Intersections: Thoughts on a sign and what it represents

Religion and BeliefChristianityMiley CyrusSocial IssuesCalifornia Department of TransportationBilly Ray Cyrus

After musician and mullet-offender Billy Ray Cyrus, known these days as Disney offspring Miley Cyrus' dad, filed for a divorce from his wife in late 2010 that went nowhere, he did what any sensible celebrity would do and quickly outlined his family troubles in the media.

Cyrus explained to GQ how Hollywood was to blame for their family problems, pinpointing the demise to a tangible sign he and Miley would see on their way to the “Hannah Montana” studio each morning.

It read: “Adopt-a-Highway: Atheists United.”

“It could have easily said, 'You will now be attacked by Satan,'“ Cyrus, who has released two Christian albums., told GQ, calling it the entrance to “the highway to darkness.”

I hate to break Cyrus' achy heart, but Satan wasn't involved, not even a little. It really was Atheists United (AU), a not-for-profit organization active since 1982 that advocates for the separation of government and religion while providing an environment where nonbelievers and “freethinkers” can connect and serve their communities.

About 12 years ago, in an effort to maximize their exposure while cutting down on costs, member Steve Gage enrolled AU in California's Adopt-a-Highway program run by the California Department of Transportation, where in exchange for a sign, individuals, businesses or groups can adopt a stretch of highway that they help maintain with litter pickup, graffiti removal and more.

A 2-mile stretch of the Glendale (2) Freeway was available. Now, members gather every month to help keep the stretch of highway clean. Sometimes, they even go to Zankou Chicken to eat afterward.

Though the freeway is relatively traffic free, many passing through have made it a point to stop at AU's sign. Since 2000, it has been vandalized several times with spray paint, industrial glue, uprooted, knocked over and driven in to, while its 'A' has also disappeared on occasion.

Toni Heath, a UCLA student and AU member who volunteers with cleanup, has even found Christian tracts, pamphlets used for religious purposes, scattered near the sign, along with a shocking amount of cigarette butts and alcohol bottles, she said.

Originally from Alabama, Heath, like others who make the trek from all over Los Angeles to participate in the litter pickup, feel like they're contributing to their community in a positive way.

“Of all the things I could be doing on a Sunday morning, this is one of the better ones where you feel like you're at least making a difference,” she said.

Gage, who joined AU in 1989, said those who vandalize the sign are doing more damage to their own reputation.

“We're the ones out there doing good community service,” he said. “They're the ones who are trying to destroy things. It reflects on them.”

AU member and Burbank resident Damon Vix agrees.

“I think it's misguided to be upset at people who don't believe in God or religion,” he said. “I think it really shows one of the things we're trying to fight — negative attitudes toward atheists.”

AU's battered sign is telling of just how polarizing a topic atheism is in America. A recent University of Minnesota study even found that atheists ranked lower than “Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups” for Americans when it came to those who shared their vision of American society.

Its public perception as a faceless, unorganized entity devoid of morals is exactly what AU is trying to change, according to President Michael Khalili. If people saw that those they work with and live near identify as atheists, the perception could be challenged, he said, adding that he would love to speak to those who have been angry enough to vandalize their sign.

While the organization works on increasing its advocacy, the strong reactions have definitely managed to accomplish the sign's original intention: getting noticed.

“In some ways, it's working, people are seeing it, even if it's the wrong ones,” Gage said. “I guess all we can do is fix the sign and let them know we're here to stay.”

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at liana.agh@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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