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A “godless” billboard that appeared recently in Omaha is part of a national campaign with the stated goals of helping local nonreligious groups grow, connecting atheists and agnostics with one another and informing religious believers that nonbelievers are part of their communities.
The billboard, near 72nd and Pacific Streets, reads: “Don't believe in God? Join the club.” A new group called the Omaha Coalition of Reason placed the ad with funding from a national organization, the United Coalition of Reason, that has backed similar billboards around the United States.
“We're reaching out to nontheists to let them know that there's a local community of reason for them to join,” said William Newman, director of the Omaha Coalition of Reason. “We're using the billboard as a beacon to hold out to them.”
The coalition comprises seven local organizations: the Omaha Atheists; Rationalists, Empiricists and Skeptics of Nebraska; UNO Secular Student Alliance; UNO Council for Humanist Thought; Omaha Atheist and Agnostic Parenting Group; Nebraska Secular Home Educators; and Recovering from Religion-Omaha Chapter.
Newman estimated the groups' combined membership at 500 people.
“We're not trying to convert anyone to atheism,” said Newman, a data network engineer. “We're trying to reach out to like-minded individuals.”
Such people might like to socialize with others like themselves, he said.
The coalition wants to encourage them to “come out” as people who don't believe in God.
“Traditionally religious people can be open about their views,” Newman said. “So why can't nonreligious people?”
A Creighton University sociologist who has studied religion in American culture said we live in a country where it's very easy to talk about religion, but it's not so easy to talk about not being religious.
“It's a part of our culture, but it's not very well-recognized,” said Charles Harper, professor emeritus of sociology. “We tend to demonize atheists or agnostics.”
He noted that since Dwight D. Eisenhower, though not before, presidential candidates have felt the need to offer personal religious testimonials. Being religious has become part of being respectable in the U.S., even though a lot of people have doubts about the existence of God and a growing number profess no religion.
“I don't think these are necessarily bad people,” Harper said. “But they are people who have a very hard time existing in this culture.”
The billboard will be up through August, Newman said. Currently it faces north. In August it will face south.
The United Coalition of Reason, based in Maryland, is trying to “raise the public profile of local groups in what is euphemistically called the community of reason,” said Fred Edwords, director of the national coalition.
If the groups work together and more people know about them, membership will grow, he said.
The coalition started with larger cities, where its leaders knew nonreligious groups existed. They've moved on to launching coalitions in such smaller cities as Omaha, then promoting them with billboards.
The national coalition says it has backed billboards, bus ads or Internet campaigns in the District of Columbia and 32 states, including Iowa.
The Omaha ad came from the national coalition's menu of messages. Others include “Are you good without God? Millions are.” and “Don't believe in God? You are not alone.”
The messages are deliberately less provocative than some other atheist campaigns, such as a billboard that the American Atheists placed in New Jersey during the Christmas season 2010. “You know it's a myth: This season, celebrate reason!” That inspired the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights to put up a billboard stating that Christmas is real.
Earlier this year, the American Atheists put up bilingual billboards saying “You know it's a myth. You have a choice.” in Muslim and Orthodox Jewish communities in New Jersey, according to the New York Times.
“We decided to have a kind of soft approach,” Edwords said. “We're not poking a stick in anyone's eyes. We're not attacking anyone.”
So now, they're in the marketplace of ideas on big signs in Omaha.
While publicly touting their minority position on the existence of God could provoke a response in this heavily believing part of the country, they've got a lot of competition for attention from people seeking truth. For example, just around the corner from the atheists' billboard, another giant sign bears a picture of a six-pack of Busch Light beer and the words, “The Cold Truth.”
And wasn't it just last year that billboards predicted Judgment Day would occur on May 21, 2011?
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