Anti-Preaching: Should Atheists Proselytize? December 26, 2008

Anti-Preaching: Should Atheists Proselytize?

***Update***: The article’s subject, Omar Call, responded to this post and the article about him in the comments.

We’ve all been annoyed by street preachers before. Some of us (atheists and religious people) try to avoid them altogether. Others prefer to debate them head on.

Would it be any different if the “street preacher” were preaching atheism…?

Would you avoid the person all the same?

Niki D’Andrea recently wrote a cover story for the Phoenix New Times alternative newspaper about an atheist preacher named Omar Call:


Call used to be a Mormon but later turned atheist. He couldn’t just sit around while he heard street preachers condemning others so he got onto the street and began “anti-preaching” himself:

Call has been coming to Mill Avenue every Saturday for the past three years to get flipped off, but also to have heady conversations. He particularly relishes debating the Christian street preachers who’ve sermonized on this strip for close to a decade. He thinks it’s fun. The first time he did it, he says, he went home afterwards and “it was like I was on a high. I was so excited.”

On quiet nights, he stands with his signs on the street and waits for people to ask questions. Having “logical, rational” discussions and making people think is almost like a creative art project for him.

The pictures that were taken for this story (some of which were used in the article, some of which were not) are quite disturbing.

You begin to wonder about the message Call wants to send:



Why would you say yes to posing for those pictures…?

The sign Call holds up in order to get people’s attention isn’t any better:


That’s obviously not him in the photo, but it is the sign. And the sign is missing a comma. Call means to say American “should damn the idea of God.”

I doubt it’s going to make more people break free from religious dogma.

Neither is the fighting over territory between Call and members of Arizona State’s Secular Freethought Society — who have begun to proselytize on the same sidewalks”

It started with a few SFTS members handing out their own tracts on Mill, which said things like “Is this your God?” and quoted the Bible story, from the book of Kings, in which God sends bears to eat small children who mocked the prophet Elisha. Call found the tracts amusing and was happy to meet people who shared his views. But then the SFTS started bringing a microphone and more members, each one adamant about bringing his or her own philosophies to the debates.

Now things are getting out of control. On a recent Saturday night, a discussion between Call and the Christians disintegrated into anarchy when some of the atheists screamed at the preachers about how creationism is a lie and grabbed at Call’s microphone. The mic ended up being commandeered by an inebriated blond woman who was just passing by. She then was provoked by the excited crowd to deliver an impromptu, slurred sermon.

[SFTS founder Shawn] Esplin agrees with most of the points, but says he’s not sure what to do. What’s important to him, he says, is that there are voices opposing the Christians on Mill, and that the SFTS brings as many people around to “their side” as they can.

The whole thing is depressing to read.

Is this really the best way Call has found to inform people of a different way of viewing the world?

Just as many Christians are disturbed by street preachers (and anyone else who starts a conversation on religion you don’t want or have time for), I’m sorry to hear about this guy.

You can’t force atheism onto people. It’ll make them hang on to their faith even more. They have to *want* to be challenged.

Call’s intentions are very noble, but how effective can you call yourself when your conversations involve getting sworn at by children?

Call calmly says that he doesn’t believe God exists. The little boy takes his father’s hand and asks, “Well, then, who created us?”

“Nobody had to create you,” Call tells the kid.

The little boy, who looks to be about 7, shouts, “Read the Bible!”

“I’ve read the Bible,” Call says. “If God exists, where is he?”

The mother scowls and points to her chest. “God is in our hearts.”

As the family stomps off, one of the little girls, who can’t be much older than 5, turns, raises her fist in the air, and passionately yells at Call: “Damn you!”

Though he’s shocked by the little girl’s parting comment, Call laughs it off. He’s used to people getting angry. His wife and friends think his activism is amusing because they know his sense of humor, but they do worry for his safety sometimes. He’s had people get in his face and yell. He’s had drinks thrown on him.

In the end, Call says, his message is a simple one: Goodness can be godless. “If we had no religion but we could be moral, there is no contradiction there,” he says. “If we could just relax as far as the doctrine and just acknowledge that we’re all human beings and we should respect one another, we should love one another, we should help one another — these are Biblical teachings, but they’re teachings known throughout the world. Treat others as you want to be treated. This is not rocket science. It’s not so hard to figure out.”

There’s gotta be a better way to get across that message.

