God’s Politics on the Atheist Bus Ads March 24, 2009

God’s Politics on the Atheist Bus Ads

Mike Clawson here again…

Eugene Cho, an emerging church pastor from Seattle, has commented on the atheist bus ads soon to come to his city over at Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog. In this post, as well as two others at his own blog, he rolls his eyes at fellow Christians who get all reactive and bent out of shape over these ads, and then lists three reasons why he sees these bus ads as good things:

1.  Christians shouldn’t feel entitled to anything. We live in a larger marketplace — if you will — and we need to compete to have our voice expressed and heard.  Maybe it’s my upbringing in San Francisco and living the past 12 years in Seattle, but while at times it’s tiresome, I enjoy living in a culture and context where the culture isn’t dominated by the christianese subculture.  Being a follower of Christ isn’t part of the cultural expectation but a choice that one must live out.

2.  I find it funny that “atheists” are identified by an opposition to the belief of God.  It’s a reactive belief system. To atheists:  What is your purpose?

3.  Conversation.  They’ve invested tons of money in these advertisements and, frankly, it’s probably been the greatest recent catalyst for conversation about God for many people and churches.  It’s like free advertisement for theists and Christians.

I also like his suggestion that as soon as some Christians in Seattle fund their own set of ads in response, he’s going to launch his own campaign and website:


I’d be all about that campaign. 🙂

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  • Malariaetc is a very deadly disease, it’s true.

  • Wish I had thought of his point #1.

  • Aj

    I find it funny that “atheists” are identified by an opposition to the belief of God.

    To the belief of God? We’re atheist in opposition to your “God”? I find it funny that “christians” identify themselves by what they believe without evidence, no wait I don’t, I find it disturbing.

    It’s a reactive belief system.

    Not a belief system, not even a belief, but a lack of belief in god(s). So to say it’s a reaction or opposition, or there’s a purpose, is clearly nonsensical.

  • I like him for point #1. It shows that some Christians have their priorities in the right place.

    Point #2 is a complete mess though. Yes, sombunall atheists are over-reactive and feel that destroying Christianity is their only goal in life. Those guys usually aren’t very fun at parties. Mosbunall atheists aren’t that way though. Many even hate the term “atheist” for the reasons he stated: it’s a back asswards term telling people what we DON’T believe in. It’s like having term for someone who doesn’t believe in UFOs or fairies or Odin. However, we live in a Christian-centric society (despite his point #1) and they make the linguistic rules.

    As for point #3, he’s half right. It’s opened up conversation on both sides. It’s made everyone sit up and notice just how many non-believers there really are.

  • I do hope some of you will post your responses to Eugene’s #2 over there since he’s clearly interested in some direct feedback from atheists. I take his question as an honest and friendly interest into what identifies atheists beyond a simple rejection of religion.

    Of course atheism qua atheism is strictly nothing more than a lack of belief in gods, but obviously all of you have some positive content to your ideas about the world that go beyond that simple negation of theism, and I take it that is what Eugene is interested in hearing about.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Gosh, I really hope we don’t invest in malaria. That just seems like a terrible idea. Now malaria prevention, that I could get behind.

  • While we are at it, someone should tell him that you can’t have punctuation marks like apostrophes in URLs. 😉

  • Richard Wade

    2. I find it funny that “atheists” are identified by an opposition to the belief of God. It’s a reactive belief system. To atheists: What is your purpose?

    I think this comment indicates a misconception that many very devoted Christians or followers of Christ seem to have about atheists in general: They seem to assume that atheists are a symmetrical counterpart to themselves, thinking that atheism is as important to atheists as Christianity or following Christ is to them. It is not. For Eugene, expressing his faith and living according to his religious beliefs is probably a large percentage of all that he is about. I think that for most atheists, our lack of belief is a relatively tiny part of all that we are about. Most atheists are many other things first: We are men, women, husbands, wives, parents, citizens, patriots, workers, professionals, students, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, friends, lovers, neighbors, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, club members, and a host of many other “identities,” and waaaay down the list somewhere we are also atheists.

