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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. Randy

    An Atheist convention? You have to love the idea of that. A bunch of people getting together to talk about what they DON'T believe in. Most people gather to talk about common ideas and common beliefs. This would be just people talking about what they DON'T believe in. After all, the entire definition of atheism is what they DO NOT believe in. So the only topic of conversation at an Atheist convention would be God. After all that IS what they DON'T believe in....

    March 1, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • MagFlare

      While I probably wouldn't attend an atheist convention, you can hardly blame a hated minority for meeting up, showing support for one another, and trying to work together to make the world a little gentler for their kind.

      Can you?

      March 1, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • U.S.Army-OverLord

      Well stated. 😉

      March 1, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • no nothing

      OK since I don't believe in something, I can't talk about it and if I did that would make me a hypocrite? That's your logic?

      March 1, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  2. Whynot11

    Low and behold...

    “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.”

    This is why America is beautiful, regardless of creed we learn to embrace everyone's cr.ap equally! Let everyone air their grievances!!

    March 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  3. Stacy

    I think what is sad is how volatile talks between any religion and atheists always tends to become. I'm Buddhist, but I was raised Catholic and stopped believing in God for many years for personal reasons.

    But the fact is, eventually I learned that understanding and tolerating everyone was the only true path to being happy with your surroundings. And while maybe I don't like the phrasing of the billboards, I believe as American's it's their right to put whatever they want up there (and I fell that way about many Christian themed billboards and public announcements). And who am I to judge what other's believe?

    And from the comments on this, I see that we haven't gotten any farther past the second grade hair pulling, shouting,

    "You're stupid!"
    "No you're stupid!"
    "NO YOURE STUPID!"

    Etc...

    Hopefully some day we can learn to just look the other way (You know, turn the other cheek as Christ taught), or learn that saying other people's beliefs are stupid (atheist's you don't like it when people tell you you're wrong, but you feel you can tell others they're wrong) is detrimental to a civilized society.

    Thanks! Have a good day!

    March 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • QS

      As an Atheist, I have no problem with people believing whatever they will. My problem, is when those people believe themselves superior for no other reason than they believe something I don't. And when they try to enact laws against others based on that belief, I absolutely will not be tolerant.

      There's a fine line between tolerance and allowing yourself and others to be trampled all over. I for one feel that the religion corporation has been trampling over people for far too long and it is way overdue that it be put in its place.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  4. Kuwait

    Nearly over 10 Million American have a Near Death Experience. Some visit heaven, some visit Hell.

    To all Aithiest, I never wish anyone in HELL... Don't go to HELL if you don't have too. Repent while
    it is not too late.

    Thank you

    March 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • no nothing

      that's funny

      March 1, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • QS

      And what, though I probably don't have to ask, are we supposedly repenting for? Thinking? Reasoning? Questioning that which you believe to be unquestionable?

      No thanks. I have regrets in my life, but sin is a man-made concept used to heap guilt onto otherwise good people who are made to feel they've done something wrong based on ancient and obsolete moral standards.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  5. StreetWise

    Keep practicing your religion... it's your right... I wholly support in your faith to deny God, but don't put in my face, take it with the Lord.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • U.S.Army-OverLord

      I fully agree.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  6. no nothing

    As An Atheist I try and not throw it in to other people faces, unless they are asking for it. The billboards are a bit too much. The money should have been spent for a party.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  7. what?

    Let's make a deal. I won't wave my religion in your face and you don't wave atheism in mine.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • QS

      But again, the problem with that deal is that the religious won't, or more specifically can't, abide by that deal because their religion demands that they "spread the word". Which is how they justify their own pushing of their beliefs...."I am commanded to do it, so I must."

      It's truly sad to me that religious people sincerely don't seem to be able to think for themselves.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Bob

      But there is the rub! Most religions and religious people cant seem to just believe and otherwise let live – they have to flaunt it, or "educate" people, or whatever

      March 1, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  8. ch

    I am what is commonly called a Jesus Freak, and to be honest I am proud of that

    I am happy they are pushing their "faith" and that is what it is the "believe" there is no God. God gives them this choice so, just realize you have your right and so do I so don't be upset when I push my faith as you are pushing yours

    March 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  9. Bob

    Hey CNN – "billboard wars" – why are you trying to stoke a conflict??

    March 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  10. Kingofthenet

    Live 2,000yrs ago, get to see the show and Miracles firsthand, not enough? you can check out the wounds of your Messiah yourself, for THIS is get a Sainthood, have the same doubts today? Straight to Hell.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  11. Bill

    I believe that in the last seconds of conscious life Atheism is a myth, and at that moment these people that claim to be atheist will at least try to believe if only for a few seconds. (Just my opinion as an agnostic)

    March 1, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • QS

      Believe away, still doesn't mean you're right.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  12. Patriarchae

    To the Christians/Muslims/Jews: This billboard is designed to reach out to atheists, and atheists only, just like your stupid bible-verse billboards I have to look at every time I drive down the highway are intended to reach out to believers, and believers only. Don't complain when you do the exact same thing that this atheist group is doing. It only reinforces the notion that religionists are a bunch of hypocrites.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Huh?

