American Atheists to place billboards in NY Jewish, NJ Muslim neighborhoods

Jason Howerton Contributor
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Despite receiving multiple death threats, American Atheists will move forward with plans to erect billboards proclaiming, “You know it’s a myth… and you have a choice” — one in the heart of a predominantly Orthodox Jewish community in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, N.Y. on Tuesday, and another on Wednesday two blocks from a mosque in Paterson, N.J., which is home to a large Muslim population.

The Arabic word for Allah will appear on the billboard in Paterson while the Hebrew translation of God will be printed on the one in Williamsburg.

American Atheists, based in Cranford, N.J., is a civil liberties group that advocates for the “total, absolute separation of government and religion” and equality for atheists.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, told The Daily Caller that he contacted the police on Monday after receiving threatening phone calls and faxes from disgruntled individuals angry with the decision to put up the signs.

Threats made against Silverman’s life, which he described as “anti-Marxist and anti-Semitic,” are currently being investigated by the Cranford Police Department.

“I am not overly concerned,” Silverman told TheDC. “Overall, the response has been civil.”

Silverman argues that the billboards are not meant to offend or convert anyone to Atheism and are intended only to reach “closet atheists” in highly-religious communities.

“A billboard can’t convert anyone,” he said. “No one is going to leave their religion because of something they saw on a billboard.”

The signs are also intended to increase awareness about the upcoming “Reason Rally,” which Silverman called “Woodstock for atheists.” The rally will take place on March 24 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and is expected to be the largest gathering of non-believers in history.

In 2010, American Atheists put up a nearly identical billboard over the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey reaching out to the Christian faith. It read, “You know it’s a myth, this season, celebrate REASON!”

Religious organizations in the targeted areas seem to respect the group’s right to free speech, though some disagree with the phrasing of their message.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University, said that instead of taking aim at specific religions, the group should have promoted its beliefs with a positive message such as the importance of “values and virtue” within the atheist ideology.

“It is tragic sometimes that we sometimes define ourselves by attacking others, such as having the name of God printed and calling it a fake,” Brander told TheDC. “We shouldn’t be reaching for things that divide us but instead things that bring us together.”

Brander, however, said he doesn’t anticipate the billboard having any kind of impact on the local Jewish community.

“I don’t think the Jewish community is talking about this,” Brander told TheDC . “Luckily, we live in a wonderful, free country where anyone can express their views, but this is the longest conversation I plan to have on this issue.”

Mohamed El Filali, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Passaic County, N.J. said he doesn’t understand the point of placing the signs in such religious communities other than to antagonize.

“I don’t see the purpose of it,” he told The Daily Caller. “If I were them, I probably would have approached it differently and tried to engage the Muslim community in conversation.”

Still, Filali said members of Islamic faith should welcome the billboards. In no way, Filali told TheDC, should any religious group advocate for violence against American Atheists or any other group for exercising their right to free speech.

“We should use this as an opportunity to invite people of any ideology to take part in conversations that build bridges and promote understanding between different groups,” he said.