Was the Atheist Billboard Quoting a Pro-Slavery Bible Verse Racist? March 8, 2012

Was the Atheist Billboard Quoting a Pro-Slavery Bible Verse Racist?

There’s a lot of chatter about how that billboard — which was vandalized and then removed — was racist, offensive, and even a “hate crime.”

AJ Johnson of American Atheists argues otherwise:

As an African American and an atheist, the recent stir caused by the PA Nonbelievers/American Atheists billboard is both surprising and disheartening. While I expected a negative reaction from religious African Americans, I was disturbed to find dissent from Black people within the Secular Movement.

The quote presented, “Slaves obey your masters,” was not taken out of context and is only one of the MANY locations in the Bible that you can observe a pro-slavery message. The image used was not created by American Atheists for this purpose, but was reprinted to illustrate the brutality that the Bible condones — and the reality of the conditions my ancestors endured. I am deeply saddened that the purpose of our billboard has been labeled as racist or as an “attack” on African Americans or a particular PA community. This vitriol is sorely misplaced, and should be directed at those who peddle Scripture as fact — or toward the PA House of Representatives that successfully sought to legislate it as such.

If you are rightfully upset by the Bible passage or the image used to represent it, do not take it up with American Atheists. We don’t agree with them either! The only difference is that we refuse to deny the reality of what is in the Bible, and its role the historical & ongoing oppression of African Americans. If that is controversial, then so be it. As long as 2012 is the “Year of the Bible” in PA, we will be providing even more samples of the “Good Book” to show the folks of Pennsylvania what their government thinks is important. Maybe 2013 will be the “Year of Improved Infrastructure” or the “Year of Job-Growth” instead.

AJ Johnson
Development Director
American Atheists

I think it’s fair to argue that the billboard didn’t convey its intended message as effectively as it could have. A lot of people were only seeing the image instead of the reason behind the image — it’s hard to blame them. When you’re driving past a billboard, you see the picture and it’s easy to skip over the fine print. People were also offended that anyone would bring up slavery at all or use it in any way to advance their own cause. (And, yes, people are complaining about the need for better graphic designers for atheist billboards … but what else is new.)

All that said, I’m with AJ on this one. If you’re upset about the message, don’t take it out on the messengers. The Bible has some horrible verses in it and many Christians choose to ignore them. The PA Nonbelievers and American Atheists were only shining light on them. Good. They should keep doing that. People disgusted by the verse should realize their disgust lies with the Bible, not the people quoting it verbatim.

Could the atheists have presented the idea more effectively? Of course. Thankfully, there are more billboards in the series and they’ll go public soon. There’s enough time to modify them and put the lessons learned into action.

Let’s hope AA makes sure the reasons for quoting Bible verses are as clear to everyone as the images it chooses to use.

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  • While the thing made me uncomfortable (which I generally am when people use the image of slavery for a political purpose – they usually don’t know what the hell they’re talking about), I pretty much agree with AJ’s analysis. It is RACIAL, it has racist ASSOCIATIONS, but it does not have the effect of exacerbating existing racial power disparities, and the image of an African slave is appropriate in PA, which has  a long and fractious history with slavery.

  • Heidi

     Probably someone should get on that graphic design improvement thing.

  • Jim Valentine

    You know what would have made this billboard flow better?  If, above the verse, it said, “The Bible says,” Having the billboard start right off with something that is definitely harsh certainly does leave the quick glancing driver wondering WTF is that all about.

  • Rod Chlebek

    This is so ridiculous. It’s criticism, not racism. A very ignorant claim.

  • What boggles my mind is that, okay, people might get upset about it when driving past it. Good, it’s supposed to make them upset. But they then complain about it, which means that they have the option, time and ability to actually sit down and investigate what the purpose and message of the billboard is. If they’re STILL upset, based on their initial reaction about it being about racism, then they’re willfully ignoring the message of the billboard and I can no longer sympathize with them in any way.

  • Skyweyr

    slaves are always depicted as black. so in a way that is racist.  There are millions of people today that are slaves that come in all colors and sexes I would guess. Slavery is not in the past. Legal slavery ,I think, is in the past not slavery itself.

  • Who’s even to say that it’s an American slave depicted? Lots of other nations had African slaves.

  • The billboard is badly designed from a graphics/information point of view.  There are a lot of rascist folks in Pennsylvania who would put up this billboard, absent the atheist web addresses below.  If you are going to spend a lot of money on an advertising campaign, at least get yourself a decent graphics designer.

  • “If you’re upset about the message, don’t take it out on the messengers.”

    So – it’s okay for me to call you a *&(%#$%+, because it’s your problem for having issues with being called a *&(%#$%+?


    How would you respond if a local Christian group put up a banner which says:
    “‘There Are No Atheists In Foxholes’ – Katie Couric. Join The American Army And Do Your Christian Duty By Your Country”.

    Should I be angry at Katie Couric or at the group who’d put up such a banner?  

    It doesn’t work that way, Hemnat. The group has to take responsibility and have some thought about how the message can (and will) be interpreted, rather than what I consider to be bad advertising. 

  • westley

    I’m no longer surprised by how incredibly, unbelievably stupid people become when they read a sentence containing the word “atheist.”  It’s like their brain loses all oxygen and they can no longer comprehend English.

  • Popeyewooly

    i think it’s the graphic that they used. It’s just disturbing. So that then reflects on the messenger, not the message.

  • Anonymous

    Yawn, always liked the billboard in Prattville, Alabama along I-65 with the red devil proclaiming “Go to Church or the devil will get you!”

  • as

    That’s not racist at all. African Americans were slaves in America, which is what the billboard is targeting. How is it racist to pick a picture of one race over another? Should they just have put pictures of every race? Why does that matter? It’s like saying it’s sexist to have an over-emotional female character. It’s not. The billboard isn’t saying the African race is worse than any other race, it’s just referencing the slavery problems America had. It’s pretty well-known that African Americans have a tendency to be religious in general; why is it racist to point out to them that, according to the bible, they should all be slaves? To point out to them that this book they’re [supposedly] following is not so wonderful or moral as they seem to think?

  • Mrs. B.

    I must admit when I first saw the billboard I thought that it was a metaphor for Christian “slaves” blindly obeying their lord and master. But then too, I’m white-bread white and probably view the world differently than I would if I was a person of color.

