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Several groups reported an increase in interest after they got publicity from efforts to stifle the message of their ads.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
Paul Hoyt, of Forest, Justin True, of Roanoke and Doug Fowley, of Roanoke, (l-r) stand at the corner of Lynchburg Turnpike and 419 beneath the sign erected by the Blue Ridge Coalition of Reason. True is the president of the Southwest Virginia Atheists.
Courtesy of the Blue Ridge Coalition of Reason
The Blue Ridge Coalition of Reason's billboard on Boulevard Street Southwest near Shaffer's Crossing. It was defaced a few days after Christmas. In neither case have the vandals been caught.
Thursday, January 10, 2013
Today we have yet another example of the law of unintended consequences. This is the process in which certain people don’t think certain things all the way through. Usually the opposite of what they desire ensues.
It concerns a Roanoke resident, Justin True. He’s 32, a former Marine, a full-time student and a self-employed lumber grader. He’s married, is the father of two and he’s an avowed atheist. Back in September he founded the small group, Southern Virginia Atheists.
The term “small” is probably an exaggeration. Itty bitty teeny weeny was more like it when True called the first meeting. Six people showed up. He also garnered a little attention appearing before the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors, and perhaps in some other forums.
In that process True learned it can be lonely being an atheist in a western Virginia city where there’s a church on almost every street corner. He could see that almost every day, as messages from other nonbelievers trickled into his email account.
“That’s one of the very first things I saw” in emails from other nonbelievers, True told me. “They were like, ‘I can’t believe you guys are here! I’m so glad I found you guys.’ ” He was glad they found him, too.
The group grew slowly — a person here, a person there. They headed into early December with about 33 members.
Then last month an umbrella group for nonbelievers, the Blue Ridge Coalition of Reason, rented some billboard space from Lamar, an outdoor advertising company, to exercise their First Amendment rights. The signs cost $3,500 and were paid for by the Washington, D.C.-based United Coalition of Reason. They will be up until Jan. 16.
They put up four around the Roanoke Valley: in Salem, in Southwest Roanoke near Shaffers Crossing, along U.S. 220 in South Roanoke County, and on Dale Avenue near Fallon Park in the city’s southeast quadrant.
The message was designed to be inoffensive, said Paul Hoyt, coordinator of the Blue Ridge Coalition of Reason. It didn’t say “God is Dead,” or “Jesus is a jerk,” or “Christians are crazy.” Instead, it simply and elegantly reached out to other nonbelievers.
“Don’t believe in God?” it read. “Join the club.” It was signed by the Blue Ridge Coalition of Reason.
And that’s when the fat hit the fire, so to speak. Because some folks apparently found the Christmas-season timing too provocative to leave the signs alone.
About a week before Christmas, the billboard in Salem was defaced. Somebody used black spray paint to cover up the word “Don’t.” Lamar replaced the sign at the Coalition of Reason’s expense, Hoyt said.
The atheists were puzzled and a bit nonplussed.
“The first one was kind of aggravating,” True told me. “We just didn’t understand why people would do that.”
It made the newspaper and WDBJ-7 news. The TV station’s website racked up more than a few gleeful comments from the anonymous chattering hordes who gave each other digital high fives and said the sign got what it deserved.
Then a few days after Christmas, the vandals struck at the billboard near Shaffers Crossing . They used duct tape and wrapping paper to cover up the “n’t” in the word “Don’t,” changing the message to “Do believe in God?” That one was fixed, too.
True presumes the perpetrators are believers. That’s understandable, but unclear because no one’s been caught.
You might be thinking those angry-at-the-atheists vandals are quite clever at excising words and letters to flip a message’s meaning. But in the bigger scheme, their endeavors have boomeranged.
Hoyt has collected news reports of the vandalism from 30 places around the country. He got one supportive email from Great Britain. And the biggest beneficiary of the resulting publicity has been the Southern Virginia Atheists.
Since the billboards went up and the vandalism was publicized, “We’ve gotten 38 new members,” True told me. In other words, the SVA is more than 1,000 percent larger now than it was in September.
Another group, the Secular Humanists of Roanoke, have grown from 81 to 109 members in the past month, Hoyt said.
They’re meeting Saturday at 1 p.m. underneath the sign in Salem, at the intersection of Electric Road and Salem-Lynchburg Turnpike.
Joining them will be members from The Charlottesville Skeptics and the Lynchburg Area Secular Humanists. They’re all independent affiliates of the Blue Ridge Coalition of Reason.
The meeting will probably be the greatest concentration of nonbelievers in the Roanoke Valley’s history.
They’ve been brought together because some dolts decided to try and suppress the message on those billboards. Moves like that have been predictably backfiring for generations, with books, movies, music and in other realms.
The American value called freedom of speech is pretty solid that way. It has a neat and built-in self-protection system against suppression. You’d think the idiots would learn that lesson and act otherwise.
But then they wouldn’t be idiots, would they?
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