A group of vandals recently attempted to maliciously burn a holiday billboard placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) reading “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia,” placed in response to religious advertising, using gasoline.
‘Tis the season for secular and atheist organizations in the United States to advertise – mainly in response to religious messages and decorations in government-controlled areas and elsewhere; secular and atheist organizations lawfully respond to free speech with free speech.
Unfortunately, religious individuals who don’t like speech from atheist and secular organizations — rather than tolerating the speech or lawfully erecting displays of their own — often choose the path of vandalism, censorship, and intimidation.
According to an FFRF press release — coupled with a police report and reporting from South Jersey Times — two individuals tossed gasoline on the FFRF display and lit it. The fire, though, did not stay lit while the perpetrators fled. Police are now paying extra attention to the FFRF billboard and the FFRF is offering a $2000 reward for more information leading to the arrest and conviction of perpetrators.
Sadly, acts of vandalism and contempt toward atheists/secularists like these are far too common. Type “FFRF vandalism” on Google to see many examples including a personal experience of my own, described below.
In 2012, I worked with the FFRF to display a banner on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre which was later vandalized by an individual who gleefully appeared on television, in a news interview, admitting his crime. Following the placement of this banner, I was pictured in a flyer which appeared in Wilkes-Barre next to Saddam Hussein, Adolph Hitler, and Joseph Stalin. …but yet I am, according to a radio show host, the one with a “strong element of hate.” Find more information in the category ‘FFRF banner‘ on this website.
I suspect that hatred and misunderstanding informs these acts of censorship and vandalism. Many religious individuals, throughout their lives, from my experience, have not thoughtfully engaged with arguments against religious belief nor had thoughtful, respectful conversations with non-believers.
Rather than resorting to theft, vandalism of property, and personal attacks, reach out to those with whom you disagree or — at the very least — read what they publish online. While messages placed by atheists in the public sphere may be ‘biting’ toward those who have strongly held religious beliefs, this is no excuse to resort to unlawful conduct. Take a step back from what you may perceive as an ‘attack on your beliefs’ and instead think about why you make take offense.
First, messages like “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia” are not attacks on individuals, but rather are challenges to beliefs. The Bible, in 1 Peter 3:15 directs Christians to, when their beliefs are challenged, “prepare a defense and do so with gentleness and respect.” Those who believe their faith is strong should be prepared to respond to challenges and be steadfast in their response provided there are good, justifying reasons for religious belief. If you find that reasons for your religious beliefs are not good enough to withstand challenges, it should be time to reconsider your beliefs and investigate what people of a difference persuasion are saying.
Anyway, religious individuals do not have a monopoly on holiday displays. Non-religious individuals may advertise their messages — just like religious individuals — and should be permitted to do so without interference. In a free society, we must learn to — at the very least — co-exist with other individuals and tolerate others’ speech we may dislike. We need not affirm, agree with, or endorse others’ speech we disagree with and can — if we are so passionate — lawfully respond with messages of our own rather than pursuing vandalism and censorship likely informed by hatred.
As always, feel free to comment below.