Why Atheist Ads Send Mixed Messages

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What do a 108-foot statue of Jesus in Poland and pro-atheist advertisements on buses in Texas have in common? Both get big media attention, especially in the New York Times. But each also necessarily calls attention to the weaknesses of its respective sponsor's position. As the Times notes, the statue in a small western Polish town indirectly acknowledges religion's decline:

They [supporters and critics] agree that church representatives in Poland have lost authority and credibility, and that much of the population is moving toward a more secular view of life, one with a greater separation between church and state, and a rejection of church mandates on individual morality.

It's thus as much of a monument to doubt as it is to faith, and also an acknowledgment of the power of sheer material scale, genuinely inspiring as it may be to many believers.

The hostile reaction to atheist advertising, on the other hand, shows that many believers aren't willing to acknowledge the constitutional right to the free expression of skepticism as well as faith. Provoking a certain amount of debate was clearly a goal of the campaign's backers. But far from encouraging the public affirmation of atheism, the reaction in Forth Worth and elsewhere has shown just how uncomfortable the public expression of unbelief can become.

Atheist messages, especially in England, also can have unintended implications.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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