Atheists Are Mad About Bigotry — And They Aren't Taking It Any More

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Anti-atheist bigotry is real. And atheists will make your life miserable if you try it.

If there are just two things you take away from this story, it should be these:

1) Anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination — of a completely overt, very ugly kind — is real.

2) Atheists are no longer putting up with it. If you fuck with them, they will fuck with you right back. And they know how to do it.

Two recent events in the news illustrate this bigotry quite vividly. In the first, a billboard company in Ohio rejected an atheist billboard campaign — at the last minute, the week before the billboards were scheduled to go up, after weeks of extensive discussion and planning with no hint of trouble — because the atheist content was deemed “obscene, unnecessarily offensive and/or not in the best interests of the community at large.” In the second story, a local merchant near an atheist conference put a sign on his shop door, explicitly saying that conference attendees were not welcome in his Christian business. And he got a faceful of Internet fury for his trouble.

Don’t Believe In God? Don’t Try to Advertise

Let’s talk about the billboards first. The Mid Ohio Atheists — a largely humanist organization that makes regular donations to the local homeless shelter and battered women’s shelter, does an “adopt a highway” litter pickup, plants flowers in community parks, and is currently doing a holiday food and blanket drive — had been planning a billboard campaign with the LIND Media Company, scheduled to go up during the holiday season. One was going to say simply, “Don’t believe in God? Neither do we.” One was going to read, “There is no God. Don’t believe everything you hear.” (A reference to a recent Christian billboard in the area that, amusingly, sported the exact same text.) And the third was going to read, “1.6 Million Ohioans Know Myths when they see them. Do you? American Atheists Since 1963.” (With pictures of Poseidon, Jesus, Santa, and Satan.)

This billboard campaign had been planned for weeks. According to Michael Adams, Communications Director for Mid Ohio Atheists, “We spent several weeks exchanging emails, planning locations, and reviewing the graphics for the billboards. In late October everything was ready to go. They had the final graphic, had done the mock-ups and we had approved them. Everything seemed to be going off without a hitch and I was extremely pleased with the company.”

But then, out of nowhere, just a few days before the billboards were scheduled to go up, LIND abruptly changed gears. Vice President Maura S. Siegenthaler sent a terse letter to Mid Ohio Atheists President Ron Stephens, saying simply, “Per the terms of our agreement, we are unable to fulfill your billboard contract. I apologize for the inconvenience, but we are cancelling the contract and you will not receive any invoices from LIND Outdoor.” MOA was understandably upset: this campaign had been widely fund-raised for and publicized in the community, had been planned and worked on for weeks, and had been carefully scheduled for the busy holiday season. Stephens asked for an explanation — and Siegenthaler sent an email saying:

“The inflammatory nature of the proposed displays would no doubt be considered offensive to much of the community and would be harmful to Lind’s community reputation and goodwill. Lind has always and will continue to reserve the right not to publish advertisements which, in its sole opinion, are obscene, unnecessarily offensive and/or not in the best interests of the community at large.”

The inflammatory nature. Obscene, unnecessarily offensive, and/or not in the best interests of the community at large.

“Don’t believe in God? Neither do we.”

Please note that LIND has accepted religious billboards saying, “Saturday the TRUE Lord’s Day. Antichrist changed it, avoid his mark.” They have accepted religious billboards saying, “It’s all about Him (Jesus)… and He is all about you.” But “Don’t believe in God? Neither do we” — that was considered inflammatory, obscene, unnecessarily offensive, and/or not in the best interests of the community at large. To the point where the company rejected a billboard campaign that had been planned and discussed with the company for weeks — and did so at the last minute, when it was far too late for the MOA to make other plans with another company.

Explicitly because the billboards were about atheism.

If you had any doubts whatsoever about the reality of anti-atheist bigotry? If you’ve read about atheists being denied custody of their children explicitly on the basis of their atheism; atheist kids in public high schools trying to organize clubs and routinely getting stonewalled; atheist veterans getting booed in a Memorial Day parade; atheist teenagers getting threats of brutal violence and death for asking their school to obey the law and not proselytize about religion to students; polls consistently putting atheists at the bottom of lists of who people would vote for or trust; towns getting hysterical about atheists playing “Jingle Bells” in a Christmas parade… and you still weren’t convinced that anti-atheist bigotry is real? This story should put your doubts to rest.

So what are atheists doing about it?