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  • phlebas


    It’s not my bag, really, but I think there’s a place for all of it. Might not get any converts, but you might reinforce the idea that there are people who are not going to take the abuse quietly.

    Might get the attention of someone who’s struggling with faith, too. During my own deconversion, the loneliness was the toughest part.

    Ummm… so exactly who IS that person holding up the sign? 🙂

  • Becky

    Ugh. I don’t enjoy this at all. I prefer to show my atheism through, ‘I’m just as nice and normal as you are.’ — “you are” being the non-fundamentalist religious people…the majority of christians I know. Fundamentalists on either side, this includes Call, I just try to ignore.

  • Saint Splattergut

    Very awkward.

  • andrew

    There is a wide range of ways to communicate atheism…friendly, militant. This is just another version of being militant. Who cares…he isnt hurting anybody. Personally, his style doesnt suit me either.

    What is wrong with opening up a conversation? Who cares if you try to get people to think about these things? If you dont want to talk…then dont talk. Personally I dont mind if a religious person comes up to me and tries to convert me. So I dont mind if atheists do that too.

  • Is anyone who can be swayed by a sidewalk preacher rational enough to understand atheism?

    Call may be doing more harm than good, although you have to give him credit for the entertainment value.

    Personally, I have little interest in converting anyone to atheism. My primary agenda is to keep religion out of government and away from the public square.

  • Would you avoid the person all the same?


  • Richard Wade

    Expressing oneself and having a positive effect on others are two separate goals, and often one will interfere with the other. You can see examples of this on this website. Some people comment simply to vent their feelings and are not interested in how their remarks will be received, or even if they are received. Others seem to want to influence the thinking of others, but the way they express themselves is counter-productive to that aim. Then there are a few who use their speech skillfully and sometimes make a difference in other’s minds. Even there, the particular difference that they want to make varies widely.

    I’ve never wanted to change anyone’s beliefs about gods, only their beliefs about atheists or their habits of imposing their beliefs onto public policy, education and science. I try to use the skillful approach.

    Call seems to be focused on expressing himself. Influencing others’ thinking seems to be only incidental. The guy wants to have fun in a somewhat risky manner. (shrug) Young guys do that. He’s probably not going to make any “converts” and I doubt that that is really his goal. I do cringe a bit and wonder if he is “making atheists look bad,” but who am I to say how we should “look”? We’re very diverse. We are more just people who fall into a category of thinking than we are a group. That’s both our strength and our weakness.

  • Tao Jones

    I was one of those people who used to engage street preachers back when I lived in Ottawa where there were a few churches active on the streets. Most of the time the result was a really interesting conversation. Once I came very close to converting one of the preachers of a youth-oriented church. That made my day.

    I could usually tell right away which of them was interested in having a conversation rather than just spouting off their talking points. I’d avoid the latter.

    Personally I think it is very important to advocate atheism. There may not be one right way to do it, but I’m sure there are many wrong ways.

    I am curious about the sign. Is it meant to be a play on the “God Damn America” line from Jeremiah Wright? Is it a reference to something one of the usual preachers says? In context, the meaning of the sign might not be as aggressive. The other signs are actually pretty good. The “Gods don’t kill people, people with Gods kill people” is quite interesting and I can see the “I quit” sign starting a lot of conversations. Neither sign is disrespectful as far as I’m concerned.

    As for the photos… The alternative papers wherever I have lived have always tried to be very edgy with their cover photographs. The photo shoot may have been as much about getting a provocative cover as expressing Call’s views. Even the more offensive ones still have a meaning beyond mere shock value.

    In conclusion, I don’t think I’d advocate atheism in this way but I’ve seen far worse demonstrations.

  • I love the crazy drama… gets attention…..gets people talking.

    Has history ever changed with people not being offensive to the majority?

    I doubt it.

  • Maakuz

    This is like the aristocrats-joke version of atheism I think. It`s difficult to be more offending to religion than this guy.

    He may not be converting anyone, but at least he should be making people think a bit.

    Personally, I love it!

  • One way to summarize the argument of the street preachers is that they’re all saying “I’m better than you.” At the very least, they’re saying “I know better than you.” It’s arrogance writ large.

    I suspect that most of the street preachers are incapable of having a rational conversation, so talking to them is unlikely to be successful. Yelling back at them “No, I know better than you,” seems distasteful and isn’t going to work any better.

