RALEIGH, N.C. — Taking a cue from the gay rights movement, some atheists are coming out of their own closets with a new billboard campaign that attempts to project a friendly, wholesome image of a group long stigmatized for its unconventional beliefs.
Plastered on billboards in Raleigh, Durham, Pittsboro and Smithfield, N.C., are the smiling faces of real atheists and agnostics, accompanied by pithy statements such as "I'm saved from religion" and "Another happy, humanist family."
The "Out of the Closet" campaign is just one of several ways the growing nonbeliever movement is flexing its muscles and elevating its profile amid a competitive religious marketplace nationwide.
"We're ready to shift the stereotype of the curmudgeonly old, overly educated, angry white man," said Mark Zumbach, president of the Triangle Freethought Society, which is sponsoring the campaign. "We're a pretty diverse community. There are a lot of young people, women and families."
The billboard effort comes on the heels of a well-publicized setback for North Carolina atheists. Last month, a concert at Fort Bragg titled "Rock Beyond Belief" was scrapped after the garrison commander at the Fayetteville Army base offered the group use of a small movie theater instead of the larger, open field the organizers wanted.
Sgt. Justin Griffith, an atheist and the concert's organizer, said the commander vastly underestimated the size of his group and the draw of the concert's main guest, British biologist Richard Dawkins. As a result of media attention and increased funding since the cancellation, Griffith said he's negotiating with a "high-profile booking agent" to recruit a nationally known rock band to perform at Fort Bragg's Post Parade Field this fall.
"We're absolutely going to resubmit our application, and we're adding muscle to our lineup," Griffith said.
The idea for "Rock Beyond Belief" came after the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association held a "Rock the Fort" concert at the base in September. Fort Bragg gave the Billy Graham group $50,000 from the Chaplain Tithes and Offering Fund.
The Army said it would give the atheist group equal treatment minus the funding, which the post commander said did not come from taxpayers though it was held in an Army account.
"The money didn't belong to the Army," said Benjamin Abel, spokesman at Fort Bragg. "It was collected by the different congregations on post."
Atheists at Fort Bragg have organized as the Military Atheists and Secular Humanists, or MASH, so they can begin to solicit donations.
Griffith said at least 18 percent of soldiers at Fort Bragg indicated in their records file they had "no religious preference," making unaffiliated soldiers the second-largest group on the post after Christians.
That's roughly the same percentage of Americans who have no religious affiliation, according to recent polls.
Groups such as the Triangle Freethought Society, which now has about 200 members, are encouraged.
"Our biggest intent is not to disenfranchise anyone with (religious) belief but to make ourselves known to people who don't know us and feel they need to get together with others who have the same thoughts," said Kristen Douglas of Carrboro, N.C., a society board member.
Nonbelievers are far more willing to challenge the status quo these days, said Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The spate of books by atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens is one example.
"They're emboldened by people unhappy with religious extremism," said Maffly-Kipp. "It's a way of proposing another road to take - give up on religion entirely."
And while different religious groups will respond in different ways, most recognize atheists' right to free speech.
"We recognize that others have reached different conclusions about faith," said the Rev. George Reed, executive director of the N.C. Council of Churches. "We wouldn't begin to suggest that they should be prevented from peacefully expressing those views, even though they are contrary to our own."
This is not the first time local atheists have taken to billboards. Last year, the North Carolina Secular Association paid for a billboard with the slogan "One Nation Indivisible" superimposed over an image of the American flag. The purpose of the slogan was to call attention to two missing words from the Pledge of Allegiance: "under God."
And in December, the Triangle Freethought Society put up a billboard on Raleigh's Capital Boulevard that read "Reason's Greetings."
But the "Out of the Closet" campaign is the largest and most ambitious so far. Most of the money for the effort, about $10,000, came from the national Freedom from Religion Foundation based in Madison, Wis. Another $2,000 was raised locally; and the people pictured in each billboard paid $50 to have a professional photographer shoot their picture.
"If all that people see are church marquees, steeples and crosses, then religion wins by default," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. "We want to change that."
Gaylor said the foundation chose Raleigh because of the strength of its Triangle chapter.
The national group plans to take the campaign to three other cities this year - Phoenix, Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio.
Zumbach, the president of the Triangle freethought group, said many more people signed up to be on the billboards and publicly declare they were not religious. But the group decided to limit the initial campaign to 12.
"We're in your families," he said. "We're in your neighborhoods. We're in your workplace. There's nothing to be afraid of. We just think differently."
Freethought Society: For more information about the Triangle Freethought Society, go to: trianglefreethoughtsociety.org.