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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. Nan

    Closet atheists!! Heh, heh!

    March 1, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Adam

      Yes. People who have been brought up in religion, and by social pressure and other reasons refuse to acknowledge to their families and community their lack of faith. I estimate this population to be in the tens of millions in the US. Daniel Dennett wrote an article about the existence of atheists within the clergy. Please check it out!

      newsweek . washingtonpost . com / onfaith / Non-Believing-Clergy . pdf

      March 1, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • DrewNYC

      I don't see why this is funny? Unless you are afraid of gays. If that's the case, then it's just sad.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  2. Chad

    Religion thrives in part because its members self-reinforce their beliefs. ie. If my father believes this, and my neighbor, and my relatives, then it must be true. In reality, most people have doubts because frankly the stories just aren't believable in a modern world. Those doubts are the thin end of the wedge, and these billboards are just raising a hand and saying "Hey, doubter, we see you. Not everyone believes the story. You're not crazy." Get used to this. This will be the defining "war" of the next couple centuries. Religion is on the way out, and that's a good thing. It's the primary roadblock to world peace and new discoveries that could eradicate human suffering. There will always be pockets of religion on the fringe, but eventually reason will prevail and humanity will finally leave the Dark Ages behind.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Different Chad?

      March 1, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Chad

      That was my first post on the topic, so yes. I commented in one other place under a post by NoDoubt. That's it.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • Archie

      Looks like granny is back to stealing handles!

      March 1, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  3. SentByTheWind

    I'd LOVE to see a billboard that read "Religion is the most destructive weapon ever created."
    Maybe there could also be an image of Jesus & Allah facing each other – both with machine guns, grenades on their robe belt, bombs going of in the background along with dead bloodied bodies of women, children and men all around their feet.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  4. NoDoubt

    I'm Agnostic, but I find this pretty offensive to post those things. Muslims have a right to their religion (as long as they aren't killing people, just like Christians used to during the Inquisition and witch burnings) and don't deserve this disrespect.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Chad

      If someone's faith can't survive the suggestion of doubt from a billboard, did they ever really have faith? And if they didn't, then this billboard is exactly what they needed to see, because it lets them know they're not alone.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • JustEric

      Amen. (Pardon the pun!)

      Seriously...you don't have to be religious to find these billboards offensive. I'm a residual Catholic with agnostic/atheist leanings, but honestly...one of the biggest gripes about religious folks that agnostics have is that they're obnoxious and preachy. Hello there pot...nice to see that you've met kettle.

      I know a lot of folks that generally hold Conservative/Republican views, but refuse to call themselves that because of the loud, obnoxious few on the Right. I now know how they feel. While I'm becoming more and more atheistic every day, I'm also less and less inclined to identify myself as such because the world is starting to view the atheists as d-bags.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Travislg

      Do you drink only Dr. Pepper as it is an agnostic beverage? Not being serious just trying to break the ice with some humor. Carry on

      March 1, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  5. 2lowe

    When was the last time an Athiest murdered in the name of religion?

    March 1, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Nah

      2lowe: "When was the last time an Athiest murdered in the name of religion?"

      Please learn history.

      The USSR exiled and killed religious persons merely for being religious and not accepting the state as the ultimate force in the world.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • 2lowe

      Nah, that's not Atheism, it's Communism. Don't pretend not to know the difference just to make a statement.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • nuh duh

      "When was the last time an athiest murdered in the name of religion?" Hmmm my little athiest buddy, I don't know... is the answer Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc...?

      March 1, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  6. Chris

    jimtanker, +1 to your comment good sir.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  7. Joe B.

    Whoever believes in the Son (Jesus Christ) has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Ah yes – the terrible wrath of the All Loving God.
      More schadenfreude from the smugly self-righteous.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • momoya

      Love me or burn in eternal torture forever; it's how I get my grandkids to love me.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  8. Jesse

    How about everyone stops calling each other stupid or retarded for what they think is right and just be mature. I'm a Mormon and I know that many people think we are crazy. Yet you know what? There are a lot of things that seem weird to different people, it's all opinion when it comes to "weird." Lets be grown ups and just realize that we won't agree on everything. Atheists, Christians or Muslims, we are all human and we all think we are correct.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Pierre C

      You are the one who wrote derogatory words. An atheist would not use those, that is for sure.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  9. NorCalMojo

    In Northern California, atheists are BY FAR the most pushy and annoying evangelists.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  10. BubbaJones

    One has to realize that all religions have roots in the desire to "civilize" a population and provide a framework of acceptable behavior and potential "punishment" to create an aversion to such behavior. Generally speaking, a noble cause, and quite effective in the absence of significant knowledge.

