December 23, 2020

Want to Make Their Christmas Merry? Skip Church

American Atheists billboard

As 2014 drew to a close, American Atheists unveiled a new holiday billboard they placed in a few locations in the South to promote their 2015 national convention in Memphis, TN. Not surprisingly, the story quickly shifted from the convention to the billboard. For reasons I can't pretend to understand, many Christians are quick to take offense at atheist billboards, including those that shouldn't be controversial at all.

In the days and weeks that followed the 2014 billboard, I read a fair amount of criticism from both Christians and atheists. I decided not to address the details of it here, as I felt that there was more than enough taking place elsewhere. Instead, I limited myself to sharing my thoughts on the billboard and others like it (i.e., atheist billboards designed to be at least somewhat provocative).

I noted that I liked the billboard. I still do. In fact, I think it has aged remarkably well. It is provocative, had people talking, and generated quite a bit of publicity for American Atheists. Thanks to the media coverage these billboards received art the time, it was hard to imagine that anybody who might attend an atheist convention wouldn't have known about the one in Memphis. I think was the point here. Beyond that, I appreciate the billboard's message. Adults are too old for fairy tales, and we should think twice about compelling our children to participate in them. Very few children would choose to attend church if they weren't pressured to do so. Why not allow them that much freedom?

Some of the controversy around the billboard had as much to do with its location than its message. I was not terribly worried about how the message might be perceived by Christians throughout the South because I recognized that they were not its audience. This was not a billboard aiming to persuade Christians of anything. In addition, I am well aware of how many Christians in the South perceive atheists. Even a far more provocative billboard than this one was not going to make something that bad appreciably worse. I'd like to see billboards like this in Mississippi because relatively few Christians here are ever asked to consider the possibility that not all of their neighbors share their religious beliefs.

Back in 2014, I applauded American Atheists for holding a convention in Tennessee because this is a region where few atheists are free to be open about their thoughts on religion or to spend time with other atheists. I noted that I'd really like to see more atheist, humanist, secular, and skeptic meetings like this taking place throughout the South. I hope that one of the things we might learn during the COVID-19 pandemic is the importance of making this sort of thing more accessible online. I am thinking much broader than conventions when I say that because I suspect there are plenty of atheists living in oppressively religious areas who will never be able to afford the luxury of traveling to conventions. Perhaps small loosely organized metups would be welcome to some.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2014. It was revised and updated in 2020.