    Furthermore, any effect they create, particularly if they see that the are evoking anger or some such reaction in others is only going to reassure them that they are on the right path.

    I vote for polite indifference. That way they don’t even have the satisfaction of engendering rudeness in their audience. At the same time, they come to resemble dogs howling at the moon. The moon just don’t care.

    I live close to a Mormon temple, and the missionaries are forever accosting people in the neighborhood. Their usual approach is to ask if they can invite me to church. I respond, “no thank you.” Their next move is to ask if I ever attend church. I answer “never.” After that the conversation usually degenerates into idle talk about the weather (apparently Ontario is much colder that Utah). This allows me to commiserate with them about the cold and the snow, or the heat and humidity, and totally takes the wind out of their sails.

    Kill them with kindness. I think it’s an underrated strategy.

    P.S. I don’t claim to have the self-control to be able to react like this always — it’s just too easy to get pissed off at fundies because they’re ultimately so divisive– but it is a goal to which I aspire.

  • J. J. Ramsey


    There is a wide range of ways to communicate atheism…friendly, militant. This is just another version of being militant.

    I don’t know if I’d call his overall approach militant, at least not the part where he stands on a street corner. This part I’d call militant:

    Coleman says he was completely paralyzed eight years ago, and though he’s regained some use of his legs, he walks only with great difficulty. It’s easier for him to use a wheelchair.

    On this night, Call tried to use Coleman’s disability to belittle his faith.

    “If you have the faith of the mustard seed, you’ll be healed,” Call told the old man. “Get up! Walk! Be healed! Don’t you have faith?”

    At least Call had the good sense to recognize that it wasn’t one of his finer moments.

    I think we ought to be careful about presuming that “loud” and “militant” are the same thing, and especially careful about having an unspoken assumption that “loud” and “friendly” are opposites.


    At the very least, they’re saying “I know better than you.” It’s arrogance writ large.

    Why is saying “I know better than you” necessarily arrogant, especially if you’re right?

  • Pierre

    Hmm, I like both Richard’s and Tao’s comments. The way I figure it, it takes all types. I don’t see anything wrong with what he is doing, after all, we’ve all had to put up with Christian street preachers more than once. Is he looking for a conversation? Probably not. But I do think Atheists need to be much more visible, and that he is doing.

    Also, I’ve lived in Tempe, AZ for the last six years. (Though I’ve just graduated and moved away a few months ago.) Mill Avenue is just next to Arizona State and on Saturday nights its absolutely crawling with students. I think this IS a great way to let closeted Atheist students know they are not alone!

  • J.J. Ramsey:

    Saying “I know better than you,” in the context in which the street preachers utter it is equivalent to my saying “chocolate ice cream really is better than vanilla.”

    IMO, they claim certitude about things that cannot be known, at least not if by knowledge we mean something in the public sphere, something which can be communicated through reason.

    IMO, the only way to inculcate religious “truth” is through brainwashing or coercion. Neither produce valid arguments.

  • J. J. Ramsey


    IMO, they claim certitude about things that cannot be known, at least not if by knowledge we mean something in the public sphere, something which can be communicated through reason.

    How would that apply to atheist preachers? Atheists, even “strong atheists” who would say “I believe there is no God,” generally rely on public facts to support their beliefs.

  • J.J. Ramsey:

    I suppose that the easy answer is that non-atheist preachers don’t have any public facts to rely on.

  • SarahH

    Ew. I’d avoid this guy like the plague. I don’t really care so much that he’s helping fuel stereotypes about atheists – I just think he comes off like a total loon. Also: the punctuation problem is a big one.

  • Oh, for fuck’s sake.

    You know, I used to be able to say, “Atheists aren’t forcing anybody to listen to our beliefs. Many of us will debate people if they want to debate… but we’re not knocking on doors or standing on street corners making people listen to what we think. If people aren’t bothering us, then we leave them in peace to believe whatever they want to.”

    I guss not so much anymore.


    And he needs to fix his sign. As it is, it’s way too reminiscent of Fred Phelps and Co.

  • Dan

    @Richard Wade – I’ve noticed you making intelligent comments more than once. Do you have your own web site or blog I could follow?

    As for the guy in the article – it sounds like he just wants to get a rise out of people. I hope he doesn’t get assaulted.

