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a story of three billboards
what the world needs now is tact and diplomacy
by reem al-omari (@Reemawi)

One of the most heated exchanges I've ever had with my closest friend was when she took to calling me irrational whenever I expressed an emotion she felt was unnecessary for what I was being too emotional about in her opinion.

“If you call me irrational one more time, I swear to God, I will never speak to you again,” I said to her in the car in the midst of my anger that had suddenly doubled. “You're basically telling me that I'm crazy for feeling a certain way about something that is more than valid to me. You're being a dismissive ass.”

She never called me irrational after that, and we went back to being like peas and carrots within minutes.

Well, the dismissing of someone's feelings is something that can happen inside a car between two people, or on a much larger scale that involves the feelings of thousands, if not millions of people.

I'm going to talk about a recent event that sparked the latter in my state, but covers an issue that has touched every corner of the nation in various forms in the past few years.

New billboards have gone up during the last week in Denver and Colorado Springs, which have caused a bit of a stir in Colorado. A total of three billboards sponsored by the Boulder Atheists group and the Colorado Coalition of Reason (COCORE) bear a message that has ruffled the feathers of some.

"God Is An Imaginary Friend - Choose Reality, It Will Be Better For All Of Us,” the three billboards read, which have gone up along three major routes between the two cities, including an interstate highway.
I believe in the idea of freedom of religion (or lack thereof),
as well as freedom of speech, so whoever wants to say or believe whatever can go ahead and say it and believe it, that's the beauty of living in this country.

My feathers do get ruffled, however, when I feel that certain lines are being crossed, and in my mind there is a line being crossed with these billboards.

Sometimes it's not what's being said, but how it's being said that makes all the difference in the world. That is why such things as tact and diplomacy are considered skills.

The way with which the Boulder Atheists and COCORE groups decided to “open a dialogue,” as they say is the purpose of these billboards, does not display tact or diplomacy at first glance, and is just not the right way toward a healthy relationship between Atheists and those who are not.

This isn't the first time that COCORE utilized billboards to let everyone know their stance. In 2008 they ran billboards that simply read “Don't believe in God? You are not alone.” Those billboards mostly let Atheists know they were not alone, that they didn't have to always be around those who they had to argue with when doing good work in their communities, and that's good.

But these latest billboards—though their purpose is even more inclusive than the billboards of 2008-- I think they do the exact opposite of what they're trying to accomplish.

Their purpose is great, considering that I think believers and non-believers lack an understanding of each other and don't know how to talk to each other without hostility, hence the need to incite dialogue, but instead of fixing that, these billboards only serve to perpetuate the cycle of alienation between the two groups. As a result, such groups feel they have to go to certain lengths to initiate a discussion about everything from abortion to evolution, which would be anything but healthy when initiated in the way they chose.

Religion is a hot topic lately, and it seems to be growing in importance what with Tim Tebow and his faith, and Saturday Night Live making fun of Tebow's faith, and everyone bringing spirituality into the sports section, and the people over at Westboro Baptist Church and their tunnel vision, and the GOP candidates and their stances on abortion and same-sex marriages, and those who make it sound like if Obama was indeed a Muslim it'd be worse than having Hitler as president...to resolve all the issues under the umbrella of religion is a tall order that needs to be fulfilled for us to be a healthy society, but with billboards like the one on I-25 a healthy society is a long way away.

At first glance, these billboards are disrespectful, dismissive and downright rude to a very large group, just because a few from that very large group are admittedly disrespectful, dismissive and downright rude. Well, you know something, two wrongs don't make a right.

These billboards make people who believe in God feel like they're crazy, like what they feel and believe is not valid, and despite fact that when you visit the website listed on the three billboards (http://www.boulderatheists.org/) it will tell you that the purpose is not to offend anyone and goes on to explain the “open a dialogue” bit, but it is by then too late and the damage is already done.

Me, I'm not even going to bother visiting a website if my introduction to it makes anyone feel like a crazy person and stomp on what they hold sacred, whether they're the Boulder Atheists or the Westboro Baptist Church, or whichever other group thinks it has the right to stomp on the beliefs of another.

