The atheists come forth bearing a message, and it is thus: Beware of religion, for it can lead you astray.
This message, in brief, has appeared on billboards all over town this week.
"Beware of Dogma" reads one. "Imagine no Religion" another. "Praise Darwin: Evolve Beyond Belief," says a third.
They're made up in a faux stained-glass motif, with the words written in a fancy script that evokes a churchy feel.
They are part of a nationwide marketing and outreach campaign by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit whose members see religion, and its adherents, as a problem that needs to be fixed. Some of the fixing, according to the group's Web site, www.ffrf.org, comes in the form of lawsuits it files when it thinks church and state become too entangled.
As for the billboards, "We just think it's tremendous fun to bring our message to the masses," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation's co-president.
The billboards -- there are nine of them in town -- started going up on Monday. They'll be up for a month.
Gaylor said the group has a similar campaign going on in nearly every state, and Nevada is the 25th to get the billboards.
There are two of them. First, to get people talking by being provocative. Second, to let folks who might agree with their message know they are not alone.
"We hope to open some eyes, and we hope to cheerlead a little bit for free thought," Gaylor said.
The group usually comes to a city after a local member scouts the place out and locates a few good spots for billboards. Here, that man is John Whiteside, a retired pilot who said he came to his atheism slowly.
"I really do feel that the billboards promote science and the separation of church and state," said Whiteside, 57, who lives in Henderson. "I view them as a patriotic duty."
Whiteside is originally from Mississippi. He said he was raised religious, but it never really took.
He held on to his beliefs, however, because of what's known as Pascal's Wager, which goes something like this: Though the existence of God cannot be proved, we should live our lives as though He does because we have nothing to lose by believing, but everything to lose by not believing.
Whiteside went on to join the Marine Corps and later the Air Force reserves. He dropped bombs over Iraq in Operation Desert Storm and later worked as a commercial airline pilot.
He said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were a "wake-up call to the evils of religion."
He retired soon after, and he began to read the Bible for the first time in his life. He read it once, didn't get it completely, read it again, and read it again.
After this third reading, he abandoned his belief.
He wants to poke fun, provoke talk, win a convert or two, let others like him know they are not alone, brandish his beliefs proudly.
He had heard about the foundation's national campaign, so he contacted it about coming to Las Vegas. He paid for the billboards, about $2,500, he said.
He said his greatest concern is that surveys show nearly half of Americans believe in the biblical story of creation.
This cannot stand, he said, in a society that is supposed to value scientific education.
So, the billboards. The provocation. The gentle and not-so-gentle teasing.
This is typical for fringe groups that want to be taken seriously, said UNLV political science professor Ted Jelen, who studies religion, politics and public opinion.
"The first stage," he said, "is the willingness to be outrageous."
That makes it easier for those who agree to speak up, which eventually can lead to their being taken seriously.
He compared what atheists are doing now to what the gay movement did in the 1960s and '70s.
Next, they'll likely want a seat at the policymaking table, he said.
But that's not likely to happen soon despite the media blitz. Jelen said recent surveys show that atheists are the least popular group in America.
"You won't find any candidates for office endorsing this," he said.
Contact reporter Richard Lake at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0307.