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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. Spearwielder

    “We are not trying to inflame anything,” (Silverman) continued.

    *chuckle*

    OK.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Free Thinker

      Yeah, I support the whole campaign but you gotta call BS there. LOL.

      March 3, 2012 at 2:16 am |
  2. Kingofthenet

    Religious people don't understand Atheists, it's NOT a choice, i can't CHOOSE to be stupid.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Blake

      Religion and spirituality is a always a choice - even the bible says you have free will in that regard. Even if you are religious, you choose a denomination to worship a higher being and you choose to have faith, right? That's a fact – -regardless of whether a higher being exists or not.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  3. mike from iowa

    Religious people are like criminals that attack you, and if you try to stop them, then they claimyou are trying to oppress their beliefs. Keep your religion out of my children"s education.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  4. MECH ENGINEER

    As a agnostic I am embarrassed to be included by this man. An agnostic does not believe in a higher power because they cannot scientifically prove that one exists.... However... An agnostic also does not totally eliminate the idea of a higher power because they cannot scientifically prove that one does not exist. In other words, an agnostic is just someone who believes in scientific processes and neither believes or disbelieves in a higher power. I would not put atheism and agnosticism into the same category as this man did!!!

    March 1, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Blake

      Can you read? He's an atheist, not an agnostic - and you are trying to overlay your belief system with his, which makes zero sense.

      However, I will say that this is equally obnoxious as Christian/Jewish/Muslim propaganda billboards. I just wish people wouldn't wear their religious beliefs on their sleeves.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • MECH ENGINEER

      "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."

      Please read the article and then read what I wrote. I was pretty clear that I was not aligned (nor is any agnostic) with atheist views.

      March 1, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  5. myklds

    “You know it’s a myth … and you have a choice,” the billboards say."

    Been whining about belief shoved down under other's throat, huh?

    Ah...,it's just information drive/campaign to inform and to help the ignorant, the beguiled and the weak-minded fools from bondage of religious belief?

    Ah, okay nice try.......

    but

    TRY HARDER!

    March 1, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  6. Joe M.

    Funny, atheists don't even realize they are a religion in the way they promote their ideas and seek to convert non-believers. Silly atheists.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Adam

      By your definition, CocaCola is a religion.... Define your terms, then let's discuss.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • mike from iowa

      Incorrect. Pushing back against religion is not itself a religion. If I believe that rocks fly, the fact that you don't believe such an absurdity does not mean you are anti-rock.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • GOP Hate America

      true but atheist never killed anyone or started wars or try to make laws restricting rights based on their beliefs as all the other stupid religions do.........thats the problem.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • no nothing

      how long did it take you to come up with that?

      March 1, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  7. Robert

    You don't KNOW it's a myth until you have looked under EVERY rock in EVERY corner of the whole wide UNIVERSE. It's the height of arrogancy to just ASSUME you know until you have ABSOLUTE empirical evidence. Christians don't know. Atheists don't know. We're all AGNOSTICS. That's the best we can do.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Kukulkan

      Yeah, now prove to me Odin isn't the all-father.

      March 1, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  8. Lord Vader

    Muslims will find how much more peaceful and tolerant Christians are! Expect more be-headings worldwide!

    March 1, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  9. Nima

    I thought the whole problem with religious people was that they somehow seem to like to force their religion onto others. If Atheists starts the same thing then what's the difference between the two groups?

    March 1, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • adam

      Amen to that

      March 1, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Adam

      One pretends to know things they cannot know. The other refuses to do so.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Matt

      its not forcing, it is reassuring the people who are abused and ridiculed and who can't tell family and friends that they don't believe in stupid non-sense – that they are not alone. eg "you have a choice" – many people don't have a choice and a threatened when they come out...believe it or not

      March 1, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Tammy N

      As an athiest, I agree!

      March 1, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • GOP Hate America

      The day atheists make laws oppressing people. start wars and kill others based on their beliefs then you can lump them with the stupid believers. until then you are wrong.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  10. mike from iowa

    Religion is a mental disease. It has been plaguing the planet for several thousand years. It has tried to stop people becoming self-aware. It is symptomatic of a fear of the complexities of life, and those afflicted shrink back from unerstanding and self-accountability, looking for an simple set of tules to follow and an easy escape from the responsibilities of have free will and choice. We must abolish religion in order for our future generations to survive the coming challenges of a crowded world. We can't rely that a God is going to come and end everything. We owe it to future generations to escape religion and enable progress and reason.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • adam

      If that is the Holy Land and those 2 are true religions and are killing each other, then the atheist some how got a point.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  11. Kingofthenet

    When a Civilization dies so does it's Gods.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • mike from iowa

      Oh, nice observation!

      March 1, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  12. keith pillsbury

    Maker: Religion is an opinion

    March 1, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  13. Jerry

    Whoever thinks that Hitler was a Catholic, you are wrong. Although he was raised a Catholic, he left the church after he left home.

