Seattle Atheists' Bus Ad Exaggerating Number of Nonbelievers?

A Seattle-area atheist group says in its latest ad campaign that 25 percent of Washingtonians are atheists, but the study cited by the group for that statistic indicates there are probably far fewer than they say.

The Seattle Atheists began its campaign Monday by having ads posted on buses from the King County Metro Transit Division. There are four different versions of the ad, each with a different pictures in the background, but all of which say “1 in 4 is an atheist” and promote the campaign's website.

Each background picture features four individuals in different scenes, including one with women laughing together on a couch, one which shows a group of hikers, another which shows four individuals sitting on a park bench and still another with a family celebrating Christmas together.

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According to the American Religious Identification Survey 2008, a study led by Trinity College which the Seattle Atheists point to as the source of their ad's statistic, 25 percent of Washingtonians said they have no religion. But that doesn't necessarily mean they are atheists.

Nationwide, 59 percent of those who said they had no religion consider themselves either agnostics or deists. Only 0.7 percent of Americans adults identified themselves as atheists in the study.

According to Shellie Brighton, president of the Seattle Atheists, her organization made no error in the ad.

“We don’t think of it as a discrepancy,” Brighton told The Christian Post via email on Wednesday. “To us, if you have no faith, you are atheist. The word 'atheist' has such negative connotation, that many people don’t like to label themselves that way. Some even try calling themselves 'brights,' but many of us think that is an insulting term to the non-'brights.' Being without a god belief makes you an atheist. Agnostics are atheists, for example, since they don't have a god belief.”

The purpose of Seattle Atheists' campaign, she said, is two-fold: show people atheists are more common than they might think, and lead other atheists who have not revealed their unbelief to reveal it.

“We wanted the general population to see that many people around them, people they know, work with, go to school with, even live with, are very possibly nonbelievers,” she said.

“And we aren’t scary, we are ordinary people you know and like. Coming out, so to speak, is very scary for many atheists. Most don’t tell co-workers for fear of ostracism or harassment, or even losing their jobs. Many don’t tell family, or friends. We are a silent group, and want to be silent no longer.”

Steven Olsen, pastor of The Lutheran Church of The Good Shepherd in Seattle, told The Christian Post in an interview that he understands Christians’ tendencies to sometime treat atheists like enemies, but says they need to be loved by churches.

"I don't know if their statistics are correct, but we certainly know that we have a tremendous mission field here,” Olsen said. “And what we try to do is create an atmosphere in which our children and our neighbors can be unafraid to express openly their doubts and their questions so that we will be able, in a loving way, not to threaten them, not to condemn them or judge them, but to bear witness to Jesus Christ."

It can be difficult to do ministry in such a secular area of the country, Olsen also said, and one of the greatest challenges of ministering to that area is simply remaining faithful. Seattle is considered one of the most unchurched areas in the country.

"I think the greatest challenge and the greatest priority is just to keep the light shining, to be faithful in the face of massive unbelief or disbelief, to continue to strengthen one another as brothers and sisters within the Christian family and encourage one another to bear witness and to believe God's Word, according to His own promise, will not return to Him empty, even though we don't see the results or even if the reactions that we may see are sometimes discouraging and disheartening."

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