Atheists send message with new billboard

Atheists send message with new billboard

by Hannah Beausang

02_07_13_News_AtheistBillboard_JMLast Thursday, a billboard displaying the slogan “Atheism: A personal relationship with reality” was erected on eastbound California State Route 94 near the College Avenue exit.

The billboard—a $4,000 investment—was funded by the San Diego Coalition of Reason and the American Atheists.

The SDCoR was founded in 2009 as a branch of the national organization, the United Coalition of Reason. The group’s goal is to connect “freethinkers” in the area to form a secular community advocating acceptance of a more “rational and realistic view of the universe.”

In Nov. 2009, SDCoR put up another billboard to announce the launch of the organization and to promote the unification and empowerment of local groups. This billboard, which read, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone,” was successful, contributing to a significant growth in group membership.

SDCoR local director Debbie Allen hopes the new billboard will raise awareness and positively affect the coalition.

“First of all, the billboard conveys that there is a community of nonbelievers that are active in San Diego. We want people to look at the sign, be intrigued and look for our website,” Allen said. “Secondly, I want people to be inspired to think about what the billboard represents.”

The billboard uses an intentional play on words to tweak the traditional statement, “A personal relationship with God.” The message intends to emphasize the importance of a strong grasp on reality rather than a focus on the supernatural world.

San Diego State social sciences senior Derek Richards is the vice president of Secular Student Alliance at SDSU. The Secular Student Alliance supports separation of church and state and attempts to provide a community for atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers.

Richards believes the billboard may be too controversial.

“I respect the Coalition of Reason and I know that they have good intentions, but I think the message on this particular billboard is somewhat self-congratulatory,” Richards said. “If they say that their goal is to attract atheists to join their group, I don’t think it really does that. I think it’s more confrontational.”

SDSU religious studies lecturer Roy Whitaker disagrees.

“I think that it is a very fascinating billboard and I think one that will constructively help make the atheist movement, particularly in San Diego, more prominent,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker added that the controversial nature of the billboard might lie within the fact that because of negative societal connotations, the term “atheist” may be interpreted as a trigger word, as atheists are considered “outsiders” in a predominately religious nation.

The assistant director of the SDSU Catholic Newman Center Mike McIntyre, addresses the billboard from a religious standpoint.

“I think the billboard is relatively clever,” McIntyre said. “I thought it was well done and thought provoking. I think I could use exactly the same billboard from my standpoint and just change ‘atheism’ to ‘faith.’ For me, faith is a relationship with reality.”

As secularism and atheism gain popularity in society, the issue of atheism as a part of society will become a topic that needs to be addressed.

In his 2013 inaugural speech, President Barack Obama identified nonbelievers as part of the nation marking the first time a president has recognized nonbelievers as part of the U.S.

“I think that we’ll see a continued spike in the need for irreligious conversation,” Whitaker said. “There’s going to be more of an acknowledgement of the right of atheists to be atheist in North America and the need to move beyond simply the stigma of what it means to be atheist.”

Despite the increase in varying religious viewpoints, the idea of atheism may still cause adverse reactions among the community.

“Atheism isn’t a worldview—it’s a very narrow opinion about one issue and that is whether there is or is not a god, gods, goddesses, etc.,” Allen said. “We believe in being good and ethical and living good, meaningful lives here and now.”

A 2012 study by the PEW Research Center shows nearly 6 percent of the U.S. adult population is atheist and about 14 percent has no particular religious affiliation.

The billboard recognizes the rise of new traditions and may contribute to the construction of a stronger base for atheists and freethinkers in the San Diego area.