    All the storytelling in religious texts is nothing more than supporting material to flesh out the behavioral framework. This approach makes perfect sense in a situation of complete ignorance of the populace (the Dark Ages, etc.), but it fails miserably in one of an educated populace.

    The problem lies in the fact that modern society has evolved effective justice and penalty, based on the collection of facts and evidence. Equal weight has also been given to the acceptance of basic rights and freedoms, as well as positive reinforcement of ethically acceptable behavior though rote and example, all though childhood and early adulthood.

    It's not really appreciated how staggeringly ignorant most humans were in early "civilized" times. The lifetime level of "education" and factual knowledge might be equivalent to modern Junior Kindergarten, if you were exceptionally lucky. It does not mean that one could not be creative or effective in such times, but it would be similar to walking in a fog, somehow knowing there is far more out there. In this environment religious doctrine is quite palatable, and readily accepted, particularly in the grossly exaggerated punishment/rewards of following such doctrine.

    The almost comically excessive descriptions of an eternity in the throes of pain, versus one of limitless paradise are actually a requirement in the absence of significant moral guidance and understanding. An uneducated populace needs such extremes.

    If humans are consistently educated in a manner that reinforces, and to a degree rewards, acceptable behavior, and there is an understood system of deterrence in Justice, then the underlying purpose of any religion is in question.

    You don't need dogma and fantasies to ensure that basic ethical behavior is understood and applied in day to day life. Effective schooling, role models, and -significant- input from family are the key.

    It's still very much an uphill battle, but even the minuscule time period of the last 100 years has seen dramatic changes in society's acceptance of more "modest" antisocial behaviors (racism, bigotry, bullying etc.) What is now coined "Political Correctness" is really just the fine-tuning of previously-accepted social norms.

    Things are looking up, and the credit goes to the human desire for betterment, not blind faith in muddied ancient dogmas.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  11. Ramse

    Ah, nice to see atheists conducting themselves in a manner that they usually do not condone.

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

      Gloating? Gloating because we're stooping down to your level? I guess it makes sense if there's nothing else to gloat about. You sure can't gloat about proving god.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • JamieIRL

      Quote someone, otherwise you're just saying random things. People can put up signs on billboards if they want. Just not in our public schools, offices, etc... It's really as simple as that.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Annaliesa

      Oh the Internet – how it allows us to be obnoxious. Go to any comments on CNN articles, and it's a slew of hate. People really need to mellow out and learn to play nicely around the sandbox.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • NorCalMojo

      classic example of becoming what you hate.

      They'll be riding around on bikes and knocking on peoples doors soon.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  12. Feast of Beast

    I'm an atheist, but tI don't feel the need to tell everyone because It's none of their damn businesses. Likewise, I don't want them preaching to me. Keep your religion to yourself!

    March 1, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  13. Nashinga

    So man created God in his own image, in the image of man he created him (my version of Genesis 1:27)

    March 1, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  14. Jimmy Franklenton

    Do atheist believe in the inherent goodness of man, or do they believe that man is bad, or a mixture of both. Or, do they don't even think about this at all?

    March 1, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • momoya

      Mixture. People do good and bad and most are capable of extremes.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Men can have many traits.

      Alas much of morality is subjective to both the giver and the reciever.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • joelle

      Hi Jimmy,
      the answer is exactly the same as a believer will give. Atheists are the same as everyone else, with the only difference that they do not believe there is any God. We just evolved on this Earth, we're still trying to understand all the details of how, but it's clear to us that no God created us. The only meaning to life is to make it meaningful, the only good or evil is determined by genes, parents, and environment, and all the interactions between these things.