Raising a ruckus. Atheists have been calling, writing, emailing, blogging, Facebooking, Tweeting, and more, letting LIND know that their anti-atheist bigotry is not acceptable. (If you agree and want to let LIND know about it, you can call them at 800/444-LIND; call LIND Vice President Maura Siegenthaler at 419/571-4286 [cell]; email Siegenthaler at [email protected]; fax LIND at 419-522-1323; or write them at 409-411 North Main Street, Mansfield, OH 44902.)

In the last few years — and even more so in the last year or two — atheists have become seriously organized, mobilized, visible, vocal, activist… and, very importantly, unapologetic about their atheism. Atheists have become increasingly conscious of their status as second-class citizens — and increasingly unwilling to just lie down and accept it. Atheists are mad as hell… and they’re not going to take it anymore. If you fuck with them, they will fuck with you right back.

Which brings us to Gelatogate.

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Justice

Just a couple of weeks ago — the weekend before Thanksgiving, in fact — the annual Skepticon conference was held in Springfield, MO. Skepticon is one of the largest gatherings of atheists and skeptics in the country, with over 1,000 attendees this year, and many local businesses in Springfield took advantage of the gathering, listing themselves in a discount coupon booklet for conference attendees. Including Andy Drennan, owner of the ice cream shop Gelato Mio. But then Drennan decided to visit the free conference he was advertising with. He saw a presentation that he took offense at: Brother Sam Singleton, Atheist Evangelist, doing a satirical send-up of a Pentecostal revival meeting.

And he put a sign on the door to his shop, reading, quote, “Skepticon is NOT Welcomed To My Christian Business.”

Now. Disregard, for a moment, the fact that nobody pressed this atheist revival meeting on Drennan. Disregard the fact that the satire of religion Drennan found so offensive was at an atheist event, in atheist space, and that being shocked and upset by it was the equivalent of an atheist going to a Pentecostal church service and being shocked and upset by all the talk about hellfire and damnation. Disregard the question of whether it was reasonable for Drennan to be offended… or whether people have just as much right to publicly criticize and mock religion as they do with any other idea.

And focus simply on this: The man put a sign on the door of his business, explicitly saying that he would not do business with attendees of an atheist conference.

That’s not just bigoted. That’s almost certainly illegal.

Imagine if he had put a sign in his door saying, “Jewish Federations of North America is NOT Welcomed To My Christian Business.” Imagine if the sign had read, “Living Buddhist Conference is NOT Welcomed To My Christian Business.” “Catholic Family Conference is NOT Welcomed To My Christian Business.” “Muslim Congress is NOT Welcomed To My Christian Business.” Would there be any question at all that this was an attempt by a public place of business to discriminate on the basis of religious affiliation?

So what happened?

Atheists brought the nuclear smackdown.

A photo of the sign got taken. And with minutes, the photo was Facebooked, Tweeted, G-plussed, texted, blogged, emailed, and probably sent by smoke signals and carrier pigeon. It raced through the atheosphere like a wildfire on meth. Gelato Mio was inundated with angry calls and emails; their ratings on Yelp and UrbanSpoon sank to the basement; on UrbanSpoon, their “most popular menu item” was quickly voted as “Bigotry.”

And Drennan apologized.

Boy, did he ever. He took the sign down. He apologized on his Website. He apologized again, on Facebook. He apologized yet again, on Reddit Atheism, profusely. He said he was completely wrong and that his actions were inexcusable. He said he’d happily welcome atheists and Skepticon attendees into his store, and offered them a 10% discount.

There’s been much discussion in the atheosphere about whether atheists should accept Drennan’s apology or not. Whether his apology was sincere or self-interested, and whether it matters. Whether he understands the principle that atheists have a right to make fun of religion at their own conferences — conferences which religious believers are free to attend or not as they choose. Whether he had a right to be offended or not. Whether he understands the principle that there are appropriate ways to express offense — and that banning people from a public business based on their religious affiliation is most emphatically not one of them. Whether atheists should mend fences and patronize his business in the future, or continue to boycott it. But one thing is crystal clear:

Atheists will not be fucked with.

Gelatogate is far from the only example of this. Remember the American Cancer Society story? Remember how the American Cancer Society rejected participation by a non-theistic organization in their Relay for Life… along with the massive donation that would have come with it? And remember how the story went viral? Remember how the ACS was inundated for weeks with emails and phone calls and letters from furious members and supporters — atheists and others — demanding an explanation, angrily withdrawing any future donations, or both? Remember how, for weeks, the ACS’s Facebook wall was filled with almost nothing but angry comments about the story? Remember their shoddy attempts to cover their tracks and erase or distort the online trail of evidence? Remember how they issued press release after press release after press release, in increasingly hysterical attempts at damage control?