    Most atheists only become active about atheism and bring that identity to the forefront when our rights or our friends’ rights are being violated because of a religious belief being imposed inappropriately. Once that is resolved, for most of us our atheism returns into the background and we resume being all those other things.

    So to answer Eugene’s question, our purpose is to love and support our families, be there for our friends, do our work well, help the less fortunate, learn all that we can, support our community and the social issues we favor, and enjoy the good things in life. These and others are purposes that I am confident Eugene can understand and probably shares.

    The various atheist ad campaigns around the world are an expression of a newly found awareness that we are a much larger minority than we formerly thought, and that we can, by shrugging off our fear and asserting our presence, begin to free ourselves of the prejudice, mistrust and disdain which society has laid upon us for millennia, so that we can more freely fulfill those much more important purposes that I listed. At this stage, I think the ads and posters are much more about finding and encouraging each other, and are not so much about attempting to convince believers to stop believing.

  • Sarcasto-Lexi

    ” They’ve invested tons of money in these advertisements and, frankly, it’s probably been the greatest recent catalyst for conversation about God for many people and churches. It’s like free advertisement for theists and Christians.”

    Maybe we are doing god’s work after all. That would be really really funny.

  • To atheists: What is your purpose?

    I guess I have a lot of personal (selfish) purposes, but based on the context, I gather that he wants to know what we advocate? I advocate education, scientific literacy, skepticism, secularism, and social liberalism. But I’ll be damned if every atheist needs to advocate the exact same things. If it seems that atheists are always against stuff rather than for stuff, it is because A) you are not paying close attention, and B) we are more monolithic when it comes to the things we are against.

  • Sobex

    I only identify myself as an atheist when it becomes clear that the people around me subscribe to the “everyone believes in something” cliche, which is really code for “everyone believes in something supernatural”. Sorry, my goal is to help burst that bubble.

    I am not an atheist first. I am a skeptic (not a cynic!) first. My skepticism led to my atheism, the latter is a consequence of the former. I think you will find that this is true of a significant number of atheists – we are skeptics first, and our atheism is a derived position, and therefore not as central to our self-identification as you might think.

  • Todd

    To atheists: What is your purpose?

    Kill puppies and kittens.

  • Re: #2

    I have no purpose, I’m mostly decorative. I’m not even identified by my puzzlement of the idea of a “god”.

    I’m less about opposition and more about utter befuddlement. The idea is just complete and utter nonsense. It can’t fit in my head, and I have a hard time understanding people whose brains work that way.

  • Todd

    I have no purpose, I’m mostly decorative.

    The first thing that popped into my head when I read this was ‘doily’. At least you keep the furniture from getting scuffed up.

  • Steven Carr

    Christians have to compete in the market-place of ideas, which is why there are Christians who regard me as an ‘unwanted guest’ on their web site.

    Perhaps they know the US government will not bail them out if their beliefs go bankrupt in the market-place of ideas….

  • Steven Carr

    ‘I take his question as an honest and friendly interest into what identifies atheists beyond a simple rejection of religion.’

    Nothing identifies atheists other than no belief in God.

    I wonder what identifies teetotallers other than not drinking alcohol.

  • Nothing identifies atheists other than no belief in God.

    If that were the case, I don’t suppose there’d be a whole lot to talk about on this blog. Nor would there be much motivation to purchase these bus ads.

    We all know that the technical, minimalist definition of atheism is the lack of belief in gods, but it’s also pretty obvious that for most of you here, that lack of belief does in fact influence other concerns and attitudes that you have. I’m guessing it’s the latter that Eugene is interested in.

  • siamang

    Any chance we could get Eugene Cho to strike up a conversation here?

    Because the God’s Politics comment system is pretty messy. I’ll try to comment there… for what good it might do.

  • Yeah God’s Politics’ comment system sucks. I think my wife has his email. I’ll see about inviting him over here.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    2. I find it funny that “atheists” are identified by an opposition to the belief of God. It’s a reactive belief system. To atheists: What is your purpose?

    1) Encouragement to atheists who read the signs, some of whom are still in the closet due to societal pressure.

