The “Atheists.” bus ad controversy is a free speech issue, not a religious argument

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Arguments regarding the truth value of religious claims have entered the controversy surrounding the “Atheists.” bus ad (see comments here) and some atheists in the comments section of the linked Times-Tribune article have taken the bait from some religious commenters who have levied personal attacks against atheists or otherwise have argued that there is good reason to believe that the Christian god exists. While I relish debates/discussions regarding the truth-value of religious claims [and have participated in a live recorded formal “Does the Christian god exist?” debate myself], view these discussions as very important, and encourage others to participate in said discussions, let us not be distracted from what the real issue is here surrounding COLTS: freedom of speech.

Whether a person happens be to be atheist, a theist, or something else should have no bearing whatsoever on rational arguments dealing with the issue of whether a bus company which receives state, federal, and county funds should (or otherwise be legally required to) provide equal access to citizens using advertisement space on their buses.

Since COLTS is not allowing the NEPA Freethought Society to advertise — especially considering that our message is content-free — it seems quite obvious that freedom of speech is being abridged and COLTS is not allowing equal access for citizens to advertise on their buses. Equal access is what a pluralistic society should aim for rather than selective speech. Unfortunately, it’s all too often that atheists get ‘the short end of the stick.’

In October of 2011, I authored a post for American Atheists’ “No God Blog” titled “Equality for Atheists in the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ which is very relevant to the current situation with COLTS. I wrote that atheists have been facing discrimination in current times even when messages are ‘really tame.’ Whether we [atheists] march in Memorial Day paraders, fly banners in the month of July, or have billboards saying “Good Without God,” I wrote, “the cacophony of complaints can be heard from Christians who want to censor us [atheists].”

Ending this post, I wrote

Atheists should have the same rights as Christians to present their ideas – within reason – in pluralistic societies. Messages should simply not be censored because those in a position of privilege and power happen to disagree, have negative impressions of atheists, or whatever reason. […] [C]ensorship and exclusion is often the ‘order of the day.’ Silencing your‘opposition,’ though, is the coward’s way out.

Unfortunately, COLTS doesn’t seem to understand that some people might hold beliefs that others might disagree with and, living in a pluralistic society, most of us have come to the very reasonable conclusion that persons simply have to ‘deal with it’ (and perhaps just ‘grow up’ and realize that this world is full of people who disagree) and government entities may not discriminate simply because they happen not to like a message (or content-free message).

It would be one thing if the NEPA Freethought Society wanted to advertise for the KKK or Aryan Youth (which we never would do, but let’s consider this for the sake of argument), but this simply is not the case. We want to simply say, “we exist” and provide an audience with websites for our organizations. Atheists in Northeastern Pennsylvania and the rest of this world should not feel alone when vibrant communities of atheists exist. Is this too much to ask? Apparently, for COLTS, this fear(?) of a public debate about issues is a good enough reason to discriminate against atheists who want to advertise on buses and this public debate fear (?) outweighs all other concerns of [freedom of speech]. Shall this be the standard we live by a pluralistic democratic society?

While discussions about the truth value of religious claims are important (and certainly can and should be had), it’s important — for both theists and atheists — to not consider this an issue of religious debate, but rather see it as a free speech issue. Whether you are an atheist or not or whether you like the fact that we intend to advertise or not, you should — as you are a member of a pluralistic democratic society who presumably values your own free speech rights — agree that COLTS should allow the really, really, really inoffensive “Atheists.” ad and stand up for free speech…because that’s the real issue here at the core of things.

The wonderful irony of the whole COLTS situation, as I posted as a Facebook status of mine, is that their refusal of the “Atheists.” ad — on grounds that it would cause a debate about public issues and that said debate is impermissible — drew even more attention to the issue and actually started a debate about public issues! Even better than that, the refused ad — probably because COLTS happened to refuse it — has been featured in local and national news including the front page of Scranton’s own Times-Tribune. COLTS’ refusal has utterly backfired and the NEPA Freethought Society– and everyone who stands in solidarity for freedom of speech — is winning this war.

For more ‘backstory’ on the “Atheists.” bus ad controversy before this post, please visit this link. Thanks for your support!

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