Remember that.

Atheists now have a community, and a movement. Both of which are growing by leaps and bounds. They are organized — especially with social networking and the Internet. They can be mobilized in a heartbeat. They can make themselves seen, and heard… and are getting better at it every day. They are increasingly unashamed of their atheism, and increasingly unwilling to accept any attempts by others to shame them. And when roused to action, they are a force to be reckoned with.

They can and do devote these powers to less confrontational goals: fundraising for worthy causes, support for community members in need. But they are no longer accepting bigotry against them as the way of the world. They are fighting back. They know how to do it. And they’re getting stronger, and smarter, and better.

Fuck with them at your own risk.

Atheists Are Mad About Bigotry — And They Aren't Taking It Any More
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10 thoughts on “Atheists Are Mad About Bigotry — And They Aren't Taking It Any More

  1. 1

    I understand what you are saying about Andy and even I compared it to being like the days when segregation and Jim Crow were allowed to his face, when I paid him a visit after it all went down. Even stated that as a mother of bi-racial sons, I’ve seen similar bigotry in the last 20 years. He looked truly pained by this comparison, but did not dispute, refute, or rebut my comparison. He even said when he went to Reddit Atheism to post an apology, he felt like he was going into the “Lion’s Den” and in a sense, he was.

    However, I went not only to interview him for the article I did on God Discussion, which is actually Secular, but to find out if he was truly sorry and I went alone, which in itself is scary, esp since I introduced myself as a humanist who attended Skepticon. Anyway, the way I see, one cannot know if one is truly sorry, unless they face them. The fact that many of us atheists living in the area paid him a visit should tell him there are enough of us living in the area to make a bigger stink if he ever did it again, whether or not we forgive him for this one incident.

    Don’t get me started on the ACS. They haven’t even tried to send out any apology. What? Atheists don’t get cancer too? Or is it they want to see atheists, who are human beings die? Either way, it’s not very ethical of them.

    “It’s all about Him (Jesus)… and He is all about you.”

    Another religious statement that makes no sense at all.


    “Don’t believe in God? Neither do we”

    This makes sense. It is straight forward and clear, but yet I never did see how that was offensive. So, we atheists ask if someone does not believe. How is that any different from asking if one does believe? It’s not IMO and saying one doesn’t believe shouldn’t be offensive either, be we are a vain to their existence because we do not believe. Thus, we are not suppose to be offended by them imposing and sometimes enforcing their views on us. *rolling eyes* Whatever. There are a lot of things I could rant about concerning the behaviours of the religious and how they don’t make any sense when they go on some religious diatribe.

  2. 2

    Religion is not based on reason.

    Scepticism is.

    History is filled with the unreasoning horrors religion has perpetrated on the world when it’s emotions ran wild and out of control.

    It happens in families where children and husbands and wives are abused physically and especially mentally and emotionally if they dare to disbelieve and express it` and it happens throughout society and internationally. Religions, for the most part, UU for one being excepted, are not democratic or reasonable. They are fascist in governmental setup and in internal practices. Our founding fathers knew this and took great pains to separate religion and our democratic republican style of government.

    Religions will never as a whole be happy with that setup. They strive everyday to break it down. They use every deceptive tool available to them and have been rather free up to now to use ridicule and persecution without too much angry blowback to worry about. I’m glad to see that changing, and it is one of the reasons I’m working hard in my area to get a free and clear thinking group going around Sedona and the Verde Valley.

    It’s easy to shout individuals down or just ignore them. Not so easy to deal with vitally strong groups who refuse to sit back and just take it.

  3. 3

    This is Greta Telling it like it is. I’m from Ohio and when that billboard shit went down I was fit to be tied. I wrote an offensive letter of my own to LUND. However my letter was really offensive. Not like the billboard they claimed to be offensive. The real sad thing about the billboard is I see no one doing anything about it. So although Greta is right. Our anger is not doing it for us here in Ohio.

  4. 4

    “Religious” people get incredibly violent when they are reminded that they are all alone in this existence and mucst face both life and death (whatever that is) alone.

    The only choice that I see if one does not wish to be alone on an everyday basis is to reach out to one’s fellow beings – OR to invent an imaginary friend, as it were.

    I have come to realize that logical thinkers, or non-cowards, are a very real threat to these disturbed individuals. I truly do mean mentally disturbed. Please exercise extreme caution in their presence; they will harm you one way or another!

