Atheists, Assumptions, and 75 Foot Billboards

Erik Cooper —  March 10, 2011 — 8 Comments

There’s a new billboard campaign going up around Indianapolis. An atheist organization is stirring more controversy in the Christian community than Rob Bell (and that’s a tall order).

We’re used to Darwin bumper stickers, Discovery Channel specials detailing man’s metamorphosis from primates, even Stephen Hawking’s scientific assertions. But these people threw us a curve ball.

This message is emerging in giant, white letters on major thoroughfares around Indianapolis:

Wide-smiling televangelists and obnoxious prosperity preachers are one thing, but these guys overtly called out the Big Man Himself. You don’t need God? You can’t say that in the American Midwest, can you?

Honestly (and you may “Charlie Sheen” me for this), I’m much less troubled by this 25 x 75 foot antagonistic message than with some of the visceral, fear-filled responses I saw from “my side” of the dialog. There seems to be an assumption that our faith has permanent ownership of the cultural fabric. That Christianity holds an incontestable birthright to the American subconscious. That we don’t have to earn the right to be heard. Is that really the case? Do we even want it to be?

In my experience, I’ve noted the following:

  • A culture of Christian values isn’t by definition authentic Christianity. We can embrace a normative set of Judeo-Christian ethics without ever embracing the cross. Without actually becoming followers of Jesus. This terrifies me.
  • Christianity has historically spread rapidly through opposition, when it’s forced to enter the arena of ideas. Jesus doesn’t want to be a cultural assumption, He wants to be the One we consciously choose to put in the driver’s seat.
  • The reality of the Gospel is irresistible when it’s evident in our lives. What if we lived in such a way that messages like these had no choice but to fall on deaf ears (or blind eyes)?

In the end, the message of this billboard is actually true. You can live a “good life” without God. But noble behavior was never the message of the Gospel. As my favorite apologist Ravi Zacharias always says:

“Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good. He came to make dead people live.”

That’s the message I want on my billboard.

We should lament the anti-God trajectory of our culture, but to assume we’re entitled to it may be equally as dangerous. Instead of demanding ownership of the norm, what if we just proved the power of the Gospel with our “abnormality?”

What do you think?

8 responses to Atheists, Assumptions, and 75 Foot Billboards

  1. Dude! You’re so right! A calm sensible voice in a sea of loud mouths….

  2. I went on to read the positions held by the folks at livingwithoutreligion.org, and what I found interesting was that much of the time, I felt like I could have been reading something written by Jesus followers. Living without religion is something I aspire to do myself, but of course, with a slightly different understanding of the word “religion”. And as I read the beliefs they laid out, I couldn’t help but think how responsible I am as a lukewarm Christian for showing the world a skewed view of a true follower of Christ.

  3. As an atheist, I think it needs to be pointed out that the whole point of billboard campaigns like this one is to combat the stereotype of atheists as libertines (the whole mistaken notion that “If God is dead, then all things are permitted”.) This is a matter that many nonbelievers take pretty personally (atheism and/or agnosticism has even been used against parents, for example, in divorce cases as a reason to deny custody of children). (See this story as a very recent example of this sort of thing http://www.fox59.com/news/wxin-atheist-appeal-indiana-court-of-appeals-awards-atheist-father-joint-custody-20110216,0,6033619.story ).

    I don’t wish to be uncharitable, but I find that the blog engages in what I can only call a shell game. Atheists are often told (by, among others, C.S. Lewis in THE ABOLITION OF MAN and less directly in MERE CHRISTIANTIY) that morality cannot exist without God. It’s often used as a foundation for arguments for God’s existence.

    Then, when that gets questioned, the target moves. Then, we are told, it’s not about being good, but rather making “dead” people “live.” If this is some sort of metaphorical statement (akin to “I once was blind but now I see”) then we’re back in the realm of morality (see previous argument). If it’s NOT, and we’re saying that Jesus came to literally raise people from the dead — well, then we have a testable hypothesis. But you really don’t want to test it, do you?

    Didn’t think so.

    • I really appreciate your perspective Nicole, and your willingness to post it here. I obviously wouldn’t expect that we would share the same thoughts on this billboard campaign. I’m cool with that.

      As a pastor, the normal audience for this blog is believers like me, and my intent was to challenge us to lose the assumption that we own an inherent right to the American culture. Probably something I see more in my circles, but there is a seeming indignation that comes over some Christians when they see those who don’t believe express their viewpoints. I don’t share that perspective.

      That said, my comments on dead vs. alive weren’t at all metaphorical. Scripture tells us we are dead in sin, that true “death” is separation from God. Not a physical death but a spiritual one. (Romans 6:1-11)

      The message of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ became the way to bridge that gap. The only one who can bring us true life, true connection to God. It’s not a moral question, it’s an issue of returning humanity to God’s original intent: relationship with Him.

      I obviously wouldn’t expect you to agree, and that’s OK. I’m not trying to win an argument.

      Thanks for your post (seriously). It’s good to wrestle with perspectives outside of our own.

  4. You don’t even need a small ‘g’ god to live a life of hope, caring and loving. There’s nothing wrong with existing as if this world is all that you’ll ever see, and in fact that’s a pretty good reason to live a good life, and to try to help those around you. If we all treated each other as if this is the only shot we were going to get, it’d be a saner, safer and happier world.

    I think I’m already in heaven, and I don’t have to hope for one beyond this one. I wish religous people could see atheists as simply people, and not the enemy, or potential converts, or fools, or dupes. Then perhaps they could live a better life, too.

    Respectfully,
    – Patrick

    • Appreciate your thoughts Patrick. And for the record, whether or not we share the same perspectives on God, I don’t see you as the enemy. I’m sorry if others have made you feel as if they do.

  5. The hard part for someone like me, who once was a “believer” and now is quite simply lost somewhere out in left field on the whole issue of what that even means to “believe”…is the very point that is trying to be made here. I have found my life after church so to speak, in some ways much more free and full of hope. However in other ways there still remains some amount of fear and longing for something I cant quite put my finger on. I wanted to add my two cents by saying that at this point on my journey, I still find it much more palatable on my current side of the fence due to those on the “opposing side” still insisting that somehow we are indeed some sort of enemy or lost ones to be found and saved. It is a tough place to be but I have to say having worn all shoes offered….going barefoot for awhile and seeing what kind of tracks others leave behind is the only thing that makes any sense to me. Love your writing Erik!

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