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Ad campaigns promote atheists' values; PR blitz urges secular stance

Ads promoting the virtues of godlessness are popping up on billboards around the country during the Christian season of Lent.

An Amherst-based group, the Center for Inquiry, is behind one of the campaigns, currently on display on billboards in Indianapolis and Houston and on the sides of buses in Washington, D.C. Aiming to get nonreligious folks more in touch with their inner unbelief, the center on Sweet Home Road spent $50,000 on ads that proclaim: "You don't need God -- to hope, to care, to love, to live."

It is one of several U.S. groups sponsoring separate publicity blitzes urging godlessness and secular values.

In Duluth, Minn., for example, motorists traveling north on Central Entrance Drive are being greeted by an 11-by-24-foot billboard that asks, "Don't believe in God?" and answers, "You are not alone." The sign is courtesy of the Lake Superior Freethinkers and the United Coalition of Reason.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation will unveil its next "Out of the Closet" campaign in April in Raleigh, N.C. -- with billboards that feature names, faces and pithy quotes from Raleigh-area residents who practice no religion and are proud of it. And, American Atheists plans to rent a billboard near the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, using the slogan, "You Know It's Nonsense," to counter a recent nationwide campaign claiming a rapture and Jesus' return on May 21.

"American Atheists is not shy or ashamed about knowing the truth -- that there is no invisible man in the sky," said David Silverman, president of the New Jersey-based group. "We're just trying to get atheists out of the closet with these ads."

Silverman said his organization signed up 600 new members in the aftermath of its posting late last year of a billboard on the New Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel.

The sign featured an image of a Nativity scene and the message, "You Know It's a Myth: This Season Celebrate Reason" -- provoking the Catholic League to rent its own billboard on the New York side of the tunnel and prompting a flurry of media coverage.

Other groups hope to see similar results from their campaigns. The Center for Inquiry wants to reduce the stigma associated with the nonreligious, as well as the influence religion has on public policy, said Ronald A. Lindsay, president and chief executive officer.

"There's still a lot of prejudices about nonbelievers in the United States," said Lindsay.

Nonreligious people often are cast as selfish and amoral, myths that the campaign attempts to dispel, he added.

"We're not saying we're better than anyone else. What we're trying to say is we're just like everyone else," he said.

The appearance of the ads during Lent -- for Christians, a highly spiritual season leading up to Easter -- was "purely coincidental," said Lindsay, who noted that the ads initially were to run in January but got delayed. "We want our message to stand out on its own, not necessarily as a criticism of religion," he said.

Tom Billings, executive director of Union Baptist Association, the largest Baptist group in Houston, said he had not seen the billboards or even heard about them until a call from The Buffalo News. He doubted they would have much impact -- at least not with the area's many Christians.

The Catholic League also took no offense to the ad.

"Obviously, atheists can be good people," said spokesman Jeff Field. "They're promoting their own thing. It is not a direct affront to Christian beliefs, or Judaism or Islam."

The Center for Inquiry ads in the nation's capital started March 1 and run through the end of the month. The billboards in Indianapolis and Houston premiered last week and will continue through the first week of April.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation started billboard advertising in 2007 as a way to counter negative perceptions of nonbelievers, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president.

"There's all these stereotypes that are very pernicious," said Gaylor. "We are moral, we are ethical, we're thoughtful, we have an intellectual reason for rejecting religion."

The group's most elaborate project to date was last fall, when more than two-dozen people, including comedian and former "Saturday Night Live" actress Julia Sweeney, participated in the first "Out of the Closet" campaign in Madison, Wis.

Sweeney was pictured on a billboard with the quote, "I read the bible! Now I'm a proud atheist."

The Raleigh campaign is expected to be even bigger and cost as much as $10,000.

Why all of the advertising and public sloganeering now?

"There are a lot more of us," said Gaylor.

Indeed, from 1990 to 2008, the proportion of Americans who said they don't have a religion grew from 8.2 percent of the population to 15 percent -- an estimated 34 million people, according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey. That surge has made it more acceptable for people to be open about their lack of faith, said Gaylor.

The so-called "new atheism" spawned by such influential writers as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins also opened the door to a more public discussion of the rejection of religion, said Fred Edwords, national director of the United Coalition of Reason.

And many atheists, free thinkers and secular humanists believe they have been silenced for too long by religious groups with undue sway over political and social debate. "We're saying we don't want to be quiet about it. We're sort of saying: 'We're here. We're godless. Get used to it,' " he said.

The level of rhetoric coming from the religious right has made it more imperative for groups that cherish separation of church and state to respond, added Gaylor.

In some communities, the campaigns struck a nerve among Christian groups.

A United Coalition of Reason campaign in 2010 on the sides of buses in Fort Worth, Texas, prompted a bus boycott, said Edwords. A church group also protested by following the buses around the city with their own signs promoting religion, he said.

In 2008, an "Imagine No Religion" billboard paid for by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., created a storm of controversy and saw city leaders complain to the billboard company, which responded by taking the sign down and refunding the group's money, said Gaylor.

So far, heavily Catholic Western New York hasn't been a target area for ad campaigns by any of the groups, including the Center for Inquiry, but that could change. The center chose Washington for political impact, Indianapolis because it's a cradle city for Midwestern family values and Houston because it is home to some of the nation's largest Christian megachurches.