    It was not a particularly well-done ad. I would have thought the message “This lesson in ethics brought to you by the House of Representatives’ decree that this is the Year of the Bible,” or something along those lines as the major headliner, with possible biblical quotes regarding slavery, women, working on the sabbath, killing for any of the bazillion reasons outlined in the Bible, etc., would have been more effective and less offensive on its face.

    I could be wrong.

  • Marella

    I think it has worked brilliantly, it has garnered enormous attention and coverage by the news media. Go American Atheists! Perhaps it would be a good idea to get better graphic designers in future so that the message gets across as desired however.

  • Ted B

    It’s important to not use any images for a billboard like this- as they say “a picture is worth a thousand words”, in other words, a picture is sometimes too open to interpretation. Make it all text and simply quote that disgusting book- and maybe insert a question to the viewer “Would you vote for the God of the bible for President of America?” …or whatever. Also, the graphic design isn’t THAT bad considering what the designer had to cram in there, and in most cases (I’m a designer myself) the designer was told how big to make the image and where to place the text… most designers don’t have as much freedom as you’d think. 

  • Neil Porter

    One has to be careful when you deal with issues of race.  American never acknowledged and actively dealt with its race issues.  In fact to this day we blame black people for their high incarceration rates etc. Also the argument about blacks having slaves is such a shit argument and a cop out that I find it difficult to even be cordial.
    When I first saw it, I though it was too close to the line.  I understand wanting to have a shock value but putting blacks in shackles has still not been addressed here.  There is still a lot of anger and hatred bubbling just below the surface and always will unless we do what countries like Germany did. 
    It was not “racist” but is showed poor tact.  If the caracter  was white I think people would have been a bit more interested is seeing what is trying to be said.  A black face immediately offended.  

  • Justin Miyundees

    Racism is a red herring here.  But, the commotion is good for the discussion, so goody goody. Bring on the rape & genocide billboards cuz IT’S THE YEAR OF THE BIBLE!!!!  

  • The billboard you just made up would be supporting the phrase.  The American Atheists’ billboard is trying to take a stand against accepting such statements as moral.   Apples and oranges, try again.

  • Horribly incorrect analogy.

    It would be like a liberal anti-Republican organization quoting people like George Bush I saying “Atheists shouldn’t be considered citizens”. The motivation would be to have people sympathize with the discriminated minority and seriously question the person who actually produced the quote.

    It would NOT be right to rage against the Democrats demanding that they drop their bigotry against atheists.

  • Heintje

    So if the slave was depicted as white (or yellow, or brown, or beige), suddenly it ceases being racist at all!? Should we use image of little grey man, ET, or King Kong instead?

    Where is the billboard put up again? The United States, am I right? The kind of slaves that most americans are familiar with are the black slaves!

  • the real message trying to be conveyed, that the Bible is filled with bronze age ethics that are deplorable today, was just too small. Hard to notice when driving by. Where as the bible quote and image of the slave are massive in comparison.

  • Yep, not smooth at all.  We are not yet in an era where racism is a complete thing of the past so why even go there.  They might as well have painted a big fat red target on themselves.

  • Anonymous

    It’s a really bad billboard.  Not racist, but not clear in its message at all.  Also, the graphic design is just bad.  With the job market what it is, can’t they hire an underemployed graphic designer to do a halfway decent job?  No style at all.

  • Pseudonym

     What disturbs me the most about this fiasco, like all previous such fiascos, is that nobody has apologised. How hard is it to own it, admit you did the wrong thing (however noble your intention may have been), say sorry, and move on?

    Oh, I forgot. Atheists are rational, evidence-based people. They never make mistakes. It’s always everyone else who is too stupid or deluded to get it.

  • Anonymous

    Why is that obvious to all of us, but not to the person who designed this billboard? Also, the full NIV text would have been more effective: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything”.  Not only more accurate, but more damning to Christianity.  Do they spend 30 minutes designing these?  

  • I agree. Don’t make it easy for people to misinterpret the message.  Especially while speeding by at 50+ mph.

  • Randall Reynolds

    Not racist in the slightest. Referring to factual History is merely referring to factual History. Should we pretend that Blacks enslaved Whites instead?? Slave-owners, after all, DID use to the Bible to justify slave-ownership.

  • Randall Reynolds

    I’m almost offended you’re giving the discussion any airtime, actually. This is SO NOT RACIST that you’re wasting our time by posting about it!

  • Anonymous

    While I think the billboard is poorly designed from a persuasive standpoint, there is nothing misleading or racist about it.  The only people they ought to apologize to are the American Atheist donors whose money they didn’t use as effectively as they could have.  People can’t be held responsible for how those who don’t like the message will misinterpret their words.  That’s an absurd standard.  

  • Racism itself is already a dicey subject. Stir in a little bit of atheism and you have already created a big bowl of hot mess.  Don’t spend money on an expensive billboard unless it is going to send a clear message that will drive the point home.  Especially while cruising at 50+ mph.

  • Anonymous

    Also, Colossians was written in the 1st Century CE.  I don’t know why it’s being described as “Bronze Age ethics”.

  • Anonymous

     Ditto on white-bread-white context. I live in Maine, which is tied for the whitest state in the country. You’d think that would make us racist, but instead there is a weird sort of reverse racism where people try really hard to make sure they’re not racist…like you see someone non-white and you immediately think, “Oh! I have to be careful to treat them exactly normal so that they don’t think I’m treating them different because they’re black/hispanic/asian/etc.”

    Anyway, I’m sure this makes me (and others) view something like this billboard differently than someone of color or someone who lives in a more diverse area.

  • They talked about this on the Blacking it Up podcast today. The hosts were not amused, nor were most of the people in the chatroom. The main issue was the image. People felt that it was exploiting the tragedy of slavery to promote someone else’s agenda. It’s not an antislavery billboard per se — it’s an atheist billboard using slavery to make a point. And, given the demographics of the atheist movement, I’d bet it was mostly a bunch of white people using the image of a shackled black man for their own purposes. Can you see why that makes people uncomfortable?

