblical proverb that goes, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:4-5). This is understood to mean that one should not roll around in the gutter with an antagonist, playing tit-for-tat, but by the same token, neither should one ignore a fool’s assault. There needs to be some sort of response to silence falsehood and slander, so how to answer the latter part of the proverb without becoming the former presents the challenge.
On the face of it, aggressive atheistic campaigns that demean Christ at Christmas or take our Christian symbols, like the cross and fish, and put a slash across the one and feet on the other, are not all that much different than walking around a Holocaust memorial waving banners that deny its reason for being. Would we not all think that outrageous? Yet Americans are almost united in our overwhelming belief in God (though we may differ regarding him) and still the atheists buy billboards that tell us all we’re stupid for believing that a divine intelligence, rather than nothing, is responsible for our complex and awesome world.
I’m inclined to think that a negative ad campaign left unaddressed, and yes, atheism is negative in that it negates God, will further erode society and harm our people. Kind of like a festering sore; if ignored, gangrene may result. Likewise, a perpetual barrage of anti-godism may produce similar consequences to America’s soul. To counter the negative, I suppose we are left to touche with pro-godism, and that, according to the atheists’ particular folly.
“The fool says in his heart, there is no God” (Psalm 53:1).
The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
There are some things about which I have no opinion or feeling, one way or the other, and this issue would seem to be one of them. I see nothing harmful in those with opposing opinions ribbing each other — except why spend all that money on billboard advertising?
Isn’t the whole “I'm right and you're wrong” issue just a little bit like one side of a football stadium yelling, “We're Number One!” and the other side yelling, “Your Number's Up!”? It may be fun to play such games, but is any atheist really going to be converted by what he reads on a believer's sign? Or will any believer be influenced to give up his faith by what he reads on an atheist's billboard? I don't think so. In fact, I think the whole enterprise is wasteful and unproductive.
Why not spend that advertising money on food for the poor? Both atheist and believer alike could actually come together to do something worth doing, and they would both even agree that it was worth doing.
The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge
I think that billboards are not a good medium for a serious discussion of beliefs, though I guess they work well for the glib, simplistic snarkiness sampled here. And I love snark, but it should be actually funny, or thought-provoking, or at least interesting. These, not so much.
The notion of selling beliefs — ideas as commodity — is weird to me.
I too grow weary of the assumption that religion is a given, an idea that permeates our public life, but still, I can't relate to organized efforts to promote atheism. In my personal experience, atheists do not proselytize. And I know a lot of them.
Plus it is such a tacky choice of medium. Big outdoor ads are the visual litter of a material-driven world. It is depressing to think that belief ads share the landscape with one grease-ball fast food or oversweetened soda touting itself over others that are equally bad for you.
Who doesn't just tune them out, as I do? Yet I'm sure I would have noticed if these God/no God ads were common. They must be a fraction of a fluff of the total outdoor ad market. Fluff describes well the level of this discourse.
I feel that these billboard wars are very childish. In my view, much of the blame for this disconcerting public show of absurdity rests with the atheist groups, since it seems that they fired the first shot. I cannot understand why they feel compelled to attack religious beliefs in such a callous fashion. Why can’t they just live and let live? It really befuddles me how some people get gratification by putting down other people’s religious beliefs in the public arena.
Equally disturbing is what I see as a knee-jerk reaction by religious groups to respond to these inconsiderate and silly jabs. All these responses do is encourage the atheist groups to purchase even more billboard space, exacerbating this annoying situation.
To the atheist groups, I say this: Take the thousands of dollars you waste on these billboards and use them to help feed the hungry or clothe the poor. To the religious groups, I say: Ignore the insults and spend your money on increasing positive outreach and strengthening spiritual programming in your house of worship.
And the rest of us? Let’s try to stay focused on the universally accepted standards of ethical behavior. Love one another, work hard and avoid unnecessary aggression.
Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center
I believe in freedom of speech and the right of any person to air their beliefs in the marketplace of opinions and ideas. But that marketplace is flooded with words that rapidly lose their significance. Christian one-liners like “When God saw you, it was love at first sight,” “Life has many choices. Eternity has two. What's yours?” and “Turn or burn,” may have an initial impact, but it quickly fades.
Christians are supposed to influence the world around them, but not through a war of words. We are called to live lives that are transformed and reflect the character of God. Jesus admonished his followers to “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
In essence, the apostle Paul indicated that every Christian is a miniature billboard advertisement for God when he said, “You are a living letter, known and read by all people, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God” (2 Corinthians 3:2–3).
He actually discouraged the use of words alone, no matter how eloquent, that were not accompanied with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power. He indicated that the validity of the Christian’s message should not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power (1 Corinthians 2:4–5).
Jesus defined this power when he stated, “These signs shall follow those who believe. In my name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues.... They will lay hands on the sick and the sick will get well” (Mark 16:15–18).
I think if each Christian's life was characterized by good deeds and signs of power, the words we do use would have much greater impact.
Pastor Ché Ahn
Freedom of speech is a hallmark of both law and culture in the Unites States. So the rights of both the religious and the nonreligious should be guaranteed. But we all know that there are many restrictions to those freedoms, one being the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Another is the right to use profanity or sexually explicit language in venues or in public media when children are likely to be exposed.
And from my point of view, there should also be limitations in our country to the ways that both religious groups and non-religious groups talk to and about each other. I don’t believe such limits should be made on the basis of the beliefs of the groups, but on their adherence to respectful discourse, instead of attack. Nor should there be a particular season of the year when such assaults are forbidden or acceptable. We should practice civility in public throughout the year, even when we disagree. Just because we have the right to be insulting to others does not mean it is a good idea, or that it will have any outcome other than anger and retaliation.
In a country that is home to an incredible diversity of religious and secular beliefs, we may find ourselves at odds with each other on a number of issues. But that does not give us the right to go on the offensive or to become offensive. I think that if we want to live with each other in peace, we need to practice respectful dialogue and find common ground for our communication — in practice, if not in law.
The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
Whenever we communicate with others, whether personally or publicly, by speech or by written advertisement, we show the world what is in our hearts. Jesus said, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” (Luke 6:45).
I think public advertisement of religious beliefs is appropriate, and that a battle of words in advertisements only sheds light on the heart attitude of those posting the ads. In recent years a handful of anti-Christian political groups have engaged in PR campaigns using short, clever, catchy phrases, verbal barbs that attempt to influence people to distance themselves from Jesus Christ and from biblical morality. Some are devilishly clever, with the emphasis on devil. These always make me wonder at the darkened hearts that crafted them. They also make me check the knee-jerk reaction that rises in me, and remind me that I must respond with the love and Gospel truth of Jesus Christ.
What we say in our ads, and how we say it, says more about us than it says about our opponents.
Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church