First impressions are everything, and the first impression these billboards give is that they are no different in tone of dismissiveness from those of religious groups, who sometimes resort to using shock tactics to make a point and shove their beliefs down people's throats--like images of aborted fetuses and signs that damn innocent people to hell simply because of who they go to bed with.

I think such tactics from both sides of the spectrum of belief and non-belief contribute to the horrible relations between the two schools of thought, and these three billboards really do nothing but exacerbate a situation that needs to be calmed with maturity and respect from both sides.

Really, why can't one side just decide to be the better one and be tactful and diplomatic, instead of dance this immature dance?

In my opinion, these billboards are a major FAIL in the journey toward us all getting along, and comfortably exercising our freedoms that are meant to keep us a healthy and free secular society.


Reem lives and writes about it. She thinks that's what writers do, anyway. If it's not, then she also has a degree in journalism under her belt, along with the titles of reporter, editor (in chief, even) and, of course, opinion columnist.

more about reem al-omari


the new york times paywall
i can infiltrate it with my pinky
by reem al-omari
topic: news
published: 3.28.11

illegal immigrant with a pulitzer prize
something's wrong with this picture
by reem al-omari
topic: news
published: 6.29.11


tracey kelley
2.17.12 @ 2:39p

I'm sorry I didn't see this sooner. Great piece. It's a shame that we can't simply live in a society that accepts any belief system (or lack thereof) that doesn't hurt anyone else and leave it at that.

reem al-omari
2.17.12 @ 4:04p

Thank you, Tracey! It is a complete shame, yes. I mean, there's freedom of speech, which I support, and then there's common decency and courtesy, and clearly these billboards are not exercising common decency or courtesy.

alex b
2.23.12 @ 5:14p

Also sorry for not noticing this sooner. I too wonder why people resort to dancing the immature dance instead of walking the higher road. *sigh*

sarah ficke
2.25.12 @ 8:49a

These remind me of the aggressively Christian billboards along I-40 in North Carolina. I can't give you an exact description (it's been awhile), but at least one of them says something like "when you die, will you go to hell?" and has pictures of flames underneath the words. I think the other one has a picture of a flat-lining heart monitor and also asks where you will go when you die. Anyway, I agree with you that the atheists billboards have that same confrontational style that doesn't invite dialogue. They're both judgmental, and since when does being judgmental at someone actually change their minds?

william carr
2.29.12 @ 8:10a

The antiquity of religions suggests that people thought/believed in something/someone that existed outside themselves, on a higher plane of being, on which/whom they depended, and to which/whom they had some kind of accountability, a god (is this sufficiently circumlocutory?). The notion that there is not a god is the late entry, a consequence of wanting there not to be such a being.
People who believe in a god always are more secure than those who do not--after all, the writers of the U.S. Constitution (mostly Christians of some sort) made room for atheism in the public discourse (though their own religious positions suggest that the opening they made was inadvertent rather than that they actually anticipated atheism as a likely position).

katherine (aka clevertitania)
2.29.12 @ 10:37a

I am going to say one thing because I think it needs to be said. But after I'm just turning off IM article notifications for a while - I've been personally insulted 4 times reading just this page, I think that's my fill.

If you spent as much time being attacked & belittled because you don't believe in something which, by very definition, has no proof - if you'd spent so much time being told there is something wrong with you, that you are incapable of knowing right from wrong, & you aren't secure in who YOU are because you don't believe in something you give as much credence to as Greco-Roman mythology - you might not feel so inclined to be "the bigger person." And maybe if you didn't have "He's coming." boards littered thru your state for 10+ years, you'd feel otherwise about this 1.

reem al-omari
2.29.12 @ 5:02p

William- Thank you for putting things into a historical perspective.

Katherine- I'm sorry you feel that way, and I'm sorry that you've run into people who are bad representatives of people in general, not just the religious types. The fact still remains that the way the atheist group decided to open dialogue is just not constructive, and the fact still remains that two wrongs don't make a right. Until someone does the right thing, whether it's COCORE or some church or religious leader somewhere, we're always going to have people feeling the way you do, no matter what they believe, and billboards that do nothing but make them feel even worse about society. We all have a choice to grow positivity out of negativity.

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