Those radical, offensive atheists!

Are you sitting down? Got some smelling salts available near by? Prepared to clutch your pearls? Well then take a look at this horrible bus ad the NEPA Freethought Society wanted to run in Pennsylvania!

Awful, right? That’s why the ad was rejected outright by the bus company:

Jim Smith, the advertising contact at COLTS, said that the reason for refusal — appealing to the very questionable and vague advertising policyof COLTS — was that COLTS does not accept ads which could be deemed controversial or otherwise spark public debate.

The ironic part? This ad was created specifically to be as inoffensive as possible, inspired by this idea from Richard Wade:

In the continuing debate over the benefits and drawbacks of “in your face” atheist billboards versus “soft sell” atheist billboards, the assertion that the religious public will claim that they’re “offended” whether the message is strident or mild is frequently put forward.

As a good skeptic, I thought that perhaps this proposition should be put to a test. So in a half-serious, half-lighthearted spirit, I propose that we try displaying billboards that are truly innocuous, so that the only thing that might provoke “offense” would be the word “atheist” in the billboard sponsor’s name. Then we would see if the claim is true that “our mere existence is what offends them.”

So yes, it’s not just controversial to say that the claims made by religions are false. It’s not just controversial to say that atheists can be moral. It’s controversial to say the word “atheist” because our existence implicitly says that we think the religious beliefs of others are wrong.

(Via Friendly Atheist)


  1. fastlane says

    I guess the next step is for someone to get (subpoena if necessary) all of their previous religious related advertising.

    Next call: the ACLU.

    This is just as bad as the whiners giving in to the muslims who threaten violence over cartoons.

  2. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    It’s already well known that the mere existence of atheists is offensive to many goddists. Just being out of the closet equates to being “shrill” and “militant.”

  3. Sathya says

    True story, followed the link to the other proposed billboard ideas, misread the one that said “Buses carry many people” as “Buses can marry people”.

    Was totally confused by how that’s supposed to be an inoffensive one, figured it was some oblique commentary combining the “Corporations are people” and marriage equality conversations.

  4. says

    I am simply stunned. NOW will the softies believe us when we say that we really cannot do anything that is not going to be deemed as potentially offensive and controversial?

    My husband and I have actually been accused of being too mean to Christians on our show. WTFSM?

  5. evilDoug says

    They were probably afraid that people would think the people in the bus were atheists, whereas the the correct place for atheists is under the bus – the Christian approach to accommodation.

  6. Barry H. says

    As a long time resident of the ‘bible belt’ of Pennsylvania I am not at all surprised. Rural Pa can be and for the most part is every bit as backwards and vile as the most repugnant parts of the deep south. Hence the pejorative ‘Pennsyltucky’.

  7. redgreeninblue says

    I just don’t understand why it is deemed acceptable to advertise any old rubbish, no matter how harmful, useless or overpriced it is, but unacceptable to “spark public debate”.

    Hurrah for American consumerism. Wallets open, minds shut!

  8. Randomfactor says

    If only they’d used a question mark instead of a period, they could’ve PRETENDED we were really agnostics.

  9. eigenperson says

    Jen, I read this blog to my 82-year-old corgi. When I told her about this ad, she had a heart attack from the shock of being exposed to the “A-word” and nearly died. Fortunately, she seems like she might be pulling through, thanks to state-of-the-art emergency acupuncture, but her condition is still critical.

    You oughta be ashamed of yourself for posting such controversial things and sparking public debate like that. Someone could be scarred for life — or worse! Remember, if it isn’t safe for the side of a public bus, it isn’t safe for a family website.

  10. says

    Proof positive that our mere existence is offensive. Mere acknowledgement of atheists is deemed unacceptable. Meanwhile the Christians continue to whine about how they’re being “silenced” and being “pushed out of the public square”.

  11. imnotspecial says

    The bus company is reading this right. We are an offense to the believer. Let’s just resort to ridicule where ever we can.

  12. Elena says

    Is it just me, or is the period a little confrontational? Still ridiculous to call it offensive though.

  13. Robert B. says

    Hahahahaha, I suspected that the offense was just at our existence, but I never expected to see such a funny proof!

    The bus company should totally make a huge deal out of this, it’d get them on late night TV. Not in a good way, but hey, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?

  14. Bill Door says

    Maybe they should tone down that ad. Change it to ‘Atheist,’ as in singular. If we go around suggesting there is more than one athiest, we’re likely to scare people.
    Also, the word Athiests is aggressively large and written in a font that suggest baby stealing/devouring. Maybe 10 pt Comic Sans would be more accommodating.