      I don't care what either of you believe, and I wish both of you would shut up.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • U.S.Army-OverLord

      Solomon who was considered by many to be the wisest man in the world said this. "Only the fool says in his heart there is no God" I guess he was right. 😉

      March 1, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  13. bob

    There is no proof either way, just faith .. Logic dictates that atheisim is a myth as well.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Patriarchae

      How could atheism be a myth? There is nothing for the myth to be about. And guess what, atheism isn't based on faith because by definition, atheism is LACK OF FAITH in a deity. It is based on reasoning and scientific understanding instead, concepts that you've obviously never heard of.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Bob

      I think youre wrong – atheism can exist where there is a lack of faith – in addition, I guess, to where there is faith in the absence of a deity. In theism, there must be faith in something.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • MohammedLovesTo69Jesus

      There is no proof whether or not Poseidon exists. Therefore, if you don't believe in Poseidon it's a matter of faith.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Brad

      How do you figure? Athiesm is the disbelief in God. How is not believing in an invisible man in the sky illogical? An all powerful God that oversees an imperfect universe is the most illogical thing I can think of. If he is all powerful, he created all things, including death, evil, etc. etc. And don't give me that "free will" garbage. That is a human emotion and in no way applicable to an all powerful being capable of willing things into and out of existence. Why would an all powerful being need to create a lesser race to worship it? If God is real you should be ticked off about what a jerk he/she/it is.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  14. QS

    If I were straight, I'd still be Atheist.

    If I were religious, I'd still be gay.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  15. longtooth

    Who cares what anybody believes? I asked my friend God why people get so wound up about their beliefs. He shrugged and said, "Beats the crap out of me. I don't care at all.!"

    March 1, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Hasa Diga Eebowai

      Because the christian taliban is trying to make the US a theocracy.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  16. Chris

    The main problem I have with religious people is their assertion that you can choose to believe in God. I don't think you can really "choose" to believe. If you say you are choosing, then you are being disingenuous. If something reveals itself in such a way that you have no choice in your mind but to know that it is real, then your heart will adjust accordingly, as well as your way of life. No sane person would deny something that is real to them. No God has revealed itself to me, and I am certainly not going to pretend that one has. I have to trust my own discernment, because that's all I've got.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • U.S.Army-OverLord

      Well God did reveal himself to me. I will not act like that did not take place in order to make some non believer feel better. If you guys don't want to believe fine. But now it seems you want to form a "religion" of non believers. It's no surprise at all, if people could see Christ with their own eyes perform the things he did and still not believe so be it.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Chris

      @U.S.Army-OverLord You didn't see what Christ performed with your own eyes, unless somehow you existed during his time. To claim as such is intellectually dishonest and patently ridiculous. You pretty much missed the point anyway, which is the same point Christians always miss, so carry on soldier.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • U.S.Army-OverLord

      Who are you to tell me what I experienced. Someone with ZERO knowledge of the spiritual realm. Go goggle The Holy Spirit and educate yourself. The fact is you will NEVER be able to deny God is real. No amount of false logic and billboards will change that.

      March 1, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  17. scott

    I don't like atheists because they bring pointless law suits against old lady's who work in government buildings that put fake little xmas tree's on their desk or hang up pictures of Santa, or who wear really ugly albeit festive sweaters during the holidays. Is it that big of a deal. Also you knows muslims don't have a sense of humor about these things and Jews have been praticing their faith longer than most organized religions. Also if you go after Jews, Christians and Muslims, well then Hindus, pagans and wiccans should not be too far behind.

    Also why do atheists assume th

    March 1, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Abraham

      Irritating people wave all kinds of different flags.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  18. bigCHEZE

    It's about time that the non-religious has an opportunity to start a holy war. It's only fair.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Bill

      That would be a non-holy war I believe.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  19. Edward Holman

    Isn't "reaching out" a spiritual thing to do? Why would atheists want to "reach out" to others? Isn't that a rather evangelical thing to do? Why do atheists want to be evangelical? Where does this "caring for others" instinct come from among atheists? I'm tototally baffled.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • QS

      Yes, you are.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Abraham

      Atheists have the ability to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing, not for fear of eternal damnation.
      Your assumption that atheists are, simply by virtue of their atheism, somehow amoral or otherwise "bad" people is pretty ignorant.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Hasa Diga Eebowai

      Because it is intruding in the US government. The republican party, one whose fiscal responsibility could greatly help, has been destroyed by theocracy.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • CT

      No. Reaching out is not a spiritual thing to do. It's common sense. Believe it or not, some of us are nice to our fellow man because it's the right thing to do; not because God told us to.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  20. LAIBACH

    I think Dawkin's excellent book, 'The God Delusion', should be translated into Hebrew and Arabic, and distributed widely. This is nothing more than the exchange of free ideas. Religious people do it, and atheists and agnostics do it too. No big whoop.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:26 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.