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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Billboards aim to show atheists, skeptics ‘they’re not alone’

By Fred Mann
The Wichita Eagle

Two new billboards in Wichita offer this message:

“Are you good without God? Millions are."

The words appear on two 14-foot-tall billboards that went up Thursday. One is on the east side of the Kansas Turnpike north of East 47th Street South, facing northbound turnpike traffic. The other is near the intersection of North Tyler Road and West 21st Street, facing eastbound traffic on 21st.

The ads, which will be up for a month, were placed by the Wichita Coalition of Reason, an alliance of three nontheistic groups in the city. The coalition received $4,108 in funding for the signs from the Washington, D.C.-based United Coalition of Reason.

The billboards are intended to let agnostics, atheists and skeptics know they are not alone, said Matt Hair, a member of the coalition. Nonbelievers sometimes feel as if they are walking on eggshells and can encounter resistance and sometimes ostracism from family and friends when they express their views, he said.

“We’re there to support people and let them know it’s all right, someone is there to catch their back, and they’re not losing all their friends because we’ll still be there for them,” Hair said.

The billboard near 21st and Tyler rises over a neighborhood that includes more than a half-dozen churches whose members may see it on their way to Easter services on Sunday.

“They have a right to speak their mind,” said Pastor Dale Heffernan of Midland Baptist Church, 1860 N. Tyler Road, “but it’s sad, it’s really sad to me.”

Heffernan said Easter is when God prevailed over Satan, and Satan knows his time is limited so he is trying to persuade people not to believe in God.

“It doesn’t surprise me there would be people motivated to speak ill of the Resurrection this time of year,” he said.

Hair said the timing of the billboards during Easter week wasn’t intentional.

“We actually don’t pay much attention to when that particular holiday falls each year,” he said.

The billboards in Wichita are the latest in a nationwide effort by the national United Coalition of Reason. Since March 2009, similar billboards and other ad campaigns have appeared in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

The Wichita coalition — consisting of the Air Capital Skeptics, Wichita Atheists and WSU Atheists and Agnostics — has a combined membership of several hundred people, but many more who think like they do are out there, organizers said.

“I get a lot of e-mail from people that stumble across us who are really, really excited to find out they’re not alone,” said Sean Gillespie, coordinator of the coalition.

Gillespie said the coalition will hold a conference, Skeptics of Oz, April 21-22 at the Forum Theatre, 147 S. Hillside. Astronomer Phil Plait is the headline speaker, and other scientists and leaders in the skeptic and free-thought movements will appear, he said.

Reaching out to the like-minded isn’t the only goal of the billboards, Gillespie said. The billboards and the conference signal a beginning of more activism by the groups in the Wichita coalition to make people aware that nontheists and skeptics live throughout the city and state.

“It’s pretty clear that being outspoken as a nonbeliever can be a precarious thing. It can cost you friends and jobs,” Gillespie said. “But that can only continue if people are afraid to speak up.”

“We are your friends and neighbors,” he said. “By becoming more prominent figures and saying, ‘Hey, we’re here,’ it forces people to re-evaluate and change their perceptions of what atheists are.”

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com

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