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An atheist billboard goes up in Austin

June 28, 2010

Finally, Austin gets one of these provocative billboards with an atheist message. This one, which went up today on Interstate 35 near Grand Avenue Parkway in North Austin, reads: “Don’t believe in God? Join the club.”

The folks behind it are a recently-formed network of non-theistic groups called the Austin Coalition of Reason. Member groups include the Atheist Community of Austin and the Ethical Society of Austin. The $7,344 in funding for the billboard came from the United Coalition of Reason, which has sponsored billboards and bus and subway signs in other cities around the U.S.

This is sure to make some folks angry. But it’s nice to see the atheist perspective in the mix. I can’t tell you how many pro-God/belief billboards I saw on our last trip to visit the in-laws in the Texas Panhandle. And I think it’s important for atheist ideas to become more mainstream, more visible. Otherwise, it’s too easy to demonize non-believers, which is what we tend to do in this country whether we would like to admit it or not. Stay tuned: I’ll be writing my next column on this topic.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see if there’s any reaction to this billboard. A secular group in Charlotte, N.C., just saw its billboard defaced. The sign read “One Nation Indivisible” — sending a message about church and state issues and the pledge of allegiance. Vandals spray painted “under God” on the billboard. Sigh. Guess that was bound to happen on Billy Graham Parkway.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. Jennifer Scates permalink
    June 28, 2010 10:19 pm

    Thanks, Eileen!

    -JScates
    (member, Ethical Society of Austin & Ethical Society Without Walls)

  2. June 28, 2010 10:19 pm

    Thank you for the friendly words Eileen. This episode concerns me a little though. The first words out of my mouth when I was interviewd by the Daily Texan was that ESA is not an atheist organization. I worry that we will be too strongly identified that way.

    • eeflynn permalink*
      June 28, 2010 10:52 pm

      This is a valid concern, Tim. Since I’ll be writing about this in the coming weeks, I wonder if you have any suggestions in terms of language to use. I think I called the Austin CoR members “non-theistic” — a term i got from the Web site. But is there a better word? I would love to hear any thoughts you have. Also would love to get a quote from you about why you and ESA support this billboard. Hope you are well!

      • July 1, 2010 3:30 pm

        Labels are limiting and often incomplete and even inaccurate. The Ethical Society is fundamentally a community of humanists. Some members are also affiliated with a traditional religion, some are agnostic and some are non-theists (atheists). It’s not what individuals believe personally that determines the Ethical Society, the Society is based on humanistic values that do not rely on deities or a supernatural. Our values are based on the human precept that every human has intrinsic value and our highest life meaning is achieved in our relationships and in community.

  3. June 29, 2010 1:33 pm

    Thanks for the coverage Eileen, and kudos to the Austin Coalition of Reason!

    With studies putting us non-theists at 18.5% of the world population, it’s nice to see some visible support here in our own backyard!

    While our percentages probably aren’t that high throughout Texas, it is believed that here in what has been described as the “hole in the buckle of the bible belt”, our percentages are at 12% – 15%. That equates to over 200,000 people in the Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area that profess no religious belief nor affiliation. The Austin CoR billboard lets us know that there are others out there that prefer reason to faith, and that its affiliated organizations, including the Center for Inquiry and the Atheist Community of Austin, offer a number of fantastic outlets where we can bring our families to meet others with similar beliefs and have fun.

  4. June 29, 2010 1:44 pm

    Great article, Eileen!

    This billboard is all about community outreach. We have people show up at weekly ACA events who’ve lived in Austin for 10 or more years and didn’t know we existed. I’m sure other groups in AustinCOR have experienced the same thing. AustinCOR provides a one stop shop for those looking for like-minded people to spend time with.

    Thanks again for helping us connect with the community!

  5. July 1, 2010 3:12 pm

    “This is sure to make some folks angry.”

    Why so? The sign is a message directed at non-theists. If you don’t believe in a god it clearly says you are not alone and there are communities of like-minded people in Austin that you can explore for the social, intellectual, and religious needs we all have.

    The sign doesn’t attack anyone or any other religion. Why would any God fearing American who cherishes our U.S. Constitution be offended by those who share a different religious belief any more than they would be offended by different cultures or a different skin color or a different opinion?

