An Inoffensive Atheist Ad Could Appear on Pennsylvania Buses January 30, 2012

An Inoffensive Atheist Ad Could Appear on Pennsylvania Buses

Richard Wade must be on to something. After posting about the potential reactions to inoffensive atheist billboards, people are starting to run with the idea.

When Justin Vacula recently saw “God Bless America” scrolling across the outside buses in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, he didn’t just want to complain. He wanted to respond to that message — and test the “how little does it take to offend someone?” hypothesis — by proposing the following ad:

The idea, as seen above — for the advertisement — is quite simple, effective, and interesting. In the past few years, atheist billboards — no matter how inoffensive they may seem — have been met with utter contempt from theists leading atheists to wonder, “Is the fact that we exist and want to advertise ourselves offensive to theists or is it something else?” In order to test this… I want to place a king-size… advertisement on the same buses which host the “God Bless America” messages with a blue sky/white cloud background with the word “atheists” and the URL for the organization for which I am a co-organizer, spokesperson, podcast host, and board member of: the NEPA Freethought Society.

He’s waiting for a response from the advertising company — and if they reject him, they could be facing a potential lawsuit.

If he gets the green light, this could be a really fun billboard campaign…

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  • Christie

    BRILLIANT! =D A welcoming ad with a bit of a social experiment on the side.

  • Anonymous

    I think, really, the word “offensive” is the wrong one to use when it comes to believers getting all up in arms about even seeing something atheist on a billboard. I think the word is overused in these cases. I think “hatred” is more in line with the feeling the religious feel toward anything different from their own beliefs. They’re not offended. They’re pissed. There’s a huge difference. I get sick of hearing how “offended” they are by us just talking about our views. They are just close-minded, bigoted, hateful, and worried that their little world will change and they’ll lose their grip on our laws and politics. To say they’re offended, to me, is down-right offensive.

  • .

  • Another Discussion

    The only fear I have is that people will point to this as an example of how atheists *ought to* act in public. “There’s a good atheist, not spreading around his filthy ideas in public”. That wouldn’t just set a potential precedent for religious folks to use, but for less-outspoken atheists as well, who may figure that this is as far as they should ever go.

  • I would slightly expand on that a bit, just to make sure the point isn’t lost.  How about “atheists exist”.  The former suggests the concept exists, the latter suggests the person exists.

  • Anonymous

    I like this idea much better than the “kittens are cute” one. People can’t make fun of this one as easily. And it really will take away any excuse the people have to say they are offended. Now, if only we can turn their hatred into a news story…

  • Oh I don’t think that’s likely. The cat’s out of the bag, the genie’s out of the bottle. We’ll never go back to the invisibility and inaudibility of only haunting ivy covered halls or espresso cafes. This is just a combination experiment and demonstration. In a way, just the single word “atheists” on the ad seems to SCREAM so much more about how WE ARE HERE and we are not leaving, we will not be silent, we will not be suppressed than “atheists exist,” or any of the other slogans.

    There will be plenty of other ads.  Some will say more with more words, and some will say less with more words.

  • I love it! Even more simple and to the point. Of course, even just the word “Atheists” pisses off some people, so don’t think this will easily slide in under the radar. But so what? It’s good for everyone, imho.

  • Graham Martin-Royle

    But that’s so shrill and strident…..

  • Ha!

  • I think there can be a lot of productivity in understanding why people feel so threatened and acting with sympathy. When you grind someone’s nose in the truth, you hurt them and they become defensive. If you’re gentler, refusing to hide the truth but expressing understanding for their fear, you’re more likely to gain their respect and understanding. 

    My vote goes to positive life messages, such as: “drugs darken a bright future” (I’m not very good at this sort of thing, but you get the idea) with an atheist sponsor listed noticably in the bottom corner. That says: “You can be good without God” without actually saying it. 

    People have been taught to be petrified of atheists for centuries. We can’t blame them for acting like they do. We need to show them their fears are unfounded, not demand that they let them go.

  • Anonymous

    Nadia, when women were fighting for their right to vote, would you have recommended to them to fix a nice dinner for their loving husbands and then ask for the right to vote? Ah yes dear I’ll bring that up with the guys at the bar, do you have more of that pie?

  • ShrimpToast

    How about something like:

    Atheists think America is pretty great too.
    America is so terrific, the right to not worship is right there in the Constitution. USA! USA!

  • Kaylya

    I agree with Ryan that “Atheists exist” would be better, but I think “Not everyone believes in God” is better still. Avoids using the “nasty” A-Word (except perhaps in the sponsoring group’s name), and is a factually correct statement.