  15. kome says

    Somewhat related to this, a lab-mate of mine is currently doing a study on atheism right now. Sort of, at least. The local Institutional Review Board gave her a ton of crap over using the word “atheist” on the materials that will be presented to participants and basically said they would deny her permission to conduct the study unless she provided contact information for a counseling center at the conclusion of her study should participants feel any undue anxiety as a result of her study and require professional assistance.

    In contrast, I have been conducted studies on undiagnosed brain damage prevalence rates for 6 years now and not once has the IRB ever required me to provide contact information for participants should they experience any undue anxiety over the thought of being considered brain damaged – a medical condition that requires therapy, counseling, and other forms of professional intervention to recover.

    My friend is jumping through too many hoops to do such an innocuous study whereas I’ve basically been given the go ahead to investigate if people have been undiagnosed for a potentially serious neurological problem.

    “Atheist” – the most controversial word in the United States.

  16. knownothingable says

    You know who else’s existence implicitly says that they think the religious beliefs of others are wrong? EVERY RELIGIOUS PERSON’S EXISTENCE.

  17. thebookofdave says

    COLTS is making a first amendment legal challenge too easy. Continued resistance may even threaten its state and federal subsidies.

    Capitalizing the ad was a pretty intimidating move, though.

  18. says

    Did the bus company say that they would never accept any publicity for atheist groups? What was it they found controversial? Do you just have to start out from a Christian perspective in that area? If so, why not do that? Or would they be ready to work with us to agree on an acceptable banner?

    The only thing I can see as even remotely offensive is the implied association of Atheism with free thought carrying the implication that theists are not thinking properly. But in most communities, that would be a stretch.

    I’d guess that the guy who made the decision simply made a bad call on the day. Perhaps he’d had a bad experience with some militant atheists, or something.

    I’m afraid the sad fact is that we often come across as ridiculing other peoples’ belief (and identity). Whilst we should never agree to genuine stupidity, there is no need to be offensive.

    knownothingable, most religious people I know accept that their religion offers only an imperfect view of their “god”, and that other religions may be equally right about the essentials. It’s the “Allah has a thousand names” thing. It’s hard for us in the UK to really understand what you are up against in the US, where I hear there are whole communities which take a rather less flexible approach.

  19. avh1 says

    Willross, that’s neither here nor there.

    If I kick you down some stairs and tell the judge at trial that it was because I was ‘having a bad day’, I sincerely doubt that he or she would just smile and let me off. And the problem in the states (and the UK) isn’t just ‘a few bad apples’ as you seem to be implying – it’s systematic bigotry.

  20. Irreverend Bastard says

    If this is offensive, then everything is offensive. If everything is offensive, then nothing is offensive.

    Desecrate all the holy books!

  21. says

    Being from Lancaster County Pennsylvania this does not surprise me. There are many things that happen here that people wouldn’t believe. It is not a friendly area to be an atheist.

  22. redgreeninblue says

    Or maybe we should simply have a poster with nothing on it at all. After all, we atheists don’t believe in anything and are utterly nihilistic, and what better visual imagery to illustrate that? ;-)

    If I were in the USA, I would be so tempted to try submitting this to the ad agency, just to panic them into thinking there was some sort of sinister subtext to the blank posters, refusing to carry them, and getting some hilarious news coverage…

  23. Edgar Allen says

    It’s not the word “Atheists”, it’s the period in the ad that makes it offensive. You’re saying “Atheists. PERIOD.” Like there’s no debate allowed. That period is like the finality of death as atheists see it. Trying to grind mortality in people’s faces.

  24. jamessweet says

    Full of win. This was exactly the result we were hoping for, right? Proves our point, that it’s not what we say, but the fact that we exist which is “controversial and could spark public debate.”

    Nobody can really say any more that atheists are disrespected for being shrill and outspoken. We may be that too, sometimes, but nobody can any more claim that is the reason people are so against us.

  25. GordonS says

    The message of traditional Christianity is so much less offensive: “If you don’t believe what we believe, in precisely the way we believe it, our god will torture you forever.” It’s very uplifting, no?

  26. JM says

    Pennsylvania is better in Pittsburgh and Philly, but the operative term there is “in”. I don’t mean the suburbs. For the most part, they’re as bad as the rural middle of the state. Even in Pittsburgh, you’d want to stay close to the universities. I don’t know as much about Philly.

