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FFRF Debuts New Freethought Bus Sign Campaign

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Feb. 13, 2009

People looking for 'a sign' need look no further than buses in Madison, Wis. For the next two months, they may not find a 'sign from God'--but will discover irreverent, thought-provoking messages compliments of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The Madison, Wis.-based association, representing nearly 14,000 nonbelievers nationwide, is debuting six new and provocative bus signs to go up today. They bear quotations by five famous freethinkers or skeptics of history, plus a quote from a contemporary: evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of the blockbuster bestseller, The God Delusion.

Dawkins' smiling face is juxtaposed by one of his famous lines from The God Delusion: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction."

The quotation selected for Clarence Darrow, the agnostic "attorney for the damned" who famously represented John Scopes in the 1925 Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tenn., is: "I don't believe in God, because I don't believe in Mother Goose."

A four-line poem by Emily Dickinson is featured:

"Faith" is a fine invention
When gentlemen can see–
But microscopes are prudent
In an emergency!

Dickinson, Gaylor pointed out, wrote some conventional poetry about religion, but as she got older, increasingly reflected a skeptical viewpoint. The poet refused pressure to join her family church, and stopped attending church altogether by her late twenties.

Actress Butterfly McQueen, famous for her typecast role as "Prissy" in the movie, "Gone with the Wind," was a nearly lifelong atheist, and a Lifetime Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The Foundation chose one of McQueen's quotes from an interview with the Atlanta Journal and Constitution in 1989: "As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion."

A cryptic quote from "Puddinhead Wilson" by Mark Twain, author of the irreverent War Prayer and Letters from the Earth, is featured: "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."

Actress Katharine Hepburn is quoted saying, "I'm an atheist, and that's it. I believe that there's nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for other people" (Ladies Home Journal, Oct. 1991).

All except the sign with the longer quotation featuring Hepburn bear portraits of the featured freethinkers.

A lot of American freethinkers were impressed with the recent British "There's probably no God, so quit worrying and enjoy your life" exterior bus sign campaign, and have urged the Foundation to do something similar, Gaylor noted.

"We'll need to see the same outpouring of support from U.S. freethinkers, because to make an impact in the United States is a lot more challenging," Gaylor noted. The British humanists raised more than $200,000 in a few weeks last fall in an online appeal. The Foundation is announcing its first online fundraiser in hopes it can take its educational messages to major city transit systems, with a goal to get them on New York City subways.

The Foundation placed what is believed to be the first nontheist bus sign in 1983 in Madison, Wis., according to Gaylor, after stopping a state/church violation involving Madison Metro. The city bus company had placed free ads saying, "Keep Christ in Christmas," for the Knights of Columbus. The Foundation's first bus sign read: "The Bible: A Grim Fairy Tale." In 1984, the Foundation placed a second bus sign, showing a delighted Mary running out of the stable exclaiming, "It's a Girl!"

The Foundation is concentrating on interior bus advertising, because it is more affordable than exterior ads, and permits more meaningful messages.

"Interior bus signs have the benefit of a 'captive audience' of bored passengers, so we hope riders in Madison will find our signs diverting," added Gaylor.

The Foundation launched a national billboard campaign in late 2007, and has placed billboards--variously reading "Imagine No Religion," "Beware of Dogma," "Praise Darwin: Evolve Beyond Belief" and "Keep Religion OUT of Politics"--in about a third of the states so far. Like the billboards, the aesthetically-pleasing bus signs bear the Foundation's signature stained-glass window motif.

"If we're going to be controversial, then we think at least our message should be attractive," said Gaylor.

She said the Foundation gets new requests to place billboards every week, "and it's just a matter of raising the funds as we go, so we can take our billboard campaign and new bus/subway signs around the nation," Gaylor added.

"It's a 'sign of the times' that those of us who are nonreligious, freethinkers, atheists, and agnostics, are coming into our own," said Dan Barker, Foundation co-president and author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist and Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists.

The secular revolution that hit Europe several decades ago is finally making inroads in the United States, Barker added, with surveys showing that 14% to 16% of the adult population now registers as nonreligious.

"It's about time! Let's return America to its original secular motto: E Pluribus Unum," he joked.

The Foundation has placed its handsome billboard, "Praise Darwin: Evolve Beyond Belief," at Randall and Regent Streets in Madison, Wis., to celebrate Charles Darwin's 200th birthday on February 12. The billboards were additionally placed this month at the sites of the historic battle over evolution in the schools in Dover, Penn., and Dayton, Tenn. The "Praise Darwin" billboard was also placed this week in Whitehall, Ohio, and in Grand Junction, Colo., where the city councils there refused to issue a Darwin Day proclamations.

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Photo: Brent Nicastro
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.