“Go ahead and skip church!” Santa urges on one billboard in North Carolina. “Just be good for goodness’ sakes. Happy Holidays!”
Some residents of Kernersville, N.C., where the billboard appeared on Business 40 Eastbound beside a diner, were not amused.
“I think this is awful,” one woman told Fox 5. “After all we do have Christmas because it’s Jesus’ birthday.”
“It is beyond disrespectful to my community and disrespectful to my beliefs,” another local said.
American Atheists, meanwhile, stood by its message, posted this year on billboards near Winston-Salem, N.C., and in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“We want people to know that going to church has absolutely nothing to do with being a good person,” David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said 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.”
American Atheists’ provocative holiday messages are becoming a Christmas tradition of sorts, appearing at least since 2010 from Fort Smith, Ark., to Times Square. On last year’s billboard, a child wrote to Santa to express but one Christmas wish: to skip church.
“This year, Santa wrote back,” Silverman said.
American Atheists said that it is trying to reach not just the 23 percent of Americans with no religious affiliation, but also those who continue to attend services though they no longer believe or have doubts.
“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. “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.”
Atheists are not always well-received when they try to push their views. Last year, for example, American Atheists was criticized when the group placed an ad outside of MetLife Stadium in New Jersey ahead of the Super Bowl.
“A ‘Hail Mary’ only works in football,” the billboard read. “Enjoy the game!”
Those who disagreed with American Atheists asked what exactly it meant for prayer to “work” in the first place.
“These atheists have fallen into a misunderstanding that is shared by many religious people — namely, that prayer works by changing outcomes,” Henry G. Brinton wrote in USA Today. “… Instead, prayer changes the people who pray, making them more peaceful and accepting and aligned with religious virtues. Prayer doesn’t change the heart and mind of God, but it can change our hearts and minds.”
A similar billboard — “Who Needs Christ During Christmas? Nobody.” — posted in Times Square in 2013 prompted a petition calling for the “immediate withdrawal” of the ad, saying it lacked “decency, civility and kindness.”
“It seems to me that this is part of a continued ‘War on Christmas’ and also upon the belief and value system of millions of Christian, Jewish and Muslim people who have faith in God,” N.Y. State Sen. Andrew Lanz (Staten Island) said at the time. “Religious persecution of the kind that similarly led to the Holocaust began with small baby steps of ridicule and hatred of the religious beliefs of others.”