On your next drive through Anchorage you may find yourself confronted with a handful of areligious commandments. Statements like "Sleep in on Sundays," "Enjoy Life Now There is No Afterlife," "Imagine No Religion" and "Yes, Virginia ... There Is No God" will grace the sides of PeopleMover buses throughout the month of December, compliments of the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation.
“Christians tend to think 'they own the month of December. We don't agree. No month is free from pagan reverie!'" the foundation said in a press release about the ad campaign, quoting the group's co-president, Dan Barker, a former minister-turned atheist.
The missives are meant to be fun and light-hearted, a seasonal celebration of reason over religion. Billboards or bus signs have been installed at various times in nearly half the states in the nation, in FFRF's public relations effort to promote free thought.
“We think if people would imagine no religion, we would have a world free of religious strife,” explained co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor, noting that persecution, holy wars and even modern day terrorism have religion at their core.
FFRF's main work centers on keeping prayer out of public schools and other church-state matters. In 2005, its legal efforts reached all the way to Alaska, where, following a lawsuit, the group successfully eliminated a $435,000 federal education grant to Alaska Christian College. The college purported to offer remedial instruction to help primarily Alaska Native and Native American students prepare for college. But after the lawsuit was filed, the U.S. Department of Education determined that the college was unaccredited, offered no academic classes, and that its religious curriculum was mandatory.
More recently, FFRF has launched an effort to force the IRS to enforce anti-electioneering laws that prohibit churches and non-profit Christian organizations from getting involved in political campaigns or endorsing candidates.
The group also works to keep Nativity scenes and other religious imagery off of public property. In situations where governments won't ban the practice, FFRF has insisted on being allowed to have its own display. A Nativity scene crafted by the group and on display at the Wisconsin state capitol "celebrates the human family, reason and the Winter Solstice." It depicts an astronaut instead of an angel, atheist wisemen Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, the Greek goddess Venus to represent the solar system, and the Statue of Liberty to represent freedom.
The group brought its irreverent messages to Alaska after an Anchorage-based member came forward, complaining that he can't seem to escape religious-themes this holiday season.
"Everywhere he goes he sees religion at this time of year and he wants there to be something for the rest of us,” Gaylor said. “Given that independent streak Alaskans are known for, there are many nonbelievers in Anchorage and Alaska at this time of year, who also have a message of good news and cheer — that reason is the answer.”
The member, whom the group did not name, helped pay for the $4,800 expense of the 8-foot-long ads and was allowed to choose from a variety of messages the group has used in other cities, including “reasons greetings” and “heathens greetings.”
“I think it comes across as mean spirited. It's not talking about what they are in favor of, it's talking about how they are opposed to other people's beliefs,” said Michael Burke, a senior pastor with St. Mary's Episcopal Church, who finds fundamentalism troubling in any form, whether from atheists, Jews, Christians or Muslims.
“I find the whole issue framed wrong. There is no fundamental incompatibility between faith and reason,” he said. But he's respectful of the free speech ideals FFRF is embracing. “The wonderful thing about being in America is that everybody has the right to put something on a bus ad.”
He's also not sure the intent of FFRF's messages will yield the desired results, which may play into religious conspiracy theorists who are apt to believe that people are working to take Christ out of Christmas or do away with faith.
That's precisely what Pastor Jerry Prevo of the Anchorage Baptist Temple sees coming out of the campaign. But unlike Burke, Prevo believes the ad campaign is proof there is an attack on faith. While FFRF has a right to express its view, Prevo sees in the group an effort to strip the right of believers to express and advocate for their opinions.
“I think this will awaken the believers to the fact that there is an organized campaign to do away with God in our community,” he said.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com