I’m of mixed feelings about this. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is now featuring a page where you can create your own “billboard,” much like the ones going up in various locations around the country espousing secularism. Upload your own pic and include your own sentiment to get your own billboard/banner, and who knows? You might even get chosen to be featured on a real billboard someplace! I went ahead and made mine, though nearby Raleigh already has a selection, I’m happy to say.

If you want to make your own, just go here – it’s quite simple. And to view those that have already been made, click here. Which I’d recommend, because I’m going to talk about them a little bit ;-)

The reason I say I’m of mixed feelings is mostly because I was never “in the closet” in the first place. No, I have no issues with the parallel with homosexuality – I couldn’t care less who thinks I might be gay, and the people that count know me well enough already. But once I came down firmly on the aspect of atheism, I was never really concerned who knew it. I am, perhaps, more open about it on the blog here than in “real” life, because this is where I examine thoughts – I don’t hunt people down on the street and accost them, or parade around in my atheist or Darwin T-shirt – I don’t even own any. It’s a personal decision, and I’m more proud of it than, say, liking Duran Duran, but I don’t need recognition for it.

That’s not really the point, though. What’s intended with this is to remove the stigma of atheism in the first place, making it just another facet of life, rather than some kind of perversion (as many religious folk make it out to be.) Errruummmuuuhhh, yeah, okay, I’m cool with the idea that anyone should be accepted for who they are, and if it takes special effort to make people comfortable with this, sure. Alternately, I draw the line at turning it into a “fad” or encouraging it because that’s what other people do, you know what I mean? If it works for you, good! If it doesn’t, no problem!

My issues with religion, aside from the fact that it’s simply evidence of rotten decision-making, are that it spends much more of its time dictating how everyone should be, rather than simply providing something to the individual. It’s not a matter of “Hey, check this out, you might like it” – it’s far more, “Be this way or you’ll face retribution!” Not to mention the arrogant attempts to instill such lovely processes in schools and government where it really isn’t needed, and to repress science because nature doesn’t support mythologies.

That’s what I want people to notice. Take a look at the sentiments displayed on those billboards. Tell me how often you see any variation of “Join us,” “You’re right if you’re this way,” or “You’ll be sorry you didn’t listen.” Hemant Mehta’s is about the worst I’ve seen, and if you want to take that seriously, fine – it’s not much of a threat, and some of us have a sense of humor.

That’s one of the more interesting distinctions, I think. Appeals to religion, while certainly including some pleasant and friendly aspects, are never free of the threats or compulsions, some of which are quite open (one of my favorites being “Don’t make me come down there” signed by “god” on billboards I saw in Florida.) Many of the campaign billboards, my own included, might be viewed as smug if someone is so inclined, but compare this to the idea of someone claiming that they’re “saved.” It’s really hard to think that “I started thinking rationally,” is equivalent in any way to “I’m going to paradise and you aren’t.” Even the simple statement, “I’ll pray for you” has considerable undertones of condescension, caste, and hubris. Wow, gee thanks! I’m glad I have someone with clout acting on my behalf! That is, of course, if you’re not just doing it to win points for your own salvation…

After such incredibly manipulative and horrendous practices like classifying people as ultimately “good” or “bad” and promising eternal torment and such if they don’t kowtow properly (this is usually called “extortion”), many religious people then have the temerity to whine that they’re being persecuted when their belief system is criticized and logically dismantled. We’re already seeing plenty of it with the billboards that are on public display now. Oh deary me, another opinion! Right out here in the open where children can see it on their way to indoctrination! I’m not being respected!

There’s a difference between someone being attacked, even verbally, and their views being examined critically. It’s relatively easy to disagree with someone and not think this makes them bad or degenerate – at least, it is for most people. But there are those who follow their religion, not because it makes sense, not because it fulfills some “spiritual void” (you gotta love new age blather,) but because it simply means “good” and they hasten to stand on that side of the line. Question it, and you’re taking away their coin-toss mentality, blurring the very line they chose, and they’ll be damned if that’s going to happen. (Are you paying attention when I rip off these little zingers? Because I’m proud of them, but I don’t want them wasted…)

It’s worth remembering that, just because someone complains, doesn’t mean they have a legitimate reason to – the Republican party in this country is ample evidence of that. Some people are incapable of dealing with the details of any matter, and when that’s the case, the grownup table isn’t for them. It’s still possible to engage them, and let’s face it, they still have adult responsibilities like voting and pressuring school boards, so it can be worth it. But it requires a certain approach, and the recognition that it’s called for.

In part, that’s one of the useful aspects of efforts like this billboard campaign. It stirs up the status quo and highlights those who aren’t very good at thinking critically, where such can now be addressed. And yes, sometimes that will be with derision. Very few people really have an issue with derision or tone, in all honesty – they just feel it should be applied in different directions (like in calling atheism “immoral” and homosexuality a “sin”). But you’ll notice, one of the most prevalent themes on those billboards is how nothing is free from skepticism or examination. It’s hard to rationally argue against that.

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