    I think part of the problem with the “Don’t believe in God?” ads is that people miss the question mark and think it’s a command.

  • Anneth

    I like it and don’t find it too neutral or passive.  It provokes thought, doesn’t suggest what to think, and gives the curious viewer a resource for more info.  

  • No, I wouldn’t have. Your point being?

  • Taxihorn

    Nasty?? But this is an opportunity to call out critics and have them consider it isn’t a nasty word!

  • Taxihorn

    This alternative might also answer more directly “Is the fact that we exist
    and want to advertise ourselves offensive to theists or is it something
    else?” and could be understood as a “You are not alone, check out the
    advertised web address.” In addition, it’s a nod to the matter of existence and non-existence surrounding discussions of atheism.

  • Mary

    Love it! And I actually like the idea of buying ad space to encourage good deeds and general happiness and then having a link on the bottom that shows the ad is from atheists. I hope some groups will go with that too. That would show that atheists sometimes choose to use ad money to promote human well-being, not just to promote ourselves. But even just the pretty clouds behind the word is good. The more positive images and words that can be associated with the word “atheist,” the better. It messes with people’s minds in a good way. Goods stuff!

  • starskeptic

    I think it would end up essentially the same if the billboard had “BOO!” in giant letters – “Oh!- you startled me– And I’m very offended” – lawsuits to follow…

  • Vince Lauria

    I’ve recently come to realize that many Americans fill in forms asking about religion with simply “non-religious” or “no religious affiliation”.  To be “atheist” means that you have enough intelligence and/or self-evaluative focus to give yourself that label.  Many people just go about their lives without concern about their personal view about a God, cosmology, etc.   Why not address THAT also.  These also are Americans.

  • Anonymous

    What is it with the cloudy sky? How about changing it up once in a while? A sunset on a lake, a waterfall, a Hubble pic of a nebula or galaxies, a closeup of a flower…

    Or how about co-opting some of that patriotic stuff to counter the whole Christian nation crap? Like you could have a group photo of some foxhole atheists, or the US flag, a closeup of the 1st amendment in the background, repeated in textual form in the foreground.

  • LVatheist

    I agree.  While the whole concept of a non-offensive billboard is much more agreeable to my humanist lifestance (as opposed to a few insulting billboards put up by other national atheist organizations) – the “kittens are cute” approach does nothing to identify or promote atheism as a valid secular worldview.  

  • Parse

    Nadia, I think you’re illustrating why this ad is fine as-is.  
    There’s always going to be somebody who calls things too harsh, to try to plead for more civility, to say that we’ll be accepted if only we downplay ourselves more.  Unfortunately, the people who ask for this will never be satisfied – there’s always another step that can be taken (change the message, reduce the ad buy, go for less-visible placements, etc), until we step right out of the public eye entirely.  I think it’s important to make some concessions, but I think your suggestion is dilutes the desired message (‘Atheists exist’) beyond the point of efficacy.

  • LVatheist

    I am from Pennsylvania…where apparently our legislature has declared 2012 as the “Year of the Bible”.  (Read PA General Assembly HR535, and then prepare to pick your jaw up off the floor)  A billboard/ad campaign from the secular minority is critically needed and I wholeheartedly support the recent movement in this community & on this blog to promote atheism as an ethical lifestance, in as non-offensive means as possible.  While I do not think “Kittens Are Cute” is an effective slogan, as it is unrelated entirely to the subject at hand, the above “Atheists.” is still lacking.   If anything, perhaps a more valid ad would be : “Attention Atheists:  Come Join Us & Meet Fellow Free-Thinkers.”   Further to that, if you want to brand atheism/humanism as a valid & ethical lifestance, I would second what a number of other comments on this page suggest – i.e. “Atheists Are Good People, Despite What You’ve Been Told” or  “Without A god, Live Can Still Be Worth Living”  or “Struggling With Your Faith?  We Can Help.”

  • T-Rex

    Offensive? If theists can’t handle a simple word or idea, fuck em. We put up with theists spewing out hate and garbage and misinformation every day. I stopped tip toeing around religion years ago. Someone wants to spout off about gawd or Jesus or their own particular brand of superstition, then they’ve just invited a retort. If I offend them with facts and truths, fuck em. Deal with it.

  • Hiya, Parse. 

    I think I didn’t express myself properly. What I am advocating is saturating the public consciousness with our message (atheists are good people; if you don’t believe you are not alone) in a smart way. Maybe we can rope in experts in psychology and advertising to work out a definite plan, with a specific goal aimed for in stages. That goal being? People hardly even blinking when you say you’re an atheist. It should be everyday, like saying you like cheese.

