Frustrated New Yorkers in the habit of muttering ‘for God’s sake’ under their breath as they suffer on crowded trains, may soon think twice about the content of their curses. A poster campaign launched by American atheist groups today will see anti-religious messages plastered across metro stations. This is just the kind of good news, they say, that the city needs to get it thinking.
“A million New Yorkers are good without God. Are you?” That is the question being asked of commuters in the city’s subway stations, which see more than five million passengers every day.
Michael De Dora explains the campaign
Coalition of Reason
The campaign has been launched by the Big Apple Coalition of Reason (COR) which is made up of various atheist and humanist organisations in New York. Michael De Dora, director of the New York Center for Inquiry which is in the umbrella group, told Radio Netherlands it is the first time atheism has been promoted in this kind of way.
“We have a few different objectives. At the very least we want to foster conversation about issues such as religion and morality, we want to get people talking about these sorts of things, we want to get people thinking about these sorts of things and get this conversation on the table because we feel as if it’s been left off the table and hasn’t been talked about, and too many people think religion and morality are private issues.”
The Big Apple COR took its inspiration from a similar British campaign launched earlier this year, spearheaded by the theorist Richard Dawkins. Hundreds of buses carried the message “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” which provoked a storm of controversy as well as a lively debate.
And although the US may not be the obvious home of a large atheist movement, the American Religious Identification Survey released earlier this year revealed a shift away from organised religion. In 2008 the number of people who described themselves as having no religion was 15 percent – almost double the number in 1990.
De Dora stresses the campaign is aimed at those who are just curious, as well as people who want to join one of the groups involved in the project. He hopes it may even be of interest to people who already have a faith.
But he denies that it is inappropriate to promote humanism in such a blatant way, in fact arguing the media attention the campaign’s received is evidence of a strong public interest in the issue. Dr Anne Klaeysen, head of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, another member, says the time is ripe for this kind of discussion.
“Our real emphasis is on personal choice and integrity and not a knee-jerk dogmatic approach to religion or to life in general. The impetus behind this was to say there are a number of groups out there who share similar values and similar missions, and how might they get together now we finally have a president who recognises what he calls ‘non-believers’. So there’s a window of opportunity to actually name it.”
The response to the posters has not all been positive and some people feel belief and faith should be confined to the private sphere. De Dora says he is expecting a mixed reaction from people on the subway today, but is hoping New York’s tradition of secularity and liberalism will help make the adverts a success:
“I’ve had emails from both sides already, either atheists or believers who think this is pushing beliefs out too much into the public sphere. We don’t agree. We think that these beliefs about religion and morality are central to what makes a good civil society and we should openly talk about all of this.”