If God made the sky, can atheists fly it?

by | Jul 3, 2011 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

When some Americans look to the skies this Fourth of July, they may see more than fireworks.

In 26 states – including Michigan – small planes will be carrying banners that read “God-LESS America” or “Atheism is Patriotic.”

It is an attempt by a group called American Atheists to show that atheists, too, have a place on the day that celebrates our nation’s independence. The group is encouraging people to spread photos of these planes when they see them and to call their local TV news channels to increase coverage.

This is a classic example of an OK concept meeting a terrible idea. The group insists, on its Web site, that this “is not about … shoving our views down people’s throats.”

Really? Then why rent airplanes?

As the joke goes, God knows atheists are entitled to their opinions. But when you fill the sky with banners to spread a message on a holiday weekend, unless that message is “Fourth of July Sale at Lenny’s Auto Showcase!” you’re asking for trouble.

A message for the masses

I do understand why atheists want to make a statement on July 4. From expressions like “there are no atheists in foxholes” to the words on our money, “in God we trust,” there has long been a subtle suggestion that atheists are somehow lacking as citizens, outside of the American circle – an odd notion since, truth be told, many of us who identify with religion behave more like atheists every day.

“I’m a patriotic American. I served my country. I get out there and celebrate the Fourth, too,” Blair Scott, the communications director for American Atheists, told CNN. “This America belongs to everyone.”

It sure does. Which is why taking to the skies with your agenda tends to rankle people. By the way, this is just as true for displays of religious fervor. It is why some people cringe at billboards celebrating Jesus, or when Ten Commandments monuments are placed outside of public buildings.

Those are the very things to raise the ire of atheists everywhere.

But doing your own version of what upsets you isn’t the answer. My sense is that most Americans are pretty tolerant of other faiths or even those who celebrate no faith – they just don’t want things shoved in their faces.

Or their skies.

The right time and place

No one should dismiss atheism as some quick or unintelligent view on the world. The history of atheism is deep with academia, thoughtful texts, respected scholars and reasoned arguments. Despite that, some recent studies suggest only 4% of Americans identify as atheists, as opposed to 17% in Britain or 32% in France.

This may explain why there are not more planes flying the “God-LESS America” message on Monday. Despite attempts to get banners up in all 50 states, American Atheists found many companies refused to fly them. According to the organization, one North Carolina firm said: “I’m not going to hell flying that sign.”

“The reality is that there is still a lot of bigotry out there,” the AA Web site said.

Is it bigotry if you don’t want to zoom someone’s message through the clouds? Or is it par for the course when it comes to religious – or decidedly nonreligious – statements that in the end, still send the same grating message: “What I believe is so important it needs to tower over you.”

Some would ask why a group united in what it doesn’t believe in even bothers to make a statement. But I’m sure atheists would counter that in a country where “God Bless America” is sung at events and hands are put on Bibles during courtroom procedures, that they are only fighting fire with fire.

The problem of fire with fire is that it produces a lot of smoke, and smoke gets in your eyes and you can’t see straight. Maybe, on Fourth of July weekend, we should leave the skies to bursts of red, white and blue and save our messages for another backdrop.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. The run for his new play, “Ernie,” has been extended through Aug.21 at City Theatre in downtown Detroit. It was inspired by the story of legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell. For information, go to ernietheplay.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/mitch.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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