Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“It will require many long years of self-education until the subject can turn himself into the citizen. A free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper. He must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police.”     Ludwig von Mises,    Liberalism

December 2, 2008

Is Atheism Really Threatening?

by Brad Warbiany

These signs have been popping up lately in the Denver area…

…and some folks are none too happy about it.

The hate mail and nasty, threatening phone messages began almost immediately.

John Matson, of Denver, was so mad after seeing the Santa Fe Drive sign that he dashed off an angry letter to the billboard’s owner.

“It is a despicable act to allow that sign,” the 60-year-old man said in an interview, “and for just a few pieces of silver.”

He went on COCORE’s Web site, and it made him even angrier, John Matson said. It is trying to gather, he said, “a constituency of what I call mob rule.”

“I know they’re atheists, and my opinion is they want others to believe the same thing. The billboard misrepresents their purpose,” he said. “Their agenda is wolf-in-sheep’s clothing political. Why don’t they just say it.”

Yes, he is a Christian, John Matson said.

Perhaps it’s simply that I’m a godless heathen myself, but I have yet to see any way that these billboards, as some of their detractors have claimed, “denigrate Christians”. As far as I can tell, this is simply an advertising campaign for their group. Given the number of billboards I’ve seen throughout my life advertising for various churches, I don’t quite understand why this would create such an uproar. I’m not surprised, mind you, but I don’t understand.

While I don’t necessarily agree with Matson’s statement that “they want others to believe the same thing” — not that I’d find anything wrong with that — this is clearly an advertising campaign. In many ways, being an atheist is very similar to being a libertarian: nobody understands you, you’re often finding yourself unable to admit your beliefs in public, and thus you have a very difficult time finding others like yourself. While church members have a natural venue to meet like-minded folks, the very lack of belief makes it very difficult for atheists to do the same. Thus, it can be a lonely existence, and the knowledge that there are others who at least share your belief is a small comfort.

Matson, of course, does have a point. A group like COCORE may, through campaigns like this, slowly legitimize atheism in the general public. That will allow people of weak faith who might naturally tend towards atheism make the complete leap. But such at attitude by Christians would only make clear that they are against one of those central tenets of Christianity, the idea that accepting Christ is a choice to be made freely and with all the information laid out.

Instead of knee-jerk reaction, perhaps those who believe would do better if they spent their time working towards conversion based upon the positive aspects of their faith, not by trying to silence their opposition. To do such a thing would be respectful of freedom, and would earn my respect*. It may not spur me to believe, but it would certainly temper my disgust at some of the behavior of the more vocal and least-tolerant believers.

* I am fully aware that many — I’d even say most — Christians are very good people, and are interested in honest conversion of their opposition rather than trying to silence such. I am not trying to impugn Christianity based upon their least-tolerant members. Just as not every atheist is filing silly lawsuits to remove “under God” from the pledge, not every Christian is an intolerant bigot. But the simple fact is that we are not a threat to Christians of strong faith, and never will be. Atheism, like libertarianism, has a very strong “live and let live” ethos** that most of the world’s religions could learn from.

** The “live and let live” ethos is an inaccurately-worded shorthand. I explain why down in the comments here.

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23 Comments

  1. I have no issue with atheism, it’s anti-theism I take issue with.

    They’re worse prosyletizers than the evangelicals ferchrissakes.

    The thing is, most Atheists are not out there with billboards and signs; and most of those that are have historically been the anti-theists; so it’s understandable how this sort of ridiculous over-reaction can get started.

    Comment by Chris — December 2, 2008 @ 12:41 am
  2. god lolwutumean :0

    Comment by Nitroadict — December 2, 2008 @ 5:05 am
  3. Chris,

    What’s the difference between the billboard in question and one that says “Jesus is the reason for the season” ?

    Comment by Doug Mataconis — December 2, 2008 @ 5:19 am
  4. I have to point out that Atheism does not have a “live and let live” ethos or any other ethos for that matter. Atheism simply describes a lack of belief. Many atheists, including myself, do have that ethos. But that doesn’t mean that atheism itself has it.

    I know this is a minor quibble. But it’s statements like that which confuse some theists in to thinking that Atheism is itself a religion. That is confusion we could do without.

    Comment by SomeGuy — December 2, 2008 @ 6:27 am
  5. I believe a simple lack of religion is agnosticism. Atheism is the belief that there is no such thing as God.

    Agnostic = I don’t know if there is a God or not.

    Atheism = there is no God.

    With that being said, John Matson appears to be the kind of guy who, with the right upbringing, would be sawing off the heads of Dutch filmmakers.

    Comment by tarran — December 2, 2008 @ 6:43 am
  6. Great post. I, too, am dumbfounded but not surprised. I’ve been trying for twenty minutes now to put myself into his mindset (I used to be a boner-for-God evangelical myself), but I can’t do it anymore. I can’t figure out why this guy has such a problem with a billboard when I can’t drive to work without learning that Christ will save my soul if I let him.