    2) Get across the point to others that we exist, and expect to receive the same tolerance and rights as others (note that I am purposefully not using the word “respect” here). Large numbers of believers still equate atheism with immorality/amorality. See any number of polls to back this up, or spend just a little time reading letters to the editor from across the land.

    Comparisons to the gay movement are appropriate here; homosexuals have been around forever, but it wasn’t until they got angry and out and demanded their rights that progress was made in recognizing those rights.

  • siamang

    Here’s what I wrote, in case it doesn’t get on the God’s politics comment system:

    Commenting here as an atheist… there’s one reason and one reason alone I use the word atheist to describe myself: To make this world a better place for people afraid to say what they believe. We live in a world where to go to public school my daughter has to pledge an oath to God every day. Now that may line up fine with your beliefs, but not mine. And I don’t believe it’s the job of a school or government to start the 5 year olds swearing oaths to God. But unless I want to make a federal case out of it, and raise a messed-up kid, I don’t burden her with that stuff. Ultimately she will be old enough to understand that it’s wrong to coerce children to swear oaths without asking their parents what they as a family believe first.

    It was becoming a new parent that caused me to come out and be more public in a dialog with believers. I knew that if we didn’t do something, America would become a land more and more hostile to people with a minority belief. She would have it harder than I did, if atheists remained closeted.

    I didn’t like what was happening in this country toward nonbelievers especially after 9/11, when the words “God and Country” started getting mooshed together as if they were the same thing, and the voices of the punditocracy were shouting how democrats needed to “get faith”. I heard quite a few commentators talking very strongly about how, if democrats wanted to win elections, they had to distance themselves from secular values and push the Jesus talk. I even heard a number of people on tv and in the newspapers opining that atheist democrats needed to choose one and shut up about the other.

    When you look at how Elizabeth Dole’s campaign slandered Kay Hagan, and pushed the notion that atheists should be persona non grata to even MEET with our elected representatives… now we’re talking anti-democratic ideas. The notion that we are or should be political poison, and we can’t even attend fundraisers for democratic candidates? The campaign pushed ugly stuff like saying that most North Carolinians wouldn’t even eat dinner with the kind of people that atheists are. After that, I gave a good amount of money to the Hagan campaign… But she very clearly did NOT do the right thing and make any statement about how it was wrong to tar atheists. No, she instead continued the impression that it was a grave insult to call someone an atheist instead of taking the high road that Candidate Obama did when people falsely accused him of being a Muslim. Obama clearly and strongly said that there was nothing to be ashamed of or wrong about being a Muslim, there are great Muslim Americans, the world Muslim is not and should never be an epithet, It’s just merely that he is not a Muslim.

    No such statement from Kay Hagan, even after she won the election. And that was throwing away a great chance for understanding and bridge-building. It was an ugly episode in an ugly campaign, and Hagan, IMO, threw us under the bus. I and others organized an online giving campaign for Hagan on the atheist blogosphere, and we raised thousands for her, only to see her take zero steps toward building understanding. I guess Dole was right, we are personae non grata. We’re as popular as gay Republicans!

    Anyway it was the fear that I was being told to shut up or leave my own political party that was the “last straw” in my silence. I would become a loud and proud atheist, and let my fellow democrats and fellow Americans know that I was just like them… a human being. I may have a different idea than you as to what happens in the next life… but I SHARE this world with you, and it’s time you recognized that we need to get along better.

    What is my “purpose”? I’m only an “atheist” when speaking to believers and attempting to build bridges of understanding. All the rest of my days and nights I’m merely “me.” Just an American dad, and a democrat, and a taxpayer and a citizen. All that stuff that doesn’t seem to mean much to people anymore, while everyone marches from war to poverty to church and back.

  • siamang

    And yes, I recognized that since I was commenting on a blog called “God’s Politics” that I was primarily talking to political readers and democrats, and so I pitched my argument toward the more partisan, and political-wonk side of things.

  • Aj

    …that lack of belief does in fact influence other concerns and attitudes that you have.

    That’s understandable coming from a christian, but I’m not an atheist as a reaction to your god. There are so many things that I lack belief in, even things I haven’t even heard about, that includes many gods. It’s not a surprise that you would frame my concerns and attitudes compared to if I believed in your god. Not that anyone can agree on what god is, let alone have a coherent concept of what that god is, or resist resorting to supernaturalism as a nonexplanation.

