Ask Richard: Annoyed by Neighbor’s Religious Signs


Nov. 11, 2009

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Hi Richard,

This is something that I've been wracking my brain about lately. 

I live in Lynchburg Virginia (yes, THAT Lynchburg), and there's this one house on this one street that happens to be on my route to work.  This guy has his own personal little church signboard you can put lettering on, and boy does he wear his beliefs on his sleeve.

For the longest time most of his messages and statements have been pretty benign.  Standard stuff like "Jesus is life" and "It takes more faith to be an Athiest than a christian" (he can't spell either). 

However, over the past six months or so, the sign has gotten highly offensive.  For example, he currently has: "TURN OR BURN" on his sign.  Other previously offensive things I've seen on that board are: "EVOLUTION: A LIE TAUGHT TO CHILDREN" and "EVERYONE HAS A MASTER". 

I'm just glad that I work a later shift now and don't have to stare at the other side of that thing anymore.  As this is a sign owned by a private individual, is there anything I can do?  I'm sure hundreds if not thousands of people come down that road every day and are exposed to the misinformation and hate this guy spews through that sign.

Can anything be done about this sign?  I've tried scouring through laws for my state on Google, but keep coming up empty handed.  Please help!


Dear "J",

I think you know what the answer is.  Live with it, and every time you see that sign, rejoice gratefully that you live in the land of the free.

The sign is apparently private property on private property. Unless it is violating local signage codes or zone regulations, there is nothing you can do about it and nothing that you should do about it.

Either we all have freedom of speech or none of us have.  Any law that could shut him up could and would be used to shut you up as well. 

Many people have given their lives for both of you to be free to speak your minds, and I'm afraid that to protect our freedom, many more may have to give their lives yet.  There will always be those among us who would forcibly remake everyone in their own image, if they could. Resist the seductive temptation to be one of them. 

We need to raise our threshold for feeling offended. It seems to have become very low in our society lately.  Increasingly, more people are decrying as "offensive," smaller and smaller things that contradict their views.  If this thin-skinned trend continues, since no one can see anything exactly as anyone else does, then eventually everyone will be offended by everyone else on every possible subject.  We will be omni-offended.

I know it can be annoying to see some dimwit displaying his disapproval of his wide variety of scapegoats. But annoyance is inside us, not around us.  It is our reaction, our emotion, our creation. If we allow too much of it to occupy our minds, it drains us of our strength, and it foments discouragement. 

We will never get rid of all the annoying things, but we can change how we respond to those things. Carl Jung once said, "Everything that annoys us about others can help us to understand ourselves." 

Disagree intellectually with the sign man's opinions all you want. But you can follow your annoyance into your mind to find where you feel insecure, or have hurt, or have your own anger or resentment, and then by facing and resolving those things, you can become more serene.  Imagine.

"Using that sign to become more serene?! Richard, you're crazy!" Yes I am.  Thank you.

A sense of humor can help as well. Think of the phrase "sense of humor" literally. Not creating something that is funny, but sensing the humor that is already there in the situation.  It's there if you can but sense it.  Sensing the humor in a situation brings you a measure of mastery of that situation. You can begin to rise above it.

Think of the sign as a public service announcement.  If the guy wants to publicly announce that a superstitious, intolerant ignoramus who is getting steadily worse lives in this house, then thanks for the warning!  If anyone has an emergency on that road, they'll know better and go to the next house for assistance. 

I'd be looking forward to my daily dose of dementia from the local kook. There's a chuckle in it if you can first create peace within yourself.


(Richard Wade is both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a Marriage and Family Therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.)