Ask Richard: An Annoying Religious Sign on My Commute to Work November 6, 2009

Ask Richard: An Annoying Religious Sign on My Commute to Work

Hi Richard,

This is something that i’ve been wracking my brain about lately. I live in Lynchburg, Virginia (yes, THAT Lynchburg) and there’s this one house on this one street that happens to be on my route to work. This guy has his own personal little church sign board you can put lettering on, and boy does he wear his beliefs on his sleeve.

For the longest time most of his messages and statements have been pretty benign. Standard stuff like “Jesus is life” and “It takes more faith to be an Athiest than a christian” (he can’t spell either).

However, over the past 6 months or so, the sign has gotten highly offensive. For example, he currently has “TURN OR BURN” on his sign. Other previously offensive things I’ve seen on that board are “EVOLUTION: A LIE TAUGHT TO CHILDREN” and “EVERYONE HAS A MASTER.” I’m just glad I work a later shift now and don’t have to stare at the other side of that thing anymore. Being that this is a sign owned by a private individual, is there anything I can do? I’m sure hundreds if not thousands of people come down that road every day and are exposed to the misinformation and hate this guy spews through that sign.

Can anything be done about this sign? I’ve tried scouring through laws for my state on google, but keep coming up empty handed. Please help!


Dear J,

I think you know what the answer is. Live with it, and every time you see that sign, rejoice gratefully that you live in the land of the free. The sign is apparently private property on private property. Unless it is violating local signage codes or zone regulations, there is nothing you can do about it and nothing that you should do about it.

Either we all have freedom of speech or none of us have. Any law that could shut him up could and would be used to shut you up as well. Many people have given their lives for both of you to be free to speak your minds, and I’m afraid that to protect our freedom, many more may have to give their lives yet. There will always be those among us who would forcibly remake everyone in their own image, if they could. Resist the seductive temptation to be one of them.

We need to raise our threshold for feeling offended. It seems to have become very low in our society lately. Increasingly, more people are decrying as “offensive,” smaller and smaller things that contradict their views. If this thin-skinned trend continues, since no one can see anything exactly as anyone else does, then eventually everyone will be offended by everyone else on every possible subject. We will be omni-offended.

I know it can be annoying to see some dimwit displaying his disapproval of his wide variety of scapegoats. Annoyance is inside us, not around us. It is our reaction, our emotion, our creation. If we allow too much of it to occupy our minds, it drains us of our strength, and it foments discouragement. We will never get rid of all the annoying things, but we can change how we respond to those things.

Carl Jung once said, “Everything that annoys us about others can help us to understand ourselves.” Disagree intellectually with the sign man’s opinions all you want. But you can follow your annoyance into your mind to find where you feel insecure, or have hurt, or have your own anger or resentment, and then by facing and resolving those things, you can become more serene. Imagine. Using that sign to become more serene?! Richard, you’re crazy. Yes I am. Thank you.

A sense of humor can help as well. Think of the phrase “sense of humor” literally. Not creating something that is funny, but sensing the humor that is already there in the situation. It’s there if you can but sense it. Sensing the humor in a situation brings you a measure of mastery of that situation. You can begin to rise above it.

Think of the sign as a public service announcement. If the guy wants to publicly announce that a superstitious, intolerant ignoramus who is getting steadily worse lives in this house, then thanks for the warning! If anyone has an emergency on that road, they’ll know better and go to the next house for assistance.

I’d be looking forward to my daily dose of dementia from the local kook. There’s a chuckle in it if you can first create peace within yourself.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • littlejohn

    Hear, hear. You are absolutely correct. We atheists have been putting up a lot of billboards, bus ads, bumper stickers, etc. These frequently draw complaints and are occasionally vandalized.
    We cannot respond in kind. If we expect woo-believers to respect our public displays, we have to respect theirs (unless theirs are publically funded). Imagine the cries of outrage if we somehow get their signs removed. Just ignore them.

  • I used to pass one to and from my way to work that said,

    Chip says, “Get right with God.”

    I guess Chip was the horse’s name. This was on a Mennonite farm as well.

  • Ron in Houston

    I don’t necessarily disagree that free speech is a good thing, however, no right is totally free of restrictions.

    Without debating the morality of whether you should try to do something about the sign, here are two things that immediately crossed my mind about dealing with the situation.