  • MV

    I find it funny that “atheists” are identified by an opposition to the belief of God. It’s a reactive belief system. To atheists: What is your purpose?

    I find it funny that “Christians” are identified by a belief in Christ. Amazing huh?

    Moving on from there, I take exception with the belief that Atheism is the antithesis to a reactive belief system. Before we continue, we need to get some groundwork laid on the definition of reactive.

    A reactive belief system relies upon reaction(hence the name). There are two general characteristics of a reactionary belief or policy:

    1) Reactionary systems, beliefs, and ideals rely upon moving back toward old ideas proven wrong. It is a nostalgia for old times.

    2) Reactionary systems, beliefs, and ideals restict freedom.

    By analyzing religion, we find:

    1) An urge to live as we did 2000+ years ago. We think the past was better and we need to live how they did. It relies on false assumptions such as Creationism and that using condoms spreads AIDS.

    2) Religion tries to restrict the freedom of its practicionars. Best examples right now is the treatment of women (female Catholic priests please say hello…*crickets*) and homosexuals among others.

    Apply the same test to Atheism:
    1) It rejects old ideas and supplies new ones.
    2) The whole of idea atheism is to let people believe what they want.

    Thus, atheism is a progressive lack-of-belief system.

    Moving on from there, the answer to the question is intensly personal, but the question is also broad.

    I will begin with the broad. My purpose in life is to achieve my goals. I have a passion. I want to use that passion and make something lasting. I want to live life as intensely as possible because I only have one.

    To answer what I think you mean by your question, What is our purpose with the bus ads? It is to make people think, to rely on reason, not faith or emotion. I don’t care if they reason out that God does exist, I just want them to think.

  • I just commented over on that post. One of the previous commentators said, “Dawkins always irks me with his smugness…” To which I replied, now you know how we feel about Fallwell, Robertson, Huckabee, Warren, Bush W, etc…

  • @mike: thanks for the invite.

    @everyone: i’m here to save everyone.
    sorry, was that a really bad joke? 🙂

    not sure how much time i have but i guess this would be a good way to follow up on #3.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Eugene, looks like you might have missed most of the conversation 🙁 I can give you my answer to (2), although Richard Wade has already stated my beliefs more eloquently than I’m going to.

    I both agree and disagree with the atheists here who have claimed that we’re not atheists in reaction to your god. Yes, a lack of belief in deities is just a lack of belief, so doesn’t entail anything, and it’s not the basis of any purpose in life, or guiding moral force. If I have an ethical problem, I don’t go “As an atheist, how should I handle this?” any more than you go “Given that I don’t believe in reincarnation, how should I handle this?” You don’t believe in reincarnation (I’m assuming), but you probably don’t do much with that lack of belief.

    On the other hand, while being an atheist doesn’t entail anything, choosing to read an atheist blog, or wanting atheist signs on buses, is a reaction to your god. After all, there are lots of things we don’t believe, but most of them we just don’t think about. There aren’t blogs about how Santa Claus doesn’t exist, or bus signs about how you don’t need to believe in the tooth fairy. In general, if atheists are organizing as atheists, it’s because they see some bad influences of religion on the world around them; so the organization of atheists as atheists is a purely negative reaction. Views of posters on this blog about what that bad stuff is run the gamut from “Religion is always evil and destructive,” to “Religion is OK, but some religious people discriminate against atheists, and that kind of sucks,” but they invariably see something bad.

  • Richard Wade

    Hi Eugene, welcome. It’s odd that as soon as we all got up to item #3, conversation, it all stopped. I’ve been watching this thread for two days, but it’s just silent. I’d go over to comment again at your site, but it’s difficult to use. The other thing is I can’t think of things to ask you.

    I just wanted you to know that someone is still here listening.

  • Tom N

    It’s true. While I consider myself atheist, it doesn’t SOUND like we have a purpose and I’m sure many religious types hear it as “religious anarchist.”

    We really need to start calling ourselves humanists or social-humanists. Something like that sounds way more positive.

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