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Atheist group targets Muslims, Jews with ‘myth’ billboards in Arabic and Hebrew
The American Atheists' president acknowledges that the pair of new billboards will likely cause a stir.
March 1st, 2012
05:00 AM ET

Atheist group targets Muslims, Jews with ‘myth’ billboards in Arabic and Hebrew

By Dan Merica, CNN

(CNN) – The billboard wars between atheists and believers have raged for years now, especially around New York City, and a national atheist group is poised to take the battle a step further with billboards in Muslim and Jewish enclaves bearing messages in Arabic and Hebrew.

American Atheists, a national organization, will unveil the billboards Monday on Broadway in heavily Muslim Paterson, New Jersey and in a heavily Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood, immediately after the Williamsburg Bridge.

“You know it’s a myth … and you have a choice,” the billboards say. The Patterson version is in English and Arabic, and the Brooklyn one in English and Hebrew. To the right of the text on the Arabic sign is the word for God, Allah. To the right of the text on the Hebrew sign is the word for God, Yahweh.

Dave Silverman, the president of American Atheists, said the signs are intended to reach atheists in the Muslim and Jewish enclaves who may feel isolated because they are surrounded by believers.

“Those communities are designed to keep atheists in the ranks,” he says. “If there are atheists in those communities, we are reaching out to them. We are letting them know that we see them, we acknowledge them and they don't have to live that way if they don’t want to.”

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Silverman says the signs advertise the American Atheists’ upcoming convention and an atheist rally, called the Reason Rally, in Washington next month.

Atheists have long pointed to surveys that suggest atheists and agnostics make up between 3% and 4% of the U.S. population. That number increases when Americans unaffiliated with any religion are included. The Pew Center’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey found that 16% are unaffiliated, though only a fraction of those are avowed atheists and agnostics.

Silverman acknowledges that the pair of new billboards will likely cause a stir.

“People are going to be upset,” he says. “That is not our concern.”

“We are not trying to inflame anything,” he continued. “We are trying to advertise our existence to atheist in those communities. The objective is not to inflame but rather to advertise the atheist movement in the Muslim and Jewish community.”

The billboards will be up for one month and cost American Atheists, based in New Jersey, less than $15,000 each, according to Silverman.

Mohamed Elfilali, executive director of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, laughed when he learned the Arabic billboard would go up in the same town as his office. He says he’s surprised that someone is spending money on such a sign.

“It is not the first and won’t be the last time people have said things about God or religion,” Elfilali says. “I respect people’s opinion about God; obviously they are entitled to it. I don’t think God is a myth, but that doesn’t exclude people to have a different opinion.”

But Elfilali bemoaned the billboards as another example of a hyper-polarized world.

“Sadly, there is a need to polarize society as opposed to build bridges,” he says. “That is the century that we live in. It is very polarized, very politicized.”

The Brooklyn billboard is likely to raise eyebrows among Jews, in part because Orthodox Jews don't write out the name of God, as the billboard does.

“It is an emotional word, there will be an emotional response," said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of Yeshiva University's Center for the Jewish Future. "People will look at it in a bizarre way. People won’t understand why someone needed to write that out.”

To get around the prohibition, Jews usually use only one Hebrew letter in place of the word. In the Torah scroll, though, the word is found and it is pronounced Adonai, which means “my master.”

Rabbi Serge Lippe of the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue was more dismissive than outraged about the billboards.

“The great thing about America is we are marketplace for ideas,” he says. “People put up awful, inappropriate billboards expressing their ideas and that is embraced.”

But Lippe acknowledged that there are a lot of agnostic and atheist Jews. A recent Gallup survey found 53% of Jews identified as nonreligious. Among American Jews, 17% identified as very religious and 30% identified as moderately religious.

“When you have two Jews in the room, you have three opinions,” joked Lippe.

American Atheists have used the word “myth” to describe religion and God on billboards before. Last November, the organization went up with a billboard immediately before the New Jersey entrance to the Lincoln tunnel that showed the three wise men heading to Bethlehem and stated “You KNOW it’s a Myth. This Season, Celebrate Reason.”

At the time, the American Atheists said the billboard was to encourage Atheists to come out of the closet with their beliefs and to dispel the myth that Christianity owns the solstice season.

The Christmas billboard led to a “counter punch” by the Catholic League, a New York-based Catholic advocacy group. The Catholic League put up a competing billboard that said, “You Know It's Real: This Season Celebrate Jesus."

Silverman says his group’s billboard campaigns will continue long into the future.

“There will be more billboards,” Silverman says. “We are not going to be limiting to Muslims and Jews, we are going to be putting up multiple billboards in multiple communities in order to get atheists to come out of the closet.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Atheism • Islam • Judaism • New York • United States

soundoff (5,946 Responses)
  1. Fronc

    I thought religions were the cause of many wars. Isn't that one of the arguments Atheists use. Sounds like atheism is going to start participating.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Joe

      Well said.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • peaceful

      i agree, well said!