    In addition, I have totally foregone the NEED to worship anything. Worship is such an alien concept to my relatively rational mind (what human can claim they are 100% sane?).

    I love, respect, appreciate, have pleasant thoughts about many things including my existence, and all things considered I am having a wonderful time, but I do not worship.

  5. 5

    Many goddists find the existence of atheists to be offensive. Our signs and billboards get vandalized*, cars with darwin fish get keyed, we get threatened socially and professionally, etc. We don’t have to do anything but announce our atheism for certain goddists to start foaming at the mouth. And then we get the accommodationists who play blame the victim, saying it’s our fault the goddists are bigots.

    It’s past time to start doing something about goddists’ bigotry towards atheists.

    *If LIND had said they were concerned about possible vandalism to their billboards then many of us would have been more understanding. It was the LIND VP saying atheists’ advertising is “obscene, unnecessarily offensive and/or not in the best interests of the community at large” which got people angry.

  6. 6

    “Lind has always and will continue to reserve the right not to publish advertisements which, in its sole opinion, are obscene, unnecessarily offensive and/or not in the best interests of the community at large.”

    There is nothing more offensive than religion itself.

  7. 7

    Greta, on a cetain point, I disagree.

    That’s not just bigoted. That’s almost certainly illegal.

    Regarding the Gelati Mio fiasco (I refuse to call things -gate on the grounds that that trend it utterly stupid), I find it important to note that the shop is not actually public space. It is not ownerless, nor is it government owned. It is privately owned.

    Drennan either owns the premises for his business, or (more likely) rents it. In either case, he has sole authority of entry, which he can extend or withdraw at his own discretion. His reasons do not even need to be specified.

    We see this discretionary permission in action frequently when drunk / abusive people are turned away from businesses, and you probably do not demur in those instances. In these cases, there is a discriminatory process in action, but it is one with which you agree – of course abusive people are turned away. The reason for making that decision is fairly obvious to all concerned: the owner decided that the safety or comfort of the general customer outweighed any benefit of having the oaf on premises.

    This Drennan guy made a similar call, in that a certain subset of the public that their right of entry to his business withdrawn, as is his right. As far as I am concerned, there should be no legal consequence to this decision, as it is entirely his right to make it. Bigotry may be obnoxious, but it is not againt the law to be a bigoted person. “I may not like what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” or however it goes.

    …But that is not the same as saying that there should be no consequence at all. While bigotry may be legal, no one is required to like it, and thus no one is required to patronise a business operated by a bigot. The punishment is not legal, but social. Don’t shop there, name and shame, patronise rival (non-bigoted) businesses, etc. etc. and watch as the retard either learns his lesson or goes belly up.

  8. 8

    Holms @ #7: I’m sorry, but you’re flatly mistaken. There is a solid body of law in the U.S. stating that businesses open to the public cannot discriminate on the basis of certain characteristics, such as race — and one of those characteristics is religious affiliation. It is illegal to put a sign on the door of your store saying “No Jews” or “No Blacks.” And what Drennan did is therefore also almost certainly illegal.

    Different laws apply to private clubs, as long as they don’t get any sort of government assistance. But when it comes to business open to the public, the law is very clear. They can kick people out because they’re being obnoxious — but they can’t kick people out because they’re Jewish, or Catholic, or Muslim. And they can’t kick people out because they’re atheist.

  9. 9

    I guess you’d know better than I, being a US citizen …though to be honest, I don’t know the details of Australia’s legal stance is on this either. However – and this may sound odd from a mostly liberal atheist frequenting a host of very liberal atheist blogs – I consider such a law to be flawed.

    The idea that a business should be required by law to grant right of entry and provide service against their own will seems to fly in the face of the idea that a person can have their view and express it freely, no matter how disagreeable it may be. It is possibly angering to you to read the suggestion that a shop should be permitted to deny service to say, GLBT customers, but what about the reverse: should a GLBT friendly restaurant for example be required to serve a group of bigoted, homophobic swastika bearing neo-nazis? What if they are not voicing their discriminatory views or otherwise antagonising the other people there; it is quite possible that their visible affiliation alone is enough to cause discomfort amongst the other patrons.

    Admittedly this is a fairly ridiculous / fanciful hypothetical situation; but it remains that the neo-nazis are perfectly within their rights to espouse such opinions, and yet it also seems fair that the proprietor could throw them out on the grounds of the discomfort of the other diners. I suppose the legality of the issue would depend on how disruptive the surprise guests were being, but that still amounts to throwing them out on the grounds of their perfectly legal right to have and to express an offensive opinion.