    ‘We are’ messages, ‘we think’ messages may be best to start with, rather than messages that jump in the deep end with ‘your faith is a myth’. The former addresses misconceptions about atheists, the latter attacks beliefs which people sometimes base their entire lives on. It won’t be possible to publicise our message without affronting SOMEONE, I realise that full well, but I believe we can try to understand the psychology behind the hostility, and find out what can maybe get behind these unreasonable fears and reach people instead of scaring them and closing their minds to the message because their defences went up. Some will never be reached, they are offended by your mere existence, but perseverance will be the key, and the reasonable majority will be better reached by a persistent but gentle message.

    In addition, I’d like to make it clear that I like the original ad, I was not suggesting we water it down, but I can see that I didn’t make that clear. Saying ‘my vote goes for’ gave the impression I didn’t support the ad, if so I apologise. I was replying to a comment which advocated what to me seemed a hostile approach which to my mind will be counterproductive. ‘My vote goes for’ was meant to suggest that we in fact expand this idea. I am advocating for a persistent, widespread campaign to de-sensitise people to the word and concept ‘atheist’. 

  • Anonymous

    To reduce the offensiveness, the period needs to be removed.  Wouldn’t want to be declarative. 

  • After seeing this I now want my own credit card with the clouds and “Under No God(s)”.  Or.. anyone else have any suggestions for text?  Or companies that offer this?  So far all I’ve found it Capitol One.  I want to keep my total card count down, so I might give up my Citicard and switch.

  • Anonymous

    You are missing the point.  The purpose of this FIRST ad (in addition to testing the bus agency’s policies) is to test the often-made claim that the word “atheist”—in and of itself—drives people crazy.  Later signs will do more to “promote” atheism and the organization, and, if appropriate, attack religious beliefs.

  • I can’t wait.  I just *know* someone is going to get all butthurt over this, no matter how inoffensive and tame it is and the local TV news coverage is going to be EPIC facepalm fodder.  NEPA isn’t exactly the most non-Christian friendly area in the world, so this should get interesting if the ads go up.

    *pops some popcorn*

  • Anonymous

    But is identifying and promoting atheism as a valid secular worldview the point of the kittens are cute billboard?

    I got the impression that it was intended to a) test whether even the most innocuous message would be offensive if mouthed by an atheist group, and b) ridicule the notion that atheists are scary not-fully-humans who can feel no positive emotions and hate the world.

  • Nordog

    “What is it with the cloudy sky? How about changing it up once in a while? A sunset on a lake, a waterfall, a Hubble pic of a nebula or galaxies, a closeup of a flower…”

    Or maybe just a group of nice looking people having a nice time at a pub, or park, or ballgame or such?

    The idea being that atheists are simply nice people in the community like everyone else.

  • Nordog

    Oh, and maybe with a subtitle that asks, “Can you spot the atheist?”

    Followed by, “Hint: They are all athesits.”

  • Oh I like that.  I was thinking cloudy sky for my credit card, but now I’m thinking either Andromeda Galaxy, or that cool NASA pic of the Earth.

    And now I’m leaning from “Under No God(s)” to “Good Without God”.  Or “Good Without God(s)”.

  • Kevin_Of_Bangor

    That is the purpose Ibis3

  • Anonymous

    Nobody gives up their privileges. Rights aren’t given, they are taken. The soft sell doesn’t work.

  • chicago dyke, evolved outlaw

    a good campaign for that would go along the lines of the (more wordy) verions of:

    “do you go  to church every sunday? we don’t either. we’re atheists, what are you?”

    “do you give to a religious organization or a non-religious charity? both are good, but the latter is better and you know why.” 


    /picture of atheists in foxholes/ “do you think  these folks are real soldiers? we do too.”


  • chicago dyke, evolved outlaw

    the fear in expressing the FACT that all religions are based on myth is the problem, honey. you’re clearly part of it, i’m sad to say. 100% of believers and atheists alike are atheists. it’s only that the former reject all god(s) but their own. think about it. there’s nothing harmful or wrong pointing that FACT out. 

  • I think it also works (I hope) to divided the crazy “Atheists are Scary” Christians from the (again I hope) majority who are “Atheists.  Cool.”

    I’m hoping that if some get “offended” others will think “oh c’mon, get a grip, they’re just people!”  That is, it will encourage some to actually think about atheists,  and see some of the stupid paranoia out there about atheists.

  • Hey – let’s be fair here.