      March 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Yes, but only by making the cult branches war against each other.

      Divide and conquer.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • momoya

      @ William

      Perfect reply.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Fronc

      So how many cult branches are in Atheism? When will the atheists divide an conquer?

      March 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • DrewNYC

      You're right, putting up a billboard reaching out to oppressed Atheists is the same as genocide.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Fronc

      Oppressed?! Really? Well, I'm soooo sorry. No one should feel that way. 🙁

      March 1, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  2. pat

    You don't need to worry that I'm an atheist. You do need to be concerned, however, regarding my moral relativism and hedonism.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  3. RapidOne

    I loved the responses from the director of the Islamic center as well as the rabbi. Such well thought out and understanding voices. Kudos. There is chance for peace and harmony in this world.

    -From an Agnostic

    March 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  4. ryan

    I feel that if people can put up theological billboards then atheists can do the same. honestly, I dont care if i see a billboard preaching how evolution is fake or something like that. Both parties need to realize that there are 7 Billion people in the world, and whether you believe in God or not, the idea that 7 billion different minds will agree on something is foolish. Why be offended that someone has a different opinion than you?

    March 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  5. William Hopper

    I'm one of those 'militant" atheists that actively 'attacks' religions (by showing the actual history of the faiths). My book, 'The Heathen's Guide to World Religions', is sold in Muslim countries around the world, and THEY DO BUY IT. There are many, many agnostics and atheists in the ranks of Islam, but they're terrified to say so. Islam holds too much power over their daily lives, their families, and their jobs [to say nothing about the threat to their lives]. Signs like this are a very, very good start in letting these folks know that they're not alone.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • The Flamingo Kid

      GOD loves you!

      March 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • pat

      cool, I want to read that book.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • jim

      Keep up the good work, we can't let ignorance take over.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  6. Robert

    Atheists besides Jared Lee Loughner, let's go back a bit.....Stalin and Mao....over 150 million innocent dead...I think I see a pattern.....

    March 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • allaisa

      Let us see. Believers like Hitler. How many died? He must be your hero then!

      March 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • William Demuth

      You do know Stalins father was a preacher?

      Ironic, Raised in a devout family of indoctrinated child abusers.

      Luckily for you Jeebus freaks he never got the BIG bomb!

      March 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • ski2xs

      @allaisa,

      Wow. . .read Mein Kampf much? I don't think you know Hitler very well.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • ski2xs

      @Billyboy,

      ROFL. . . so YOUR problem is with Christians. . not with all religions. What, were you molested by a priest or something? Hilarious when you wingnuts expose yourselves like that.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Aaron

      Yeah right...like the followers and leader of Christianity and Muslims haven't killed way more. try the Crusades, Jihad attacks, the Holy Roman Empire on for size.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Alex

      You're an idiot. Hitler & Stalin were not Atheists, read a book.. and get a life.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  7. cantilever

    American atheists would do better if they changed their names to something like 'secularists' or 'scientific humanists'. Atheism is not indifference to religion, it's conviction of the opposite. Nonetheless, we must applaud their non-religious chutzpah.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • allaisa

      Atheism is also a religion. After all to be a part of A religion you dont need to believe in God or a Supreme Being.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  8. Ethan

    This nation is built on a lot of "Freedoms" and the one we forget the most is Freedom of Religion. You can be an Atheist or a Jew, or a Muslim, as long as you are an American and are Loyal to the Nation & an active and GOOD member of our society that's all that matters.

    Muslims have been a part of American history since day one, so stop posting comments forgetting our own history. Regardless of that i Have no issues with the billboards, they aren't offensive and as a Muslim I would rather have people actually read the Quran and decide on their faith rather than be told what their faith should be.

    One problem I do have it, just as I have no right to tell people or enforce my views on people , neither does anyone else.

    Athesists say they have no religion and or beliefs however they openly attack Religious believers. Why dont you live and let live ?

    March 1, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • William Demuth

      I would believe the Muslim were more oriented towards the Live and Let Die thing?

      March 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Aquinas

      "Muslims have been a part of American history since day one, so stop posting comments forgetting our own history."

      Since when? Oh, you must another one of those liberal historical revisionist nutjobs.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • William Hopper

      When religion (specifically Christianity) stops making religious laws that govern everyone else, then the atheists will back off some. As is, Christians feel it is their duty to work hard to make sure the law reflects what their religions says is just and good, regardless of the objective reality. Supposed 'moral' laws designed to get you into Heaven do very little for atheists.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • allaisa

      They were on Mayflower? Must have missed t hat one.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Aquinas

      @William Hopper: All laws are based on morality and morality is something that atheists cannot explain as a matter of materialism.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • jim

      Sorry we cannot simply "let live" when you are now trying to force your way into the science class rooms and rewind us back to the dark ages.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • ski2xs

      @Hopper. . .so, which ones should we start with? Thou shalt not kill? Perhaps we should remove any laws that deal with, Thou shalt not steal. Eh?