  • Jick

    I’ve done street preaching before. Sort of. I like to stand across from the Christian street preachers and recite “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in my loudest, deepest possible voice. “Let me preach to you, my brothers, from the Book of Prufrock…” I successfully repelled an anti-choice activist in Tucson this spring, and I’ve annoyed countless preachers in downtown Atlanta. Fun stuff.

    I’d never preach atheism on a street corner, though. I’d deserve just as much scorn as the Christian preachers get.

  • Vincent

    seems a good thing to me, especially if a passerby saw the little girl damning him and thought “how badly they are teaching their children.”

  • Ziggy

    I’ll withhold judgment on this guy till after break when I can see him in person. Most likely he’s just having some fun poking at the street preachers who are already there. Every once in a while one will wander onto campus (Mill marks ASU’s western border)and let me tell you they are not popular. From what I’ve heard the SFTS go about it the right way.

  • Richard Wade

    Hi Dan,
    Thank you for your kind words. I’ve been an occasional contributor of posts here on this site for the last couple of years, but I don’t do my own blog. Seems like a lot of work. Hemant is so prolific I don’t know how he does it. You can find my posts in the “categories” on the far right side board, and see how I’ve managed to annoy people from time to time. 😉

  • Spork

    A five year old girl shakes her fist at him and says “damn you” and you’re worried about the kind of message he’s sending?

    Seriously? You think he’s the bad guy here?

    Look, he’s exercising his freedom of expression and to hell with anyone, including you and your obsession with niceness, who wants him to keep quiet.

    By the way, how are his pictures any more disturbing than a depiction of a half-dead human being hanging from planks of wood with thorns jammed into his head?

  • Beowulff

    One of the things I don’t like about religion, is that many religious people claim that their way is the Only True Way.

    Therefore, I’m not going to be the one to say that this Call guy isn’t doing atheism the Right Way. I don’t think you should either. There is no One True Way of Atheism, nor should there be.

  • Adrian

    Good for him, I say.

    It’s not what I would do and I don’t find it persuasive or even attractive but it is yet another way to let people know atheists exist, they’re in your neighbourhood and they can articulately defend their positions (unlike the passing Christians, apparently).

    I think the idea is to inspire other atheists to come out and it is a diverse, visible population of atheists which will start to persuade liberal Christians to atheism and fundamentalists to liberalism.

    He’s not harming anyone so why are so many free-thinkers gathering to attack him?

  • Morgan55

    As pointed out recently by one of the members of the Atheist Community of Austin (TX), public debates with true believers ought to be done not to convert the true believers, but for the benefit of those onlookers who witness it. You never know if an exchange of ideas, even if conducted at high volume without much decorum, might be just the spark someone needs to start considering the merits of both arguments for themselves.

    I say more power to him!

  • TheDeadEye

    I love those pictures! He should sell posters of them while he’s “preaching”.

  • I think we are so early into any sort of atheist movement that just getting people to talk about it is enough of a struggle. Tactics like these, while not my preference either, probably do accomplish that goal.

  • This is very useful for pointing out to people that all kinds of individuals are atheists, even morons.

  • Zar

    I like it, in kind of a silly way. No, it’s not a perfect way to reach people, but I think we heathens nit-pick each other too much. I like the idea of an atheist street preacher among all the fundies, just as I like the idea of a pair of atheist missionaries going door to door to try to convert mormons and Jehovas Witnesses. It’s funny.

  • bernarda

    Oh, I never start talking about atheism. For me it is the default position. If some god groupie brings up a religious defense, I will lay into him then. It is difficult for them because I know their bible better than they do.

    Probably most people are not particularly religious, they just accept the surrounding social standard, or what they think it is, to avoid having problems.

  • Brian E

    I for one am in full support of this guy, and think more atheists should do it. I DO believe he’s making an impact, though you will never see that impact immediately on the street. People will go home and think about what he had to say, and perhaps visit an atheist site or two. Thus he has started a person’s journey toward rationality.

    And I think his pictures are appropriately hilarious.

  • All I can say is, when Atheists start behaving like fundamentalists the claims to higher rationality start unravelling real quick. The truth is fundamentalism can emerge anywhere and is path independant.

  • Omar Call

    So I was googling myself to see some of the responses to the article. So far I have refrained from commenting on any, but I feel compelled to say something here, seeing how this is ostensibly a “friendly atheist” site and I would like to think of myself as a “friendly atheist”.

