Can we leave atheism to non-believers?
By Op Rana (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-10-23 07:58

The ads are written simply on a background of blue sky with nebulous clouds, say news agency reports. The question they ask is simpler: "A million New Yorkers are good without God. Are you?" The ads will be splashed across the New York City's bustling subway stations on Oct 26, giving a whole new meaning to atheism (or agnosticism, if you will).

But more surprisingly, they will adorn the subway walls in a country, whose leaders have been invoking God to prove their honesty and purpose for almost three decades. The trend of concluding a major speech with "God bless America" was started by Richard Nixon. Addressing the nation live from the Oval Office in an attempt to overcome the Watergate scandal, Nixon ended his April 30, 1973 speech with: "Tonight, I ask for your prayers to help me in everything I do throughout the days of my presidency (he resigned just over 17 months later) ... God bless America and God bless each and everyone of you."

And though Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter eschewed the phrase, Ronald Reagan made "God bless America" the omnipotent slogan for US presidents. Later US politicians found in the phrase a simple way of passing the "God and Country test" and be seen by citizens as a real, God-fearing American.

The phrase acquired a new meaning when George W. Bush used it for eight years. But then Barack Obama is continuing the trend, even though his invocation is totally different from that of his predecessor.

All this makes it a little surprising to believe that the United States has a population sizable enough to plaster the walls of its financial capital with posters as "part of a coordinated multi-organizational advertising campaign designed to raise awareness about people who don't believe in a god".

Eight atheist organizations have come together to create the $25,000 (paid by an anonymous donor), month-long ad campaign that will challenge the belief in God. The Big Apple Coalition of Reason, which is running the ads, says it chose New York's subways because 5 million people use it every day.

The ads are "not poking fun at religion and not being outright nasty", Big Apple spokesman Michael de Dora has said. He is right to say people "don't need religion to be good and productive members of society" and nonbelievers "add to the cultural life of New York".

The intent of the ads is to get people talking and to encourage those who don't believe in God to speak up, say the campaigners. But do people need to talk about whether they believe in God or not?

Atheism, as opposed to professed or proselytizing religions, has always been a private affair. As an atheist, one feels good to know there are millions of others out there who share the same non-belief. But one tends not to believe in God not because of external influence. Atheism has always been based on reason, not preachings or belief (or non-belief). So why should it be made a public affair now?

Do we see in the campaign a definite design, a long-term money-spinning affair? Why does the release of a new book, aptly called Good Without God, by Greg Epstein, coincide with the timing of the ads?

Can't the market let even us atheists enjoy our world privately?