    The previous sign AustinCOR covered up on June 28th was sponsored by Super 8 Motel. Their message wasn’t for everyone either. Their message was for those seeking a safe place to stay, and the Super 8 Motel message said, “Come stay with us.” Our sign also says, “Come stay with us.” That’s why there are links to all our organization on the AustinCOR website.

    Anyone who is offended by our sign may want to reevaluate the strength of their own religious belief, tolerance and citizenship.

    As someone raised in the Roman Catholic Church and having studied for the priesthood, I came to believe in the value of all life on this wonderful planet, and found in The Ethical Society of Austin a community of others who share our guiding religious belief of bringing out the best in others and thereby in ourselves. Not for some promised reward in some later life, but now in this life that clearly exists and where I have a choice to make it meaningful through my actions.

    We welcome everyone to the Society. We are a community that believes god is the good we do. If that sounds inviting, check us out. Our motto: Deed before creed, recognizes our obligation and opportunity to support those in need because every individual has intrinsic value.

    Reaction to our sign has been overwhelmingly favorable as expressed in email and on blogs. One measure of that positive reaction is in the requests we’ve received as to where financial contributions can be sent. And we appreciate the prayers promised too.

    The Ethical Society of Austin is a welcoming environment for anyone who seeks spiritual, intellectual and social direction as we ponder our place in the universe and the meaning of our individual lives.

  6. P Smith permalink
    July 10, 2010 4:33 am

    The only reason the religious would be afraid (they’re not “offended”, they’re afraid) of an atheist-funded billboard is if the position of the religious is so weak that it can’t withstand those who disagree. The strongest argument is the one that answers questions, not the one that uses physical force to prevent questions. (But that’s to be expected: throughout history, when religion has control of the majority of power, it always becomes violent. Religion is only peaceful when it is in the minority.)

    Anyone who calls the billboard “offensive” is an idiot. The religious go around insulting and threatening people constantly (“You’re gonna burn!”, and “I’ll pray for you…to die painfully.”) and yet they don’t consider that offensive. How hypocritical and christian of them – or to use a portmanteau, how hypochristian of them.

    .

  7. David Joel permalink
    July 12, 2010 5:01 pm

    I am simply a disciple of Christ; an Apostolic Christian, that is without the adding to nor taking away from the gospel (GOD speak) of Christ. And, if one chooses to remain either skeptical or in denial of the Being of the living GOD Who revealed revealed Himself in both creation, general revelation, and in specific revelation, the inspired Scriptures, then I would think it quite natural to seek out and gather all of the like minded folks they could find for association and general comfort and the billboard seems to be a quite logical public endeavor in the pursuit of association.
    However, I am at quite a loss as to any confusion of identification as our word “atheist” and “atheism” are derived from the ancient Greek atheos “to deny the gods, godless,” from a- “without” + theos “a god”; rather than “agnostic” from the ancient Greek a – “without” + gnostos “knowledge”.
    I was raised an agnostic until reason matured and I came to realize I was rejecting what I really “did not know” anything about for just plain common sense demands an Absolute if their is an “ought” ; for without an Absolute, right and wrong are necessarily as subjective as one’s ice cream preference. To claim subjectiveness as the definition of reason is, let us be frank, inanis.
    The gospel of Christ is hard to find in these post-modern days of scarcity of truth; where there are some 10,000 different doctrines being promulgated as “Christianity”, of which 9,999 are as far from Christ as Humanism, for they are really cousins.

  8. Bradley Helgerson permalink
    July 12, 2010 6:32 pm

    “The Austin CoR billboard lets us know that there are others out there that prefer reason to faith,”

    Now that is an interesting position to take. That faith and reason are some how opposites. That is to say that when there is reason there is no faith. Or when there is faith there is no reason. This type of statement comes from a misunderstanding of faith. Faith is not just “mental assent” based on blind trust. Faith is based on evidence, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Heb. 11:1).”

    Faith is trust, trusting that something is true, based on evidence. For example, I trust my wife in every way, but it is not because I do not have evidence that she is a faithful spouse. I do! In fact, if I did not have this evidence, I would have been a fool to have married her in the first place.

