Like fruitcake and mistletoe, the annual atheist billboards have become a regular, if controversial, harbinger of the holidays.
This year's billboards feature a man dressed as Santa with a finger to his lips: "Go ahead and skip church! Just be good for goodness' sake. Happy Holidays!"
“We want people to know that going to church has absolutely nothing to do with being a good person,” said David Silverman, president of American Atheists, in a statement. “The things that are most important during the holiday season – spending time with loved ones, charity, and being merry—have nothing to do with religion.”
The billboards are located in the predominantly religious areas of Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Colorado Springs, Colorado.
That's not by mistake, says Nick Fish, national program director of American Atheists.
The billboards' target audience includes "atheists who live in extremely religious places and don't see atheist messages," Mr. Fish told the Christian Science Monitor in an interview. "They see standard issue Christian messaging, and they can feel very lonely, very alone. We want people to know they're not alone."
The billboards are also targeting people who have doubts about their beliefs. "They may still call themselves Christian, occasionally go to church, but are questioning the stuff they've been taught. They continue to go [to church] because of strong cultural ties. We want to give those people permission [not to attend]," he says.
Fish said the billboards are designed to be a little provocative to generate interest. They also fan the flames of the so-called "war on Christmas," a phrase often used to denote perceived efforts in the US to separate the holiday from Christianity in an effort to be politically correct and multiculturally sensitive.
According to some recent polls, 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.
Which is why Fish says he's not surprised by the backlash the group has received.
"This is probably the least controversial billboard we've ever done," he says but adds that "challenging [religious beliefs] can be threatening for people. We know there will be controversy."
"It's terrible, especially this time of year," Bonnie Miller told Colorado Springs TV news station KRDO. "I don't think everyone has to go to church, but I'm a believer and I just don't like that whole message."
"I think it's really terrible, personally my family is strictly Catholic, I was raised like that," Vanessa Holdridge also told the station. "I like the happy holidays part, that's OK, but we should keep Christ in Christmas."
Feedback from atheists has also been mixed.
"Big waste of money and effort!" commenter DianeCK wrote on the American Atheists website. "I am an agnostic. I do secular Christmas. I do not feel like it is my business whether others attend church at Christmas or not. And it is certainly not my job to dictate to them whether they should go to church or not. While I understand and agree that you don't need religion to be a good person, I feel that crusading atheists are just as bad as crusading Christians."
Another commenter, Adjel, said she supports the billboards.
"More and more atheists and "nones" are popping up because we are standing up and speaking up," she wrote on the group's site. "This encourages more to do so. So yes, a billboard helps."
While there has been some disagreement about the organization's approach, most atheists he's heard from support the billboards, said Fish.
"Sure, there's always going to be disagreement, but the vast majority of feedback has been positive," he said, adding that the organization has received "hundreds of messages of support, hundreds of donations."
"It's hard to change anyone's mind with a billboard," he added. "But every time assumptions are questioned, that's progress. When people sitting in these communities making default assumption that everyone is religious, every time we can question that, that moves the needle a little bit. if you can change the outlook of someone, an inch at a time, that's how big change happens."