Wednesday, November 19, 2008

New Metro ads likely to stir up controversy

My friend Cristin has a brave brother, Jonathan (who we call Bubba), who is currently serving in the Air Force in Afghanistan. He send this email the day of the election:

In Afghanistan, after talking to people who are Muslim, I've found that they're not offended if someone says "Merry Christmas" to them. They're more offended by us trying to minimize our own religion in front of them for fear of hurting their feelings. Think about it.

That fact that this issue is brought up is because of our own insecurities. We are so afraid of hurting someones feelings that we accept deleting everything we believe, which actually makes things worse.

I couldn't agree more, Bub.
Adam Tuss, WTOP Radio

WASHINGTON - It wouldn't be the holiday season without a little controversy concerning God.

Starting next week, Metro will roll out a set of advertisements on its buses sponsored by the American Humanist Association (AHA), a non-theist group. The ads will show a picture of a fake Santa Claus and read: "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake."

"The idea being 'why believe in a god?' It is just not necessary," says Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the AHA. "And 'just be good for goodness' sake' meaning, why not truly do what we can to be good for the sake of goodness."

The ads will be displayed on the sides and taillights of more than 200 Metro buses starting on Nov. 18. The interior posters will go up Dec. 1. The campaign is costing the AHA about $40,000.

"For the most part, we are reaching out to non-theists, to atheists who thought they were alone and now realize there is a way to connect with like minded folks," Spekhardt says. "But this will also give those people on the fence something to think about."

The AHA thought about campaigns in other cities, but chose D.C. because they believe the message will reach the widest swath of people without getting lost in the mix of other ads. The group defines humanism as "a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity.

The timing of the ads is also intentional.

"We really are hoping to reach out during the holidays. When Thanksgiving comes, and everyone gets around to say grace, maybe the non-theist in the room can say, 'maybe I should be excused,' or 'maybe I can say something this time' and say something that doesn't give credit to something that doesn't exist for all that we have done on this planet."

The AHA says it will think about expanding the ad campaign, based upon the reaction it gets.

The campaign comes as conservative Christian groups gear up their efforts to keep Christ in Christmas. In the past five years, groups such as the American Family Association and the Catholic League have criticized or threatened boycotts of retailers who use generic "holiday" greetings.

In mid-October, the American Family Association started selling buttons that say "It's OK to say Merry Christmas." The humanists' entry into the marketplace of ideas did not impress AFA president Tim Wildmon.

"It's a stupid ad," he said. "How do we define 'good' if we don't believe in God? God in his word, the Bible, tells us what's good and bad and right and wrong. If we are each ourselves defining what's good, it's going to be a crazy world."

Also on Tuesday, the Orlando, Fla.-based Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian legal group, launched its sixth annual "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign." Liberty Counsel has intervened in disputes over nativity scenes and government bans on Christmas decorations, among other things.

"It's the ultimate grinch to say there is no God at a time when millions of people around the world celebrate the birth of Christ," said Mathew Staver, the group's chairman and dean of the Liberty University School of Law. "Certainly, they have the right to believe what they want but this is insulting."

Best-selling books by authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have fueled interest in "the new atheism" - a more in-your-face argument against God's existence.

Yet few Americans describe themselves as atheist or agnostic; a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll from earlier this year found 92 percent of Americans believe in God.

There was no debate at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority over whether to take the ad. Spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said the agency accepts ads that aren't obscene or pornographic.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

(Copyright 2008 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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