“No God?…No Problem!”

If you’re riding mass transit in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, New York or Los Angeles this winter season, you might happen to catch this advertising slogan displayed on city buses. The ads, which feature the slogan alongside an image of smiling, Santa hat-clad individuals, represent the latest advertising campaign by the American Humanist Association (AHA)-the second such holiday campaign they’ve run in the D.C. area. The campaign aims to promote the idea of being good without God.

“We’re hoping this campaign will build awareness about the humanist movement and our ethical life philosophy–particularly among the ‘nones:’ the rapidly growing percentage of people who claim no religion,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association.

The AHA campaign, which is the first such campaign to be launched on a national scale, also marks a nascent but rapidly growing trend: nontheist groups launching prominent-and often controversial-advertisements across the United States, designed to spread awareness about being good without God.

It started about three years ago in October 2007 with a billboard in Madison, Wisconsin, reading “Beware of Dogma.” The full-color, 18-foot billboard was placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and went on to win a 2008 “Addy” Silver Award from the American Advertising Federation for its design. (A smaller billboard was also erected in the area, displaying the “Beware of Dogma” slogan on one side and “Imagine No Religion” on the other.)

The following month, FFRF put up another billboard near Chambersburg, Pa., displaying the “Imagine No Religion” slogan.  And in December, FFRF repeated the “Imagine No Religion” slogan on a billboard near Atlanta, Georgia through a coalition partnership with the Atlanta Freethought Society.

And so, a humanist advertising movement was born.

FreeThoughtAction soon followed FFRF with ads of their own. FreeThoughtAction, an independent adjunct of the American Humanist Association, was formed by Jan Meshon and Joseph McDaniel Stewart–freethinking activists who were actually the first to conceive the idea of such billboards and promote the idea in the freethought community. They erected their billboard, with assistance from the AHA, on the New Jersey Turnpike outside of New York City in January 2008. The billboard read “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.”

The billboard garnered an overwhelmingly positive reaction and brought in financial contributions that helped continue other campaigns. A billboard was erected in Philadelphia to commemorate the National Day of Reason, sponsored by a number of local and national nontheist groups who banded together to form the Philadelphia Coalition of Reason. And soon similar coalitions formed in other cities for the purpose of bringing the billboards elsewhere.

And then came the American Humanist Association bus ads.

The idea came to the organization in the summer of 2008, and plans were devised to launch the ads on buses in the Washington, D.C. area-home of the AHA and of an audience that is diverse and politically-driven. However, conversations about what slogan to use were divided. Some wanted to use the slogan “Blind faith or 20/20 humanism?” which had already been used to create a billboard advertisement. However, that ad had been turned down by a billboard company due to its image of a blindfolded preacher holding a cross-donned bible.

When news broke that the British Humanist Association planned to unveil their own bus ads in London, the AHA decided to move up the launch of their own ads to November, and the idea of doing a holiday-themed slogan arose. Susan Sackett, a board member of the American Humanist Association, came up with the idea of playing off a line from the Christmas song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and the organization decided on the slogan, “Why Believe in a God? Just be good for goodness’ sake.”

The reaction to the bus ads was immense, and garnered a media reaction that not only spanned the nation, but the globe. Spokespersons from the AHA appeared on CNN Headline News and the O’Reilly Factor, and print and online articles were featured in the Associated Press, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

Although the public’s reaction was mostly positive, some ranged negative, including a small protest outside D.C.’s Metro Headquarters and a counter advertisement that read, “Why Believe in God? He believes in you, good or bad.” Some organizations, such as the American Family Association and the Christian League, also came out against the ads. Yet, it was evident that humanist advertising had gotten people’s attention on a national scale and was here to stay.

Since the original D.C. bus ads, billboards and bus ads have continued to be used by numerous nontheist organizations across the United States. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, since their first billboard in Wisconsin in 2007, has put up more than 50 billboards and bus signs in more than 30 cities in 23 states, spanning from coast to coast.  New groups formed to put up new billboards and bus ads. The Indiana Atheist Bus Campaign (INABC) was created in the spring of 2009 and brought bus ads to South Bend and Bloomington, Ind., and Chicago, Illinois (and a great deal of controversy-both the INABC’s Indiana ads were embroiled in legal disputes with local transit companies for failure to display the ads).

The United Coalition of Reason was created–also in the spring of 2009–with the express purpose of bringing local groups together to place billboard and bus ads across the country. The group, which is run by Fred Edwords, has had great success, bringing advertising campaigns to Boston, Philadelphia, San Diego, Baltimore, and multiple locations in New Jersey, Ohio and many other regions.

The most recent holiday bus campaign by the American Humanist Association is still young, but has already garnered much attention and is certain to help bring humanism into the mainstream. Although that goal is yet to be attained, we’re closer now than ever-it’s indicated by the “coming out” of the first openly nontheist Congressman Pete Stark and the “shout outs” to nonbelievers by President Barack Obama that our hard work towards gaining acceptance is paying off.

We’ll undoubtedly continue to move forward. Though the AHA holiday campaign is the first to go national, trends indicate it certainly won’t be the last.  Now that nontheists finally have a stage they’re not ready to take a bow anytime soon.

Here is a link to the most recent bus ads: http://www.flickr.com/photos/americanhumanist/sets/72157622737135867/ 

And here is a link to the first AHA bus ads: http://www.americanhumanist.org/press/2009_Holiday_Ads/Why_Believe_in_a_God


(Correction: Although the use of billboards for humanist advertising began in 2007, the idea of humanist advertising in general was actually born two years earlier. In August of 2005, the American Humanist Association launched the first major ad campaign ever to promote humanism and nontheism to the public: a $50,000 campaign with ads in The Nation, The American Prospect, and The Progressive. Soon after, the Freedom From Religion Foundation also began running ads in The Nation. 

After this, the AHA and FFRF both began experimenting with other ads. The AHA ran newspaper ads in the Washington Post and the New York Times, and FFRF did some newspaper ads as well, and both groups ran ads on Air America.)