    I didn’t see Nadia say anywhere that we shouldn’t be doing the hard sell – only that she prefers the soft sell.

    Which is fine. There’s room for both approaches.

    Full disclosure: I’m a proponent of the hard sell. I much prefer it, and think it gets more done faster. But sometimes the soft sell works too. It all depends on the context of the message and the audience. There is no one ‘best way’. There’s only a ‘best way  in these particular circumstances‘.

  • Anonymous

    I am imagining the same billboard with just “Love” written across it and the atheist/humanist/freethought/etc. organization website and/or group name displayed prominently below… Alternate other one word concepts like “peace” or “smile.” The word “give” with a helping hand as background could be a great billboard campaign for FBB or other non-theistic fundraising organizations. Making sure the billboard makes it clear what type of group it is, it would be fascinating to see negative reactions to this. Plus, I always think the simpler billboard or ads are always more eye-catching. I occasionally pass by a billboard that has this huge bible verse printed on it. It’s been up for quite a long time and to this day, I have not been able to finish reading the thing from where I left off. Who thought that was a good idea. I really ought to get a picture of it…

  • There’s a difference between fear and consideration. 

    I agree there’s nothing wrong with pointing out facts, and I partly agree there’s nothing harmful in that. I believe we should do both, and I’d rather support the camp who are putting their efforts towards the soft sell. 

  • I think you said it perfectly, thanks.

  • I disagree. 

  • I thought this morning of two analogies to try and capture the different approaches in this matter. It bothers me that people assume there are only two options: being aggressive or giving up. So how does this sound:

    1. You are given god-like powers (no doubt I have now pissed off at least someone somewhere), and a task. The task is to change a landscape, the powers are the creation of a glacier or a fast-running river. The former is immensely powerful and will leave the landscape changed forever, but it takes a longer time. The latter – I’m talking a roaring river with rapids so violent they can’t be rafted – will work faster, and it is more noticable, and will also change the landscape forever. Glaciers are quiet, except for the occasional major collapse. Rivers are noisy, with rapids and waterfalls. Which is better? It depends on what you want. The one will give you a V-shaped valley with certain features, the other a U-shaped valley with different features. Both will eventually give you a valley. You just need to decide what result you want. And for those who assume the ‘soft sell approach’ is equal to cowering away and hiding, have you tried stopping a glacier lately?

    2. You paint your house red. Your neighbour hammers on your door next day, screaming at you: “How dare you paint your house red?! I hate red! I demand that you paint your house white!” You can either scream back: “Screw you, I’ll paint my house red if I like!” or you can say: “I’m sorry you’re upset. The thing is, this house belongs to me, I like red, and it’s not really up to you to decide what colour my house should be.” You’ll elicit different responses, but with the latter you have a better chance to calm your neighbour down, get him to start talking about his ereuthophobia, suggest ways he can act to manage his fears (not ways you can act to manage his fears), show him you didn’t paint your house red just to annoy him, ALL WITHOUT CHANGING THE COLOUR OF YOUR HOUSE. 

    The first option will result in two people hurling insults at each other at the tops of their voices, possibly making threats, maybe coming to blows. The second doesn’t guarantee, but has a better chance of resulting in constructive dialogue, and if your neighbour keeps screaming with bulging eyes and spittle flying, the rest of the neighbourhood will look at the exchange and see one nut, and one reasonable person not backing down but not acting like a demented clown either. Whose house would they rather go have a cup of tea at, get a chance to admire, and say: “You know, I think I may just paint my house this colour as well”?

    Being reasonable doesn’t work with everyone, some people will keep screaming and move on to more violent ways of trying to force you to live the way they demand you do no matter what your approach is. I know that. But if you have an audience, the way you handle the nutbag is not just speaking to him, it is speaking to everyone watching.

    This comment is not aimed at converting anyone to glacier or river tactics. It’s to explain the way I (and I suspect many others who advocate the gentler approach) see things. I hope it may help to better our understanding of each others’ points of view.

  • LVatheist

    I’m not missing the point.  I don’t agree with the point.  What IS the point of testing an already known prejudice, of doing something where the intent is simply to see how far removed from our secular mission we need to go before the larger community ignores us?  All this does is  waste limited advertising resources, and provide more fodder for the religious right to laugh at us – and in turn, the angry atheist community to get riled up about.  In and of itself, just putting the word “Atheist.” on a bus only further serves to provoke.  It’s like the little kid who sings “I’m not touching youuuuu” while holding their finger in your face.   It doesn’t do anything except annoy, or be ignored.  It doesn’t enlighten or spark worthwhile debate.  And it doesn’t identify atheists as individuals with a valid moral lifestance.  

