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An intensifying tug of war over Christmas

Friday, November 12, 2010; B01

If you've been appalled by this year's ever-earlier commercial Christmas creep - the profusion of red and green that bleeds into our lives before the orange and black have even left the shelves - just wait until you see how quickly the war over the meaning of Christmas is heating up.

This year's first big pre-holiday blow-up comes from atheists who are trying to take the religious edge off this time of year by featuring passages from the Bible and other religious texts that mention slaughtered men, plundered cities, severed heads and eviscerated women. You know, the cheery stuff.

The philosophical and religious wars have caught up with the holiday price wars. Why wait until next month when you can begin your existential debate early?

The American Humanist Association, both atheists and agnostics who think it is possible to lead a moral and ethical life without believing in a deity, rolls out its biggest ad campaign Friday night, a $200,000 splash with a TV spot during "Dateline," followed by Metro and bus ads that will brighten the morning commute Monday.

The group's ad campaign this year is aggressive and shrill. The ads pit particularly violent or archaic passages from religious texts against more inclusive, mellow and peaceful writings of secular humanists. They target the Koran as well as the Bible.

The Bible: "The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open." God, Hosea 13:16 (New International Version).

Humanism: "I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own - a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty." Albert Einstein, column for the New York Times, Nov. 9, 1930.

Taking on religion has become a new tradition with the godless set this time of year, when they aim to comfort those who feel a little lost in a world aglow in the celebration of Christ's birth.

But don't worry - this year, the Return-Christ-to-Christmas movement, led by the Liberty Counsel, is fighting back with a "naughty and nice" shopping list of stores where Christians can fuel the American economy by doing Christmas shopping. Pointedly, not holiday shopping.

Who would imagine that American Girl dolls are naughty? The counsel did a takedown of those plastic strumpets from their Web site, fuming that the word "holiday" was everywhere with only four items that mentioned "Christmas."

Kmart makes the nice list. How could it not, when its Web site features "Mr. Blue Light's Christmas Countdown"?

But let's say you don't really need to hear the word "Christmas" to feel kindness and charity toward your fellow humans.

In recent years, the humanists had some cute ads that featured everyday folks in Santa hats and the slogan: "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness's sake."

"For the most part, we are reaching out to nontheists, to atheists who thought they were alone and now realize there is a way to connect with like-minded folks," Roy Spekhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said of the goodness campaign. "But this will also give those people on the fence something to think about."

The market might be growing. In a recent American Religious Identification Survey, the number of people who claim no specific religious affiliation grew to 34 million, 15 percent of the American adult population.

These are not atheists but people whose minds might be open to a less judgmental, stringent and prescribed religious vibe.

They are religion's equivalent of a swing vote. And the humanists want them on their side.

I think of the woman with the big lunch bag and even bigger Bible who was sitting next to me on the Orange Line the other day, surely finding the strength to slog through another grueling day in the well-worn pages of that book. How would she react to seeing the humanists' take-down of her faith?

And I wonder if such a harsh attack is, well, humanist?

"Humanists believe in and value love, equality, peace, freedom and reason - values that are comparable to those of moderate and liberal religious people," Spekhardt said.

But, I ask him, to what aim is the in-your-face ad campaign this Christmas?

"We definitely want to grow the movement," Spekhardt told me.

So let's say you're sold. You're buying the peace and love thing. Now what?

That is a question posed even by fellow atheists, who love the ad campaign but are hungry for a next step. Where do you go if you want to become a humanist? What do you do?

Let's go to the American Humanist Association. The office is at 17th and T streets NW. in a brown brick rowhouse. There's some furniture, office equipment, plain glass windows, brown blinds.

But where are the other people? Where is the humanist picnic, pageant and the service or worship or chat or whatever they do?

You begin to miss the cardboard angels of the Christmas pageant, the Jell-O mold at the picnic, the spicy lamb at the Eid al-Fitr feast, the matzoh ball soup at your aunt's seder.

"Religious people have such beautiful music and art. And atheists really have nothing," said comedian Steve Martin, before singing an a cappella lament in a routine, "Atheists don't got no songs."

For many people, continuing with a religious tradition despite doubts or nonalignment might be more about finding a community, tradition, culture and a social life rather than avoiding eternal damnation.

So, humanists, what do you have to offer in that department?

"We sometimes have gatherings at Busboys and Poets," Spekhardt said.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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