  • Anonymous

     Agreed, it could have been designed better to be more clear, but that’s a lot harder to do when you’re the one making it so you already KNOW what it’s supposed to mean. The wording could have been rearranged so that the “Bible says” sentiment is more obvious. The billboard is quite clear if you actually read it.
    Perhaps the bottom line should have been something like, “If this Bible quote sickens you as much as it sickens us, join us at AmericanAtheists.org” to make it VERY CLEAR that PA Nonbelievers were not condoning the Bible passage.
    Still, no apology required.

  • Anonymous

     Yes! The smashing babies against rocks passage should reach across all demographics.

  • as

    But you might offend the babies!

  • Anonymous

     Agreed. Americans hear the world “slavery” and we think of the slavery of blacks in America. If the billboard had had a picture of, say, a white girl trapped in the sex slave industry, it would have just been even more confusing for this billboard.

  • Anonymous

    Well, most babies can’t read. And those than can probably won’t be reading this anyway because most will be properly secured in a rear-facing car seat so they’ll be looking the wrong way anyway.

  • Actually, there is an apology:  http://www.panonbelievers.org/2012/03/07/billboard-apology/

  • Annie

    Is this a famous image that I am not aware of?  Are the shackles used similar to ones used for African slaves in the US?  I’m confused as to why everyone is confident that this is an image of an African slave in America.  It may be, I don’t know,  but given the geographic location of where most of the biblical stories take place, it is not stepping out of the bounds of reason to assume a slave would have darker skin… as everyone in that area had darker skin.  Just think of the most popular images you see of Jesus in the US. It is highly unlikely that he was so fair skinned.   I may be missing something here, as I’ve never seen this image before the billboard, but I’m not getting the controversy either.   If this image’s history is known, could someone please share it? 

  •  +1

    I think people are mostly just gobsmacked by the now-bizarre image of a person in slave restraints. (It sure made me do a double-take!)

  • Keulan

    I don’t think the billboard was racist either. It was quoting a particularly repugnant Bible verse about slavery, and since historically slaves in America were black, the use of the image makes sense to me. I think people misinterpreted it, partly because it wasn’t designed as well as it could have been, but also because some religious people will look for any excuse to claim offense at us being openly atheist.

  •  “Grey.”


    “They’re grey. Little grey men. Not green”

    -Exchange between Fox Mulder and (I believe) Tom Colton, during either “Squeeze” or “Tooms”*

    *I’m quoting this from memory, so it may not be entirely accurate.

  • I’m not aware that the specific image is famous.

     “I’m confused as to why everyone is confident that this is an image of an African slave in America.”

    It’s definitely intended to be. This point is specifically clarified in the comments on A.J. Johnson’s Facebook post.

  • sg

    PZ had a good thread on why this billboard is bad, regardless of whether
    it’s racist: freethoughtblogs dot com/pharyngula/2012/03/08/kylie-doesnt-get-it/

  •  Can I just point out that, uh, black folks aren’t entirely free of blame for their incarceration rate. Most of the problem here is lax parenting and crap schooling, to where the only options the kids really see are pimp, prostitute, stripper, your not-so-friendly neighborhood dealer, or a dead-end McJob that barely pays the rent.

    All that said, there is absolutely no denying that the
    injustice system is rigged, top to bottom, to favor rich, white

    I have a few ideas on how to fix the parenting problem, the education problem, AND the injustice system.

    1: Mandatory parenting classes (1 year course, twice weekly class) starting ONE WEEK after the birth of a new child for ALL parents, whether it’s their first child or fifteenth. Along with this, I would be very happy to see more social support for single parents — I know people who are dependent on benefits and barely get by. (And no, they’re not on drugs or anything, just trying to squeak through the month with enough for rent, utilities, and food!)

    2: Better educational funding. I believe that school funding should be a priority, and that inner city schools should be brought up to par with the highest-end K-12 private academies. Yes, that means upgrading EVERYTHING, from buildings and equipment, to curricula, even teachers.

    3: A complete overhaul of the justice system, striking ALL laws regarding the manufacture, use, and sale of “illegal” drugs. Rebuild the system, with sensible drug regulation allowing for medical supervision (if desired by the user), clean supplies (as needed), and government regulated purity and dosing standards, much like we have for other pharmaceuticals. (For marijuana, add it into existing tobacco regulations.)

    In addition to providing these safety measures, we should also provide help in getting sober for those who need or want it. By “help getting sober,” I mean real, evidence-based, medically-supported help, none of this 12-Step “It’s not a religion, it’s SPIRITUAL” crap that blames the addict for not being “strong enough” to resist and forces confessions out of everyone.

    The “War on (Some) Drugs” is a major cause of the high incarceration rate of minorities. I mean, it’s really only targeting and stigmatizing the drugs those “filthy hippies” and “hood rats” like (e.g. marijuana, crack), and not the white-man-approved drugs like alcohol and tobacco… yeah, you do the math. Racist through and through.

    Anyway, these are just, you know, my ideas and opinions, and you’re free to disagree with them.

  • sg

    That’s not an apology. It’s what’s commonly referred to as a notpology. This one takes the most common form: “We’re sorry you misunderstood us.” A real apology requires taking responsibility; it might look like “we’re sorry we didn’t make more of an effort to show that we want to support black communities.”

  • MommyAnarchy

    The problem is with appropriation.
    But gotta love a movement of white dudes always explaining how things that don’t apply to them arent’t racist (or sexist). If you’re white, you don’t get to decude what is racist. Because it is a system of oppression that benefits you, and that is basically invisible to you. i’m sure that board didn’t offend all POC, but it offended enough of them for racial reasons it would be intelligent to ask them why and actually listen to the reasons instead of getting so defensive about it. People who aren’t racists can still say rscist things, and thats when they need to try and learn from the offended parties involved. But atheists are notoriously bad at understanding social jusrice issues, and the comments here are perpetual evidence of that.
    Check out – Atheists Invoke Slavery To Challenge The Year of the Bible http://www.womanist-musings.com/2012/03/atheists-invoke-slavery-to-challenge.html#more

    ” He apologized for the fact that others supposedly misunderstood what the billboard said, and in the process completely ignored the fact that many African-Americans found the billboard itself offensive.  Obviously, the concerns of African-Americans are absolutely secondary to this groups desire to fight the year of the bible. The fact that driving by the billboard may have been triggering, or that the billboard amounted to gross appropriation — pales in comparison to the seriousness of the atheist agenda. No matter how worthy you believe your cause is, invoking an experience outside of your own personal background amounts to appropriation.  It cheapens events like slavery and turns it into a cheap talking point. ”

