Gary Alexander gets into the mood for the holiday season by doing charity work – buying clothes for the homeless, donating to a shelter and, this year, as a gift to his mother, he’s paying off a layaway ticket for someone he doesn’t know.
“I think people have a misconception of what atheism means,” he said. “I’m happy to volunteer to be an example to be contradictory to their stereotypes.”
Alexander is an atheist who will be featured on one of 55 billboards that will start going up around the greater Sacramento area this week as part of the “Out of the Closet” campaign for atheists. The billboards will stay up for a month.
“It’s a good time to speak to people who feel inundated by relatives and stories, and to connect with free-thinking people,” said Judy Saint, president of the Greater Sacramento chapter of Freedom from Religion Foundation, which is sponsoring the campaign. She declined to say how much the campaign costs, but it is funded through the national foundation.
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“There are lot of people who don’t have a belief in God. We’re encouraging them to be comfortable during the holiday season. It’s OK to not have a belief.”
Each of the billboards will have a photo, name and occupation of one or more Sacramento-area atheists, along with a short quote about how they feel about being a non-believer.
Saint noted that the holiday season is the perfect time for atheists to “come out” because there are so many reminders of religions everywhere.
Monsignor Jim Murphy, vicar general for the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, said the billboard campaign will have little impact.
“The people who are doing this are a very small minority and the people that they’re appealing to is a very small minority,” he said. “The vast majority of people believe in God. There are lot more people in church on a Sunday morning than at a football game.”
Saint said she doesn’t know how many atheists live in the Sacramento area, but noted that there are 18 free-thinking groups in the city. The largest is a meet-up group, Sacramento Freethinkers, Atheists and Nonbelievers, or SacFAN, which has 1,300 members. The Sacramento Reason Newsletter , which is published monthly by the Sacramento Area Coalition of Reason, is distributed to 2,000 people.
Saint said that atheists are afraid to come out of the closet because of the negative reaction by people when they do so.
“They lose their jobs in some cases, they can’t testify in court,” she said. “They’re taking a risk, not of being attacked but of being ostracized. They risk losing friends, family and co-workers by coming out. The issue of separation of church and state has become a very big problem, so it’s important for atheists to come out of the closet.”
Matt Martin said he wanted to participate in the billboard campaign because he wanted to challenge the notion that not believing in a mystical being makes a person less human, or less able to feel human emotion.
“I believe that not having to fear an afterlife, it makes every day more enjoyable,” he said. “I live for the moment. I live for the people around me. I do not worry about what’s going to happen to me after my corpse goes into the ground.”
Martin’s billboard, which also shows his wifeKimberly, has the quote: “Integrity and compassion require no gods.”
Metwalli Amer, executive director of the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims (SALAM) Islamic Center, said he feels such billboard quotes denigrate people of faith.
“When they say, ‘no God,’ as a Muslim, it is an attack on my faith,’ he said. “If you say, ‘no God,’ you’re not only attacking me as a Muslim, but also the Jews and the Christians.”
He said that while no single faith is criticized in many of the billboards, the one thing that is common to Jews, Christians and Muslims is the belief in one God. Even for other religions, such as (Tibetan) Buddhism, there is at least a spiritual leader like the Dalai Lama who provides guidance.
“There is a source of wisdom, a morality that they (the believers) follow,” he said. “If you say, ‘We believe in humanity, not God,’ humanity is 5 billion people. If everyone establishes their own code of ethics and moral values, we will have millions of religions. That would be a chaotic situation.”
Andrea Griffith said she can’t see how anyone can view the billboard campaign as an attack on religion. She is the author of “52 Answers to Superstition, Religion and Ignorance,” a book that offers advice to atheists on how to respond to people who ask questions about their lack of faith.
“People think that atheists want to stop all religious people, take away their right and freedom in having their religion – but no atheist wants to take away anyone’s rights,” she said. “For me, I see it almost like an advertisement to atheists: You are not alone, we’re happy and we’re here.”