Several weeks ago, psychologist Richard Wade hypothesized that the reason why advertising campaigns for secular, humanist and atheist groups have sparked such heated "controversy" - both in the real world where the ads are displayed and on the interweb where they have been discussed - is not because the ads themselves display any objectively "offensive" content, but because the very idea that atheists exist at all and dare to make that existence known is what offends the religious majority.
To test this hypothesis, Richard challenged atheists to come up with an ad that is as inoffensive as possible, simply signing it "brought to you by local atheist group" or similar. He provided some helpful (photoshopped :)) examples like this one:
The NEPA Freethought Society seems to have agreed with this concern and in an attempt to avoid any misunderstanding, they submitted the billboard design below:
It merely names their group. And yet, COLTS (the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) in Pennsylvania) rejected the ad. The same bus company runs regular ads for local religious groups and churches, but refused to accept an ad from an atheist group which simply says "Atheists."
Is it any wonder that there are so few people who are openly atheist in a culture which rejects the very notion of our existence? A recently published study found that the most distrusted group in America is atheists - we are considered even less trustworthy than rapists in some circumstances! A New York Times poll taken in 2007 shows that the most unelectable group in the country is - you guessed it - atheists. A whopping 63% of people polled said they would not vote for anyone who does not believe in a god.
But never mind polls and studies (after all, who ever believes that musty, dusty studies and research have any bearing on their reality?). In spite of this evidence of real and growing discrimination against atheists, any theist will tell you that there is no problem at all for atheists in our culture. More important, if the damned atheists would only shut up and stop being so arrogant and pushy, there would be far less division and social unrest right now!
Atheists are so universally reviled that even an American president, representative of all* of the citizens of the United States, felt free to publicly castigate atheists. We are the one group that anyone can discriminate against with impunity. Atheists are accused of being arrogant, pushy, divisive and responsible for all the ills in the world: why would any reasonable person be eager to come out and be plastered with all of these labels?
* According to George H W Bush, atheists should not rightly be citizens. See what he did there?