    For a less contrived example, we can turn to reality: it is acually legal in Australia and Britain (no idea about America on this point) for a bar to turn away women and non gay men, if that bar happens to cater to gay men (I presume that bars catering to lesbian women do the inverse). The explanation being, gay people are sick of being treated as a spectacle by hens night groups, and weary of the place being coopted by “hey man I may not be gay, but it’s cool that you guys are and I’m here to show how cool I am with it” straight guy tourists. Thus, certain bars, legally, permit men only if they are gay and women not at all.

    It just seems to me that it is perfectly permissable and logical that an owner should be able to choose who is and is not given right of entry and service.

    Actually, the more I look at it the more I think ‘right of entry is a misnomer; it should probably be privelage.

  10. Ed

    When I first heard about the gelato store dust-up, I had just experienced something like that myself earlier that same day!

    I had gone to a store that wasn’t open yet for business (I had about 45 minets to wait), and as I walked up to the door to see just how long I might have to wait, another customer was waiting there, as well. As I walked up I had a feeling that something was about to happen between he and I. I know that sounds spooky, and a little bit supernatural, and I don’t mean to imply that in any way. It was part of the way this previous total strange struck up a surprisingly affable(and should I say, overly intimate?) conversation.

    It immediately went to such topics as women (and their supposedly inherent weakness as females and why they needed strong men to control them, as well as to sex). I decided to leave and come back later; but the guy wouldn’t have it. I think he sensed my disaproval.

    Anyway, he launched off onto the topic of religion. He even asked me if I was a Christian. I flat-out said that I was an atheist. This set him back on his heels. The 15 or 20 minets we ended up standing there in the cold air was largely spent on religion.

    He simply couldn’t believe that anyone could be an atheist! It just defied his capability to comprehend. He had many of the tired rebuttals I had heard many times, such as, if you don’t believe in god, what keeps you from raping women ( he was obviously rather mysygonistic in his own views about women, I already knew). I gave him my answer, and then there was more “I don’t believe you don’t believe in god!” sort of statements.

    I asked him if he believed in Zeus; or Athena; or Osiris; or Thor; or Odin, which he didn’t, of course.

    Then I asked him if he worshiped Allah and acknowledged Mohammid as His prophet? He said he did not! HE, he was quick to assure me, was a Christian! I think I smiled, because he asked me what was so funny.

    I paused and then countered that to a Muslim, HE was an atheist, an “infidel”, just like ME! I mentioned that Islam didn’t accept Jesus as the Son of God. A great prophet, perhaps, but NOT divine. I decided to add that he himself was an “atheist” for disbeliving in Allah, let alone all those other gods I’d mention, so, while he was at it, why not stop believing in god at all? His eyes went wide.

    If Allah wasn’t God, I hurriedly added, and all those past gods weren’t real,either, then the God of his Bible was no better off! That was when he became abusive and combative. He did not strike me, but I had the feeling that it wouldn’t take much more talking before he might. That was when I left.

    As I went to my car he yelled out that he would be praying for me. I said that if that would make HIM feel better, then go right ahead. It wouldn’t likely be of any help one way or the other. That pissed him off even more. He retorted, now more noticibly angry than earlier, that my “arrogance” would land me in Hell unless I repented and believed like he did.

    I could have kept on walking away, but something in me just couldn’t let it go, and so I turned once more, and said, in essence, that IF there was a heaven as he believed, then to be there with him would hell. That’s when he said “Fuck YOU! Man.” All I said to that was: “I wondered when you’d get around to saying that.” He insisted that was MY fault for not believing in God. In otherwords, he had carte’ blanche to be rude and disrepectful towards me BECAUSE I DIDN’T BELIEVE LIKE HIM! Because I didn’t believe in God.

    I’m sure he felt entirely justified in treating me like that (just as he had earlier said women needed a firm hand)! I was a filthy atheist, afterall. I had no morals. (Inspite of the fact that I never once told HIM to fuck-off!) That brief brush with religion was a helpful reminder to me of at least some of the reasons why I left that faith tradition years earlier!

    I think the guy was totally blown away by the fact that I didn’t believe in God, and that I had some very potent reasons for thinking that way. In short, he found himself way in over his head, and he got scared. He was used to blabbing on about Jesus and God and the Bible to friends and family, but here was this total stranger standing there calmly dispelling his most cherished and sacred beliefs! He couldn’t handle it. Violence was not far below the surface.

    Fear often breeds violence. I think it was H.G. Wells that once said something about the man of violence is the man that has run out of ideas. I saw that for myself the other day!

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