The message, in English and Arabic, is blunt. “You know it’s a myth. You have a choice,” declares the billboard in a Muslim community in Paterson, New Jersey. An identical one, with a Hebrew translation, was erected in Brooklyn, New York. Both were installed by American Atheists, a private organization with 4,000 members, to publicize its upcoming national convention in Washington.
David Silverman, president of the group, said the billboards are meant to reach secret nonbelievers in Muslim and conservative Jewish communities. He said those communities repress the nonbelievers among them.
“These billboards are here to tell them they are not alone,” he said in Paterson, New Jersey, recently. “To give the message that people do have a choice, that even if their friends and family are all of the same religious beliefs, and are all part of their insular communities, they still have a choice. There’s nothing forcing them to live the life of a lie.”
Silverman calls atheists the “most hated minority” in America. He debated the point on the street with Mohammed Qatanani, the Imam of a nearby mosque, the Islamic Center of Passaic County.
“I think it is a kind of not-acceptance, a kind of converting people,” the Imam said. “You want to convert people that God is a myth, but God is not a myth.”
Silverman said that was not the case. “I don’t think I’m trying to convert anybody,” he said. “I’m trying to talk to people who already know it’s a myth. I’m not going to convert anybody with a billboard. Does this billboard shake your faith?"
Imam Qatanani said that there is no compulsion in Islam, that it can only be freely chosen. He said that many Muslim scholars now believe that punishment for Muslims who leave the religion cannot be justified, and that there is no such requirement in the Quran.
The billboard in New York was originally set to be installed atop a building in a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood. But local residents objected, and the sign was moved to an expressway, where it is mainly visible to people in passing cars.
In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a heavily Christian community, a different billboard caused an outcry, with its graphic image of a black man in chains suggesting that the Bible endorsed slavery.
To some, the image was racist. But officials with the state chapter of American Atheists, which paid for the message, said it was to protest the state legislature's declaration of 2012 as the “Year of the Bible.”
In Paterson, Qatanani told Silverman that the billboard could serve Islam, by creating opportunities to talk with nonbelievers.
He said that his religion calls on him to share it with others, because it is “the best thing in our life. The gift that we have is religion. I like it to be for everybody, not just me,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to accept each other.”
“So, you know for a fact I’m never going to convert to Islam, never. Can we still be friends?” Silverman asked.
“Absolutely,” Qatanani answered, handing him a copy of the Quran and a pamphlet about Islam. “But I will give you this to convert you. Please, read them and come back.”
The atheist and the Imam laughed and shook hands.