    Comment by thomasblair — December 2, 2008 @ 7:28 am
  7. Brad,

    I do think you make a good point that Chritians, such as myself, need to do a better job of convincing others (agnostics/weak faith) that that there is a God and that Jesus is the way to eternal life. You can’t force this on others. If you try it will only push people away. I think some agnostics are put off by the tactics that some, shall I say right-wing christians, use in pushing their faith on others.

    I to don’t have anything against people who don’t believe in God as long as they aren’t trying to force me to believe what they do or not allowing me to practice my faith. They certainly have the right to try and convince me otherwise, just as I have the right to try and convince them that there is a God. But either way the choice has to be made freely without force or coercion.

    Comment by TerryP — December 2, 2008 @ 7:49 am
  8. As far as the sign goes, I really don’t have any problem with it. Just as a few of you have said, there are numerous signs telling you about God all over. Maybe it will break Christians out of their complacency. People who have problems with signs like this either lack faith in themselves in being able to convince others of God or they rather use force to not allow others to think the way they want to. I personally believe, that the message of God, Jesus, forgiveness, and eternal life, if brought to someone with an open mind freely, is enough. People such as Matson don’t help matters much and in fact hurt as these are the people that agnostics/aethists/weak faith see as the face of christianity. They are not the face of christianity and in my opinion have little faith themselves if they have to resort to force and anger.

    Comment by TerryP — December 2, 2008 @ 8:04 am
  9. Chris,

    I’m not disagreeing, as I know many atheists who are quite aggressive. Disrespectful actions of those in a minority are not any more valid than of those in the majority. However, I’d say that the practical matters of being such a minority make the aggressiveness more distinct. I would suggest (although without evidence or research) that there are far fewer militant atheists as a proportion of the atheist population in a place like Europe, where secularism is more common, than it is here.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — December 2, 2008 @ 9:16 am
  10. SomeGuy,

    My description of the “live and let live” ethos was poorly explained. I use it in contrast to that of most religions, who have an explicit command from their religion to go and convert others. Atheism, simply being a lack of belief, does not have a “conversion” ethos built into its structure. Most atheists, likewise, do not have conversion of others as their goal. Thus, the default position not being one of conversion, I misstated it as a positive “live and let live” ethos, when it is not a positive “tenet of atheism”.

    I apologize for inaccurately using such as a shorthand.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — December 2, 2008 @ 9:20 am
  11. tarran,

    Agnosticism is a statement about knowledge, atheism is a statement about belief, neither make positive assertions.

    You are agnostic to those things that you know little or nothing about, and atheist to those things you have little or no belief in, the two are not exclusive.

    This is where the statement by Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) comes from:

    “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

    Christians are atheist to all the other gods that people around the world believe in, at the end of the day.

    These signs are entirely non-dogmatic, unlike the majority of religious signs I see on my way to work. Whether they’re necessary is another debate, but to say they “denigrate Christians” is patently absurd – they’re not making any statement about christianity at all.

    Comment by Dan — December 2, 2008 @ 9:26 am
  12. Atheism is VERY threatening to organized religion. We force the religious to examine their beliefs and it makes them very uncomfortable to have to defend a book that tells impossible stories like Noah’s ark, creation in 6 days, raising people from the dead, people turning to stone, some living to 900 years old, walking on water, talking to a god who takes the form of fire, etc.

    Comment by Zero--sum — December 2, 2008 @ 9:30 am
  13. Why is it always the Christians who are publicly upset about these billboards? How is this billboard any less threatening to the thousands of other gods people believe in?

    I’m an equal opportunity atheist. I don’t believe in the Judeo-Christian god any less or any more than the others.

    And yes, you could even go as far as to call me not only an atheist but an anti-theist. I believe the world would be a much better place without religion. But just because I am an anti-theist does not mean I believe I can force others to believe what I believe. Just like any other issue, I have to use my limited powers of persuasion in the marketplace of ideas. If people such as Mr. Matson are threatened by this or by a billboard, this says more about his faith (or lack thereof) than about this organization exercising its First Amendment rights.

    Comment by Stephen Littau — December 2, 2008 @ 9:52 am
  14. [...] Warbiany has a theory: Matson, of course, does have a point. A group like COCORE may, through campaigns like this, slowly [...]

    Pingback by Below The Beltway » Blog Archive » So Much For Religious Freedom — December 2, 2008 @ 10:37 am
  15. As a technical matter, atheism is the absence of belief in any god or gods. In practice, most people don’t bother to CALL themselves atheists unless they think it is IMPORTANT to be free of god-belief; i.e. they think that religious belief is not only false but also harmful. Further, most folk who call themselves atheists have gone on to embrace positive beliefs to replace religion; in metaphysics, a naturalistic worldview, in epistemology (how we gain knowledge) the scientific approach (in contrast to faith and “revelation”), and in ethics, some this-worldly approach as proposed by some philosopher or other. The Golden Rule (or at least the Silver, do not do unto others what you would not want done to yourself) is easy enough to justify on secular grounds. I have some essays at
    http://civic.bev.net/atheistsnrv/index.html

    Comment by John B. Hodges — December 2, 2008 @ 1:19 pm
  16. Some related humor: John Safran Morman Door Knockings

    Comment by Jeff Molby — December 2, 2008 @ 1:55 pm
  17. Ah – There’s nothing like the unmasked face of Christian intolerance and hypocrisy!