    So what if someone devised a sign that made people question and gave them a contact? It would have to be subtle enough to get by the censors but still speak to people with doubts or seeking atheist contacts. I don’t have any text to suggest right now.

  27. says

    I think this makes perfect sense.
    Religious belief is so fragile. If a participant suddenly happened to realise that they had been believing a load of crap for perhaps years or decades I could see that that could be really stressful. They might well have to go to a competent mental health professional for counseling on how they could be so stupid.

  28. JM says

    A very long time ago, when I was a TA in Sociology 101 courses, I discovered that sociology was the same as socialism/communism and other despicable isms. It seems that it is simply wrong to question the way society works, even to the extent of studying it. Similarly with religion. You’re supposed to learn the way rules and that’s it. Even the anthropologists are wrong in comparing societies unless they condemn those that aren’t like “ours”. This was definitely a minority view, but very strongly held.

  29. Tom Singer says

    It depends on where the emphasis goes.

    Atheists: We’re not really evil. – Offensive
    Atheists: We’re not really evil. – Ok, but echos of “I’m not a witch.”
    Atheists: We’re not really evil. – But we play evil on TV.
    Atheists: We’re not really evil. – Just evil-ish.

  30. lobotomy says

    Just to put a big bright bow on this stinking turd I think the NEPA Freethought Society sould attempt another ad purchase from the bus company. However, they should create a fake religious group (I know, I repeat myself) and then try to make an ad purchase with text that specifically condemns atheists. Something like:

    “Atheists are all condemned to hell!”

    Then, if the bus company accepts the ad from the “religious group” with the “offensive” word “atheist” in the text, their hypocracy will be made as clear as can be.

  31. Azkyroth says

    Well, you know, a period might remind them of periods, which reminds them of those icky icky woman parts…

  32. Chris says

    This past weekend my seventeen year old daughter and I were waiting for a bus in Seattle’s bus tunnel. She saw an articulated (double long) bus with the “I am Mormon” ad. She commented that it would be interesting to see one with both that ad plus the atheist sign.

    She has seen the atheist sign on buses in Seattle. It seems to not cause that much of a problem as noted here: Atheists put ads on Seattle buses for holiday season.

    And yes, even at her young age she has griped at how atheists like herself are treated, especially in literature. She had a first class rant about the book Hello God, This is Margaret she read in her children’s lit class.

  33. kome says

    But the study is simply examining atheism, not trying to convince anyone to be atheist. Unless you’re positing that religious beliefs are so fragile that even being reminded that some people exist without a religious dogma is threatening enough. Which is, I think, the perspective of the IRB.

    Heh, I think I’ll have a chat with my friend and see if she wants to run a follow-up study examining the fragility of theistic belief systems and what is perceived as a threat to them.

  34. kome says

    You know, I have no idea. I’d like to think not since they’re regulated by government agencies like the FDA. But whether they are or not, I know IRBs are committees that require at least some members to not be scientists and some members to be members of the local community and not affiliated with the university in any capacity. With that in mind, it might not matter if they’re private entities or not because they include non-experts and someone from the community with too much free time on his or her hands. I imagine it’d sort of be like the people who end up being part of an HOA, in that regard – they’re exactly the type of people who should never be on an HOA.

    ((this isn’t to say that the general reasoning behind including non-experts and community members is faulty, just that it isn’t always beneficial to researchers in the social sciences))

  35. Ogvorbis: Now With 98% Less Intellectual Curiousity! says

    This is not rural PA. This is one of the two cities that anchor the third-largest metropolitan area in the state — Scranton.

  36. eric says

    Well, the Reagan quote has been making the rounds on FtB. So maybe the next atheist bus ad shouldn’t mention the “A” word at all, but just be a picture of Reagan with his quote:

    We establish no religion in this country, we command no worship, we mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are, and must remain, separate. All are free to believe or not believe, all are free to practice a faith or not, and those who believe are free, and should be free, to speak of and act on their belief.

  37. carlie says

    Damn, that would be good. It’s too long for a billboard, though; the first two sentences would be about all that could fit.

  38. Katalina says

    Haha! You seem to think that evidence and facts can make someone see the truth of something or draw a logical conclusion! No, evidence and facts that are contrary to one’s beliefs are just “god testing your faith.”

  39. d cwilson says

    Maybe it’s the links to the atheist websites that’s offensive. After all, the last thing we would want is for people to find out that there’s a way for atheists to meet each other.

