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First on CNN: Atheists ratchet up rhetoric, use billboards to attack Republican politicians
March 3rd, 2013
05:00 AM ET

First on CNN: Atheists ratchet up rhetoric, use billboards to attack Republican politicians

By Dan Merica, CNN

Washington (CNN) - An atheist organization known for being provocative plans to take that reputation to the next level this week by putting up seven billboards that call out prominent politicians and religious leaders.

American Atheists plans to target three Republican politicians: former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, former House Speak Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

The seven signs will go up around Dallas and Austin, Texas.

In one billboard, a picture of Palin is featured on the left, with a quote attributed to her. "We should create law based on the God of the Bible," the quote reads. Underneath the graphic is a tag line "GO GODLESS INSTEAD."

The billboard, however, misquotes Palin. In an interview with Fox News’ Bill O'Reilly, Palin addressed the growth in American secularism by saying America's founding fathers "would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments," not "should."

Each of the billboards has a similar format and includes a pitch for the group’s 50th anniversary convention in Austin.

Santorum is condemned for when he told an Iowa crowd last November that, "our civil laws have to comport with a higher law: God's law," while Gingrich is criticized for a remark he made at a CNN debate on October 18, 2011, in Las Vegas. "How can I trust you with power if you don't pray," Gingrich posited.

Virginia Davis, spokeswoman for Santorum, thanked American Atheists for the publicity.

"At a time when many are trying to remove God from the public square, the senator is appreciative of someone helping him very publicly express his strong belief that we are one nation under God," Davis wrote in an e-mail to CNN.

American Atheists President David Silverman, however, sees the billboards as a way to shame the targets.

"We at American Atheists are shaming these leaders for their bigoted and backwards remarks and attitudes, and conveying a message to today's atheists that we need not take it anymore," Silverman wrote in an e-mail to CNN.

Two religious leaders, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor at the First Baptist Dallas, and Benedict XVI, now the pope emeritus, also are featured on billboards.

Jeffress' billboard includes a quote the pastor said during a 2008 sermon titled, "Gay Is Not OK." "What they [homosexuals] do is filthy," reads the billboard. Under the quote is the phrase "Go Godless Instead" and a rainbow flag, a symbol of gay rights.

This will be the only ad placed in Dallas, featured in a busy stretch of Interstate 30 and only a few miles from Jeffress' large church.

The First Baptist Church of Dallas is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention. Jeffress, who has been in its pulpit since 2007, is no stranger to controversy, including comments about Judiasm and Catholicism. After introducing Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the Values Voter Summit in Washington in October 2011, Jeffress told reporters he believed Mormonism was a cult, expressing a personal position and one held by his denomination. The move was seen as a particular slight to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a lifelong Mormon.

The billboard featuring Benedict XVI, who stepped down Thursday, cites a New York Times article entitled, "Vatican Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest Who Abused Boys." "The Church Protected Priests Who Abused Children," reads the billboard.

Silverman says the group plans to spend $25,000 on the billboards, which will go up on Monday and remain up for the rest of March.

"Everyone should be allowed to profess their faith, of course, but that does not shield them from criticism," Silverman wrote. "Everyone has the responsibility to lead moral lives, and 'It's my religion' is not an excuse for bigotry or immorality."

Silverman continued: "Some Americans seem to think that bigotry in the name of religion is somehow permissible. It is not. We hope that the believers of Austin place anti-atheist bigotry in the same category as anti-Semitism or racism - a relic of the past that needs to be jettisoned for all the right reasons."

Six of the billboards will be dispersed around the Austin area, with four placed on high traffic freeways.

This is not the first time American Atheists has used billboards to get its message out.

Last March, the group targeted Muslims and Jews with billboards that called God a "myth" in both Arabic and Hebrew.

In November 2010, the same group posted a billboard around the holiday season that read, "You KNOW it's a Myth. This Season, Celebrate REASON."

Silverman, who has been criticized for this in-your-face atheism, has long defended the tactic, saying that the confrontation is meant to "grow the cause and benefit the country."

"That's why companies buy billboards - to get attention," Silverman wrote.

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Catholic Church • Newt Gingrich • Politics • Pope • Rick Santorum • Sarah Palin

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  4. Science

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    Science

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    By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor The concept of heaven or any kind of afterlife is a "fairy story," famed British scientist Stephen Hawking said in a newspaper interview this week. "I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when...

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    April 7th, 2012

    08:32 PM ET

    The Jesus debate: Man vs. myth

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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.