  • Anonymous

    They could have just gone with the “Take my daughters, but leave the angels alone!” quote. That is a powerful gut punch to anyone who drives past it. There is no perceived sense of racism in that quote. It shows pure malice for one’s own blood and the “taken out of context” card will be much, much harder to justify.
    The Bible isn’t starved for depravity like this, the Billboard designing guys just need to hunt down one example-just one- where the implications are so damning that the Bible will be held to judgement and NOT the atheist community for bringing it to public attention.
    And next time, Billboard designers, just come out and say “The KJV Bible in your pocket says…. (and then quote)”
    “The Bible you swear to tell the truth on says ….(insert vile example here)”

    I’m not an American, but if these points are valid and acceptable, please forward them to the right folks.

  • Heintje

    Hold on there! The billboard merely points out a fact: that the bible condones and sanctions the practice of slavery. It was even as by the slave-holders to justify the enslavement of the black people.

    How the hell is this exploiting slavery for furthering atheist purpose? Stop seeing things through the lens of racial conflict please!

  • Georgina

    OK, why is this racist? Because …
    a) Atheists assume that Bible-Thumpers have actually read the bible … whereas many, many Xtians have never even heard of Colossians.

    b) It does not condemn slavery, therefore readers assume that atheists must be FOR slavery.

    c) Since the complete mapping of the humane genome has proved conclusively that we are all members of the human race, racist now means “for anything I am against, and against anything I am for”.

    d) If the words THE HOLY BIBLE SAYS … were on the billboard, instead of just the reference, maybe more people would realise that most religions promote slavery.  

  • David McNerney

    (Godwin alert)

    What if Pennsylvania makes 1925 “The Year of Mein Kampf” and Amnesty International produce a billboard with a suitable quote and a picture of the a victim in the death camps.

    Would anyone complain about that?

    The difference everyone knows the bible is a “good” book inspired by God, whereas Mein Kampf is an “evil” book written by a homicidal maniac.  There’s your problem right there.

    Seems the like the correct atheist response to me – and if people are upset by this, then it’s not because it was too offensive, it’s because it wasn’t offensive enough.  Most Christians defending slavery in the bible think it’s cute – “It’s not real slavery – it’s biblical slavery.”

     (*I could, of course easily have done the clichéd: “one is an evil book written by a homicidal maniac, the other is Mein Kampf”).

  •  I think it is clear that people willfully misinterpreted it.

  •  the message could not be any clearer!

  •  “I’m sorry you willfully misinterpreted this billboard, despite it’s message being crystal clear. I’m sorry the bible contains such offensive material”

    apology done.

  •  a real apology would require having done something wrong.

  •  So including a bible reference doesn’t count?

  • Rooferonfire

    I am going against the grain here. I think it is wrong for atheists (as well as others) to exploit tragedies of the past in order to make points now. I think it does a disservice and makes us look cruel. I outline my case here : http://rooferonfire.blogspot.com/2012/03/media-moment-misappropriation-nation.html

  • When taking the overall mindset of someone who believes in something that is, as it was once said “So unbelievable, no one in their right mind would believe it”, front lobe activity is hypersensitive to anything that threatens what one cannot explain but guides one’s life. Simply put, the entire ad was a waste of time.

  • PGS

    I don’t want to jump into whether the billboard is racist or not, but it seems that the image is the main distraction here, and so because of it the billboard isn’t effective. If you wanted to go about criticizing the Bible’s views on slavery, why not parody those old Christian billboards that were solid black with white letters signed “-God”, and throw the relevant verses in front of his “signature”? Or quote from someone like James Henley Thornwell, a theologian in the South in the 1850s still quoted by Southern sympathizers today like Thomas E. Woods, Jr. (http://web.archive.org/web/19991023114339/http://reformed-theology.org/html/issue04/christendom.htm), arguing that using the Bible for abolitionism was a manipulation of scripture by secular philosophies.

  • Mboy

    Poorly done. I certainly get it, but I can see how a person driving by would be a bit confused and assume possible racism. Whether or not this is “actually racist” doesn’t matter. The fact that we’re having this conversation shows that it was poorly done. Billboards have to be very very simple. A person driving by just needs a tag line. The arguments that atheists want to make seem too complicated for billboards. They’d do better with a newspaper ad or something like that.

  • Anonymous

    Not if the font size of the billboard is all wrong, and you quote a section people are not familiar with.

  • Anonymous

    You aren’t under the impression that no white has ever been enslaved are you? Africans were taking slaves directly from Britain up into the 1800s. Approximately a million Europeans were taken as slaves to Africa.

    “Pirates (called corsairs) from cities along the Barbary Coast in north Africa – cities such as Tunis and Algiers – would raid ships in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, as well as seaside villages to capture men, women and children. The impact of these attacks were devastating – France, England, and Spain each lost thousands of ships, and long stretches of the Spanish and Italian coasts were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants. At its peak, the destruction and depopulation of some areas probably exceeded what European slavers would later inflict on the African interior.” according to Robert Davis at Ohio State University

    Slavery wasn’t invented by whites or based on racism. Black Africans and pre-colonial native north and south American Indians practiced it, along with Asians, east Indians, etc. The bible quote wasn’t likely about black slavery in the first place. Slavery was a local phenomena everywhere first and then was practiced over longer distances. Europe was subject to wave after wave of invasions before the colonial period started. It was the rise of technological superiority that resulted in the colonial period, not some inherent moral inferiority of Europeans. They just got better at it.

  • Anonymous

    Are you kidding? Your viewpoint is ideological and not based on facts. You need to read some Thomas Sowell and fast. We don’t blame black people for high incarceration rates among blacks, We blame black criminals.

  • Annie

    Thanks, TooManyJens.  I knew I must have been missing something.

