Thursday, March 1, 2012

American Atheist Billboards in Hebrew

By Susan Esther Barnes
Photo by the American Atheists

According to a story on the CNN website, the American Atheists are putting up billboards (pictured above) in Arabic and Hebrew in neighborhoods where religious people who speak those languages live.

I’m mentioning it because, since I’m a religious Jewish person, I’m guessing at least some of my readers would assume I’m against these billboards. I want to let you know I’m not against them, and why.

True, I disagree with the message “You know it’s a myth.” Nobody knows it’s a myth. People may suspect it’s a myth, but the non-existence of God can’t be proven any more than the existence of God can be proven. I may believe wholeheartedly that God exists, and someone else may wholeheartedly believe that God doesn’t exist, but neither of us actually knows 100% for sure.

However, I do agree with the message, “You have a choice.” If someone feels stuck in their religion, if they feel it isn’t working for them but there is no way out, then it’s a good thing to remind them that they do have a choice. Although it would be painful to do so, they can and should leave their religious community, if doing so would be what is best for them in the long run.

Insincere worship; suppressing of one’s inner beliefs; conforming to norms that make a person feel trapped, unappreciated, and undervalued is not a healthy way to live. I don’t believe God wants us to do live in an environment that is unhealthy for us.

If these billboards help people who feel trapped in their community to seek a way out, and they are able to find a more healthy environment for themselves, then that is a good thing.

I can’t see these billboards having any effect on anyone who is confident in their own religious beliefs. If a person believes in God, a billboard like this isn’t going to change their mind. And, as far as I can tell, that isn’t the aim of the American Atheists, anyway. They aren’t trying to convert believers into non-believers. Rather, they are trying to reach out to non-believers who feel trapped. You might not think this is the best way for them to go about it, but they aren’t harming believers by doing this.

And what about those who aren’t sure? Shouldn’t I be afraid that the billboards might sway those who are questioning God? No, I’m not. Questioning God is a good thing. It’s one of the things Jews have done for thousands of years. We ought to ask questions. We ought to examine all sides. We ought to listen to differing opinions.

As I have said before, beliefs aren’t worth having if they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

One other thing, though. The Hebrew billboards have on them, in Hebrew, the name of God, as God revealed it to Moses. This is the name that in ancient times was only spoken by the High Priest, and only in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and only during the High Holy Days. Because saying it out loud was so rare and special, we don’t even know any more the proper way to pronounce it.

Religious Jews believe that when this name of God is written on a piece of paper, and later the paper is no longer able to serve its purpose (such as when a book that contains the name is too old, worn and/or damaged to be used any more), that piece of paper should not be thrown away. Rather, it should be buried, with respect.

So my question is this: This billboard will be seen by many religious Jews. They will see the name of God written in Hebrew on it. They know that the written name of God should not just be thrown away. Will any of them think to contact the American Atheists or the billboard company, to request that once the billboard comes down, that the paper with God’s name on it be given to them so they may bury it properly?

If not, then I wonder about their true beliefs and priorities.


  1. An American group is putting these up in Israel or NYC?

    Certainly these fall within free speech guidelines, but are needlessly provocative. They are no different than saying "____ (put your religious founder/leader here) is a liar."

  2. They are being put up in New York, not Israel, as far as I understand it. These are American Ateists speaking to Americans.

  3. I agree with you: I don't mind the billboards, but I find the use of the Holy Name in this ad disrespectful.

  4. They need an editor for the Hebrew one -- the two clauses are reversed.