    To say that one has faith that God is, and that God rewards those who seek Him (Heb. 11:6), is not to say that one accepts these things as true without any solid reasons for doing so.

    In fact, science itself is based on faith! The fundamental laws upon which science is based (the Law of Gravity, Law of Relativity, etc . . .) can not be proven using the scientific method. They can not be established through empiricism. The only way to show that the Law of Gravity is universal, constant, etc . . . using empiricism would be to observe every occurrence of gravity that has ever taken place. Not possible. So scientists trust, based on what they have observed, that gravity is universal, constant. They base all of their other science on it. That trust is called faith!

    This is also true for the laws of morality and the laws of logic.

    Reason itself leads you to the existence of God. Without an intelligent, immaterial, eternal, all knowing, all powerful, supernatural Creator, you can’t know anything!

    The laws of logic, morality, and science all find their foundation (origin) in one universal law giver.

  9. July 13, 2010 11:14 am

    @Bradley:

    “This type of statement comes from a misunderstanding of faith. Faith is not just “mental assent” based on blind trust. Faith is based on evidence, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Heb. 11:1).””

    What a curious view you have…so curious that it’s not even supported by the passage you quote. Hebrews 11:1 doesn’t say Faith is based on evidence it says faith IS the evidence – and that’s exactly how it is typically used. In other translations, the true nature of this passage is evident:
    NIV: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”
    NASB: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
    YLT: “And faith is of things hoped for a confidence, of matters not seen a conviction”

    Reason is the evaluation of evidence according to the strictures of logic. It is the most demonstrably reliable method of filtering fact from fantasy.

    Faith is the excuse people give for their beliefs that are not supported by good reason. It is a strong confidence DESPITE a lack of evidence.

    It is, in a very real sense, the difference between explanation and excuse. If you have a good reason, you don’t need faith. The two, in normal usage, are in conflict.

    I’ve heard other religious people claim that reason and faith, properly applied, cannot lead to contradictory positions – essentially, both are reliable paths to truth. I made this same argument when I was a believer. The truth, though, is that this is just an example of special pleading and self-deception.

    There are thousands of denominations within Christendom alone. They hold varied views on doctrines – all reached by faith. Where one agrees with another it is asserted that faith was properly applied. Where they disagree, clearly faith wasn’t properly applied.

    The demonstrable, almost self-evident fact is this: faith is not a path to truth. What’s the evidence for this? Simple: when two faith-based claims contradict, how do we go about attempting to discover which (if either) is correct?

    Reason and evidence. Not faith.

    To be fair, I’ll have to amend that to note that some people still attempt to use faith to sort out those contradictions – and that’s the reason that we still have so many different religious views, all professing “truth”. It’s no surprise that many of them would like to claim that their views are reasonable – because reason is the gold standard.

    If it weren’t, you wouldn’t bother trying to claim that faith is somehow reasonable.

    “In fact, science itself is based on faith! The fundamental laws upon which science is based (the Law of Gravity, Law of Relativity, etc . . .) can not be proven using the scientific method.”

    What an absurd thing to say. Not only do you not understand science or the scientific method, you’ve now implicitly contradicted yourself. You begin by saying that faith is trust based on evidence and now you’re arguing the opposite; that faith isn’t so bad…after all, science depends on faith for the things it can’t prove!

    “So scientists trust, based on what they have observed, that gravity is universal, constant. ”

    Actually, that’s not quite true. Science doesn’t claim absolute certainty. All positions in science are tentative. They represent our best understanding based on the evidence. When evidence contradicts the findings of science…science changes. That’s its beauty and its strength – no faith required. What happens when evidence contradicts claims based on faith? Do those beliefs change?

    Faith is only required when you need to claim a confidence level that the evidence doesn’t support or that the evidence contradicts. It is the crutch of the credulous.

    “Reason itself leads you to the existence of God.”

    Would you care to back up that claim by actually presenting and debating the evidence? I’ll even give you a public forum to do so…

    “Without an intelligent, immaterial, eternal, all knowing, all powerful, supernatural Creator, you can’t know anything!”

    Would you care to back up that wild assertion by actually presenting evidence?

