Atheist billboards encouraging viewers to skip church on Christmas are raising eyebrows in North Carolina and Colorado. However, the atheist organization behind the message insists the billboards are just trying to send a positive message.
— American Atheists (@AmericanAtheist) December 9, 2015
One such atheist billboard appears along Interstate 40 in North Carolina, between Greensboro and Winston-Salem, according to WCNC. The other is in Colorado Springs. David Silverman, president of American Atheists — the agency that bought the billboards — tells KRDO that the billboards aren’t necessarily meant to offend Christians. Rather, they’re about tearing down the stereotype that it’s impossible to be a good person without a religion.
“We want people to know that going to church has absolutely nothing to do with being a good person. 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.”
Still, American Atheists National Program Director Nick Fish admits that the billboards are meant to be “provocative.”
“We want it to be either a little funny, or edgy, or provocative in some way, so when people see it, they stop and go, ‘hey, wait a second, what did that just say?'”
He also admits that the billboards with the atheist message were deliberately timed to coincide with Christmas, a time when displays of religion are prominent.
“That’s why we do these billboards now, because this is a time when religious symbolism is in a lot of places. We want people to know they’re not alone.”
In the United States, atheists are definitely in the minority, although their numbers are large and growing. According to the Pew Research Center, one in five adults in the U.S. don’t have any specific religious affiliation. Of those, 12 percent identify as “atheist.” As a whole, atheists represented 3.1 percent of the population in 2014, up from 1.6 percent in 2007. That means that there are roughly 10 million atheists — who are willing to admit it — in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the number of Americans who identify as Christian is on the decline. Although still by far the nation’s largest religious group, the percentage of adults who identify as Christian went down from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014.
As a minority group, some atheists claim to have even suffered discrimination or, at the very least, open hostility. According to an American Humanist Association report, Nicole Smalkowski, a high school basketball player at a public high school in Oklahoma, was kicked off of the team because she refused to participate in daily prayers. Her family filed a lawsuit, which was eventually settled out of court.
Fish hopes the billboards strike a nerve with people who may be closeted atheists or who may be considering leaving religion behind.
“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. 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.”
Over in Colorado Springs, the billboards have also struck a nerve with area Christians. Bonnie Miller, for one, found the atheist billboard offensive.
“It’s terrible. Especially this time of year. I don’t think everyone has to go to church but I’m a believer and I just don’t like that whole message.”
Damara Metrick wasn’t necessarily offended, but she did think the atheists could have made their point a little less provacatively.
“I think their intentions are good, but maybe they could have worded it differently.”
The atheist billboards will remain up at least through December.
[Image via Shutterstock/igor.stevanovic]