Atheist bus ads belong here, like 'em or not

Posted 9:28am on Friday, Dec. 03, 2010

In the fall of 2000, a few weeks after I first moved to Texas from New York, I attended a screening of a movie called The Contender, about a female senator, played by Joan Allen, appointed to the vice-presidency. During her confirmation hearings, however, it’s revealed that she’s an atheist -- a detail that her right-wing opponents seize upon. The movie made perfectly clear that the bad guys are the religious zealots, and that Allen’s character was a heroine for standing up for her unpopular beliefs.

Or at least that’s the way the movie was intended to be understood. In Dallas, Texas, some viewers saw things differently. As I walked out of the theater, two women in front of me were angrily grumbling about the character’s atheism. Allen’s character was clearly evil, they believed. This movie should not have been allowed to be screened at all. From their tone of voice, you would have thought they had just endured a breezy musical-comedy treatment of the life of Jeffrey Dahmer.

All of this came rushing back to me this week, following news that the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, known as "The T," had accepted ads from an atheist group, which are set to appear on the sides of four city buses, beginning Monday. The not-exactly-incendiary message of these ads -- “Millions of Americans are Good Without God” -- probably wouldn’t even cause someone to look twice in New York or San Francisco. But here in Texas, where too many self-righteous people too often wrap themselves in a cloak of religious piety, it inspired an all-too-predictable kerfuffle, including a proposal from one group of local pastors that city buses should be boycotted.

Among the more obnoxious statements put forth by religious leaders, as reported in the Star-Telegram:

Kyev Tatum, pastor of Friendship Rock Baptist Church, said: “If that was anti-semitic, we wouldn't be having this conversation.”

Rev. Ralph Emerson Jr., pastor of Rising Star Baptist Church, said: “We just accept there are persons who just don't fit into where we fit in.”

These arguments are so plainly inane that it feels like wasting one’s breath having to defend against them. Clearly Pastor Tatum doesn’t understand the difference between free speech and hate speech; and clearly the Rev. Emerson isn’t above using "us-versus-them" language in order to defend his religious beliefs.

Lucky for most of us, we don’t have to go to their churches and hear their misguided viewpoints on a weekly basis. That’s one of the glories of life in America: You can choose to ignore the ideas you want to ignore, provided you accept our fundamental right to express those ideas in a peaceful and civil manner.

But this story is bigger than a handful of pastors in Fort Worth. It points to a much larger, more depressing trend: Once again, we’re witnessing the very basest of bully tactics. A majority that craftily portrays itself as a persecuted minority, and in the process tries to shut down a dialogue. By encouraging riders to boycott, these pastors -- most of whom, I’m guessing, probably don’t need the bus to get to and from work each day -- are immediately taking things to a loudmouth extreme.

It’s a trend, too, that seems to extend into every direction. Indeed, the Fox News Channel has pretty much mastered the art of it: The United States Senate could consist of 99 Republicans, and they’d still be convincing people that the liberal cabal and its supporters in the “lamestream media” are bringing down the country.

The louder you yell, and the more you cry "victim," the more effectively you will be in convincing people that you are the aggrieved party. And eventually you get your way. Even if, in the process, facts get elided -- or ignored altogether. (In this case, the fact is that The T has been accepting religious-themed ads for years -- so to reject this one would be a clear violation of the atheist organization’s free speech rights.)

For the record: I actually agree that the ads don’t belong on buses. But that’s only because I don’t want to see any form of promotion of religion, for or against or indifferent to, on the sides of buses. Those are public vehicles, paid for by public dollars, and -- despite what some of our local pastors would like to think -- we are a nation that, in theory anyway, respects the boundaries between church and state. When The T meets to discuss the issue at their next board meeting, they need to seriously rethink the policy top to bottom.

But anyone who says that an atheistic viewpoint shouldn’t be expressed -- or that a movie with an atheist character shouldn’t be shown, or that a book about atheism shouldn’t be stocked in a public library that contains dozens of other books about religion -- does a grave disservice to our community, and to the healthy exchange of ideas that any society depends upon in order to thrive.

In a season of reflection, these are questions that those so vehemently opposed to the bus ads seriously need to ask themselves. If you believe so strongly in your faith, why are you threatened by someone who might express a different one? And why does your faith win out, when -- whether you want to acknowledge it or not -- there are billions of others, around the country and around the world, who opt for a different one?

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