  • LVatheist

    As I said in my other post/reply above – I understand what the “point” of the atheist./kittens billboard is…I just don’t agree that it is worthwhile.  I am a declared atheist for 20 years and am now in my 30’s.  I came upon the realization that the bible & gods are fables & myths early on.   Through my lifelong experience in communicating my views with others,  I am firmly on the side of the soft-sell approach and am all for this movement towards non-offensive billboards.  My opinion on how secular groups can advance in America, is to be peaceful & non-confrontational – and yet be forceful & non-submissive.  So to just put a kitten or “Atheist.” on a sign does nothing except attempt to provoke and see if a response is elicited – which in and of itself, is petty in my eyes.  a) I don’t want or need to test an existing and well-known prejudice & hatred of free-thinkers.  b) I don’t want or need to do anything that ridicules someone’s deeply held notions of anxiety & loathing towards people they don’t understand.   These billboards don’t help anyone understand what atheism “is”…they only serve as another point of conflict over “Will they hate us for it?”  & “If they do, I’m suing!”  I would much rather any atheist funded advertisements serve as statements of acceptance of all mankind, or even simply to announce when the next NEPA meeting is….but not just be another means to test the waters which we already know are quite warm with disgust for the secular community.

  • Nude0007

    I sent the dude a letter:

    First of all, thank you from the bottom of Mississippi for all
    that you guys are doing for the cause. Any effort means a lot to us in the
    bible belt.


    I just wanted to pop 2 cents at you about the inoffensive
    billboards. I am of the opinion that they will complain no matter what, so
    trying to be more tolerant of their views will just end up diluting our message
    and weakening  it as well.(which is what
    they want) I think we need to have strong, positive messages. Just “Atheists”
    doesn’t explain anything and the big deal is that they have and push many
    misconceptions about us that we need to address strongly, decisively and
    positively. As a comparison, I have noticed that nudists have taken a very similar
    “appeal to the enemy” approach, trying not to offend conservatives so they can
    get permission to have small, hidden places they can do their thing. They have
    failed to advance their cause.  After a
    hundred years, nudity is still just as taboo as it was when they started. I hope
    you see my point. We have to stand up for EXACTLY what we believe, and not tame
    it down one bit. You can’t enact change by fighting to be allowed to exist in

    I understand that this might be some sort of test to see if they object, but if
    they don’t does that mean we will start putting out billboards that do not
    explain anything or challenge their beliefs? If so, then I think we will become
    just like nudists, able to exist in private, walled in enclosures as long as we
    do not interact with the general public.


    Thanks for listening

    What do you guys think?

  • Anonymous

    There is a big divide among atheists:  those who like to have fun, and those who don’t.  Another divide is the elitists vs. the inclusionists.

  • You’re missing the point. Whether it’s the “Puppies are cute” ad or the “atheists” ad, this is an experiment and a demonstration.

    As an experiment, it puts to the test the thought that is common among atheists that our mere existence is what “offends” religious people, that it’s not what we say, it’s simply us they hate and fear. As good skeptics, we should put such assumptions to a test.

    If the hypothesis is confirmed, and there is a great deal of controversy about such innocuous ads from the religious public, then this will demonstrate how utterly ridiculous that knee-jerk reflex is, how completely based on pure bigotry it is, with no rationalization onto which those who object can credibly fall back. We can refer to these incidents of “outrage” in future interactions with people who want to suppress our speech. They might serve to discredit their objections to other statements we wish to make.

    There is nothing implied or necessary coming from these ideas that we must knuckle under and make nice, or tiptoe around, or not have more substantial statements to make, in all sorts of tones. We’ll be making plenty of noise, both “soft sell” and “in your face.” We will still make statements about religion, and statements about ourselves, and we will still debate with each other about what methods serve us the best.

    As Justin Vacula has pointed out, these ads are quite cheap. Let the experiment go forth, and whether the public’s reaction is “how dare they” or “meh,” it will be interesting, probably amusing, and more importantly, we will have more information.

  • bismarket

    I’m an Atheist & I like Cheese are pretty much met with the same disinterest here in the UK. Sometimes i wonder what the big deal is about a few bus ads & then i remember that not everyone is lucky enough to live in a country where anyone being strident (or even public) about their religious beliefs are looked on as being a bit weird, & you’d never actually VOTE for someone like that.

  • Jacob Block

    Love it! I like the simplicity and everything. To the people complaining… this is just one billboard. There will be more billboards, sponsor your own billboards… just keep doing everything! Every type of message is important.

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