    Next, try replacing the URLs and the names of the organizes with something really innocuous, like a picture of a puppy.

    Oh wait, they’ll probably assume that we eat puppies then. Never mind.

  40. says

    I wonder if a sign saying “Don’t be an atheist. Worship Jesus.” would be approved for putting on a bus. After all, it does have the word” “atheist” in it. Nah, no need for me to wonder about it. Betcha it would be approved.

  41. Barry H. says

    Yes, and those two ‘anchors’ combined contain a population of less than 10% of the city of Philadelphia. The comparison just does not stand. This area has more in common with rural Pa than it does with either Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.

  42. Midnight Rambler says

    Yes, but they’ll be talking to people who might not believe in any gods but don’t identify as atheists. Finding out that they actually are atheists could be horribly, horribly traumatic.

  43. Usernames are stupid says

    NOW will the softies believe us when we say that we really cannot do anything that is not going to be deemed as potentially offensive and controversial?

    Are you implying that evidence can change a ‘softie’s mind?
    That would be contrary to their 2,000+ years of mindless indoctrination.

    They might even become “rational,” read their book critically, and throw up in disgust.

    One can only dream.

  44. says

    I’d like to see ONE(1) Colts bus with a beautiful ad with an inspirational and spiritual message on it about the love of Jesus Christ or god.


    Show me ONE bus with one of those ads, and I’ll show you a debate so heated and controversial you cannot even begin to measure with imagination, much less conventional forms of measurement.

  45. wathapend2urfase says

    I think you may need a control group. Try “Islam,” “Buddhist,” and “Mormon.” then try “Christianity?” and put up the atheist website info.

  46. Eric says

    Actually, Bill, you’re onto something here: It’s okay to say “athiest” because that just means you’re the most, um, athy. As in, “Bob is athier than me, but I am much more athy, therefore I am the athiest.”

    Yes, I’m just joking around. But I do get a great deal of amusement when someone calls me (in text) an athiest, because I enjoy being the most of anything.

  47. crissakentavr says

    …I’m pretty sure you can’t deny a sign because of who is putting it up, especially so when it is a protected class. If the system runs church ads, they’re gonna be given a pretty poor legal defense.

  48. crissakentavr says

    Yes, but what color would the emptiness be? What shape? How would you know they’d put up the ads at all?

  49. upprunitegundanna says

    This story confirms something that I have long suspected about atheist billboards and ads. In Steven Pinker’s book, The Stuff of Thought, he has a chapter about swear words: why they exist, what they “mean”, and the neurological reaction that people have when hearing them. In it he explains that, when (most) people hear a swear word, it causes a great deal of activity in the amygdala, which is responsible for our “fight or flight” responses. These responses are entirely automatic, without any active input from the listener, and it’s the fact that these words trigger an automatic response that gives them their power. Simply by saying a word, you can “force” someone to feel uncomfortable, or attacked etc.

    One way that Pinker demonstrates this is by using swear words in a Stroop Test (the one where you have to name the colour that certain words are written in when they are flashed up in front of you). He found that flashing up swear words caused a massive delay in people’s ability to name the colour of the words. This is because our minds process words automatically, and since swear words are highly emotionally charged, they override our ability to concentrate on the colour for just a moment.

    I would love to see a Stroop test being done on people (preferably religious people), in which one of the words flashed up is “atheist”. I would put good money on there being a delayed response that is equivalent to the delay you see when swear words are flashed up on screen.

    And this is, I believe, the source of the problem: although bigotry against atheists is very real, I am not sure that this is evidence of that bigotry in the strictest sense. I think this is evidence that, for completely unjustified reasons, the word “atheist” occupies the same status in people’s minds as swear words. People’s automatic reaction to this ad is identical to the reaction they would have if it just said “fuck”.

    How do we shift “atheist” from this status? Probably by using it openly as much as possible until the effect it has on people becomes dulled, so that the only objection people can have to it is naked bigotry, rather than an automatic, unconsidered revulsion at the word.

  50. P Smith says

    It’s not the message the rabidly religious oppose, it’s the messenger.

    It’s not the words of atheist say that they oppose. They oppose the right of atheists to say any words at all.

    It’s not the refutation and denial of “god’s” existence by atheists they don’t like. It’s the religious’ refusal and denial of atheists’ right to exist or live.


