This month, San Francisco's public transit system was enlisted in the battle against organized religion.
A publicity campaign by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to fighting for the separation of church and state, covered the sides and interiors of 75 city buses with the anti-religion quips of assorted atheist wordsmiths.
Here's Mark Twain: "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."
Clarence Darrow: "I don‘t believe in God, because I don't believe in Mother Goose."
Richard Dawkins: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction."
Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy in Gone With the Wind: "As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion."
The bus campaign is part of a wider push by FFRF to promote atheism around the country. In the past few years, the organization has put up billboards in Denver, Detroit and Seattle. FFRF billboards have even popped up in the Bible Belt, asking Alabama residents to "Imagine no Religion."
AlterNet spoke with FFRF co-founder and co-president Annie Laurie Gaynor about the organization's efforts to push atheism – or "free thought," as Gaynor says -- in the most religious industrialized nation on earth. Also discussed was: why many atheists know more about the Bible than do a lot of Christians; if liberal Christians are worse than right-wing fundamentalists; and whether "New Atheists" Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are annoying.
AlterNet: What's the thinking behind the San Francisco bus campaign?
Annie Laurie Gaynor: It's free thinking. We want to bring our message to the masses. And we've been censored for so long. For decades we tried to put up billboards, and we were denied access.
That's slowly changing -- we have a national billboard campaign, and now we're moving to the buses, and that's taken from the British bus-sign campaign, which made a big splash. So that's been a global movement.
We're not the only ones doing it. But we have a very generous member of our group on the West Coast, suggesting that we use her donation either to place bus signs in San Jose or San Francisco. And so, it was cheaper in San Francisco, so that's where we went, and we wanted to also reach tourists. Also, we knew we were going to be reaching a very sympathetic audience.
AlterNet: You've also put up billboards in places like Alabama and one of the more conservative parts of Southern California. What's the reaction there?
ALG: Usually we get a pretty good reaction. We get crank mail on our state/church litigation and death threats over our work with state/church. But mostly, with the billboards, we hear from people who like us. But in Alabama they were more hateful. Our Alabama chapter head got about 50 not-very-nice e-mails. But she also got some nice e-mails. More nasty than nice though.
And there was an interview on one of the local TV stations with what, frankly, looked like a stereotyped redneck, where I felt a little shiver of fear for our chapter head because he was saying, "They don't belong here. They shouldn't be here." But we've never had any violence. We've never had a violent attack on a billboard. The one from Alabama is unscathed. We now have it up in Indianapolis.
So we've been surprised at the lack of problems with billboards. But we have been censored. For example, we put one up in Rancho Cucamonga, [Calif.].
And then we have a lawsuit where we are claiming city censorship: The city asked to please take our billboard down (they were engaged with negotiations over billboard space). And they're claiming it wasn't censorship but just conveying information. So that was quite a shock. To me that's like something that would happen in a dictatorship, not a democratic republic. That's the only such incident.
AlterNet: Why do you think that happened? Personal beliefs of city council members, or pressure from the community?
ALG: There were two [TV] stations that covered it. We made a big splash. I believe it was one particular church that some city member officials might have belonged to that were getting calls.
So I think that was sort of an insular, provincial reaction and that they had done this before with another billboard. That wasn't an establishment-clause issue there. Where they didn't like the billboard, and they'd called another company and the company had taken down the billboard. So, I think they are little bit out of control that they're not able to recognize First Amendment rights. We're pursuing that very seriously.
Tana Ganeva is an associate editor at AlterNet.