Baltimore Atheists Get Their Word Out

The Baltimore Coalition of Reason introduces itself through a billboard campaign. Click here for PDF Copy

Just in time for the holidays, a group of nonreligious persuasion is getting its message out amidst this season of religiously inspired celebrations.  The Baltimore Coalition of Reason, a new organization made up of atheists, agnostics, and others, has recently introduced itself to the Baltimore area through a billboard campaign.  With their efforts, the Coalition is inevitably entering itself into the culture wars between religious and secular thought that has become particularly charged in this country in this decade.  Atheism is in vogue as of late, as noted by the success of the best-selling books and many public appearances by famous atheists Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.  Religious responses to atheism’s recent foothold in the public have also been strong, as evidenced by the push to include “intelligent design” in school curricula and efforts to include religious messages on government property.  But the Coalition is taking a much softer approach than that of Hitchens and Dawkins.  The specific message that it is sending out should prove to much less inflammatory in the eyes of religious thinkers.

The Baltimore Coalition of Reason is just one chapter in the nationwide United Coalition of Reason.  The United Coalition is running a campaign, funded by an anonymous Philadelphia businessman, designed to join atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, and other people who can fit the term “nonbeliever” into something resembling a community.  The hope is that this organization will eventually the same sort of social and political power currently held by the larger religious denominations.

The billboard campaign that the Coalition has employed in Baltimore grabs viewers’ attentions with the potentially provocative question, “Are you good without God?”  To let those who answer “yes” to that question know that they are not alone, the billboards follow up with the response “Millions are.”  They also direct viewers to the Baltimore Coalition’s website, which provides links to three area groups as well as a notice promoting an appearance by Harvard University humanist chaplain Greg Epstein at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore.   The billboards were up until this past Sunday at spots on I-95, I-895, and Russell Street near the sports stadiums.

Fred Edwords, national director of the United Coalition of Reason, explained that many people who do not believe in God and/or do not belong to a traditional religion “tend to think they’re the only ones.”  Because of this tendency to feel alienated, nonbelievers are often not aware of the groups of like-minded people, and the billboards in Baltimore seek to rectify that.

Efforts to create unity among nonbelievers should not be threatening to religious communities, at least not as threatening as the words of Hitchens and Dawkins.  The question that the billboards pose about goodness without God, however, might lead to some pause.  Area religious leaders, however, do not sound too worried.  The Right Rev. Eugene Tylor Sutton, the Episcopal bishop of Maryland notes, “[O]f course … someone can be good without believing in God.”  Rev. Danny O’Brien of Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium said that the billboard campaign “underscores the notion that we have all been created with a yearning to be part of something bigger,” thus suggesting that he believes that the feelings of believers and nonbelievers are not all that different.

Overall, the efforts of the Coalition are rather vague.  Edwords noted that some nonbelievers might want to actual traditional Church services, or some might want to go a philosophical lecture or discussion group, or some might want to do charitable work, or social activism.  It is not entirely clear, based on Edwords’ words, what exactly the Coalition will do, or encourage its members to do, if there is to be a more united organization of nonbelievers.  But the main goal is to give nonbelievers a sense of psychological unity, and the message on the billboards works well towards that goal.  The future will see whether or not this campaign will have any meaningful effect on the public stature of atheists, agnostics, and the like.

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