      What about, Thou shalt remember the sabbath. . . . oh wait. . . okay then. . .thou shalt not covet. . . oh, . . wait again.

      Well

      What about "Thou shalt not bear false witness". . . . . gee, seems if that one is on our books then we don't enforce it much either.

      So, exactly what laws are all 'christian' inspired?

      March 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @Aquinas
      We are selfish creatures by nature, yet our survival depends on cooperation. In order to balance these two conflicting instincts, mankind has had to develop rules that allow room for both.
      These rules are not the same for all communities – hence we've had so many different types of religion and government throughout history.
      Religion binds communities together by giving a common frame of reference. Shared fears (like divine retribution), hopes (like going to heaven) and rituals allow the instinct for self preservation to extend beyond one's self and immediate family.
      This is why the great majority of evolutionary biologists find no conflict between religion and science – as long as religion is recognized solely as a sociological adaptation.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  9. Susan

    I question the stated intent of the billboards, which is to let any atheists in those neighborhoods know they are "not alone." Living in the USA pretty much guarantees that no matter what you believe in, you're not alone. I think the intent is to proseletize atheism. Atheism used to be opting out of religion and faith. Now it's a movement unto itself, with books, meeting centers, and now evangelism. This just reinforces humans' need to belong to a group.
    I'm glad that religious leaders in those communities are laughing it off. It's no threat and really no insult if you are a believer.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • DarkBronzePlant

      "It's no threat and really no insult if you are a believer."

      You're right about that part, mainly because you're wrong about the group's intention.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • DrewNYC

      You're right in the sense that it shouldn't be offensive to religious people if they truly believe. You're wrong in assuming that their intent is not to reach out to others. I lived in the Buckle of the Bible Belt in the South for some time for work. The few times that I opened up to Christians and they found out I was an Atheist, I was pretty much treated like the devil. A few years ago there was a group of secularists who made a billboard saying "Don't believe in God? You're not alone." Just seeing that gave me comfort and joy. Of course the public was outraged and threatened the creators of the billboard. All that "Southern Hospitality" only pertains to white Christians. If you are anything other than that, you're a terrible person. Needless to say, I got out.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  10. SusyQ

    Hmm. It's interesting to see how others feel and think in these posts. I guess these billboards are seving a purpose be cause they bring to light things which normally are not discussed, or maybe that's a bad thing. I'm undecided about that.

    I don't believe but I don't think it's anyone else's business to knwo that, anymore than it's my bussiness to know your religious beliefs.

    Why would athiests be under represeneted in a governement which shouldn't care what your religious beliefes are? Why would that ever factor into the equation?

    Aside from posts in this arena, I will choose to continue to keep my views to myself and ask those around me to do the same – and that's that.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • QS

      And as I said before, if you ignore the wrongs done in the name of religious beliefs, you are condoning them.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  11. Just Bob

    I would tell you atheists to burn in hell... But you will. Don't worry. When the time comes, do not say you were not warned.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Then I shall spend eternity with your mama!

      March 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • QS

      Thank you for demonstrating just what it is we Atheists are trying to get people to take more notice of when it comes to the sheer hatefulness that religious beliefs create in people.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • FactsRBad

      Keep talking to that imarinary man in the sky....

      March 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • HeroicSlug

      You afraid of the year 1400, Bob?

      No?

      Nor am I. I wasn't existing then either, and I really can't complain. I'll say the same about 2400.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Commenter

      Just Bob,

      We can learn so much about a person's character by how they think their god behaves...

      March 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • kso

      Look @ bob, another supposed "adult" who believes in hell.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Why do so many Christians revel in apocalyptic schadenfreude?

      March 1, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  12. WillH85

    Just wondering how many people have been killed by Atheist fanatics? Just wondering. I see this as no different than the gay community encouraging people in the closet to come out. I grew up in a Catholic environment but left the church because it just wasn't what I believed. I'm not an Atheist, though, since I still believe in God in some form or another. I do feel bad for people that are pressured into a religion, though, and think this is great, even if I don't agree with a lot of the things Atheists do.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Craig

      How many killed by Atheist Fanatics?

      In the 20th century, perhaps 50 Million in the USSR by Stalin, and up to 100 million by Mao in China.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Primewonk

      @ Craig – Stalin and Mao didn't kill people because they were atheists. They killed people because they were power hungry despots. You clearly do not understand cause and effect. Using your line of thought, we could say that Stalin and Mao killed people becaue they were right handed – therefore, right handed people are evil.

