In a major city like Orlando, right in the heart of the Bible Belt, that might sound like an invitation to stir up a heated and angry debate. But Jack Maurice insists that since the billboards went up, the exact opposite has been true.
“Are we trying to create a controversy? No,” Maurice said. “A controversy happens automatically when people have a disagreement over their opinions.”
And that’s been true for Maurice, the the founder of the Orlando Freethinker and Humanist organization Meetup group. He’s also a member of the United Coalition of Reason, a national organization that works to raise the visibility of local “non-theistic,” or non-religious and non-spiritual, groups across the country.
It’s the main reason why the billboards were put up — to let people who are not believers know there are organizations made up of like-minded people they can tap into. There also’s a Web site, http://unitedcor.org/orlando/page/home, with more information on their goals.
“We’re not out to change anybody’s faith, we’re not out to change anybody’s religious views,” Maurice said. “But the bottom line is we don’t want people constantly coming up to us and proselytizing their beliefs. Religion is a very emotional issue.”
But so far, not emotional enough to provoke an angry reaction to the billboards, which went up locally on April 12. So far the response has been 99 percent in favor, and 1 percent not so happy, he noted.
“It’s been very positive,” he said. “Typically people have a life and don’t take action against anything. On the OrlandoCoR.org site you will see a news room where the press release is on the billboards, and it includes testimonials, and we’ve only had one person who kind of went crazy on us, spewing hate — and there were so many words misspelled that we wonder if it was a prank. Everything else has been very positive.”
Orlando is the 30th city across the country to get either a billboard posted or one placed on a local bus. They’re hoping to allow other secular-minded people to feel like they’re not isolated in their views, and in fact that it’s easy to connect with others who share the same outlook.
“The billboards were basically just an awareness of the secular, non-theists scattered in the Orlando area,” Maurice said. “I know there are a lot of them. If they see something that says ‘If you don’t believe in God’ — and there are a lot of people who do not — we just want people to know there is a place for them to go.”
Maurice said he thinks more people are identifying themselves as non-theists or non-believers because it’s easier than ever, through the Internet, for them to connect with one another.
“It’s not just Orlando,” he said. “It’s anyone who has access to the Internet, particularly younger people. Two of our younger coalition members are from UCF (University of Central Florida) and VCC (Valencia Community College) who are also members of SSA — the Secular Student Alliance. A lot of people in college are starting to question this and use critical thinking. They don’t adhere to what they think is mythology. They no longer think that if you don’t believe, therefore you’re going to a bad place. Through the Internet and YouTube, you can get a lot of information and go in a different direction. We have almost an information overload in our country now. It’s much easier now for people, if they have time, to seek out an organization.”
As if to emphasize that point, Maurice noted that he was doing an interview with Orlando’s Channel 6 television station recently, and “a couple walked up said ‘Hey, what’s going on,’ and they were atheists. We didn’t stage that, it was just people walking by. There are a lot of people who for a lack of better words are still in the closet.”
That anxiety about speaking up used to exist, Maurice said, because it was once much more difficult in Bible Belt states for people to acknowledge a lack of belief in a higher being. “I have personally known people who have been fired for professing to be a non-theist,” he said.
That’s why they want to use the billboards to connect people.
“I don’t want to use the word mission,” he said. “We don’t really have a mission. It’s an awareness campaign to let people around these cities know there are organizations and places where you can contact people and get together. You’ll find a lot of free thinkers and a lot of these people are very highly educated, and over the years they’ve come to the conclusion that they just don’t need this. Many theists have a need to believe in an afterlife. We don’t need that. We live our lives for today.”
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