    “The laws of logic, morality, and science all find their foundation (origin) in one universal law giver.””

    Would you care to back…oh wait, you don’t need to – it’s something you accept on faith…

    The laws of logic are descriptive, not proscriptive. Morality isn’t contingent on a universal law giver…and science is the process by which we discover and describe the universe we inhabit. It’s a catalog of observations which is contingent only upon having a mind capable of assessing the information it gathers by observation.

    Belief is the result of being convinced. We can become convinced for good reasons (evidence) or bad (faith) and we can believe things to different degrees of certainty. The scientific method consistently produces the most demonstrably reliable information about reality and the degree of certainty is directly tied to the strength of the evidence.

    If, when you say “faith”, you mean only “evidence-based confidence or trust” – then you’re right. My point is that your usage of the word is not the norm, it’s not the usage supported by the Biblical passage you quoted, it’s not the usage we see in articles of faith and it’s not even a usage that you are able to consistently apply within one single response.

    Christian leaders disagree with your usage (Martin Luther was famous for acknowledging that reason is the enemy of faith), the Bible you reference disagrees with you (both in the the misrepresented verse from Hebrews and, more clearly, in the chastising of Thomas and the assertion that those who believe without good evidence are exalted).

    You can use whatever word you like, and claim a specialized usage…but I’d argue that this is just another defense mechanism to make your ‘faith’ seem more reasonable.

    I used to have faith…I don’t any longer.

    I don’t have faith that the sun will rise or that my partner isn’t having an affair – I have a reasonable expectation based on past events. My confidence level in accepting that the sun will rise (colloquially) is very high because the evidence overwhelmingly supports that conclusion. My confidence level in accepting that my partner is faithful is significantly lower (yet still remarkably high) and when I say that I believe she’s faithful, I’m not expressing absolute certainty or exercising faith – I’m simply saying that the evidence is such that the balance strongly tips in favor of her not having an affair.

    Part of this disagreement is about language – but it goes beyond that. It transcends peculiarities in word usage because you’re also claiming that your beliefs are, in fact, supported by a reasonable examination of the evidence.

    If you’d care to put that assertion to the test, I can accommodate.

  10. Bradley Helgerson permalink
    July 13, 2010 4:24 pm

    Hi Matt!

    “I don’t have faith that the sun will rise or that my partner isn’t having an affair – I have a reasonable expectation based on past events. My confidence level in accepting that the sun will rise (colloquially) is very high because the evidence overwhelmingly supports that conclusion. My confidence level in accepting that my partner is faithful is significantly lower (yet still remarkably high) and when I say that I believe she’s faithful, I’m not expressing absolute certainty or exercising faith – I’m simply saying that the evidence is such that the balance strongly tips in favor of her not having an affair.”

    Again, I am defining faith in the same way that the Bible does, as trust. You say that you don’t have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, you just have a reasonable expectation. That your confidence is high in the consistency of nature. I say, you absolutely have faith (trust) in the uniformity of nature and your actions prove it!

    Do you fly in airplanes? One can not go zipping across the sky at 30,000 feet in a tin can unless one puts their absolute trust in the Law of Gravity, in it’s consistency, universality, etc. It is one thing to believe gravity is universal, it is another thing to trust that fact with your life.

    “I’m simply saying that the evidence is such that the balance strongly tips in favor of her not having an affair.”

    I think you are missing the point. I trust my wife with my emotional well being. With my children, with my physical life. And the reason I trust her is because I have evidence that she is trustworthy. Faith (trust) is based on reason.

    God does not call us to trust Him blindly, but to reason with Him . . .

    Isaiah 1:18

    18 “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
    though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow;
    though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.

    “Faith is only required when you need to claim a confidence level that the evidence doesn’t support or that the evidence contradicts. It is the crutch of the credulous.”

    You just got through saying this about science . . .

    “Science doesn’t claim absolute certainty. All positions in science are tentative. They represent our best understanding based on the evidence.”

    I think your definition of science is closer to a definition of Biblical faith. Not absolute proof, but trust based on evidence.

