I have learned a few lessons the hard way, which seems to be the only way I am able to learn anything. The billboard that we put up in Charlotte on Billy Graham Parkway was one of those hard-lessons-learned. I found out some depressing, interesting, and wonderful things about our fair city, which can be described as having one foot in 2030 and one foot (and the brain) in 1330. The city seems to want to march towards the future, destroying all of its old landmarks to make way for the new. The religious, however, are stuck. Their religion doesn’t change. It doesn’t progress. It feeds on the hopes of good people and turns them in to scared, irrational, and hate-filled pawns. So, I guess you could say the first thing I learned was resolve. I will wear my atheism on my sleeve and will not let anyone scare me back into hiding.
The people of Charlotte had always seemed a mixed bag to me. I knew that there was a huge religious population here, but I also knew that there were some very loving and understanding people. I thought, somewhat naively, that our message would be seen for what it was: a positive message to let the city know that we, the Charlotte Atheists & Agnostics, are here. However, our mere presence in this city is seen as an affront to all religious people, which brings up the same old question of “What is it about atheist that people hate so much?” So, my second lesson that I learned is that people don’t often act as we hope, they are more likely to act as we fear.
There were some horrible things said during this billboard campaign. We were told that we weren’t real Americans; we were told that we should leave this country and go to Russia, as if that were some sort of utopia to strive for; we were told that we were bad people, not because of our actions but because of our existence; and we were told by others in the atheist community that we had brought this one ourselves by being vociferous with our obviously offensive sign. Some of our members received death threats of a nature too brutal to mention in detail. Their security was threatened and their children were threatened. My third lesson is that people are depraved and willing to kill over belief and that which scares them. Not fear in a tangible sense, like having your family’s life threatened, but in the sense that everything they believe could be wrong.
There were some wonderful messages from across the country in support of our message. Christians, Hindus, even one case of a man who described himself as a devout Muslim, came out and said “We agree with your message and it needs to be said.” The support from the religious community has been surprising and welcome. My fourth lesson is that there are a surprising number of religious people who understand the issue of church-state separation. The people that understand this issue need to grab the reins of power from the god-fearing, hate mongering leaders of their community if they wish to be taken seriously. Living in a 1330 mindset is going to do nothing more than expose the frauds of the religious community to be nothing more than rabble-rousers, inciting good people to do terrible things.
Our community here has grown tremendously since the message went out that there are atheists in North Carolina. Membership in the Charlotte Atheists & Agnostics has grown to over 800 members. I have heard countless stories of the “I thought I was alone” or the “I couldn’t imagine other freethinkers living in North Carolina” type. When you hear the relief in the voice of someone who knows that there is a community of people who will accept them, it makes the whole campaign worthwhile. There are people who had given up on finding others like themselves, feeling forced to smile and nod at the religions that were foisted on them every day. They now know that there is a place for them to vent, and place to be happy, and a place to find support when dealing with the mega-church that is Charlotte. My final lesson is that hiding our true nature leads to a solitary life, which is no way to live. People need to be comfortable with who they are without someone in a pointy hat telling them they are bad for thinking, or some guy in a turban telling them they need to cover themselves, or someone in a suit and tie telling them they are going to burn in hell for being human.
This campaign was a success. It was worth every bit of hate-mail, every late-night call from some 13 year old girl reciting the pledge of allegiance, every death threat, and every bit of vandalism. We have made it through an interesting time and are stronger for it.
We are atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, and freethinkers. We are here to stay.