    1. Deed restrictions may limit the rights to put signs on ones property

    2. Local sign ordinances – you may have a right to free speech, but you still need a permit

  • False Prophet

    I remember finding white supremacist pamphlets in my grad school residence. Which was in itself surprising, since at least 2/3 of the residents of that particular building were East Asian, South Asian or Middle Eastern. I was in the white minority in that res–maybe they thought I’d feel outnumbered and threatened in that small ethnic enclave in what is otherwise one of the whitest cities in Ontario? Not sure who does their marketing. :-/

    Anyway, it was hard to fight the urge to grab all those pamphlets and toss them, but no one said democracy was easy. And I fully agree with Richard–I’d rather know exactly who and where the crazies are.

  • BruceH

    The answer to speech you don’t like is more speech, not censorship. If the letter writer doesn’t like the sign, one thing he could legitimately do is take pictures of it, then hold them up for public ridicule.

    I suggest a local blog that deals with local issues.

  • Michael

    Hmm, nothing about those phrases seem “highly offensive” to me. Something isn’t “highly offensive” just because you disagree with it. The EVOLUTION one is total ignorance, but that still doesn’t make it “highly offensive”.

    Personally I find it horrifying that you are trying to limit his right to free speech by searching through law books to find something you can use as a weapon.

    Even if you do find some obscure law that says he needs a permit (which would be stupid if he did need a permit to put a sign on his own property) please don’t use it. That would just make you look bad.

  • Siamang

    If you’re that upset about it, take pictures every week and post them on your blog.

    But rather than that, I suggest getting a hobby.

  • J2

    Yeah, that guy on Hill Street’s a real mess, isn’t he?

  • Tracy

    A guy in my hometown has a huge offensive sign, although local code bans billboards – he got around it by stringing together several small signs to make one big one. Lawyer, of course he’d find the loophole.

  • Marc

    Don’t signs like this actually help us? Just the fact that the guys is putting up this stuff on his lawn makes him seem kind of nutty. The spelling errors help too.
    I doubt anyone gets persuaded by the sign; at best it fosters some thinking and possibly discussion, and that is definitely what we want. I’d love to have a coworker start talking about this sign at work – what an opportunity!

  • Peregrine

    Call him.

    Seriously. Call him on the phone, or send him a letter, or write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper explaining the issue, and say to him “just to let you know, while I disagree with what you say, I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

    Give them the kind of response we’d like to see if we were in their position, instead of crap like this. Be the bigger person, and set the example.

  • Amyable Atheist

    While I certainly agree with the free speech element here and our freedom to offend and be offended within reason, as an urban planner I’m repelled by the signage on residential property rather than the cookoo messages themselves. Signage is regulated for the same reason that zoning and building ordinances exist – to limit nuisance.

    Granted, idiotic signage isn’t comparable to your neighbor running a rock-crushing operation in their back yard, but the sign described sounds like a permanent structure that is entirely inappropriate for a residential property and many, many communities have entirely appropriate statutes banning such a thing. The subject of the sign’s text is irrelevant; the sign is a nuisance and there is nothing wrong with pursuing its removal on that basis.

  • Stephen P


    I think I’d ring his front door bell and tell him I’m interested in one of the roasting spits that he’s advertising.

  • Matto the Hun

    Don’t signs like this actually help us? Just the fact that the guys is putting up this stuff on his lawn makes him seem kind of nutty. The spelling errors help too.
    I doubt anyone gets persuaded by the sign; at best it fosters some thinking and possibly discussion, and that is definitely what we want. I’d love to have a coworker start talking about this sign at work – what an opportunity!

    Marc hits it, I think.

    This is the kind of nonsense that was one component in helping me ditch organized religion and ultimately ditch God.

    Let him self destruct his own cause.

  • J

    I sent this to Richard a few months ago, and I’ve adopted a different attitude towards the sign now than what i used to have. He’s more than welcome to have it and spout off whatever nonsense he likes! I wish i could by the house right next door so i could put up my own sign 😉

    Previous commenters are of course right. This does help our cause when people say outrageous things, and i SHOULD let this guy know i defend what he’s saying, regardless of how batshit crazy it makes him sound. Our own campaigns have come a long way in just a few months thanks to free speech, and that’s something to be respected, from all sides.

