CRANFORD, N.J. (Christian Examiner) – The group American Atheists has launched a holiday billboard campaign designed to dissuade people from going to church if they have doubts about religion.
The billboard campaign is an annual tradition for the organization, founded in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Murray v. Curlett, the landmark 1963 case which challenged prayer in public schools. This year's billboards are a play on those from last year.
In 2014, American Atheists posted billboards on which a child was seen writing a letter to Santa, asking if she could be excused from going to church because she no longer believed in "fair tales."
Now, according to American Atheists President David Silverman, Santa has responded, telling the girl to go ahead and skip church and "be good for goodness sake."
"We want people to know that going to church has absolutely nothing to do with being a good person," Silverman said. "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."
According to the most recent survey of religion in American life in 2014, nearly 77 percent of Americans considered themselves religious in some respect. Most of those classified themselves as Christian, while roughly only 6 percent claimed affiliation with other faiths including Judaism, Hinduism and Islam. Some 16 percent claimed "nothing in particular" as a religious belief, which could be accounted for by measuring those disgruntled with denominational affiliations, shifts to loosely defined evangelical churches, or actual church defections.
American Atheists, of course, is hoping for the latter. In the press release accompanying the announcement of their billboard campaign, the group said this year's campaign is designed "to reach the millions of people who still attend church occasionally and call themselves religious, but have doubts about their beliefs."
"It is important for these folks who are on the fence about their beliefs to know that they can take that first big step and leave church," Nick Fish, national program director of American Atheists, said in a statement. "There are tens of millions of atheists in this country. We're everywhere. And we don't need church or gods to tell us how to be good people."
Reaction to the billboards has been mixed in North Carolina and Colorado, where they are posted. Near Colorado Springs, where one billboard is up not far from the headquarters of Focus on the Family and other Christian ministries, one passerby called it "a little offensive."
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"When I first saw it, I thought, 'What do they mean by that?'" Alexis Esselman told ABC-affiliate WJBF. "It can be insulting to those who are religious and do celebrate it for Christianity and religion in general."
Another woman, Damara Metrick, said the atheists may have had good intentions, but "they could have worded it differently."
American Atheists spokesman Randy Gotovich said American Atheists chose Colorado Springs because of its close ties to Evangelical Christianity. Gotovich said the organization was trying to be "inclusive" of everyone and tell people – even non-religious people – that they can celebrate Christmas.
"It shouldn't be viewed strictly as a Christian holiday," Gotovich said. "People celebrate the birth of Christ and that's perfectly fine. The other side of it is inherently secular: spending time with family, swapping gifts, having a meal together. That's not inherently religious."
This year's billboards are decidedly tame compared to those in years prior to 2014. In 2012, the billboards referred to God as "sadistic" and "useless." Silverman said in 2012 the American Atheists were using their rights under the Constitution to "ridicule the silliness of religion."