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Atheist 'skip church' Christmas billboards: Offensive free speech?

An atheist group is sponsoring billboards in several Southern US cities:  "Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is to skip church. I'm too old for fairy tales," reads the billboard. 

The culture war over Christmas is an emerging annual tradition – like stockings and fruitcake. 

This year, one of the first salvos came courtesy of the American Atheists, a group which is sponsoring controversial billboards in several American cities in the South.

The billboards show a child wearing a Santa hat with pen hand, writing a letter to Santa that reads, "Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is to skip church. I'm too old for fairy tales."

Yes, that's an anti-Christmas billboard in the American Bible Belt. 

The billboards are aimed at "in-the-closet atheists who are pressured to observe religious traditions during the holidays," the American Atheists organization said in a statement.

“We want all of the atheists in Memphis to know that you're not alone,” American Atheist Public Relations Director Danielle Muscato told a local Memphis news station. “The girl on the billboard is a real person, she's actually the daughter of one of our members.”

“It's just drawing the conclusion by looking at the parallels. We can all stop pretending, we can stop dragging ourselves to church every year,” Muscato added.

The group's billboards add fuel to the fire of a so-called "war on Christmas," a phrase often used to denote efforts in the US to separate the holiday from Christianity in an effort to be politically correct and multiculturally sensitive. Conservatives in particular have slammed the media and businesses for removing religious references from the holiday. “A Happy Holiday IS a Merry Christmas,” Sarah Palin's 2013 book, is a sort of conservative manifesto on the subject.

Not surprisingly, the billboard is attracting plenty of attention – and not just for what it says.

Observers have complained about the use of a child in the billboard.

"My one objection to this billboard is the use of a child. That if we're going to have an adult conversation, it's almost inappropriate to bring children in as the visual message,” Suzanne Aviles, a spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of Memphis,Tenn., told a local Memphis news station.

"... why use the image of a little child? Why are adults spoiling Christmas for kids?" echoed former Florida GOP congressman Allen West in an essay on the billboards.

“Even children know churches spew absurdity, which is why they don’t want to attend services," American Atheists President David Silverman said in a statement. “Today’s adults have no obligation to pretend to believe the lies their parents believed. It’s OK to admit that your parents were wrong about God, and it’s definitely OK to tell your children the truth.”

Others have complained about the location of the billboards.

While previous billboards had been posted in places like Times Square in New York, this year's billboards were put in Bible Belt cities where religious affiliation is high: Memphis, Nashville, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Fort Smith, Ark., What's more, they've been put in more residential areas, often near schools and churches.

"Why place these in “Bible Belt” cities?" West asked in his essay. "[It] seems this group is purposefully targeting..."

“[T]he location is designed to start a conversation," explained the American Atheist's Muscato. “We understand that this a controversial subject in this part of the country. But, it really shouldn't be a controversial subject because atheism is everywhere, it's very strong and this is something that we would like for people to talk about."

Actually, many of the Bible Belt cities targeted by the American Atheists have high levels of religious affiliation – and few atheists. According to a Pew poll on religious belief, many of the states targeted by the campaign have a smaller-than-average percentage of people who responded that they do not believe in God, reports the Washington Post.

In Tennessee, for example, just 2 percent of respondents said they do not believe in God; 12 percent of respondents stated that they were religiously unaffiliated. By contrast, the national averages are 5 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

Generally speaking, Americans don't look very kindly on atheists. One poll showed that a majority of Americans said that a belief in God is necessary for individual morality. Another, a temperature-based rating system from Pew that measured how Americans felt about different faith groups found that Americans have the "coldest" feelings for atheists and Muslims – by a wide margin.

In other words, it's no wonder the billboards are so controversial.

In recent years, atheist groups have gone to lengths to promote atheism, often drawing plenty of controversy along the way.

A group in Florida attempted to distribute sexually explicit pamphlets invoking the Bible in area schools. “An X-Rated Book: Sex and Obscenity in the Bible," featured a cartoon illustration of a humanized Bible with a face, arms, and legs, reaching under the dress of a screaming woman who is trying to escape.

Do atheist promotions like the pamphlet and the "skip church" billboards fall under free speech rights?

For former Florida Rep. West, it's not clear.

"I truly believe in freedom of speech and I do not try to define what that freedom is (unlike those who define free speech as only speech they agree with)," he said in his essay. "However, it’s just perplexing to me that atheists go to such lengths to attack something they don’t believe exists...I also thought there was another First Amendment right of freedom of religion and its free exercise."

“We live in a pluralistic society and I'm grateful that we have freedom of expression,” added Ms. Aviles, of the the Catholic Diocese of Memphis. "I think the discussion is wonderful."

For those on the other side of the "Christmas wars," there's a billboard they can get behind.

According to 5newsonline, leaders of Grace Church in Alma, Ark., said they plan on putting up a billboard near the atheist one, saying, “Questions, Doubts and Curiosity…All Welcome At Grace Church.”

Let the Christmas billboard wars begin.

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