The most reliable annual “war on Christmas” fodder in all the land has arrived: A billboard, released by an atheist group, prodding at the religious foundation of the Christmas season with a reminder that atheists exist.
This year’s billboard — as it has in the past — comes from American Atheists. And this year’s billboard — as it has in the past — will fail to live up to the worst fears of its critics.
Don’t worry, Christmas is still coming. Billboards don’t cancel Christmas.
The billboard will appear in Memphis, Nashville, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Fort Smith, Ark. — right in the middle of a handful of red states. The campaign, according to an American Atheists news release, is “aimed at in-the-closet atheists who are pressured to observe religious traditions during the holidays” and who might want to attend the group’s Memphis conference next year. Running from Dec. 1 through Dec. 24, the campaign will also give the group a lot of press coverage (like this article) in the lead-up to Christmas.
“Dear Santa,” the billboard reads. “All I want for Christmas is to skip church! I’m too old for fairy tales.”
Last year, the same group purchased a billboard in Times Square. A state senator took the bait and asked for the billboard to come down. The group responded by announcing it would put up a similar billboard in the senator’s home district, on Staten Island.
In 2012, American Atheists had another billboard in Times Square, this one reading: “Keep the Merry! Dump the Myth!” Similar billboards from the group go back at least four years, to 2010.
Effective or not, the campaigns are certainly good at attracting attention to an affiliation that does not fare particularly well in public opinion polls.
According to a Pew poll on 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. In Tennessee, for instance, just 2 percent of respondents said they do not believe in God; 12 percent of respondents stated that they were religiously unaffiliated (the national averages are 5 percent and 16 percent, respectively).
But American Atheists said it is bringing the campaign to the South not because of the quantity of atheists there, but because “discrimination and mistrust of atheists is especially pronounced” in the region.
Although atheists (along with the religiously affiliated) debate the extent of backlash and discrimination atheists face across the country, that history is written into state law: Tennessee, along with seven other states, has a law on the books banning atheists from holding public office — though those laws are unenforceable thanks to a mid-20th century Supreme Court decision. In Mississippi, where the atheist group failed to secure placement for an ad in Jackson, two unenforceable laws prevent atheists from holding office and from testifying in court.
Overall, American attitudes towards atheists are not positive. In a poll earlier this year, a majority of Americans said that a belief in God is necessary for individual morality. And a temperature-based rating system from Pew measuring how people in the United States feel about different faith groups found that Americans, by a wide margin, have the “coldest” feelings for atheists and Muslims, of all religious groups.
Will this billboard change those numbers? Probably not. But every Christmas now comes with a war on Christmas. This billboard will help to kick off the season.