  51. Fraser says

    Fuck religion, Christianity especially. It’s an obvious made up story that was spread by Mary Magdalene, a slut who cheated on Joseph and made all that shit up about God to get away with it. It was a cover-story that got way out of control. And yet, billions still adhere to it, when Occam’s razor shows this story makes a lot of sense.

  52. says

    I feel a bit weird telling an atheist to do this, but you might want to read the bible again before you start criticising Christianity again. (re: Mary Magdelene)

  53. Chris Granger says

    Yeah, uh, Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene are not the same person. to echo what michaelbrew said, if you’re going to criticize Christianity, at least get the simplest details correct.

    Atheists are reputed to know more about religion than theists do, so let’s try to maintain that standard, OK?

  54. Kuppajava says

    I think by “softies” they meant Atheists who prefer softer forms of advertising versus the “hard-sell” folks who often come across as insulting to goddists. Personally I understand both sides but I get more of a kick watching fundies cringe.

    In reality, fundies and other goddists are offended that others do not believe their nonsense and so, the point is moot.

  55. Daphne says

    It doesn’t say “Atheism.” it says “Atheists.” Are you saying that it is offensive to imply that the fact that atheists exist as a group of people is undebatable?

  56. Daphne says

    Or rather, due to the way the bus company reacted to this ad, it apparently IS offensive to simply imply that it is an undebatable fact that atheists do exist.

  57. David Hart says

    “If only they’d used a question mark instead of a period, they could’ve PRETENDED we were really agnostics.”

    Or even further, they could have put up a question phrase that looks like the kind of thing a religious organisation might use, like “Does God exist?” or “is there a meaning to life?” or some such. Then just have the links to the organisation. This would of course allow a perfectly controlled test, as you could then have a religious group (either a genuine one that you could persuade on board, or a front with an obviously religious name) try to place adverts with exactly the same text and see what happened.

  58. John Horstman says

    Or the word order: “We’re really not evil,” is an affirmative statement that, in reality it is not the case that we are evil, the only alternative interpretation of which is that we are not evil in the extreme, which also works.

  59. Khafre says

    “because our existence implicitly says that we think the religious beliefs of others are wrong.”

    Good point. Don’t worry about the “attitude factor” though that comes in the deal called atheism, and that makes literally every atheist assume a superior position. A delusion of course. Which can be very annoying for other people. It’s like telling a child to shut up and learn more, but the child insist he knows more because he is a child!

  60. lordshipmayhem says

    So am I, as long as I get to wear a geeky-cool lab coat, and get the girl.

    Oh, and the lab coat needs to have a pocket protector.

  61. bybelknap says

    There’s a reason some of us transplants from more civilized areas of the commonwealth call it “Pennsyltucky.”

  62. Raymond says

    Ha Ha Ha This number 16 line of thinking just cracks me up. The idea of being the athiest of something is classic. As in the hostess with the mostest. The atheist is the athiest; I’m athier than you are, but she is the athiest, or is she the atheist, or both?
    It was frequent during G Washington’s time to spell atheist as athiest. I read an article today in American Atheist magazine. 4th Quarter 2011 issue, where GW is said to have talked about seeking workers and the requirements, wherever they came from and whatever their religious persuasion, Mahometan, even, and he even allowed athiests(sic) to apply, and folks from Assia(sic). Thnx for the laughs guys.

  63. Steven Wright says

    I’m not going to argue about this anymore than saying the following. Here’s why it’s offensive: Jesus said so.
    Matthew 12:30
    “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.”
    Atheists are offensive to God, as well as those of us who love God.

  64. says

    By the same token, any mention of God or Jesus in my presence signifies your acceptance of the premise that I should burn eternally for dissing your imaginary friend.

    I think I’ve a little more grounds for offense, don’t you?

    (that’s an ‘editorial’ “You”, btw.)

  65. says

    Needing answers to continuity errors are simply because someone has found a mistake they cannot continue to enjoy the show unless its explained away- Just enjoy the ride nothing is PERFECT

  66. says

    When atheists state that the religious reich is imposing its beliefs upon others, this is one way they do it. They intimidate people into not permitting dissenting messages to be displayed.

    This is simply another example of how free speech, criticism, and questioning of religion is suppressed. That could be because all of these are fatal to any religion. The theists know that their case is so weak it cannot withstand any of these in the smallest amount.

    No, I am not the same Jim Smith mentioned in the article. It’s one of the most common names in the USA. If it had been me, I would have not only accepted the billboard, I would have given them a discount.

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