Look down the rows of vendors at the Spokane County Interstate Fair and you’ll see a booth for the Child Evangelism Fellowship group, another that asks, “Are you going to Heaven?” and another questions, “Are you a good person?” But there’s a different message among them, too: “Are you good without God? Millions are.”
The message, sponsored by a national atheist group, is also plastered across the sides of 11 Spokane Transit Authority buses, and its glad tidings of non-belief are arousing controversy in the area.
The message didn’t look like it was going to get out, at first. When approached about the bus campaign in July, Florida billboard firm Ooh Media, the advertising vendor for STA buses, refused to run the ads. But they were quickly presented with threats of litigation from the United Coalition of Reason, a national organization that was pitching the ads on behalf of the Spokane Coalition of Reason.
Spokane buses have touted religious messages before, the coalition reasoned. Three years ago, the Upper Columbia Conference Seventh-Day Adventist church sponsored religious bus ads that read “When did you stop going to church?” Ooh Media relented, citing in a press release their desire “as Americans to protect the First Amendment.”
“We anticipated the bus scandal because of the news from Arkansas,” says Ray Ideus, 79, an atheist and former Lutheran minister of 30 years who now helps coordinate the Spokane Coalition of Reason. In August, a federal judge ruled in favor of the United Coalition after the Central Arkansas Transit Authority and its advertising agent declined to run the same campaign in Little Rock.
“Similar billboards from the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Moscow, Idaho, have been vandalized twice within the last two years,” Ideus says.
According to a press release, similar bus ads and billboard campaigns in cities throughout 25 states and the District of Columbia have run since 2009.
Spokane organizers say the campaign is targeted toward other nonbelievers.
“We don’t want to convert anyone, although plenty of people have tried to convert us,” Ideus says. “That’s not our message. We want people to know that we are here if they want to join us. We want others to understand that we are a legitimate part of the community.”
“We’re your family members and friends, your co-workers and neighbors, and quite possibly the person sitting next to you in church.”
Tom Stradling sits with his arms folded but stands and smiles when he greets visitors at the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International booth back at the fair. His banner poses the question, “Are you going to Heaven?” “We are just about encouraging people to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ here at the fair today,” Stradling says. “We try to pray with 200 to 300 people in a 10-day period.”
Stradling says he’s aware of the atheist group a couple of booths down the lawn. He says a member of the organization stops by his booth at least once a day “to pick on people like us.” Although he finds their approach aggressive, he says they have every right to be at the fair.
“You know, we live in a free country with free speech, and I actually told them last night [that], because of their presence, we have had a lot of wonderful conversations with people,” Stradling says.
Steve Hyle, from the Cowboy Chapel of Spokane Valley, says he’s not shocked by the presence of the atheist group — he’s just a little saddened by it.
“I can laugh about this and think their message is kind of comical,” he say, “but, really, it weighs heavy in my heart, because I know where their eternity will be.”
Nevertheless, he supports their presence. “I wish they were here right beside me, because they’d be hearing the gospel all day long,” he says.
"We knew this would get on the news, but our goal wasn’t to be controversial,” says Thomas J. Brown, the 30-year-old president of the Spokane Secular Society. His group was formed by an alliance between the Inland Northwest Humanists, the Inland Northwest Freethought Society, and the Spokane Secular Society, with an aim toward securing the $5,400 in grant money from the United Coalition for the bus ads and fair booth.
The groups’ members run from their 20s to their late-90s. They hold movie nights in people’s homes and meet at the downtown Onion restaurant. The Humanists meet every Saturday for breakfast and banter at Old Country Buffet.
Brown says he hopes the campaign will draw out new members and provide comfort to those still “closeted” with their beliefs.
“When I first started to disbelieve, I would mouth the words to the songs, I would bow my head and think, ‘This is so stupid,’” he says. “Eventually I stopped bowing my head and starting looking around. I started noticing other people who weren’t bowing their heads ... That’s when I sought out like-minded people and started organizing.”
Barbara Arnzen was one of 13 children in a Roman Catholic family, but at age 17 she began to feel that the church provided more ritual than sustenance. One day, her older sister asked her if she believed in God.
“Then she asked if I believed in Santa or fairies or could provide proof of God’s existence,” Arnzen says at a meeting of the Inland Northwest Freethought Society. “I said ‘No, and I guess I don’t believe in God either.’ It was kind of that simple.”
Coming out as an atheist wasn’t as easy. Tears well up in Arnzen’s eyes as she explains that she wants to be known for who she really is. Last year, at age 51, she joined the Freethought Society and finally came out as an atheist to her family.
“There have been so many times in my life that I felt utterly alone,” Arnzen says. “I am a kind, nice person. It’s not like I have anti-Christ leanings or these little red horns coming out of my head, yet when I tell people who I am, they immediately don’t want to be around me.”
Arnzen has managed to patch together a fragile relationship with her family. She says she found strength, acceptance and support within the Freethought Society. She hopes this campaign will give others the courage to step out as non-believers. Ultimately, she hopes it will clear up misconceptions.
“We people [atheists and believers] are way more alike than not,” she says. “We all have morality, a sense of right and wrong, and ethics. We all want love and we all want acceptance.”