      March 1, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Pat

      "In the 20th century, perhaps 50 Million in the USSR by Stalin, and up to 100 million by Mao in China."

      480 million were killed by religious groups, funny how you leave that part out.

      March 1, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  13. Merc

    It's worth noting that you typically don't see Discordians posting on any of these bigoted, overzealous, hate-filled messages boards.

    Think about it.

    Hail Eris! All Hail Discordia!

    March 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  14. truth

    Religious people are simply people with delusional disorders. Some are curable some aren't.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Joe

      People that group everyone into the same big groups are shallow and don't like to think much.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • ski2xs

      atheists as simply religious nuts who's belief is that there is no deity. 🙂

      March 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  15. Joe

    I'm not sure faith in God is something you want to take away from people driving in New Jersey.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Susan

      thanks for the laugh!

      March 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  16. peaceful

    Decent humans don't judge or threaten others no matter their differences.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • truth

      Catholics, Mormons, Jews, Muslims etc have all shown to be anything but peaceful.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • MK

      True, Peaceful, very true.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  17. Rob

    Who cares if people have religion? I don't care who you pray to, do whatever you like! I don't understand why people try to promote "non believing". What do they gain?
    I Do hope they irritate the extremist muslims with these ads. I really do.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Chris

      Non believing is still believing in something.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Chris

      And if there was a christian billboard saying to Follow the Lord or Jesus Saves... would that be an issue? prob not.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • William Hopper

      Because our laws reflect the people who make them. If Islam were to gain strength in America, it would not be long before the laws were changed to fit what Muslims believe is 'truth', much the same way the Christians work very hard to change the laws to reflect their 'truth'. Protection from one religion protects all other religions, and only atheists strive to do this. Other religions merely work to become the next political power writing the laws we all have to live by.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Andrew

      I care when their religions start impacing my life. Look at Santorum and how he wants to run life as a theocracy. Don't you get it? It's not just a bunch of pastoral peace lovers all privately trying to worship God. There are colleges DEVOTED to putting Christians and the bible in power.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  18. QS

    Atheists, like me, are fed up with the concept that religion MUST be respected, no matter what, simply because it is typically falsely perceived as being wholly benevolent, when in truth it divides people more than unites them.

    I have never pushed my beliefs on others, I simply choose to stand up to those who try to push their beliefs on me. There is a difference, but to those who I'm standing up to, all they see is that I'm trying to push my beliefs on them because I persistently tell them that their beliefs do not, should not, and will not hold any sway over me.

    But I suppose that, to a religious person who's been indoctrinated to believe their ideology is the only true one and has been brainwashed into thinking that it's their obligation to "save" others by bringing them into their way of thinking, somebody standing up to that might seem like that person is pushing their beliefs on them, but they'd still be wrong.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Justin

      Shut up you bigot.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • QS

      Bigot? Nah, just rational.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • DarkBronzePlant

      Justin, 19 religious fanatics flew planes into buildings a decade ago, killing thousands of people. Would we have been "bigots" to do anything other than completely respect their religious views and actions?

      March 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  19. WDinDallas

    Some Muslims will probably blow up their building.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  20. Webfoot

    God loves ALL of us.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Merc

      Please tell me again how sending all non-believers to writhe in agony in the pits of Hell is love?

      March 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • V

      I've been reading and posting on this article for the past 3 hours, and of all the posts (including my own) this is the only one that matters.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • allaisa

      Ha! Ha! if there is one!

      March 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Webfoot

      II don't believe that, Merc. There's a huge difference between someone who believes in God, and a biblical literalist. The Bible has a lot of good information. Nobody knows if it tells the entire story. It was also written and complied by humans who lived in the first century.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Greg s

      Merc you have free will, You choose where your going to end up by the choices you make. If there is a God and there is just as much for as against, But lets say there is a God and he made everything Including you and He gets to make the rules because lets face it hes a lot bigger then you, So unfortunately he only wants those who believe in him based on the information given, Lets look at the facts based on the Book, ,Some of his own angels turned on him and they see him every day........That had to hurt, So he decides With man he only wants those with the faith to believe based on His book and faith found thru the holy spirit, If you refuse to believe then he cant use you, cant trust you, so he will choose to toss you aside, Hey I understand It aint fair, Your important, Your Smart, But unfortunately hes bigger then you and he has the Juice, You either play by the rules or wait and see what not believing leads too. My personnel belief is it leads to exactly what an Atheists is expecting at the end of his life. Once you have faced God you will just cease to be like a program that has been deleted. So you get exactly what you wanted in the first place! God fulfilled your wish....That's true love my fine Atheist friend.

      March 1, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
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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.