    I realized that once I agreed to be interviewed for the New Times that they would do whatever they chose with the material, but I agreed because it seemed like a potentially good way to spread the message that “you can be good (probably better, I would say) without God”. Niki did sort of squeeze it in at the end. Naturally these alternative news weeklies do sensationalize these pieces (the photos are a case in point), and to this end, the article contains a fair number of (what I perceive to be) exaggerations, oversimplifications, and outright factual errors.

    At first I was upset about the misrepresentations, but ultimately I think that the overarching idea that it can be okay to openly scrutinize, question — and yes, perhaps even ridicule — dogma is more important than the perhaps false details about how it all goes and has gone down.

    In truth, I perceive that the atmosphere of Mill Avenue, this microcosm of the world, has indeed changed as a result of our actions. It used to be you couldn’t walk down here on a Friday or Saturday night without getting sermonized at on any number of street corners. Now at least the fundamentalists know, if they do choose to set up their soapbox, they can expect some exuberant opposition. And, in fact, more recently it seems they don’t come at all, or if they see us coming, they pick up and leave.

    The signs have been designed to evoke a response. We have a fair number of them. I try to make them pithy and thought-provoking. My goal is to open a dialogue, which I would much prefer to do than trade insults via bullhorn. And with the Evangelicals quieting down now, it is much easier to do. Incidentally, the latest one reads “Godless 4 goodness”. Not surprisingly, the responses to that one are more reserved.

    This article mentioned only the “Damn God America” sign, which was certainly the most provocative. It was intended to be a spoof on the “God Bless America” bumper stickers, but a fair number did unfortunately associate it with Reverend Wright’s remarks. Some people see someone with a sign on a street corner and won’t talk to you regardless of what it says. But the ones who are likely to stop and ask a question or make a comment or suggestion are sometimes more likely if the sign is more reactionary. And sometimes not. And the ones who are likely to tell say “You don’t believe in God? Fuck you!” (that’s an actual quote) will do so anyway.

    So another aspect of the story the piece only incidentally mentions is the way this little movement has evolved. In the beginning it was enough to be confrontationally distracting, but that by and large (at least locally) seems to have achieved its immediate objectives, and now a more approachable, interactive, friendlier approach seems to be in order. So we are trying to do that.

    I would never have used the phrase “preaching atheism” and I have never claimed that I am trying to convert anyone to anything. I do consider myself a devangelist, and I am prepared to talk about the failings and fallaciousness of Biblical literalism and religious belief. I care about truth and universal human values that are independent of superstition and dogma, and I would like it if others did too. I like to have conversations about it, and in truth, I get a lot out of the interactions that I do have. I would say that the responses and feedback are pretty evenly divided between positive and negative. Anyone who is willing to talk to me usually concludes that I have a respectful, if different view. The ones who don’t want to talk to me are perhaps not interested or prepared to have their viewpoints questioned, and that is OK too.

    We can’t be advocates of reason without being reasonable ourselves. I’ve discovered that astonishingly many people today mistakenly assume that without a god, you must not care about anything; what I care very much about is illustrating that this simply isn’t true. I believe in Love, Life, Truth, Beauty, Science, Justice, Goodness, and zero gods. This is my message.

  • Glad to know of such activities. More power to you!
    Too many atheists are intellectuals who believe that you can’t be rational and be emotional. However, unless reason is combined with emotion, most people are unreachable.

  • Kit Kittappa

    This reminds me of the days when I used to go to Madras Christian College in Madras, India by commuter train. In the train, one day, an old man started a sermon by calling out, “Oh all you sinners. Listen to me.” The first day I ignored him. The second day, I could not take it. I got up and addressed him loudly, “How dare you call me a sinner, you son of a bitch. You do not even know me. By calling me a sinner you have committed a sin. I want you to apologize.” He just stood there dumbfounded. A few others in the train intervened. “He is an old man. Leave him alone. He will not say things like that again.”
    To day, when some one talks to me about Christian or Hindu scriptures, I just tell them, “I know enough Science to know there are no supernatural beings or phenomena.” If they still continue with the topic, I do not hesitate to engage them in a conversation bringing in logical and scientific ideas.

  • op

    I like this idea as a one off novelty. I don’t think it would work if it was widely replicated as it could legitimize religious criticism of atheism as just another religion in the minds of casual bystanders and passers by.

    Best way to deal with street preachers. Ask them to look up Matthew 6:5

    And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.

    -Jesus Christ

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