'Friendly Atheists' Billboards Set to Go National

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has unveiled "friendly atheist[s]" as the new face of its ad campaign. While the billboards are aimed at welcoming national conference goers, the atheist group is planning to expand the campaign to the national level.

The Wisconsin-based foundation is launching the new "Out of the Closet" Campaign to welcome 2010 National FFRF Convention attendees Oct. 29-31, Halloween weekend. The FFRF began setting up the brightly-colored billboards last week to welcome convention attendees arriving in Madison, Wis.

The billboards are also a part of a new national campaign FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor says will encourage atheists and agnostics to step out of the shadows and claim their civil rights the same way members of the gay pride movement did.

"The stigmatizing of freethinkers contributes to the growing climate of hostility to the separation between religion and government," said Gaylor.

The movement is gaining some traction thanks to the national and religious stars featured in the ads. Saturday Night Live fans may recognize actress and comedian Julia Sweeney. In her ad, the NBC comedy show alum proclaims "OMG! There is no God." Sweeney will also star as a guest at the 2010 convention. She will likely discuss portions of her play "Letting Go of God."

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steven Benson also has an advertisement. "I freed my mind when I left God behind," Benson states. Benson is well known in Mormon circles as the grandson of the late Ezra Taft Benson, the former head of the Mormon church.

The billboards are the brainchild of Gaylor and fellow Co-President Dan Barker's daughter, Sabrina.

"We were brainstorming about how to personalize the free thought message, how to debunk negative stereotypes and how to us all the great slogans our members are continually suggesting for billboard or bus campaigns," said Gaylor.

Sabrina and Dan Barker and Gaylor all have billboards about their paths to non-belief.

Dan Barker says he was a former evangelist who one day "just lost faith in faith" as it says in his ad. His daughter, a college student, declares "I have faith in myself, not God."

There are 13 ads featuring "out" non-believers, both young and old, several of who express a prior religious belief.

This is not the FFRF's first billboard campaign. The foundation started posting billboards in 2007 and as of 2009, had billboards in 22 states.

The FFRF billboards and bus campaigns include the "In reason we trust" penny, President John F. Kennedy proclaiming the separation of church and state, Santa Claus announcing there is no God and stain glass-esque renderings of the statements, "Sleep in on Sundays" and "Imagine No Religion."

The signs have not gone unnoticed by Christian leaders. David Sapp, senior pastor of Alanta, George's Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, said of the Atlanta signs, "From my perspective, I take it as having an attack tone."

In Las Vegas, Nev., complaints from Christians prompted ClearChannel Outdoors advertisers to remove a FFRF billboard that read, "Yes, Virginia, there is no God" in 2009.

Some Christians have responded with their own signs. Organization Matthew 5:14 has billboards posted in and around Charlotte, N.C. The signs ask readers one word questions such as "Tired?" "Overwhelmed?" and "Directionless?" and lists its namesake verse as the answer.

Matthew 5:14 Founder Scott Saunders says the signs are meant to encourage Christians. "God's Word has been the source of hope, comfort, inspiration, and strength for hundreds of millions of Americans since the establishment of our country," he said.

FFRF convention attendees will be able to see "Out of the Closet" campaign ads on a digital billboard along Madison's Beltline Highway, on billboards near the railway and on the exteriors of Madison Metro buses. Beyond the conference, Gaylor said the FFRF is actively seeking individuals and secular groups to help bring the campaign to their area.

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