    Oh yes…there will be blogging, eventually

  • Matilda1

    Agreed, it would be hypocritical of us to complain about such religious signage while we deride religious types who complain about atheist billboards. There is no personal right against being offended. Furthermore, are those signs really offensive to you as an atheist? Personally I just find them dumb and eye-roll worthy.

    On a personal note, my evangelical grandmother at one point many years ago purchased one of those big signs businesses use with the flashing arrow and removable letters. She had a large back yard that was directly adjacent to the most busy street in our city, and placed the sign, complete with religious and anti-abortion messages, near the road. It didn’t last long as the city required permits to post any sign along that road and she didn’t have one. Apparently it was too much effort to obtain one because she got rid of the sign and I never saw it again. But as a tween, that brief period was long enough for me to be completely mortified.

  • andrew

    As PZ frequently advocates, don’t get upset at this kind of stuff; its pointless. Instead, point, laugh and ridicule.

  • cathy

    People should be allowed to have political signs on their property, regardless of message. I know it sucks to have to see such public assholery, but you have to respect that people have a right to free speech. There is a man who has a sign with very racist messages. I feel disgusted and offended, but I know he has a right to his speech as I do to mine. You have every right to be offended, you have no right to censor him.

  • Well said. The door swings both ways.

    Plus, everyone driving by that house probably thinks he’s an idiot.

  • Richard P

    Carl Jung once said, “Everything that annoys us about others can help us to understand ourselves.”

    This is a great one Richard And true.
    The version I learned was, we see in people a reflection of ourselves, what a person hates about another is simply a reflection of something within that we hate about ourselves.

    It took me a long time to find the source of anger I had within myself. It always seemed to well up when things were not to my view. I learned do a lot of self reflection to root out the anger. Once I learned to love myself, accept myself for who I am, and evaluate my beliefs, to make sure they were in accordance to the actions I believed were morally correct, most of the things that would drive me to anger became things of humor.
    I would suggest a little self reflection To find the root of this anger and deal with that.

  • Miko

    Unless it is violating local signage codes or zone regulations, there is nothing you can do about it and nothing that you should (or, at least, could) do about it.

    It doesn’t necessarily follow that there is nothing that one should do about it. Free speech leaves many avenues open; it only says you can’t use violence (specifically, government) to physically prevent someone from saying something. We’re still free to talk to our neighbors about our concerns and seek voluntary non-coercive solutions. I wouldn’t really recommend it in this case, but it’s definitely an ethically permissible option.

    Zone regulations and the like, on the other hand, are an underhanded attempt to attack fundamental rights. They’re written in such a way as to suggest that they aren’t intended to deprive people of their rights (so that they sound harmless in the abstract), but are then selectively enforced to silence opinions of which the rulers disapprove.

  • Revyloution

    Im with Marc and Matto the Hun. Signs like this open the opportunity for discussion.

    Is this commute on a bus? It might be the opportunity to turn to the person next to you and say “Wow, I wonder if all Christians think like that?” Or some other innocuous statement that might prompt them to ask about your philosophy. Small openings like that can start rational dialogs to plant the seeds of reason and skepticism.

    If he’s in a private car, he could bring it up around the water cooler at work (if he isn’t afraid of being fired for being a baby eater).

    And the extreme response would be to set up a protest in front of his house! I think Penn Gillette nailed it when he said the best response to free speech is more free speech. Nothing would make more ‘mainstream Christians’ cringe than having a nutter like that defending their faith on the evening news.

  • Aphanes

    I’m not American, coming from the UK, but I’m continually amazed by America’s Christianity and how well it’s holding on. However, the best hing that American Evangelists are doing is publicising vociferously to the rest of the world why we shouldn’t be theists.

    I’d let the guy build his placards and billboards as big as possible until his house is covered in them. Enjoy it and put it on the web!

    Theists don’t realise how funny this stuff is and also how it actually works against them, pointing out how ridiculous their “beliefs” actually are. You can’t beat someone with a billboard over their head, bible in hand and an appropriate quote from the bible to make people convert from religion. We should have more of them on the streets, not less!

  • Lynchburg shout out! Agreed, we have to live with church signs. But Lynchburg and Charlottesville have a growing secular, atheist, godless population. I’m one of them.

  • J2

    What bothers me most about that guy is the school bus in his front yard. Did anyone else notice that?

    It implies that he/she/whoever has a lot of contact with kids. Hopefully it’s just with a church group and not a supposed-to-be secular institution.

    Although … not much in Lynchburg is secular.

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