Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 11, June 2001: "God on the highway"


"Let's meet at my house Sunday before the game." "Keep using my name in vain, I'll make rush hour longer." "My way is the highway." "You think it's hot here?" "Don't make me come down there." These and other inspiring messages have appeared on many large billboards throughout the United States during the last couple of years. They are all signed "God." I maintain that they are among the most offensive and insensitive signs a driver is forced to look at on our highways, and the people who should be most offended are Christians themselves.

See, as a secular humanist, I can react in two ways to these stern divine admonitions written in large white letters on a stark black background. I can get irritated, in which case I switch the cassette player on to listen to my favorite Kurt Vonnegut novel and have a laugh. Or I can laugh directly at the signs. My favorite one is "We need to talk." I keep looking for God's email or voice mail, but can't find it anywhere.

But a good Christian should be much more disturbed than I am. I should know. I used to be one. Where I grew up, I was told that it is a sin of incredible arrogance to pretend to speak in God's name unless He has directly given authorization to you via personal revelation. To have the gall not only to speak on His behalf, but to actually sign His name, is as bad as falsifying a signature on a cosmic check drawn at the Bank of Infinite Wisdom, and the consequences for the perpetrator of the misdeed might be eternal bad credit.

If I were still a Christian, I would be outraged at this cheap publicity stunt, which is unlikely to lead anybody down the path of eternal salvation or spiritual enlightenment. If I were not a Christian but still believed in some kind of God, I would be doubly offended by the profanity of the advertising campaign and by the fact that the signature at the end is clearly the one of an impostor.

Please understand that I am not calling for a boycott, censorship or legal action. Unfortunately, in this country money can buy you anything, regardless of your lack of taste. If you are powerful enough you can afford to insult anybody and still be admired by a large portion of the public. After all, George W. Bush Jr. insulted his chief opponent for the Presidential elections of 2000, Al Gore, by "accusing" him of being a "point-headed" intellectual. Routinely people who want to sell a product to the American public air commercials in which rather than telling you why their latest creation is so good they waste millions of dollars attempting to depict the competition as a bunch of morons. And now it is time for God to get on the publicity bandwagon. I suppose that if Jesus were alive today he would have to do the rounds of talk shows.

What I am calling for is simply a minimum of self-imposed decency. If you want to believe in whatever supernatural entity tickles your fancy and makes you feel better about what-after all-is a pretty meaningless universe, fine. If you want to brainwash your children into following suit to practice your particular version of nonsense, that is also your right (unless you withdraw medical care from them as a result, in which case you are culpable of murder). If you wish to witness the glorious power of your particular make and model of god, you have plenty of opportunities to do so. But why is it that you need to force other people into having part in your fantasy world? That is what happens when you put signs on the highway, because people cannot avoid looking at them. That is also what happens when you wish to force a prayer at a graduation ceremony. Have you ever stopped to think that you may have suddenly transformed what was a routine (in the case of driving) or fun (in the case of graduation) activity for everybody into your own special pulpit, with the consequence of unnecessarily making other people feel like outsiders, unwanted, undeserving? Is that really the Christian thing to do?

When you open a "Christian" retail store, have you thought about the fact that immediately a good percentage of your potential clients feel alienated and unwelcome? And incidentally, What Would Jesus Do if He found out that you use His name to sell cheap merchandise for personal profit? I have an idea of what He would do, but you don't need to trust a heathen: just check Matthew 21:11-13 in your own Holy Book to find out.

The problem, of course, is that religion-to be successful and spread-has to be obnoxious, overbearing, always ready to take advantage of any opportunity to make converts or to stigmatize enemies. When it doesn't, as in the case of Judaism, it confines itself to a small group of practitioners, which significantly augments its chances of going extinct. But the practitioners of such aggressive religions need to keep one fundamental distinction in mind: the message is true or false independently of how good your advertising agent is. It is common practice in this country to (probably justly) criticize politicians for governing by opinion polls and spin doctoring. But we don't think this is good. How do you think God is reacting to the continuous twisting of His message in the name of more proselytizing? Are you sure that you shouldn't have a private talk with Him before putting up another sign on the highway?


Next Month: "The Wedge: what happens if science is taken over by ideology?"

by Massimo Pigliucci, 2001