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Humanists launch a godless holiday campaign

As the calendar goes, December tends to be a winning month for God.

Christians celebrate the birth of Christ. Jews mark the story of Hanukkah. Muslims this year will observe the start of Al-Hijra, the Islamic New Year.

And the American Humanist Assn. has decided to join the festivities with an alternative celebration in mind.

The group, consisting of atheists and others who say they embrace reason over religion, has launched a national godless holiday campaign, with ads appearing inside or on 250 buses in five U.S. cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco starting today. The placards depict smiling people wearing red Santa hats with the slogan: “No God? . . . No problem!”

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Humanist leaders say the $40,000 ad campaign, funded by contributions from association members, is meant to counter a barrage of religious messages during the holiday season, letting free-thinking atheists and agnostics know that they are not alone.

Morality, the humanists argue, is possible without faith in a higher power.

“It’s OK to not believe in God,” said Roy Speckhardt, the association’s executive director in Washington, where ads began appearing on 220 buses and in 50 rail cars over the Thanksgiving holiday. “There shouldn’t be a stigma that those folks aren’t going to be upstanding good citizens.”

But some faith groups see the “No God? . . . No Problem!” message as an assault on religion. Others say they are disturbed by the campaign’s timing during the holy weeks leading up to Christmas.

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“Why didn’t they choose the summer solstice?” asked Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, a civil rights organization that puts up a Nativity scene every Christmas in New York’s Central Park.

“I guess they have no other time of the year to get out their message except to crib off someone else’s holiday,” Donohue added.

Religious scholars said they supported the humanists’ right to assert their views, but they called the campaign and the anti-religious approach misguided.

“They are depriving themselves of some really rich resources for moral insight,” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a philosophy professor at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

The stories, proverbs and laws contained in religious traditions, Dorff added, “give you a sense of what kind of person you should be and what kind of society you should strive to create.”

Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County, noted that polls show the vast majority of Americans believe in God. An anti-religious message thus belittles that conviction, he said.

“Peoples’ faith should not be disrespected,” said Siddiqi, chairman of the FiqhCouncil of North America, a body that issues interpretations about Islamic law. “I consider it indecent.”

Still, the humanists hope their message will resonate with a growing audience of nonbelievers.

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One recent study, the American Religious Identification Survey, found that the percentage of people who do not claim a religion has nearly doubled since 1990, growing to 15% last year.

The association sought to tap into this trend during the holidays last year with its first ad campaign using 220 buses in Washington. The placards asked passers-by: “Why believe in a God? Just be good for goodness’ sake.”

The ads triggered a backlash in the Washington area.

More than 300 people complained to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority about what they called the “inappropriate use of religion,” said spokesman Steven Taubenkibel. He said the placards remained up because they did not violate agency policy, which prohibits advertisements only if they use profanity. (The agency has received only one complaint so far this time.)

But a Catholic group in nearby Maryland, the Center for Family Development, waged a five-week counteroffensive with ads on the inside, backs and sides of 220 buses that asked: “Why believe in God? Because I created you and I love you for goodness’ sake -- GOD.”

JoEllen Murphy, a center volunteer who organized the rebuttal campaign and raised $14,000 from friends and supporters to pay for it, said she did not plan to oppose this year’s ads even as she lamented their theme.

“It’s a downer of a message for Christians,” Murphy said. “They are calling people to live a moral life, [but] they don’t ask where good comes from. It’s kind of shallow.”

Humanists and others of like mind have seen their advertisements vandalized on occasion, or faced opposition elsewhere as they try to promote their beliefs.

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A billboard paid for by the humanist association in Moscow, Idaho, home to the University of Idaho, was vandalized twice recently. The advertisement originally read “Millions are good without God.” Someone painted over part of it, leaving the message as “Millions are good with God.”

Other atheist groups in Iowa and Indiana have encountered resistance from public officials amid complaints about the use of the word God in bus ads.

The head of a national atheist group that helps local affiliates publicize their message said that such controversy, while unwelcome, actually helps their cause.

“When we get push back, it increases the news coverage and the publicity,” said Fred Edwords, national director for the United Coalition of Reason, which claims 20 local coalitions around the country. “As a result, our numbers grow.”

Humanists in Los Angeles predict that the new local campaign -- on city buses in the downtown area -- will proceed without a hitch.

“It’s not as if we are condemning religion,” said Lois Lyons, co-president of the Humanist Assn. of Los Angeles. “We are simply saying that there is another way of looking at things. Some people seem to take offense at that. I think we should let our point be made publicly.”

duke.helfand@latimes.com


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