When President Barack Obama included a shout-out to "non-believers" in his inaugural address, he likely wasn't singling out drivers on Interstate 26. But travelers of that Charleston artery have been startled — and, in some cases, outraged — by a billboard with a succinct message superimposed against a blue sky: "Don't believe in God? You are not alone."
After a quarter-century of political and cultural ascendancy by Republicans and the religious right, the current seems to be flowing in the opposite direction. Republicans are out of power in Washington. More importantly, there's a new tide of skepticism toward religion and the "religious."
There's certainly an audience for the discussion among lovers of the written word — with successful releases from Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), among others. Next month, former Los Angeles Times religion reporter William Lobdell will release Losing My Religion, and Bill Maher's film Religulous, documenting the folly and the dangers of organized religion, recently hit the video store aisles.
Events recognizing Charles Darwin's 200th birthday certainly offered an opening for debates on faith, purpose, and what motivates good people, but nothing appears to have started the conversation easier than people-sized text offering encouraging words for non-believing commuters.
The sign directs those interested to the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry at www.LowcountryHumanists.org. Most of the response has been positive, says SHL President Jonathan Lamb.
"It's a pretty bold statement in an area that's so religious," he says. "It's one of those things that's still pretty taboo to talk about."
In a region where billboards have long been used to proselytize and "save souls," it's not surprising that questioning God on the roadside prompted a few detractors. For a week after the billboard went up, local television and talk radio stations filled the airways with the wails and screams of the faithful.
Letters to the editor of The Post and Courier expressed the anger of true believers: "At best this is just plain mean and spiteful. At worst it is an attempt to continue the assault on Christian and religious values," wrote a Charleston resident. "God is love. So these sad souls want to erect a sign asserting their disbelief in love? I suppose they have the right to do so, but why? Where's the love?"
The sign wasn't meant to assault anyone, but instead to let secular humanists know there's a local group out there, says Fred Edwords, spokesman for the American Humanist Association. The national group shepherded this campaign, as well as others over the past year in New York, Denver, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
"We don't all live in the same neighborhood," he says. "We're not on the same block."
It's doubtful, Edwords says, that anyone would actually change their mind about faith because of what they read on a billboard.
"But to many people, the idea that somebody may say it's an acceptable option — the very idea is offensive," he says.
The Celebrity Atheist
There was another atheist foray into the Bible Belt recently, when Dan Barker visited an SHL meeting earlier this month.
Barker does not claim to be a missionary of atheism, but there's hardly a better way to describe him. As co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (www.FFRF.org), Barker travels the world, speaking to groups and debating in the name of free thought and secular values. And he knows the drill. Once an ordained minister and missionary traveling the U.S. and Mexico, Barker spread the Christian gospel for nearly 20 years.
Eight of those years he spent in his car with his wife and two children, driving cross country, preaching, living on faith and "love offerings," and waiting for Jesus to come at any moment. Then came the day in 1983 when he could do it no longer. He had lost his faith, and with it his profession, his marriage, his friends, and social standing. But the end was the beginning for Barker. "Born again" as an atheist, he tells his story in his new book, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists.
The foreword to Godless was penned by Dawkins, the world's foremost atheist. He calls Barker, "The most eloquent witness of internal delusion that I know — a triumphantly smiling refugee from the zany world of American fundamentalist Protestantism ... (Barker) knows deeply what it is like to be a wingnut, a fish-head, a fully paid-up nutjob, an all singing, all glossolaliaing religious fruit bat."
This reformed fruit bat told the story of his "road from Damascus" to a group of more than 100 sympathetic Charlestonians.
"I was one of those people you don't want to sit next to on a bus," he said of his days as an evangelist. "I was one of those people who would walk right up to you on the street and ask, 'Are you saved?'"
In time, his sermons became less about hellfire and more about love, Barker said, as he grew tired of waiting for Jesus to make his imminent appearance. He transitioned into one of those "liberal theologians" he used to denounce. The process took four or five years, but by 1983, he knew he could not tell the lie any longer.
America is becoming more like Europe, Barker said, and the evidence is in the 20-somethings, the most secular demographic in the nation.
The crowd of 102 at SHL's February event broke the attendance for a meeting by more than 40, and the difference was made up largely of newcomers, Lamb says.
He's hopeful the SHL can maintain the momentum in the coming months. The contract on the billboard runs out on Feb. 25, but it may put the sign back up for another campaign in the fall and then maybe once or twice a year after that, Lamb says.
The focus of the billboard and the SHL meetings may be to assemble like minds, but Lamb sees a lesson for the faith-based detractors when he looks out at the crowd that came to the February event.
"Every single person attending that meeting was friendly and compassionate," he says. "At that moment I wished some of the religious leaders who continue to perpetuate lies about secular humanists were in attendance."