HACKENSACK, N.J. — A note of provocation was all too evident when an atheist group put up a huge billboard a block from the surrounding area’s largest mosque, saying in Arabic as well as English that religion is based on nothing more than myth.
And provocative it was – but not so much for attendants of the mosque as for the local Christian community that works and shops in this east Broadway neighborhood of Paterson, N.J.
“People either believe in God or not. Why are you trying to change that?” asked Renee Rivera, a 36-year-old office manager from Elmwood Park, N.J. “It’s promoting an agenda. Why is it necessary?”
The big green sign with white and gold lettering, mounted above a liquor store at Broadway and East 33rd Street, was put up by the group American Atheists. It says, “You know it’s a myth … and you have a choice.” It appears about a block away from the Islamic Center of Passaic County, the city’s biggest mosque. Its appearance provoked a civil but spirited debate between the mosque’s spiritual leader and the atheist group’s president.
Arthur Thomas, a 61-year-old handyman, said he felt that Christians were being targeted along with Muslims.
“You wanna say there’s no God? I’ll just say go over there and talk to the other guy – talk to Satan,” Thomas said.
From her salon right below the sign, Sashauna Dixon said people should keep their disbelief to themselves.
“My thing is, why are you trying to convince someone to not believe?” Dixon said as she washed a woman’s hair. “If you want to be like that, be like that by yourself.”
“It’s offensive,” her customer added.
The message was not meant to anger Muslims, or even change anyone’s mind about religion, said David Silverman, president of American Atheists. He said instead that he’s calling out to that community’s “atheists and asking them to come out of the closet.”
“If pointing out there are atheists in a community is seen as provocative, that’s too bad.”
But if the aim was to reach God-doubting Muslims, this neighborhood wasn’t the ideal site. The sign on the corner is near the mosque, but the neighborhood is a mix of races and faiths. Most of the prayer-goers come from other parts of town or from other towns.
“I had hoped there’d be more Muslims, but it is what it is,” said Silverman, watching the sparse foot traffic, across the street from the billboard.
Men leaving the mosque after prayer on Wednesday seemed neither perturbed nor unsettled by the billboard, and some even saw it as positive.
“It’s a knock on the door,” Abdul Hamid, 40, said as he crouched to get his shoes after noontime prayer at the Islamic Center of Passaic County. “If they want to come and have an open dialogue with us, that’s great.”
Anes Labsiri, a 39-year-old plumber, said he was happy people can question religion in public.
“Some people might see it as a bad thing. I think it’s a good thing. I love that you have this freedom in this country,” said Labsiri, who came from Morocco in 1998.
Mohamed El Filali, the mosque’s executive director, says he’s even planning to invite Silverman to join a panel discussion on science in the Quran later this month.
After prayer, the imam, Mohammad Qatanani, came outside to talk with Silverman, who was hanging around the neighborhood to watch for reactions to the sign.
The two discussed religion and tolerance; humanity and God.
“We have to accept everyone — we are all from dust and become dust,” Qatanani said. “Right?”
Silverman nodded his head, but added, “Well, yes, we’re all from raw matter.”