    Far from being a religion of acceptance, it’s a central claim of Christianity that it is “the only way” to salvation and that all others are damned. What else would you expect from believers who think they have the monopoly on truth! Ha!

    I’m happy to see these billboards, for there are many people (like me) who probably never even considered that lack of faith is an option!

    I say spread the word! Free yourselves! Let it be known it’s OK not to believe in god!!!

    Kiss Me – I’m an Atheist!

    Comment by SWEJ — December 2, 2008 @ 5:46 pm
  18. I wish the theists and the atheists all the happiness of their convictions. I enjoy the happiness of mine. As long as peoples’ methods stop short of force, we can chat.

    I see no incitement to force in that billboard’s message.

    Comment by Akston — December 2, 2008 @ 9:12 pm
  19. Some of my favorite quotes:

    I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.~ Stephen Roberts

    I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.~ Mohandas Gandhi

    If child molestation is actually your concern, how come we don’t see Bradley tanks knocking down Catholic churches?~ Bill Hicks, 1993, referencing the Waco siege

    I have examined all of the known superstitions of the world and I do not find in our superstitions of Christianity one redeeming feature. They are all founded on fables and mythology. Christianity has made one-half the world fools and the other half hypocrites.~ Unknown

    Each nation knowing it has the only true religion and the only sane system of government, each despising all the others, each an ass and not suspecting it.~ Mark Twain

    So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence.~ Bertrand Russell

    “On the dogmas of religion, as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarreling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others, and absolutely beyond the comprehension of the human mind.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

    I have seldom met an intelligent person whose views were not narrowed and distorted by religion.~ James Buchanan

    The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries that have afflicted the human race have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion.~ Thomas Paine

    The modern conservative is engaged in one man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.~ John K. Galbraith

    I have one parting shot for the religious folk: If God can heal people of all diseases, cancers, tumors and all other illnesses, WHY DON’T GOD HEAL AMPUTEES?

    Never in recorded history has a limb been regenerated instantly thanks to God. Does he hate amputees? What up with that?

    Comment by Travis — December 2, 2008 @ 9:52 pm
  20. Why is it always the Christians who are publicly upset about these billboards?

    Because they are the dominant religion? A non-Christian experiences some proselytizing by Christians regularly.A Christian, on the other hand, might go their entire lives without being proselytized. Thus they haven’t learned tolerance.

    With that being said, the hate on atheism is pretty freaky. Researchers studying people’s attitudes towards religions found that in the U.S. atheists are looked upon as unfavorably as child molesters.

    Comment by tarran — December 3, 2008 @ 6:05 am
  21. I’m glad these billboards are going up, I wish I knew where this was in Denver. Santa Fe isn’t a short street.
    I’m married to an atheist, my brothers are atheists, and several friends are atheists, but it still feels like you are alone because we are so very out numbered.
    I’m tired of people assuming I’m a christian because I’m “so nice.” It’s about time people are taking notice that they are not the only ones with a voice and opinions.

    I don’t get it when any religion feels threatened or whatever the word of the day is whenever they see billboards or anything that disagrees with them. When is the last time an atheist went and knocked on the door of a stranger to try and convert them?

    Comment by Aimee — December 3, 2008 @ 4:37 pm
  22. “Perhaps it’s simply that I’m a godless heathen myself, but I have yet to see any way that these billboards, as some of their detractors have claimed, “denigrate Christians”. ”

    yep… me, too.

    anyone, imnsho, who thinks atheism or a billboard like that one “denigrates Christians” is dreaming.

    any religion “threatened” by that kind of free speech is self-admitting to be on thin ice already. a solid, self-confident “religion” would laugh it off or ignore it.

    to fight back makes them just look like bullies… the same folks who picked on you because they knew in their hearts that they were failures to start with.

    Comment by plusaf — December 5, 2008 @ 12:56 am
  23. The entire notion of god is an example of human beings need to group things into categories…
    A. This is good
    B. This is bad

    A.This is black
    B.This is white

    A. This is big
    B. This is small

    Think for a mintue how this basic unit of thought recreates itself in EVERYTHING we do…
    God is the most dangerous because people feel they have license to demand their god is the one true god…and people will do more from an emotional place for anybody else than him, or herself…so over compensation is a relief at the most insecure elements humans deal with…

    How to get over it…
    Don’t know that there is…China tries…We don’t respect their four thousand year civilization, and their understanding that religion is not beneficial to man…not at all.
    So we all suffer.

    Comment by john — December 5, 2008 @ 1:36 am

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