Their Belief Is in the Power of Persuasion

July 24, 2009 - NYC 
Their Belief Is in the Power of Persuasion                                                                         
For the city’s organized atheists — here’s hoping that doesn’t sound oxymoronic — the rotten economy would seem in one respect to be Heaven-sent.                                                                                                                                                                                         
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            “You got it,” Kenneth Bronstein said. Mr. Bronstein is president of New York City Atheists, whose name should be self- explanatory. 
For the last month, his group has run 12-foot-long advertisements on the sides of city buses in Manhattan. You may have seenthem, though perhaps not. New York City Transit has 981 buses assigned to Manhattan, and the atheists could afford ads on only about two dozen. 
The message, in white lettering on a sky-blue background, is nonconfrontational by design. It doesn’t attack religion or say there is no God. It simply says: “You don’t have to believe in God to be a moral or ethical person.” Hard to gainsay that thought. Most of us know nonbelievers who are pillars of rectitude. We also know pious types who are as honest as a Siberian winter’s day is long. 
Mr. Bronstein said that the ad campaign, scheduled to end this weekend, was a resounding success that prompted donations and requests to join his organization. “We don’t announce our numbers,” he said, “but we say we have hundreds of paid members.” 
Religious people have contacted him to say they agree with the message, he said. More meaningful to him are calls from fellow nonbelievers. “Many, many atheists were so proud that we finally put a sign up,” he said. “We announced to the world that we’re around. We’re here.” 
In some respects the strategy echoes that of the gay-rights movement, by persuading once-closeted people to come out. Polls show that atheists’ numbers are growing around the country. “I got phone calls from people who said, ‘I’ve been an atheist all my life, and I was afraid to tell anybody,’ ” Mr. Bronstein said. Because of the ads, he said, those people now feel, “Hey, there are others of us out there, and I’m proud to be an atheist.” 
To get back to the point raised earlier, the poor economy has been something of a blessing for the nonbelievers. “We probablycould not have gotten this poster program in New York City if the financial times were very good,” said Mr. Bronstein, who is 70 and retired from I.B.M. “But people arelooking for business.” 
The company that sells the ads on New York buses is Titan Worldwide. Mr. Bronstein’s conversations with a Titan representative led him to believe that in normal times he might have been deemed too small a fish. You may have noticed that these are not normal times. 
“I didn’t have the money to go with a $50-to-$100,000 program,” he said. “I had about 10,000 bucks to play with. I think what happened was that they needed business. If you look at subway cars, there are a lot of empty spaces for advertisements. The bottom line is that they bought into the $10,000 program.” 
IT was much the same with the company that printed the ads, for about $1,000. “I have never, ever had such a response,” he said. “They kept calling me back: ‘Can I help you with this? Can I help you with that?’ For a $1,000 order they spent an awful lot of time trying to get my business.” 
Officials at Titan and at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said they had not received a single complaint about the atheists’ ad. Same goes for him, Mr. Bronstein said. “The only potential negative comment I’ve received is from a few atheists who had wished my statement was stronger: ‘Bash religion because they bash us all the time.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t go that way.’ ” 
One goal for him now is to raise enough money to expand the campaign to buses beyond Manhattan. But let’s face it: Your group hasn’t truly made it in New York until the city suspends alternate-side street sweeping rules for one of your holidays. Most of the 30-plus designated holidays are religious in nature. This is one city where cleanliness is not necessarily next to godliness. The problem with being an atheist is that you don’t have a holiday. “That’s what Henny Youngman said,” Mr. Bronstein noted. 
Possible holidays have been proposed. One is Charles Darwin’s birthday, Feb. 12. Abraham Lincoln pretty much has that date sewn up, though. Besides, Mr. Bronstein doesn’t think much of the idea. “Darwin is too controversial,” he said. Either solstice would be better, he said. Maybe both. 
 Not that it really matters. “They’re going to turn me down no matter what I do,” he said.