The American Atheists’ “Go Godless” billboards are simply smear campaigns with no purpose.
The American Atheists, an organization that seeks to promote civil liberties for atheists, recently announced a billboard campaign in Texas denouncing high-ranking conservative politicians for their religious views, according to CNN. The campaign, which prints taglines such as “The Church Protected Priests Who Abused Children” and “Go Godless Instead,” contains inaccurate and misquoted information from politicians, such as former Gov. Sarah Palin.
Though American Atheist President David Silverman tells CNN that his goal is to “shame these leaders for their bigoted and backwards remarks and attitudes,” his campaign will have the opposite effect. By targeting specific individuals and by using out-of-context sound bites, his campaign is reduced to nothing more than an incredible smear campaign that seeks to antagonize an already polarized nation rather than unify it.
This isn’t the first time that the organization has led a controversial billboard campaign. During the 2010 Christmas season, the group put up spreads in New York City preaching: “You Know It’s A Myth. This Season, Celebrate Reason,” according to The Huffington Post. As an organization that seeks to promote the use of rationality, its approach is extremely hypocritical. By disseminating sweeping generalizations via short catchphrases on billboards, the organization is exploiting sensitive and complicated issues, such as the sexual assault of children by religious officials, all in order to promote its viewpoint.
Free speech guarantees Silverman the right to promote atheism through an insensitive billboard campaign. But as a nationally recognized organization that seeks to “stimulate and promote freedom of thought,” according to the American Atheists website, it is the organization’s responsibility to not fight fire with fire and resist bowing to childish “he said-she said” tactics that have been running rampant in recent political campaigns.
The launch of the campaign will unfortunately reflect and re-affirm the current “sound-bite era” — an era in which fact and fiction are intentionally blurred for the purpose of promoting a certain political party or cause. In such a partisan nation, it has boiled down to a vicious battle of words. We are all victims to our passions, biases and emotions, but only until we can achieve rational discourse will we be able to make social and political progress.
Daffany Chan is a junior majoring in political science and print and digital journalism.
The American Atheists have a right to free speech and should be able to express their ideals in ways they see fit.
It is this same First Amendment that protects Christian groups such as the Southwest Baptist Church, which displays anti-gay billboards that read “Homosexuality is a sin but Christ can set you free.” It is the same First Amendment that also allows the American Freedom Defense Initiative to pay thousands of dollars for signs at Metro North stations proclaiming Islam causes terrorist attacks.
Consequently, although some of these messages are misleading and offensive in nature, questioning the legal existence of these billboards risks impeding upon the liberties provided to all Americans.
Arguably, the United States provides an unrestrictive forum where people of varying religious and cultural upbringings can freely voice their thoughts. Allowing some billboards, such as those of the Christian groups, to remain and disallowing the American Atheists’ billboards would be inherently discriminatory.
Each group has its own vendetta, and if they choose to duke it out before the American people, that is their right. In the end, it is up to the discretion of the public to absorb the information spread by these signs and make their own judgments.
Despite the presence of the First Amendment, the government has drawn a line in certain circumstances. For example, according to the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, a district court took down a billboard by a man criticizing his ex-girlfriend for allegedly having an abortion. Although this man believed he was exercising his First Amendment right, according to the courts he violated his ex-girlfriend’s right to privacy, thus invalidating his own right to put up the billboard in the first place.
Since the American Atheists’ billboard does not infringe upon the rights of others but acts as a tool to convey a particular political stance, it is as valid as attack ads are during political campaigns. Some might point out that the American Atheists misquoted Sarah Palin in their billboard, but these mistakes occur in general advertising practices as well. The misquotation was minor in nature and an apology was issued immediately for the error.
As long as other forms of political propaganda exist in a country that prides itself for its freedoms, these billboards do not cross the line. Instinctively, one may denounce the American Atheists for the intensity of its statements, but it is best to see the bigger picture and acknowledge the beauty of the U.S. Constitution at work.
Rini Sampath is a freshman majoring in international relations.