December 3, 2008

Billboard Follies, Part XIV

The latest billboard controversy is in Colorado. A fairly standard atheist billboard has gone up, the one with the puffy Simpsons clouds that reads “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” and that’s all. It looked like this:

The ads were paid for by a group called COCORE, the Colorado Coalition of Reason. The reaction has been vitriolic:
John Matson, of Denver, was so mad after seeing the Santa Fe Drive sign that he dashed off an angry letter to the billboard's owner.

"It is a despicable act to allow that sign," the 60-year-old man said in an interview, "and for just a few pieces of silver."

He went on COCORE's Web site, and it made him even angrier, John Matson said. It is trying to gather, he said, "a constituency of what I call mob rule."

"I know they're atheists, and my opinion is they want others to believe the same thing. The billboard misrepresents their purpose," he said. "Their agenda is wolf-in-sheep's clothing political. Why don't they just say it."

Yes, he is a Christian, John Matson said.
Wow. People who want others to believe the same way they do. Good Christian people would never do anything like that.

There is nothing hateful, oppressive, or even anti-Christian in the billboard. If you are Christian, the billboard simply does not apply to you. It provides a message of solidarity and fellowship to people who do not believe. This is what draws hate mail, complaints, demands for take-downs, and outrage. Solidarity, fellowship, and membership in a group of like-minded individuals are somehow something that only Christians can have? Or something that only Christians can use public advertising to promote?

The Rocky Mountain News article I linked to does, however, indicate that a number of Christians in these Colorado communities seem to have replied to their co-religionists that atheists have as much right as anyone else to exercise free speech and other First Amendment rights. So I don't want to paint with too broad a brush here -- plenty of Christian folks get it, too. If you're one of those, and there are a substantial number of you, I'm not talking about you. I'm talking about the Bill O'Reillys of this world who are offended that atheists lack the good graces to be ashamed of what they are and instead proudly exercise their rights.

O'Reilly's argument is every bit as visceral as Maston's, but he aims his fire in a different directions. Where Matson seems to be offended at the mere existence of atheists, O'Reilly instead makes a "Christian nation" argument, which is that it's perfectly okay for the government to display religious symbols on public property because our traditions are "Judeo-Christian." Our traditions, Mr. O'Reilly, are of law and civil liberties. We did not revolt against King George to preserve our right to worship Jesus; we revolted to preserve our rights against an oppressive government. We did not have a civil war to keep the nation safe for Jews; we had a civil war because of an intense debate about the moral and legal justifiability of slavery. And for the same reasons and in furtherance of that same tradition, it is not right for the government to give people the impression that it endorses or promotes any religious belief.

So the Governor of Washington was correct to allow a multiplicity of displays on the Capitol, without further comment, rather than engaging in the kind of viewpoint discrimination you suggest. (It would have been better had there been no displays at all.) Ugh -- Bill O'Reilly makes me shudder in revulsion.

And unlike some within the atheist community, I do not think that "supporting free speech" demands that you always actively campaign for the rights of people so say things you really, really disagree with. Tolerance of other people exercising their free speech rights is, in my opinion, sufficient to demonstrate commitment to the concept that everyone can pretty much say what they wish. Engaging an idea with which you disagree on its merits carries, in my mind, an implicit acknowledgement of the right of the original speaker to make the remarks in the first place.

It is only when, like John Matson of Colorado or Bill O'Reilly of Faux News, you attack someone's right to make the statement at all that you become an enemy of free speech.

So why would someone do something like that? For all his myriad faults, Bill O'Reilly is not an unintelligent man, and he is likely to have read the Constitution at some point. Why does he think that viewpoint discrimination in furtherance of Christianity is okay? My great suspicion is, at least in this context, that the impulse to censor derives not from a faith that is excessively strong but rather one that is excessively weak. Certainly a faith that demands that it not be criticized, like, say, Islam, does not appear to be one worthy of much intellectual respect. But the O'Reillys and Matsons of this world seem to think that their way of life, their viewpoint, their faith, cannot survive without protection of the government.

That does not sound like a faith that is particularly strong, either on its own merits or in the hearts and minds of those who would use censorship to protect it.


zzi said...

. . .or Bill O'Reilly of Faux News
Tennesseans. This is what passes as a conservative in So Cal. But the judges love ya.

Burt Likko said...

I've never claimed to be a social conservative.

Pamela said...

I don't really see what is offensive about the sign personally...... that's just me I guess.