  • Rebecca Sparks

    How is it racist to pick a picture of one race over another?Picking one race over the other is one definition of racism.It’s like saying it’s sexist to have an over-emotional female character. It’s not. Actually, that is a sexist stereotype.why is it racist to point out to [African Americans] that, according to the bible, they should all be slaves? The point of the billboard could have been a) The Bible condones slavery, or b) and the Bible has been used in America to condone Black slavery.   The Bible does not say that all Black people should be enslaved.  Racialized slavery was an imperialist invention.  The effects of that racialization are still being felt today.  By depicting a black man in shackles instead of a more generic image (say of shackles, or a whip, or no image at all) shifted the focus from bad things the Bible says to a very racialized message.

  • Rebecca Sparks

    How would you respond to someone who asked you to stop seeing things through an atheist lens, because it distracted from their point?  Racism is something that affects people in the here and now, and acknowledging that is as important as 
    acknowledging  religious bias.

  • That was “Squeeze.”  🙂 

  • Carrie

    You are spot on. Especially when the atheist movement has such a problem acknowledging and rectifying racial injustice within its own ranks. And now, all of a sudden, it’s ok for a mostly-white organization to use the historical oppression of black people when it suits them? No. Not okay. And white people should certainly NOT be the arbiters of what is and is not acceptable in that area. 

  • Carrie

    Most people who point out racism and other forms of -ism are going against the grain. Keep at it!

  • Carrie

    With plenty of reasonable people chiming in that yes, it actually is racist. 

  • Carrie

    If it was a clear as it could be, we wouldn’t be having even one discussion about it’s message, much less several. 

  •  Exactly. Racism and racial tension exist, and to pretend that they don’t is to avoid living in the real world.

  • You would understand the controversy better if you would stop telling other people what their problem is with the billboard, and would instead listen when they say what their problem is.

  • Racist? Personally for me, No. For it’s the truth. Offensive? Personally for me, No. For it’s the truth. Inappropriate for public eye where children would see it… Yes. Inappropriate.

  • I’m curious as to why you thought the billboard was inappropriate for children.  The picture below was in my junior high school history book, and it’s much more graphic than the billboard.

  • Kristen White

    Absolutely agree. Our goal should be to catch people’s attention and then persuade them with reason. The quote would have been enough to do that. The image just smashed people over the head. It was designed to provoke revulsion and disgust, and I think a lot of people would be annoyed at what they perceived as emotional manipulation. It would be like a Christian billboard having a picture of a mother holding a graphically dead child, with a quote by an atheist saying that there is no such thing as life after death.

  • Kristen White

    The bible verse is not exploitative. The image is. The image is designed to provoke a serious emotional reaction in people. That reaction is to SLAVERY, not to religion. The goal was to take people’s emotional reaction against slavery and show them why slavery ought to be linked to the bible. It’s an accurate argument, but I can absolutely see why some people would feel we were exploiting the horrors of slavery to advance our own message.

  • Kristen White

    Kudos. You are right on. 

  • T-Rex

    Weren’t most slaves in the “good” book  Jewish? Or atleast middle eastern looking?

  • T-Rex

    No one has the right to “not” be offended. Get over it…and yourself.

  • T-Rex

    It was at an intersection, not on a highway. Plenty of time for people sitting at the red light to discern the message.

  • mike

    I liked everything about that billboard.  The text at the top really grabs your attention.  The image looks straight out of the 18th century abolition movement and reminds me of the image that accompanied the plea, “Am I not a man and a brother?”.  The background and typeface and placement looks straight out of the 18th century too (maybe a little better).  I found the small text a bit too much, but otherwise a very fine piece of advertising.

    I also note that when vandalized, they forgot to remove part about “Slaves, obey your masters”.  Apparently the vandals do not disagree with that part.

  • Racist?  A hate crime?  No.  Racially provocative, yes.  And even that might’ve been easily defused had the billboard been sponsored by a black atheist group. 

    I totally “got” the billboard, and that very Biblical verse is a talking point I frequently use.  But what do you think was easier for the average half-assed theist? Taking offense at an ugly, racially charged image, or critically contemplating its accompanying Bible verse.  People who’ve been conditioned to believe what they’re told rather than think for themselves are predisposed to the former.   That image stole the thunder.

    Hindsight is 20/20, so I see this as a teachable moment.  We’re going to have to get a bit more emotionally intelligent and less snarky. 

  • sindarintech

    I think it would have less of a racist tone if other ethnicities were pictured next to the African. Religion enslaves the minds of all thinking people, regardless of race.
    Or, better yet, a quote from Bob Marley stating ‘free yourself from mental slavery’. 🙂

  • It’s not racist and they’re not “exploiting” slavery. SHEESH

  • But the billboard isn’t racist

  • That’s a thing that’s been bothering me too, with all the criticism of it being hard to understand while zooming by. All the pictures I’ve seen of it shows it not being a “highway billboard” – and if it’s at a intersection, that undermines much of the misinterpretation even more.
    I mean, there are cars parked underneath it and the vandals obviously stood on a car to scrape most of it down. In my travels in the  US I haven’t seen a highway billboard where you could do that.

  • Pseudonym

    Where did I suggest otherwise?

    For what it’s worth, no one has the right not to be perceived as a bunch of racist arseholes, either.

  • Pseudonym

    That was a brilliant reverse Poe! Well done!

  • Pseudonym

    Agreed, it could have been designed better to be more clear, but that’s
    a lot harder to do when you’re the one making it so you already KNOW
    what it’s supposed to mean.

    You know, there are people whose job is to work with an organisation to teach them the finer points (and in this case, the basics) of public relations and advertising and how not to make a fool of yourself in public. Some of them are quite reasonably-priced. Many of them are nonbelievers, and might even give discounts to a cause they agree with.

    Just a suggestion. But I’ll warn you now: They’ll probably say that an apology is in order.

  • Pseudonym

    It’s a little difficult for people from the modern era to get their heads around this idea, having been brought up with the image of New World plantation-era slavery and the post-Hague-Convention idea of “rules of war”.

    The Ancient Near East was, unsurprisingly, nothing like that. Slaves were generally people who had been conquered. Indeed, slavery was partly developed as an alternative to killing every male of fighting age in a captured city. Moreover, slave-owning was highly regulated. In many nations (including Rome, Greece and the Hebrew system), slaves had some guaranteed civil rights and could own property and land, for example.

