What’s a prominent secular organization to do when a request to remove Bibles from state-owned property is unsuccessful?
American Atheists, the feisty group of nonbelievers known for its outspoken billboard campaigns and arguments with Bill O’Reilly, decided to fight fire with fire -- or, rather, fight scripture with Hitchens.
The group announced on Friday that it's planning to ship piles of popular atheist books to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources for display in all state park cabins. The decision follows a brewing controversy that escalated after a visitor to a state park in north Georgia found a Gideon Bible in a cabin he’d rented there. As it turns out, the visitor was Ed Buckner, who served as president of American Atheists between 2008 and 2010.
As the Associated Press reported last week, Buckner complained that Bibles in state-owned cabins are tantamount to a state endorsement of religion, a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. (Would the state display a copy of the Koran, for instance, or a Hebrew Bible?) In response to Buckner’s complaint, Georgia officials agreed to remove the Bibles while they investigated the matter, but once it was discovered that the books were paid for by the Gideons International -- and not by the state -- Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal ordered the Bibles returned. As Deal said in a statement, “any group is free to donate literature” to state cabins and lodges.
So American Atheists took Deal up on the offer. The group said it'll donate enough atheist-related books to place alongside Bibles in every state park cabin in Georgia. The books to be donated include “Why I Am Not A Muslim,” by Ibn Warraq, “God Is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens,” “The God Delusion,” by Richard Dawkins and “Why I Am an Atheist” by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who founded American Atheists in 1963. Hitchens, a popular contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Atlantic and elsewhere, died of esophageal cancer in 2011. Dawkins, meanwhile, is among the most prominent and outspoken atheists alive.
David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said the group is simply trying to provide counter-literature to Georgia state park visitors. “American Atheists does not believe the State of Georgia should be placing Bibles or atheist books in state park cabins,” he said in a statement. “However, if the state is going to allow such distribution, we will happily provide our materials.”
Based in Nashville, the Gideons International, an evangelical Christian organization, claims to distribute Bibles and New Testaments to hotels, schools, prisons, hospitals and other locations in more than 190 countries.
American Atheists, based in Cranford, N.J., is among the most prominent groups advocating for the complete separation of church and state. In late November, at the height of Fox News’ annual War on Christmas, Silverman famously sparred with “The O’Reilly Factor” host Bill O’Reilly over holiday displays on government-owned property. O’Reilly eventually called Silverman “a fascist.”
On Monday, American Atheists spent much of its time on social media promoting the 4th annual “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” The informal movement was originally founded by free-speech advocates and is meant to combat threats of violence by militant Muslims who consider depictions of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad blasphemous.