'Tis the season for attacks on what atheists call the folly of believing in the Christmas story.
Atheist groups have escalated a billboard offensive that they began last year, including a large sign on the New Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel that shows a Nativity scene and words in script reminiscent of Christmas cards that states, "You Know it's a Myth. This Season Celebrate Reason."
A Catholic group has fought back with a pro-Christmas billboard on the New York City side of the tunnel with a similar billboard that proclaims, "You Know it's Real. This Season Celebrate Jesus."
The groups behind the bah-humbug campaign say Christmas is the perfect time to promote a religion-free lifestyle, and they are doing so on billboards, magazines, trains, buses and televisions across the country. The aim of the ad blitz is to encourage nonbelievers to go public with their, well, disbelief.
"Trying to get folks to come out of the closet and be honest and open about their non-theism, that's very important to us," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association in Washington.
In 2009, Speckhardt's group said it ran the "first-ever national godless holiday campaign." Photos featured smiling people in Santa caps with the words "No God?... No Problem!" and the slogan "Be good for goodness' sake."
This year, the American Humanist Association ditched the holiday puns and seasonal cheer, and launched a set of monochrome ads. The campaign uses what it considers disturbing scripture passages about women, genocide, and homosexuality, such as this one from the New Testament:
"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple." (Jesus, Luke 14:26, New International Version)
It contrasts such quotes with others from prominent non-believers, in this case Katherine Hepburn:
"I'm an atheist, and that's it. I believe there's nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for each other."
The association runs ads year-round, but they garner more attention during the holiday season.
"I think doing non-theistic ads during the holiday makes sense, because we're bombarded with religious messages at this time," said Speckhardt. "Why not have some alternate ones out there?"
A Light at the End of the Tunnel?
In New York or New Jersey, the seasonal message is a light at the end of the tunnel – depending on which direction you're driving. Just before Thanksgiving, American Atheists bought a billboard at the busy entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey with its blunt anti-Christmas message.
The president of American Atheists, David Silverman, said the goal of the billboard was to steer "closeted atheists" who go to church during Christmas toward an active atheist community. It was also a call to Christians who Silverman said know that Jesus wasn't born on Dec. 25 and that a holiday this time of year actually began with pagans.
"The holiday, the Christmas holiday belongs to Christians, but the solstice season belongs to everyone," said Silverman.
A week after Silverman's billboard appeared, the Catholic League countered with its own billboard on the Manhattan side of the tunnel.
"I wanted to make a statement, because 80 percent of the American population is Christian, [and] 96 percent of the American population celebrates Christmas," said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League. "We don't need people trying to counter with their anti-messages in December."
The American Atheist chapter in Leesburg, Va.,has a winter solstice display set up next to a nativity scene on the grounds of the county court house. The group's state director, Rick Wingrove, said the public display underscores the impartiality of the county government and, like other campaigns, is meant to send a message to fellow atheists.
"The fact that we're present, that we're visible and vocal, convinces more and more people all the time that it's okay to come out," said Wingrove.
"There's certainly a lot more interest around this time every year," he said. "You know, people call us up and say, what do atheists do on Christmas?' and 'Are you guys setting up the signs again?'"
In response, Wingrove tells non-believers to celebrate as they wish. He himself, raised Catholic in Texas, still puts up a tree in his house. He maintains, however, that the holiday belongs to everyone, not just Christians. And like his New York colleague, Wingrove said the winter solstice predates Christianity.
No, Virginia, There is No God
Randolph Sly, associate editor for Catholic Online, said the origins of the holiday are pretty clear.
"That's the ironic thing about them saying that Christianity stole Christmas," said Sly. "Well, it's our word, you know, it's Christ mass."
The atheist groups say they want to "out" the godless, while the Christian groups say the holiday campaigns are evidence of a culture war. At this point it is unclear if a winner will emerge from this so-called battle. When pressed, almost everyone, including Rick Wingrove of American Atheists, did agree on one thing: that at least seasonal cheer is worth keeping around.
"Whatever routine you have, whatever you do with your family," he said, "I don't see any reason to not enjoy the season."