    After the abolition of slavery and the advent of nation states, members of opposing armies were still routinely killed until the Second Hague Convention codified the notion of “prisoner of war”.

    Slavery wasn’t a good thing, but it did take some crucial social and technological developments before people envisaged an even better alternative.

  • Pseudonym

    Oh, come on. It’s pretty obvious to everyone that the part that was vandalised was the part that the vandals could reach.

  • Well, if that’s the case then that makes all of the difference in the world. How dare these imbeciles pay more attention to cross traffic than a random billboard.

  •  Thanks.

  • jay

     Regarding #3: In many failing inner city schools the expenditure per student exceeds the successful suburban schools.

    It should be no surprise that performance in less desirable neighborhoods, even without budget disparity.

    In general intelligent, ambitious people tend to wind up making more money, often significantly more than less intelligent people. There are exceptions in both directions, but the overall pattern holds. And they naturally concentrate in the ‘better’ neighborhoods.

    Intelligent people are far more likely to have intelligent children, over 50 % of intelligence is hereditary. Add to that the children that are growing up in a household where the environment is more likely to be intellectually nurturing and ambitious (these are, after all, households that have demonstrated those characteristics through acquired income)

    Is it any surprise that you will find significantly more high performing students in the wealthy area schools than in the poor areas?  Race doesn’t even have to get into it, simply statistics.

    Trying to push more money through the system will only help so much. You are dealing with a different, self selected population. When you add to that the negative effects of criminal elements which tend to settle into these neighborhoods, you have a situation that no school budget can fix.

  • If you watch the extended version of The Nature of Existence, this very question is addressed, and multiple African-American pastors say straight up, they SUPPORT slavery as a tool of God.  One even muses about what his ancestors must have been guilty of for God to deliver them into slavery, as the Israelites had been.   There is zero need to compromise on telling the truth about what the Bible says is true.  The fact that the Bible IS racist, genocidal, misogynist, patently non-historical, and deeply hypocritical should be pointed out in no uncertain terms.  The illogical mental gymnastics that believers go through (or simply ignore, thinking faith is a virtue), is only broken down when countered.

  • Anonymous

    So in your mind being white automatically makes a person guilty? Because that’s the only way you can jump to your conclusion merely on the basis of organizations being mostly white without knowing the reason why they are mostly white. The KKK is mostly white for very different reasons than the atheist community. In fact there is zero evidence that the current ratio has any nefarious cause.

  • Anonymous

    Well excuse us for not always taking a point of view that is not our own. Next you be telling us we should hand out bibles. Our point of view is that slavery is bad and that the bible advocates it, and that it was used to justify slavery. This is not a subject owned by blacks. In fact it is racist to think it is.

    Whites are not the moral inferiors of blacks, and we do not owe them deference in everything we do. Blacks shove uncomfortable images in the faces of others all the time. If you think that image is uncomfortable for blacks well it is even less comfortable for whites, as are pictures of white slave holders. Our noses are constantly rubbed in the lie that we are responsible for some black kids dad skipping out on him.

    I ‘ve never owned a slave, never discriminated against a black, yet I’m constantly accused in some fashion or another of being a racist. Same for being a sexist. The new and most asinine angle on this guilt trip is this crap about atheists having a race problem.

  • Anonymous

    They did apologize and no apology was owed.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed. It is upsetting because at first sight it looks like the KKK put it up. Only after careful scrutiny can one discern the message.

  • Anonymous

    Well it is the Iron Age, and what’s a little exaggeration among friends. It’s not like they went all the way back to copper or stone.

  • Anonymous

    Myers isn’t reasonable.

  • Anonymous

    Rebecca that first response was totally inappropriate. He wasn’t saying you pick one entire race over another. Also the reason why you do the choosing matters to whether it is racism. They wanted to use a picture of slavery. As he pointed out if you are going to do that you need a group or a single individual. With a group it is not likely you would be able to find a mixed race group of slaves that would be recognizable as such. So group or not you are dealing with a particular race being chosen. The way you think not matter what race was picked it would have been racist, since it mean picking one over another. You have any handy images of white slaves that people in the US are going to recognize. You are aware that there wasn’t much white slavery here, right?

  • Anonymous

    The quote is about literal, not mental slavery.

  • Anonymous

    That is incredibly stupid on so many levels.

  • Anonymous

    I guess there’s no showing holocaust pictures to you. You must think people who set up holocaust museums are Nazis.

  • Rebecca Sparks

    [Slavery] is not a subject
    owned by blacks. In fact it is racist to think it is.

    are not the moral inferiors of blacks, and we do not owe them deference in
    everything we do.

    people’s] noses are constantly rubbed in the lie that we are responsible for
    some black kids dad skipping out on him.

    are all straw men arguments.  No one is
    arguing any of these points.

    shove uncomfortable images in the faces of others all the time.

    While I don’t
    think this is true, this logical fallacy is called “Two wrongs make a right.”

    If you
    think that image is uncomfortable for blacks well it is even less comfortable for
    whites, as are pictures of white slave holders.

    This is just not
    true.  I don’t think that it’s a fun
    conversation for anyone, but I think that generally speaking it’s more uncomfortable
    for the victims (or their descendants) than the perpetrators (or their descendants),
    being that they were the ones actually on the receiving end of abuse.

    point of view is that slavery is bad and that the bible advocates it, and that
    it was used to justify slavery.

    think everyone understands and agrees with this point.  The vast majority think that it is quite
    clever to protest the year of the Bible with posting controversial Bible
    verses.  What people have a problem with
    is the execution.  A picture of a black
    slave in a choke collar ads a racial component to the billboard that wouldn’t
    be there with a more neutral image (like handcuffs, or a ball-&-chain, or
    no image at all).  Also, while the verse
    was huge, the other important information was relatively small.  At a quick glance what one would see is the
    message, “Slaves obey your masters,” and the black slave in a choke collar.  I don’t believe this is the message that the
    atheists were intending to send, but it seems pretty clear to me that a
    reasonable person could come to that conclusion.  Racism is not just about intentions; it is
    about how a reasonable person might interpret the actual behavior as well.   It is
    up to the messenger to make sure that the message is not ambiguous to be reasonably
    interpreted in another manner.

    excuse us for not always taking a point of view that is not our own…. yet I’m
    constantly accused in some fashion or another of being a racist. Same for being
    a sexist.