    Just remember this. There are no atheists in foxholes.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Drew

      That could be just as easily construed as an argument against foxholes

      March 1, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Bad Religion

      Actually Hitler did mention Christianity and loyalty to God and to spread their "true" form of Christianity across the globe...... Sound familiar in today's political arena????? I'll give ya 1 guess which party it sounds like.

      March 1, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Brian

      Jerry you posted an erronious statement. Hitler was a Catholic..never excommunicated by the church or himself. He received all the sacraments. (Only Goebells was excommunicated and that was for marrying a protestant). Hitler assigned Reich Archbishop Muller as the spiritual leader of the Nazi Party. I have seen the photos of Muller with nazi standing beside him right here in a church in Wiesbaden, Germany. You can't separate the Nazi's from christianity. ONLY 2,000 religious were killed for "objecting" to the Third Reich out of millions of believers and 10's of thousands of clergy in Christianity.

      June 13, 2012 at 4:28 am |
    • Brian

      oh and Jerry, as one who works with US Soldiers here in Germany and have been in Iraq... i can personally attest to many who are and have been "atheists" in Foxholes. But you keep believing what you have to, to sustain your self made delusion if it comforts you.

      June 13, 2012 at 4:30 am |
  14. no nothing

    OH boy, here comes the death threats.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Brian

      you are correct, there will be death threats because religious fanatics, muslim or christian, feel their fragile belief system is challenged and they must sustain their delusion. The challenge is called "cognitive dissonance" and causes severe psychic pain thus to avoid it, they threaten non believers politically, socially, legally and physcially if necessary. They are like crack and heroin addicts who will strick out at anyone who tries to deny them access to their drug (religion). Marx was correct: "Religion IS the opium of the masses".

      June 13, 2012 at 4:35 am |
  15. Sifleut

    The multi-verse is a big place and there's no room for the myths that religion brings with it. It's time to evolve. Science will always win!

    March 1, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Scott

      Science can neither prove nor disprove things defined as supernatural and all powerful, etc. Let's not make it a battle between the two or you give the nut-jobs yet another reason to feel threatened by science.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  16. Guest

    reply to djwazu – yes atheist readily kill people. Look at the exploits of gangs like MS13, drug dealers, etc.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Brian

      drug dealers are atheists??? gangs member are atheists?? how do you know this? have you done a study? a survey?? truth is, many gang members DO believe in supersticious religious piety, the hispanics particularly. Drug dealers? Athiests?? that is reisable. So ludacrous as to not even derserve any further reply. Selling drugs doesn't make one an Atheist. It is a non-sequitur.

      June 13, 2012 at 4:39 am |
  17. peopleperson

    It is sad to see the money athiest waste on these billiboards, hey athiest why don't you do something good and help feed a child, or shelter the homeless!
    Don't push you foolish ways on the rest of us please.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Luke

      Many do my friend. Go search on Google. There are many, many secular/atheist-agnostic organizations out there.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Sifleut

      You really don't know what you're talking about. I guess it's easier to demonize something that you don't or want to understand to justify going after it.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Andrew

      I'm sure you say the exact same thing about Christian billboards, right? You don't just have a problem because they're atheist, I would hope.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  18. Living in IL

    Nobody wants to go to Hell, but we all do want to go to Heaven. Every religion on this earth, and the people who believe in it, cannot be right. However, every religion and its followings can all be wrong! This is just something to think about.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Drew

      I think every religion is wrong; how could somethign made by men not be? That doesn't mean that there isn't a god, or that people can't lead good and full lives based on religion

      March 1, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  19. Luke

    @Drock - Lack of belief in a high being does not imply a meaningless existence. Some people just make their own meaning. For example, I've a dear friend – atheist – who works for the UN aid agency. She derives meaning through helping others. Plus, you would be surprised at how lively conversations can be with atheists.

    That said, I wonder how many comments here are based on, well, ignorance. Sad that such things rule both theist and atheist beliefs – at times.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Bob N

      Ok, great, a meaning in life, then what? Its over? Just done, finished? The faith it takes to not believe in something beyond a earthly existence is the greatest faith of all. Do people still believe in the "chance" theory...Good Grief.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Andrew

      Yes, it's over, just then, finished, done, NO LIFE.

      It doesn't really require much faith to believe that at all... because since my brain operates via chemistry, once my neurons stop firing, I have no reason to expect that I'd continue to live in any way. I'd simply not exist, just like I didn't exist for the vast majority of the existence of the universe, and will not exist for the entire duration after I'm gone.

      Sooo I best make the most of it now... which apparently involves procrastinating project euler problems.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  20. jesse

    Finally some smart billboards!! 🙂

    March 1, 2012 at 5:44 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.