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. god is imaginary


    March 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  2. bill constantine

    now to think o f i t is a way to control the masses. I have never seen a miracle. bring the sign to las vegas....I do believe in a higher power..ssome thing that tells the brain what is right from wrong.

    March 1, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  3. Kahpo

    One tip to nonbelievers: Hang yourself and be done! Worthless living in this planet anyway

    March 1, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      huh? non-believers think this is the only life you get. we believe in making the most of it. why don't you go hang yourself so you can be with your imaginary daddy-figure in the sky?

      March 1, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Wouldn't it make more sense for believers to do that & move on to the land of eternal bliss?

      March 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • John

      Atheists value life more than that because it's the only one anyone ever gets.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  4. Lazarus

    Wow, these concerned atheists that are spending their money to "reach out" to the poor people trapped in the community of believers...blah blah blah what a crock. They are just pushing their agenda and attempting to get some publicity for their fund raising efforts. If the "atheists" are in the community and "trapped" they can leave. You don't need to be so controversial. Sorry you have lived a life without any hope or faith in it. Good luck in the future. And CNN do you not have real news to report. I am tired of seeing these little articles and stories on these issues in an attempt to get some "hits" on your page. You can be replaced too.

    March 1, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Anon


      March 1, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • Evskie

      After all religious never resort to these same tactics? Right?

      March 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      you obviously have no idea what it's like to live in a cult as a non-believer. "they can just leave." think that through. just leave your family, friends, community, etc.? you think that's easy? use your head. coming out as an atheist can be one of the hardest things a person can do. the cult of christianity doesn't make it easy at all. believe in us or burn in hell forever.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  5. warmesTghosT

    "Prayer – the pleas of the ignorant for the intervention of the non-existent."

    March 1, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  6. Hindu

    We should pass a law to put all nonbelievers in prison until death unless they convert or SHUT the F UP!

    Islamic countries knows how to deal with them.....

    March 1, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      if christians/muslims/jews had their way, that's exactly what would happen. kill everyone that disagrees with your cult doctrines. that you think atheists should be put to death tells me exactly what kind of "morals" you have.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Posing as a Hindu to damage their credibility by that post just shows you are most likely a US christian.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Dan

      You seem very understanding for a hindu.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • sam

      Aw, aren't you adorable!

      March 1, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • rdmerritt

      Jail terms for this, ha, death for this, ha! WRONG!

      let them be, let them put signs up, it's freedom of choice. just don't put it up on my property or in my way. don not push Atheist propaganda onto me.. thats all I ask. GOD gave me my choices. I believe in him, freely.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • EnjoyingLife

      okay little hitler.....follow your jesus and love thy sinner....not judgement. See this is why people are agnostic and atheist. Religion (all of it) makes no sense, has no order. I have no problem if someone wants to believe in something greater than us, I have a problem with mindless masses attending organized religion, for the sake of man.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  7. Anon

    This is a new low!

    March 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Charlie

      Yeah, but this is not Saudi 😉

      March 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • us1776

      This is a new high !!


      March 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  8. EnjoyingLife

    What I am confused about is why "god" would give us free will and know allready, what is in our hearts and minds before act or speech, But he made us "perfect" so he set us up to fail? No thank you, you can keep all your gods and religion.

    March 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  9. Danman

    Nothing fails like prayer. A double blind study proves it.

    March 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  10. rdmerritt

    It is ok for you to put up the signs, I am fine with that.
    I am a Christian and proud of it, it is my choice that I made when I was a little child and to this day it is still freely my choice.
    the Atheist group put up the signs to show their respect for no GOD, adn thats ok, it's their belief. just as long as we can get alongon our everyday lives adn it doesn't interfere with mine. America is beautiful, the freedom to choose is a gift, a right, its the LAW! I am pro choice in this matter.
    American atheist, go ahead and post the information because in the end there is only one. My faith is in GOD!

    Have a great day.

    By the way for those who with the death upon David, thats wrong, it just shows that you are worried, weak minded and uneducated about the freedoms of this great nation. It also shows that you are not a giving uman being.

    March 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • rdmerritt

      Dang Auto Correct... uman= human..... dang!!!

      March 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • unnamed

      I've never posted on any of these news websites, but yours is such a great post, I had to tell you. Its amazing to see such a level head among so many vile messages. I am agnostic, but, as you said in such a great way, I respect your belief so long as you respect mine.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Oh Yeah

      Excellent post! 🙂

      Part of getting along is recognizing that we atheists live among you, and that we aren't the devils that the believing media makes us out to be. There are many non-believers closeted within the faith communities. We atheists know this because many of us use to, or still are, in that position. At the very least these billboards let them know that they are not alone.

      My friend is a devout Catholic, but when the Jehovah's Witnesses or the Mormons come knocking on the door she politely takes their materials and says "At least it's nice to know that I have options." No need to get angry, right?

      March 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • rdmerritt

      I realize that we Christians did wrong many years ago by killing non believers during the crusades, and i hope that never happens again. However I see it today throughout the world now as CHristians are being put to death for not being Muslim, even atheists are being put to death for not being Muslim. This death ranting needs to stop.