    You don’t have to
    take a point of view that’s not your own—but you should at least listen and
    respond to what people are actually saying. 
    What are you doing and saying when people tell you that you are racist
    or sexist?

  • BrianMacker

    “What are you doing and saying when people tell you that you are racist or sexist?”

    At this point I’m likely to tell the to fuck off.

  • BrianMacker

    ” If you’re white, you don’t get to decude what is racist.”

    “Shut the fuck up”, she argued.   That means you White.

  • BrianMacker

    “These are all straw men arguments.  No one isarguing any of these points.”

    False they are argued all the time.   Indefensible statements like ” If you’re white, you don’t get to decude what is racist.” are made all the time. 

    It’s original sin for the liberal crowd.

    “While I don’t think this is true, this logical fallacy is called “Two wrongs make a right.”

    Presenting uncomfortable images is NOT wrong.   You are totally clueless.   Intent and truth and a whole lot of other factors matter, other than just comfort or offense.    Your moral reasoning is vacuous.

  • Rebecca Sparks

    “These are all straw men arguments.  No one isarguing any of these points.” – Rebecca
    False they are argued all the time.   Indefensible statements like ” If you’re white, you don’t get to decude what is racist.” are made all the time. BrianMacker

    This does not prove to me that anyone is actually making these claims–in this argument specifically or any “liberal” blogger generally.   A citation would be helpful.

    Blacks shove uncomfortable images in the faces of others all the time. -BrianMacker
    “While I don’t think this is true, this logical fallacy is called “Two wrongs make a right.” – RebeccaPresenting uncomfortable images is NOT wrong.  – BrianMacker

    I was not saying that it was wrong.  What I was saying is that justifying an action because that person would do the same to you is a logical fallacy–called  “two wrongs make a right”.  Hopefully this is clearer.
    You are totally clueless.   Intent and truth and a whole lot of other factors matter, other than just comfort or offense.    Your moral reasoning is vacuous.This would fall under the logical fallacy of Appeal to Ridicule, where you substitute verbal abuse for a real argument.
    The only statement you have that addresses my point at all is ” Intent and truth and a whole lot of other factors matter, other than just comfort or offense, ” but you don’t explain what you mean by this statement at all.  I’m not sure where truth and comfort even enter into this discussion, because we weren’t talking about lying or discomfort.  You also don’t give a reason why intention of the speaker should matter more than the interpretation of the listener.  I’m listening to what you’re saying, but please reign in your abusive language.

  • gam

     I think the people behind this billboard have a point, but they failed to design the billboard to convey there message.

    I’m a graphical designer and I’m a bit disappointed by most atheistic billboards i see. I mean, you got the money to get a billboard, but you can’t spend some time and money on the message and the design?

  • Rebecca Sparks

    I would say my first response was rather flippant, but not necessarily inappropriate.  You don’t need a image of a slave to depict slavery: Chains, retraining devices, tied arms, for-sale imagery, etc.  If you must have an image of a slave, but can’t find a proper on the public domain, you can draw one.  I doubt anyone would have trouble interpreting a person in shackles next to the word “slave”.  Or you can go without a graphic–graphics are not mandatory on billboards.

  • Anonymous

    You don’t “need” a billboard either.   There is nothing “improper” about the image of a slave.

    What is “improper”, is having to explain that to your children as you drive down the street.   “Mommy, why is that man wearing that thing”.   However the same goes for gay men kissing on a billboard.   So the question is, whether the conscious decision not to be proper was racist or not.   It’s certainly not “proper” but that doesn’t mean it is racist.

    Opponents aren’t making those kinds of arguments.  Instead they are concentrating on the racial makeup of atheist groups, claiming whites don’t get to talk about race, and all sorts of other nonsense.

    I’m sure they pick the picture specifically because it is upsetting and controversal.    Racism had nothing to do with it.   I will entertain “image” issues but I have to tell you that I’m not a member of America Atheists so anything they decide to do doesn’t reflect on me.

    I tend to just point out where I disagree.  I will say about your first comment so you don’t feel like I’m picking on you.  You were correct to disagree and say, “The Bible does not say that all Black people should be enslaved.”

    However when you say that racialized slavery was an imperialist invention I think you are misinterpreting history.    You are getting things in reverse.  Racism is actually an improvement over the prior level of xenophobia that existed.    It used to be that people who were from other tribes were considered inferior.   Not only would they consider other races to be obviously inferior but even people of their own race and based on additional features such as language, culture, or mere clan membership. 

    The bible for instance has injunctions against capturing Israeli slaves.   It gives deferential treatment to the group.   The assumption of many philsophies way before imperialism [of Europeans because they didn’t invent that either] was ingroup superiority over outgroup.

    Don’t you think it is a bit hypocritical to gloss over a long history of non-European imperialism and non-European enthnocentricsm only to single out Europeans when they did the same thing everyone else was doing.   Granted more sucessfully that some other groups (but not all look at the Mongols), but why teach a slanted history that makes out one group (one race) to be all in the wrong?

    The norm prior to European imperialism was tribalism which is far worse than racism.    Racism was actually a broadening of the scope of tolerance.   Now not only would the English see other english as non-inferiors, they would tolerate the French, and the Irish, etc.   No longer would marrying an Irish result in believing you had married the equivalent as a monkey. 

    This wasn’t unique to Europe either.  The Chinese, the Japanese, the Native Americans, the east Indians, were all doing it.     What do you think the caste system was all about?   Are you aware that the Hutus and the Tutsis hated each other and had a superior/inferior status thing going on based on tribalism long before the Belgians got involved.

    You are repeating leftist ahistorical baloney.  Start questioning your premises, and don’t trust anyone to do your thinking or research for you.   Go look for yourself. 

  • Anonymous

    ” A citation would be helpful.”
    That was a citation from this thread.  MommaAnarchy made that statement.   You want more just look up “racial justice”, and “only whites can be racist” or any number of other google searches.

    “I was not saying that it was wrong. What I was saying is that justifying an action because that person would do the same to you is a logical fallacy–called  “two wrongs make a right”.  Hopefully this is clearer.”

    Well that is where you made a mistake.  I wasn’t justifying it.  I was showing they are hypocrites who don’t even obey this rule themselves.  

