This billboard, on I-480, between the State and Ridge exits, was paid for the Northeast Ohio Coalition of Reason (NEO CoR), which brings together "freethinkers" of various stripes. To find out more, we contacted Mark Tiborsky and Ray Valenti, the Northeast Ohio and Akron/Canton coordinators, respectively.
Your website [neocor.org] uses different terms for NEO CoR member groups, like humanists, freethinkers, rationalists, atheists — what do they all share in common?
They're all code words for "infidel." Just kidding. All those terms imply personal convictions which are firmly rooted in the secular — although it must be noted that one need not be an atheist to be a humanist, freethinker or rationalist.
Valenti: We all reject forms of mysticism, dogma and belief systems unsupported by empirical evidence and untestable using the scientific method. We have had a few Christians join us at our meetings in the past, and we invite others who are interested in honest discussions to engage with us online or in person.
What happened to the term "brights"?
It is still used sparingly, mostly by the younger generation. Other atheists, humanists, etc. don't like the term because they feel it has a "smarter than thou" ring to it.
Valenti: The Brights is another community with a naturalistic worldview, and we fully support them. But for me, using that name might suggest that we view those who do not agree with us as "Dims." This is not a good way to begin a conversation.
What are the most common misconceptions about your beliefs?
Probably that since we reject Christian beliefs, we also reject Christian morality. In reality, there is much overlap and agreement, particularly with the liberal denominations. We do tend to diverge from the positions of the "Christian Right," however. I don't think I've ever met a Freethinker who is opposed to gay rights or marriage. This is an example of where religion is a regressive force in society. The limits placed on stem-cell research during the Bush administration is another area where allowing the mythology of the past to enter into politics has hindered progress. My wife has MS and so far no deity has appeared to help, but if government-sponsored research had not been limited, we might be closer to a cure by now.
Tiborsky: The most common miscon-ception about atheism is that "atheists believe in nothing." We atheists believe — or better yet, are convinced —that the universe came about by purely naturalistic means. We also believe in our fellow humans, sometimes.
How did the billboard come about? What has the response been like?
We were happily holding our meetings when we were approached by [United Coalition of Reason] with the offer to make our presence more public. So far it has been fairly quiet, and this is good. We have decided that Northeast Ohio is an atheist-friendly region since no real negative response has resulted so far. But the billboard will be up for a month, so there could be more to come.
Where does United Coalition of Reason get its funds?
United CoR is independently funded; they accept no public donations. They do, however, recommend that in lieu of donations to United CoR, one can donate to the local CoR groups. Got any?
Are you open with friends and family about your atheism? Has it ever strained relationships?
I was reared in a non-religious family, so I have always been able to be fairly open about my nontheism. Other members of the various NEOCoR groups are not so lucky. Some are 50-plus years old, and still can't tell mom that they are atheist.
Valenti: Actually, I'm fortunate in that my family is aware, and they have always been very accepting. But this is not the case for everyone. Some people are simply disowned and feel very isolated when they announce that they don't believe. NEOCoR affiliates serve as support system for people in this situation.
What's the most memorable thing anyone has ever said to you about your beliefs?
That's a tough one. I had one friend who claimed that I seemed angry about religion. Perhaps this was out of frustration with being a member of a minority with no public voice. Thanks to our local Freethought groups, that has now been remedied.
Tiborsky: "You are one weird dude."