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(Via the Atheist Bus Campaign UK)

A simple, marvelous message currently on display in four UK cities. It’s also #6 in the list of best practices on page viii of Raising Freethinkers and one of the most important concepts in freethought parenting. Heck, it’s practically, the definition of it.

Our family spent the best six months of our lives in the UK in 2004. And though I’m sure my British readers can strip me of my fawning rosy visitor goggles in no time flat, I found very little of the deep anti-intellectualism that we here in the Colonies swim in every bleedin’ day.

Also nice was the fact that religious disbelief is not a terribly big deal in the UK. A large whack of public figures — entertainers, giants of industry, journalists, politicians — are out nonbelievers. Thanks to this, secular humanists can move on from our current location on Horton’s speck (“We are HERE, we are HERE, we are HERE!!”) to taking positions on actual issues, such as suggesting that children not be labeled with complex worldviews that they cannot have chosen themselves (including, of course, “atheist”).

I’d guess from my own UK time that the billboard is raising relatively few hackles among the sane majority of religious folks there. But there will always be some colorful responses, and the news outlets were determined to find them. From the Belfast Telegraph, under the super-cool, pot-stirring headline, “Humanist poster stirs up religious storm” :

The giant poster, at the junction of Great Victoria Street and Bruce Street [in Belfast], shows a photograph of a young girl against the backdrop of “shadowy” descriptions such as Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh.

(And Atheist and Agnostic. Sorry, am I blowing things into proportion?)

Reverend David McIlveen from the Free Presbyterian Church said: “It is none of their business how people bring up their children. It is the height of arrogance that the BHA would even assume to tell people not to instruct their children in the religion.”

See how the slope slips? The poster says nothing about not instructing them in the religion. He continues:

“It is reprehensible and so typical of the hypocrisy of the British Humanist Association today…I think it is totally arrogant, presumptuous and sparks of total hypocrisy… I will be expressing my public position on it in my own church on Sunday. I will be saying that this advert is another attack on the Biblical position of the family and will be totally rejecting it.”

McIlveen was the gent behind an anti-gay ad campaign in the UK last year that was hateful enough to draw a ban from the British Advertising Standards Authority. I doubt very much that he represents most British Christians — certainly not those I met while I was there.

Also quoted in the article is

Sheikh Anwar Mady from the Belfast Islamic Centre: “We believe that every child is born as a Muslim. Religion is not given by the family, but it is a natural religion given by our God at birth. The role of the family is to teach the traditions of the faith. But that faith is implanted at birth.”

Okay. Now here’s my question: How many news outlets made an effort to find religious spokespersons who thought the poster campaign was perfectly acceptable? The BBC article online includes only one quote from a religious leader, and it’s frothing mad. And who did they find to represent the religious point of view? Why, it’s the Reverend David McIlveen from the Free Presbyterian Church.

Maybe they were all working from the same wire story, but I checked a dozen major news outlets covering the story and was unable to find a single quote from a religious leader in support of the campaign. But does that mean they aren’t out there—or that the news outlets are interested only in stirring the pot to draw readers?

Waaaait a minute. Lookie here!

Justin Thacker, head of theology at the Evangelical Alliance, said it was great to see humanists were now agreeing that children should make their own decisions about faith. “Evangelicals do not believe that God has any grandchildren, only children,” he said. “You are not a Christian simply because your parents are. Every child or adult has to make up their own minds about the reality of God.”

This marvelous quote is not to be found in the news. It’s squirreled away on a small number of religious websites.

An equally good question is why atheist bloggers aren’t generally taking the time to find that voice. I’m afraid in many cases, the answer is the same: in addition to confirming our own biases, the loony McIlveen quote is simply too attractive as a pot-stirrer to go seeking mere balance. We bloggers can blame the media, and the media can blame the wire story. At some point, we’ve all got to dig deeper to get beneath the shitstorm on the surface of these things.

I’ve sent a message to the folks behind the poster suggesting they post that EA statement. It’s another opportunity to isolate nuts like McIlveen, showing that the non-crazy majority of religious and nonreligious have more in common with each other than with their own less-tightly-hinged members. I’ll let you know what happens.
UPDATE: Sure enough, BHA were already on top of it. Messages of support, including several sorry, ONE from a religious believer (not enough), are posted here. There’s also a Facebook Group for the campaign, and it’s being Tweeted avidly.

There is also some misunderstanding about what the ad is advocating. Among other things, it does NOT say families should not attend church together or practice their religious traditions. It simply suggests that children be made to know that the choice of identification is ultimately their own.

This is one of the central messages of Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers. If you support the idea, get busy Tweeting and blogging it. And be sure to extend the circle of support to include religious voices. If you find other good quotes, let me know in the comments.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.