WASHINGTON – It wouldn’t be the holiday season without a little controversy concerning God.
Starting next week, Metro will roll out a set of advertisements on its buses sponsored by the American Humanist Association (AHA), a non-theist group. The ads will show a picture of a fakeand read: “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.”
“The idea being ‘why believe in a god?’ It is just not necessary,” says Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the AHA. “And ‘just be good for goodness’ sake’ meaning, why not truly do what we can to be good for the sake of goodness.”
The ads will be displayed on the sides and taillights of more than 200 Metro buses starting on Nov. 18. The interior posters will go up Dec. 1. The campaign is costing the AHA about $40,000.
“For the most part, we are reaching out to non-theists, to atheists who thought they were alone and now realize there is a way to connect with like minded folks,” Spekhardt says. “But this will also give those people on the fence something to think about.”
The AHA thought about campaigns in other cities, but chose D.C. because they believe the message will reach the widest swath of people without getting lost in the mix of other ads. The group defines humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity.
The timing of the ads is also intentional.
“We really are hoping to reach out during the holidays. When Thanksgiving comes, and everyone gets around to say grace, maybe the non-theist in the room can say, ‘maybe I should be excused,’ or ‘maybe I can say something this time’ and say something that doesn’t give credit to something that doesn’t exist for all that we have done on this planet.”
The AHA says it will think about expanding the ad campaign, based upon the reaction it gets.
The campaign comes as conservative Christian groups gear up their efforts to keep Christ in Christmas. In the past five years, groups such as the American Family Association and the Catholic League have criticized or threatened boycotts of retailers who use generic “holiday” greetings.
In mid-October, the American Family Association started selling buttons that say “It’s OK to say Merry Christmas.” The humanists’ entry into the marketplace of ideas did not impress AFA president Tim Wildmon.
“It’s a stupid ad,” he said. “How do we define ‘good’ if we don’t believe in God? God in his word, the Bible, tells us what’s good and bad and right and wrong. If we are each ourselves defining what’s good, it’s going to be a crazy world.”
Also on Tuesday, the Orlando, Fla.-based Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian legal group, launched its sixth annual “Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign.” Liberty Counsel has intervened in disputes over nativity scenes and government bans on Christmas decorations, among other things.
“It’s the ultimate grinch to say there is no God at a time when millions of people around the world celebrate the birth of Christ,” said Mathew Staver, the group’s chairman and dean of the Liberty University School of Law. “Certainly, they have the right to believe what they want but this is insulting.”
Best-selling books by authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have fueled interest in “the new atheism” – a more in-your-face argument against God’s existence.
Yet few Americans describe themselves as atheist or agnostic; a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll from earlier this year found 92 percent of Americans believe in God.
There was no debate at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority over whether to take the ad. Spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said the agency accepts ads that aren’t obscene or pornographic.
As your Chairman has told you, the subject about which I am going to speak to you tonight is “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Perhaps it would be as well, first of all, to try to make out what one means by the word Christian. It is used these days in a very loose sense by a great many people. Some people mean no more by it than a person who attempts to live a good life. In that sense I suppose there would be Christians in all sects and creeds; but I do not think that that is the proper sense of the word, if only because it would imply that all the people who are not Christians — all the Buddhists, Confucians, Mohammedans, and so on — are not trying to live a good life. I do not mean by a Christian any person who tries to live decently according to his lights. I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian. The word does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions.
What Is a Christian?
Nowadays it is not quite that. We have to be a little more vague in our meaning of Christianity. I think, however, that there are two different items which are quite essential to anybody calling himself a Christian. The first is one of a dogmatic nature — namely, that you must believe in God and immortality. If you do not believe in those two things, I do not think that you can properly call yourself a Christian. Then, further than that, as the name implies, you must have some kind of belief about Christ. The Mohammedans, for instance, also believe in God and in immortality, and yet they would not call themselves Christians. I think you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men. If you are not going to believe that much about Christ, I do not think you have any right to call yourself a Christian. Of course, there is another sense, which you find in Whitaker’s Almanack and in geography books, where the population of the world is said to be divided into Christians, Mohammedans, Buddhists, fetish worshipers, and so on; and in that sense we are all Christians. The geography books count us all in, but that is a purely geographical sense, which I suppose we can ignore.Therefore I take it that when I tell you why I am not a Christian I have to tell you two different things: first, why I do not believe in God and in immortality; and, secondly, why I do not think that Christ was the best and wisest of men, although I grant him a very high degree of moral goodness.
But for the successful efforts of unbelievers in the past, I could not take so elastic a definition of Christianity as that. As I said before, in olden days it had a much more full-blooded sense. For instance, it included he belief in hell. Belief in eternal hell-fire was an essential item of Christian belief until pretty recent times. In this country, as you know, it ceased to be an essential item because of a decision of the Privy Council, and from that decision the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York dissented; but in this country our religion is settled by Act of Parliament, and therefore the Privy Council was able to override their Graces and hell was no longer necessary to a Christian. Consequently I shall not insist that a Christian must believe in hell.