Brigid Bergin is the City Hall reporter for WNYC. She covers city politics including the 2013 mayoral race and transition.
Billboards targeting atheists in New York and New Jersey went up Wednesday with a simple message: “You know it’s a myth…you have a choice.”
David Silverman, president of American Atheists, a nonprofit organization based in Cranford, N.J., said he regularly receives emails from “closeted atheists,” particularly from the Muslim and religious Jewish communities.
“These people want to live an honest life and want to tell their friends and family who and what they are,” said Silverman, “but they’re afraid and sometimes very rightfully so that they will be disowned if that happens.”
The organization paid $15,000 to broadcast its anti-God message in two locations. One is off the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in Williamsburg, written in English and in Hebrew. The other in Paterson, N.J., on Broadway and 33rd Street, is in English and Arabic.
Silverman grew up in a Jewish home, but he says religion never stuck. He went to Hebrew school as an atheist and says he was even forced to have a Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish coming of age ritual.
“It was a day I remember very clearly, standing up in front of everyone I know and lying through my teeth, just to please my mother” Silverman said.
For the American Atheists, all religions are fair game. The organization paid for billboards located near the Lincoln Tunnel for the past two winters aimed at “closeted atheists” in the Christian community. Those billboards also used the phrase, “You know it’s a myth and you have a choice.”
Silverman acknowledged he borrows language from the gay community when he refers to “closeted atheists” because it aptly describes circumstances for many in this country who he says, feign religion or avoid the subject.
“We’re telling people that it’s not the best way to live,” Silverman said. He adamantly opposes every religion, calling them “lies” and “scams.”
Not everyone agrees with Silverman’s message. The Brooklyn billboard was supposed to be erected Tuesday at 109 S. Fifth Street, so that it would be more easily seen by the surrounding Hasidic community. But Silverman said the building’s owner would not allow the billboard go up.
The building landlord, who tenants say is Kenneth Steir, did not respond to requests for comment through phone or email.
Claire Benoist, 28, a commercial photographer, has had a studio for three years in the Williamsburg building where the billboard could have been. She describes herself as an atheist, but said she’s not sure how she feels about anyone advertising their religion or non-religious beliefs.
“I agree with the message, but I understand it might be controversial, and it might offend some people,” Benoist said, “but so are religious billboards to me.”
Benoist said she thinks religion, or one’s lack there-of, is private.
“Even as an atheist, the atheist billboards make me a little uncomfortable,” Benoist said.
Mustafa al-Mutazzim, an assistant Imam with Masjid AsHabul Yameen, a mosque in East Orange, New Jersey, has also seen the billboards, but he’s not losing any sleep over them.
“People have said worse,” said al-Mutazzim. He thinks while the billboard’s statement may make people uncomfortable, it’s also protected under law.
“We have certain constitutional rights, including the freedom of speech.”
The American Atheists plan to erect a similar billboard in Chinatown this summer.