      I have several friends from several belief systems and several atheists are amoung the ranks here where I work at, but one thing we all believe in is eachother, we value eachothers beliefs and don't talk much about it. toast a drink or two over football or our wives or spouses and call it a day..

      March 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  11. John

    IN GOD WE TRUST ........ Just to let you remember what our national motto is.

    Now atheists SHUT UP or leave this country.... I'm tired of your whining. Spend the money on the billboard on important thing... feed the homeless!

    March 1, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • warmesTghosT

      Actually our national motto is "E Pluribus Unum", or "out of many, one".

      Which is a sentiment you clearly do not ascribe to as you wish all of us atheists to "get out" of the country.

      How about you get out and go visit a theocracy like the one you hope to impose on us? I hear Iran is lovely this time of year.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • jimtanker

      OK troll, go back under your bridge.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • EnjoyingLife

      Freedom OF religion and Freedom FROM religion, now you shut up.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  12. Naija

    "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it–even if I have said it–unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." -Buddha

    March 1, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Evan

      That's why I'm an atheist Buddhist. I've got some freedom within the teachings of the Buddha.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  13. A message from your neighborhood Insufferable Pedant

    The Hebrew is not "Yahweh." It is "YHWH," aka the Tetragrammaton. Indicating vowels by points is a later development and the original pronunciation is not known. It's hard to preserve the pronunciation of a word you are not allowed to utter.

    March 1, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  14. Anon

    Invoking the real name of God in order to advance the hate campaign... Not a smart move, and yes, it is written of. The outcome is predictable... And no, I do not mean hell...

    March 1, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  15. Jon

    Instead of just calling it a myth, why not recognize the good in it? (Of course, I would say myth is by no means negative, but it seems the atheists are using it in a negative way.) Only when we *both* recognize the good in our religious traditions and are free to question parts of it will society be less polarized and free.

    March 1, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Evskie

      The only good in religion are things like the 10 comandments. This just in religion doesnt hold a patent on being civilized and respecting one another. Infact they violate it regularly. A religion that teaches you can be forgiven for any crime or sin no matter how hienous and then points fingers at everybody else....GIVE ME A BREAK PLEASE

      March 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Rocksicle

      I don't think they mean it negatively, I just think they are pointing out that religion is not an absolute truth for some people. If you are searching for some other "truth" you can look to atheism.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  16. Proud Jewish

    Silverman also called the holocaust a myth.... I say WOW!
    He left his Judaism and will not go to heaven. He is embarrassing us Jews :/

    March 1, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  17. Rocksicle

    Does it matter who believes in what? Leave me alone with my thoughts and I'll leave you alone to yours. Have your religion, cake, unicorns or all three. Just don't make me have what I don't want.

    March 1, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  18. Danman

    They should buy add space on google and on billboards in Israel and Saudi Arabia, Afghanastan, Syria etc.... LMAO!

    March 1, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  19. JMG

    I just don't get it...why is someone's belief or lackthereof subject to being promotional? I really, TRULY believe that is what is wrong with this Country. Here we have X group who thinks, believes, acts a certain way, and they feel EVERYONE has to know about it. It's basically their own principles encased in narcissism, but faith is supposed to be about YOU, not everyone else. I also find the whole atheist movement to be extremely ironic, where in order for you to exist, you have to attack the beliefs of the people who believe in what you claim is not real. So to me, why not just live your life as an atheist and stop worrying about people who do not? No one forces them to think a certain way, so why is a personal choice everyone else's concern or burden to bare? That to me is why the idea even LESS credible. Where everything done appears to be out of rebellion instead of principle. I am a Christian, but I do not concern myself with what Muslims, Catholics, Agnostics, etc. do or DO NOT believe. My faith is personal and I am not sure when it became protocol for people to rage wars with those who think otherwise. That is not faith at that point....

    March 1, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Jon

      They explained the purpose of the billboard: The fact is, in the U.S., many atheists feel pressured to hide their atheism due to others. The billboard is reminding them that there are others that agree with them, and to give them support.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • I'm The Best!

      Once Christians stop creating legislature and only allowing Christians to hold office and treating atheists worse than terrorists, then we'll sit back and let everyone believe what they want.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Anon

      Jon, that is just a load...

      March 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • JMG

      Atheists being treated like terrorists.....lol. Ok.....

      How does anyone even know who is Atheist or not and why does terrorist Bill Maher even have a job since that is how they are all treated?

      Again, Atheism, based on the way it's believers act, sounds more like "rebellion" than anything based on principle.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  20. deal_with_it

    If the people who call themselves atheists were cool I would shake their hands. If your Tao was blazing chronic, playing video games and leaving other people alone you would be cool. But instead they act like a bunch of nasty little ho mose xuals who have their panties in a bunch about Sodom and Gomorrah and they are like the Grinch who is trying to steal Christmas...

    March 1, 2012 at 11:59 am |
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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.