      I actually think that being an atheist is an evolutionary must, like the "discovery" of zero (it took people a few generations to accept it), of irrational numbers (guess why they call them irrational) and the realization that the world is not flat. Our brains are built to intuitively grasp natural numbers, we need education to learn about zero and the rest, our brains are built to seek refuge from the unexplainable, the unknown holds some danger, so the brain has mechanisms of inventing imaginary supernatural creatures to help make sense of things that are beyond our knowledge and understanding. We evolved from inventing another God for every unexplained thing (see polytheic societies) to simplifying to monotheism in the leading religions of the modern world, and the next logical step it to at least accept the evidence from science to make us all agnostic, if not on the longer term atheists. At the core, we are all the same humans.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  15. JamieIRL

    I love the indignant stance many religious people take regarding these signs. Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike are constantly trying to spread their message and increase their following. And their opinion of atheist? Not good, and they are vocal about it in their books, on the internet, on the street, anywhere and everywhere that the topic comes up. And why? Atheist are statistically under the radar when it comes to crime and atheist are statistically doing just fine in society (ie; quality of life, education etc...). So why all of the negativity towards atheist? Is it insecurity with your own beliefs that leads you to reject the idea of someone that doesn't believe in your god? What is it? There was a study done at a University-I think it was University of Chicago, or Michigan, I don't know. But the study was a questionnaire asking about atheist and peoples opinion of them. Basically atheist were at the bottom of the list, under convicts, under even pedophiles if I remember correctly. Why? What do you think that a person who is unable to be convinced of your god is doing, other than being unable to be convinced of your god? It's baffling to me. Anyway, yea, let the religious people get all excited about these signs. Hypocrites will be hypocrites.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • NorCalMojo

      .......and atheists whine about it. So who's the hypocrite?

      March 1, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • KeepYourBibleOuttaMaCoffin

      actually not true, try to become a jew, you will be pushed away rather quickly, you have to bust your rump to convince yourself into the Judaic temple....jews just want to be left to their own, and like other religeons they expect us to give them certain liberties but you will never see jews trying to convert people, they don't care or want non jews

      March 1, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  16. Saul

    Without God, there'd be no atheists...

    March 1, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • William Demuth

      With Athiests, or without, there is no God.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Todd

      Without man, there would be no gods.

      March 1, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  17. William Hopper

    As an atheist, I really wish they'd put more thought into the signs. I wanted them to say 'I DON'T BELIEVE IN ISLAM, BUT IT DOESN'T REALLY BUG ME. WHAT DOES BUG ME ARE ALL THE IDIOTS WHO KEEP USING IT TO TELL YOU TO BLOW THINGS UP." That, in my opinion, would be a great atheist message in the Middle east. [AMAZON: 'The Heathen's Guide to World Religions'.]

    March 1, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 1, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Chris

      Prayer changes nothing. Education improves things.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  19. ROSE JAMES

    When you leave this world without JESUS CHRIST, HELL will make a believer out of you but it will be to late to change your mind. You can't beg steal or borrow one more tomorrow, if you die without JESUS today.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • momoya

      most atheists don't respond to terroristic threats. "Love me or burn" theology. Gotta love it.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • jon p

      I suppose you want to sell me a bridge as well?

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

      i concur

      March 1, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • William Demuth

      My ancestor killed oyur God once.

      If he returns, I shall kill him again.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Chris

      Your god is an a**hole for all the pain he causes. Really, torturing and starving kids in Africa?

      March 1, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @ROSE JAMES

      I reject your petty excuse for a "god". To think that you truly believe some all powerful being is insecure enough that it requires its creations to praise it is nothing short of sickening. Your "god" acts like a 5 year old with separation anxiety, and you act like a self-righteous b**ch. Have fun in your life filled with condemnation and hate of those who do not believe as you do.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  20. SeeWhatIDidThar?

    These sinners must repent! Accept Zeus into your life and sacrifice a goat at your local agora or face eternity wandering the river Styx. Atheism is a lie!!!

    March 1, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Ian

      I'm sorry, but Thor will kick and wipe the floor with Zeus' butt.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Pablo

      Yeah, that was really funny.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • domenicdandrea

      lol.i think its great that you have written God's name in hebrew(yahweh=jehovah) you have unexpectedly(and ,i'm sure unwantedly) shown that His name will be known throughout of the world.............thank you!!!!!!!!!!!...............even when you try to dis-prove you inadvertendly make His name known.........just goes to prove , you can call believers what you want but Jehovah can turn all your blasphemy and lies against you!!!!!!!!!....

      March 1, 2012 at 2:51 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.