    I used to live in a black neighborhood and some of the black kids would go out of their way to act tough and give belligerent stares at whites as they walk past on the street.   Then they accuse the white kids of being racist for walking to the other side of the street when they see these assholes coming.  

    Meanwhile they would also harrass the black kids who would be nice for “acting white”.   Also harrass them for getting good grades on the same basis.

    I had a black kid come up to me and ask me for a dime in a way that said, “You are my bitch”.  He was two grades above me and quite bigger.  Not wanting to fight over a dime, I just gave it to me.  My sister saw this and said “You aren’t going to let him ask for it that way are you?”   I then, stupidly took her advice and tried to enforce some politeness.  I asked him to give me the dime back until he asked for it nice.  Next think I know he is beating on me, I am surrounded by blacks screaming, beat the white boy, which he obliged them.   They didn’t care that it was this 8th grader beating on a small 6th grader.

    They behave like this and then are like “I don’t get it”.  No stupid, you don’t get it.   You are the one who is racists.   Any black who says a white person can’t “get it” is as much a racist as any white.

    Why? Because they hypocritically don’t get the quite obvious point of view that others don’t like being threatened and beat up on merely because of their race.

    Meanwhile we have idiots on the left saying minorities can’t be racist because they are in the minority.    Tell that to the racist Jewish father who got mad that his daughter was dating an Italian (google and listen to that racist tirade by a minority).

    “This would fall under the logical fallacy of Appeal to Ridicule, where you substitute verbal abuse for a real argument”

    No, that was an accurate assessment, supported by the second sentence.  You in fact DID ignore other factors to zero in on racism just as I claimed.  That was the support, and the assessment matches that support.

    Using the image was not racist because the intent was not racist.   There are other factors that also would tend to indicate it is not racist, like the glaringly obvious fact it was anti-slavery.

    So claiming it has basis in racism is in fact clueless.   The clues being right in front of your face.

    “The only statement you have that addresses my point at all is ” Intent and truth and a whole lot of other factors matter, other than just comfort or offense, ” but you don’t explain what you mean by this statement at all.”

    I shouldn’t have to explain that.   It should be obvious.   I’m giving you and the rest of the readers a little credit that I don’t have to babytalk to you.

    “You also don’t give a reason why intention of the speaker should matter more than the interpretation of the listener.”

    You are kidding right?  

    I don’t get offended by pictures of white slaveholders in general.  I get offended when the intent of the person showing it is to imply that I personally have moral responsibility for such things.   Intent does matter, and should matter to when one gets offended.

    There is a big difference to say, discussing the word nigger, and using it in that context, and actually calling someone a nigger. 

    Instead of understanding intent there are an enormous number of idiots out their who get offended at the mere use of the word.   So much so people are afraid to use it propery and have to say N-word.

    Worse, idiots are hearing people say words like “niggardly” or see them reading anti-racist books with titles containing things that “offend” them and making charges of racism.

    This is batshit crazy bullshit, and it is all based on the utterly stupid idea that “the interpretation of the listener matters”.  A concept that you have swallowed, hook, line and sinker.   Interpretation only matters where the listener is actually properly interpreting the words.   

    Had the billboard said, “Kill all the Niggers – American Atheists” then the intepretation of the listener would match the intention of the writer.    The reason being that the intent is written right into the information being communicated.   That is something one can rightfully be offended at.

    Frankly, I don’t know how to make this point non-abusively, because you need to understand that other people don’t enjoy being accused of racism even tangentially and especially at a drop of a hat.    The mere accusation of racism can ruin careers and yet some people throw such charges around like loose change and expect others not to view that as abusive.

    Think about it this way.   You don’t get to call other people racist without solid evidence for the same reasons you don’t get to call people niggers.  Pretending you are being polite while doing so and then requiring the other person to ” reign in your abusive language.”  is quite rich.

    If you don’t intend to be supporting this PC nonsense then show that intent by stopping your use of it, and defense of it.

    How about you concentrate your oppositional efforts on people who support true racism, like MommaAnarchy who made the truly racist statement, “If you’re white, you don’t get to decude what is racist.”     What racist claptrap that is.

  •  With billboards and other public statements regarding atheism, people *go out of their way* to misinterpret the actual message.

    I have said years ago that a billboard which merely had a picture of a friendly looking person with the text, “I am an atheist.” would be interpreted as ‘offensive’. Recently, the banning of a similar billboard which merely said the word “Atheist.” confirmed my prediction.

    It *does not matter* how clear the message is stated. *Some* theists are going to misinterpret it no matter what you do. Misinterpretation is to be *expected*.

  • Garrett

    I’m black, and found the message hit home as it intended. Americans are too pc and far too sensitive about things. The bulletin may have been in lacking in tact – but many bulletins in fact, are – but it was in no way racist. To say so is ignoring its very message.

  • The Other Weirdo

     Including, funnily enough, in today’s and yesterday’s worlds, actual Africans themselves.

  • Sarah T.

    It’s really unfortunate that any criticisms of this billboard are dismissed as anti-athiest. I am an atheist and an anti-racism ally. The bottom line is that this billboard objectifies black slaves and their ancestors. The depiction of a specifically African slave in Western shackles conflates the system of taking prisoners of war as slaves described in the Bible (which was incredibly common among nomadic tribes, including some Native American tribes, and generally included welcoming the slaves into your tribe at the end of their term) with the systematic kidnapping and exploitation of one race of humanity by another. All slavery is objectionable, but the ramifications of Western slavery undeniably resonate today and contribute to reactions to this billboard. Yes, it’s true that white slave-owners attempted to use the Bible to pacify their slaves, but it’s also true that the Bible gave hope to educated slaves and informed the morals of abolitionists.

    But I don’t think the American Atheists care. All press is good press, right? Even if it contributes to the idea that atheists are privileged white men who don’t give a shit about anyone not in their club, which I know is not true. That’s why I’m so sad when we shoot ourselves in the foot with ill-conceived publicity stunts.

  • GamerFromJump

    +10 brianmacker

    Better get used to it though. The modern day strain of racialism subscribes to the concept of eternal blood guilt.

  • It’s a quote from the supposed “Good Book”. I don’t see how atheists could be blamed for something written by a christian.

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