Bob Ray Sanders

is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Some of the best people I know do not practice a religion.

Several close friends are among the kindest, most generous individuals one could find, and yet they are not driven by the edicts of any deity or prophet, because they don't believe in a god.

A few of them are indeed "spiritual," but not in a religious sense.

It is great that we live in a country where people are allowed to worship freely or, if they so choose, fully reject the notion of a supreme being.

"Millions of Americans Are Good Without God" - so proclaims a new advertising theme sponsored by a coalition of atheist groups. The ad began appearing on four Fort Worth buses last week.

The message, intended to reach out to nonbelievers who may feel a little lonely or isolated, is one some Christians find offensive, especially coming at a time when they are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They consider it derogatory, insensitive, and too in-your-face.

News of the ad campaign quickly set off debates in the public square (talk radio) about whether people of faith should take umbrage at the mobile billboards, and whether the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (known as the T) should have accepted such an advertisement.

The T has a policy of accepting religious advertising. So it had no grounds on which to reject this ad. Besides, a T representative said, "we do not discriminate among faiths or beliefs."

That's a good thing.

The Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason, the group responsible for the ad, met the T's criteria and had the money to pay for the production costs and the space on the side of the buses.

Other people or groups can do the same thing to get their message out, and I'm sure the transit authority would appreciate the business.

Why is the message "Millions of People Are Good Without God" considered insulting, regardless of what time of year it is promoted?

It doesn't offend me. It doesn't irritate me. It in no way shakes my own faith or causes me to resent others because of theirs or their lack thereof.

I'm more bothered by "religious" people who talk a lot about God and then act in a most ungodly way toward their fellow human beings.

It's offensive to me to hear the hypocrites in the pulpit who sermonize mightily against certain sins and sinners and yet in private they are practicing just the opposite of what they preach.

I would rather be around a good person who doesn't believe in God than to be around a religious person who doesn't demonstrate a belief in the worth of other people.

We often find it easy to condemn others, especially if they don't accept what we believe.

This is even true of people in the same faith - Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and others.

Even sometimes within the same Christian denomination, the slightest difference in interpretation of Scripture will cause one person to declare himself the "true (or saved) believer" while he declares his confused brother to be hell-bound.

Religious folk have long seen the nonbeliever as the heathen, the infidel, and/or the devil incarnate. They often resent the thought of an atheist who dares articulate his or her nonfaith, seeing such a declaration as a slap in the face of Christians and God himself.

Whether or not you agree with the slogan "Millions of Americans Are Good Without God," you really shouldn't let it bother you.

The call by some ministers to boycott the buses is truly misguided. Will their churches provide daily transportation for people to get to work, school, medical facilities, and grocery stores? I doubt it.

I'd like to think more Christians and other people of faith are like the Rev. Ralph Emerson, pastor of Rising Star Baptist Church, who said he was not offended by the ad.

"We just accept there are persons who just don't fit into where we fit in," Emerson said. "We'll pray for them and hope one day they'll come to see the light."

Just remember that this is America, a land where people can believe whatever they want to believe and a place where even the nonbeliever has a right to bear witness to his or her nonbelief.

E-mail Bob Ray Sanders at bobray@star-telegram.com.