    You said you were once a Christian? Then I will assume you are familiar with the book of Acts. How the Apostle Paul would go into the synagogues in whatever city he would travel to and reason with Jews using the Old Testament prophecies to convince them that Jesus was the Anointed One of God – the fulfillment of those prophecies.

    Acts 17:2-3

    2 And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”

    This is reasoning based on evidence.

    Notice what is says in John 20:30-31 concerning the reason why the miracles of Jesus where recorded in the gospel . . .

    30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

    Eye witness testimony recorded for purposes of evidence for belief.

    “The scientific method consistently produces the most demonstrably reliable information about reality and the degree of certainty is directly tied to the strength of the evidence.”

    The scientific method is limited. You can’t argue against this fact. It is based on an a epistemology of empiricism and can not account for things that are immaterial, universal, and abstract.

    Here is the main point: Your particular materialistic world view is insufficient for explaining the intelligibility of human experience.

    You have to borrow from my world view (Biblical worldview) every time you want to account for logic, morality, science, mathematics. etc . . .

    Here is an example . . .

    Let’s take logic:

    Is logic not universal? Immaterial? Abstract? The answer is yes. Then how do you, using your world view and your epistemology of empiricism explain the origin of logic? How do you even prove logic exists? Prove that it is true, universal? You can’t! Empiricism can’t prove something that is immaterial, universal and abstract. If you can’t prove logic is true using empiricism, then how do you know it is true?

    You can’t prove where logic came from or that it is even true but in your post you used logic (in fact you quoted two fallacies of logic “special pleading and self-deception”). See you are borrowing from my world view. Only the Biblical world view can account for logic and thus in order for you to use logic and trust that it is true you must borrow from my epistemology.

    Again, your materialistic world view is insufficient for explaining the intelligibility of human experience. In other words, without the Biblical worldview, you can’t know anything!

    This applies to the laws of science, morality, mathematics, etc . . .

    By the way, you can’t use logic to prove logic, that is begging the question and is a logical fallacy.

    Even the scientific method itself is immaterial and can’t be proven through empiricism!

    “Morality isn’t contingent on a universal law giver.”

    Reason dictates that it is!

    Lots more to say . . .

    • Don Rhoades permalink
      July 27, 2010 12:54 pm

      Hi, Bradley,
      I don’t usually engage in these discussions, but if it’s OK with you and Matt, I’d like to weigh in…

      (Bradley) “…Faith (trust)… is reasoning based on evidence. “

      (Don) All the examples you provide assume that the supernatural is real. Maybe the supernatural IS in fact real, in which case it should be simple to demonstrate it; future-telling, levitation, remote viewing…any of those would be a good start.

      But so far, no reliable evidence has been provided that the supernatural exists. If there is no supernatural, then testimony concerning supernatural events and/or creatures cannot be true. No supernatural = no God, (or creation, or heaven, or hell, or ghosts, or demons, or angels, etc)

      (Bradley) “Is logic not universal? Immaterial? Abstract? The answer is yes. Then how do you, using your world view and your epistemology of empiricism explain the origin of logic?”

      (Don) You seem to be saying that anything immaterial or abstract requires the existence of a supernatural realm, and perhaps a god as well, but you haven’t presented an argument why that should be so. Logic is simply the study of reasoning…no smoke and mirrors are required.

      (Matt) “Morality isn’t contingent on a universal law giver.”

      (Bradley) “Reason dictates that it is!”

      (Don) No, reason does no such thing. A person acting as a moral agent will actively balance competing moral principles. Stuff like least suffering, greatest good, fairness, respect for privacy, etc. For a “righteous” individual (one who obeys God) the only requirement is to be obedient. Obedience is not, by itself, a moral principle.

      Of course, many religious people I know act morally all or most of the time, but the potential for tragedy remains. I talked to a high school class last year, and witnessed a popular young football star openly confess that he would kill children if he thought God wanted him to do so. Some of his classmates’ eyes got a little bigger at that. And don’t forget the perpetrators of 9-11, who believed they were serving God by flying planes into buildings.

      If you like discussing this stuff, you may want to call in to the Atheist Experience TV show on some Sunday afternoon. Matt is the host, and I’m sure he’d love to talk to you.

      Don Rhoades
      Coordinator, AustinCoR

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