Driving in America is an utter terrifying ordeal, filled with collapsing infrastructure, lunatics behind pieces of large machinery, and completely arbitrary traffic laws an interesting experience. Mainly because as you drive along, you get a good feel for the commercial values of each region of the States in the form of billboards. For example, Wisconsin. A casual traveler through Packer territory will swiftly come to realise that the hardy folk of Wisconsin value cheese, adult videos, and fireworks above all else. Or in Iowa, where they prefer outlet malls, country radio stations, and second-rate Mexican restaurants.
But no matter where you travel in the United States, it’s hard to escape the constant reminders that you are, in fact, in Jesus-land. Every ten kilometres or so a traveler on American roads will be gently reminded that God Blesses America, that God values life, that God has missed you in church, and that the First Methodist Congregation of Springfield also has a bowling league. There was a popular motif in these billboards a few years back. Black background, white print, and a clever witticism from God that he wrote just for the occasion. In my more juvenile years I would respond to these with an obscene gesture, mainly because I was still terrified by driving in America and didn’t need the reminder that an all-powerful deity was watching me and most likely pointing and laughing with all the hosts of angels and saints.
And of course, this is by far not the only reminder of the pervasiveness of Christian culture in America. Whether it’s the churches on every corner, the signs inviting you in for services or reminding you that gays will go to hell, or the enormous crosses set up that seem to say, ‘We’re going to ruin this landscape with this ostentatious religious icon because Jesus,’ the message is clear. Christians and Christianity are everywhere. And they’re not going away.
So it’s really no surprise that quite a few atheists will say “Hey, why can’t we have billboards? We want billboards!”
Which brings us to Times Square.
A few months back there was a bit of internet indignancy when Answers in Genesis – everyone’s favourite Creationists – put up a billboard in Times Square that said “To Our Atheist Friends: Thank God You’re Wrong.” It was meant to be exclusionary, provocative, and to establish moral superiority. It was also petty and ridiculous and I decided that it wasn’t worth the time necessary to type out a blog post about it. I did happen to notice that the Freedom From Religion Foundation replied with their own billboard that stated “OMG – There Is No God.” I confess to rolling my eyes a bit, because it seemed every bit as petty as AIG’s original statement. But I had to concede that AIG probably deserved a rebuttal given on a level they could understand, and didn’t think any more of it.
I didn’t realise that the Times Square billboard war was continuing until yesterday when Christian author Benjamin Corey wrote an article on the most recent salvo. Mr. Corey identifies himself as a ‘formerly fundie’ progressive Christian who works for a better level of understanding between the various factions of Christianity as well as people of other (or no) religious persuasions. Mr. Corey, having recently written an article deriding the so-called War on Christmas, took issue with the most recent atheist message to go up in Times Square. Sponsored by The American Atheists, the ad essentially asks “Who needs Christ on Christmas?” and proceeds to cross out ‘Christ’ and replace it with ‘Nobody.’
Mr. Corey isn’t too happy with this. After vehemently dismissing the notion that there is a ‘War on Christmas,’ his efforts are being undermined by atheists who are, in fact, acting like there is a War on Christmas.
And as much as it wounds me to say, as grudgingly as the words are typed with a huge sigh of resignation….I agree with him.
Many atheists are going to disagree with me. And I can understand why. After all, we live in a world where Christianity is thrown into our faces at every corner, intentionally or not. Christian culture frequently depicts atheists as godless savages, people without morals, people seeking the destruction of the United States of America, people who are angry and unhappy and miserable. And groups like AIG enjoy rubbing our faces in the stereotypes that hang over us. And gods above whom I don’t believe in, I know how good it feels to lash back, to stand your ground, to fight fire with fire.
But you know what? It’s just not worth it. In fact, there isn’t any point to it.
Because the fact remains that no matter how much you insist that nobody needs Christ in Christmas, it’s not going to change the fact that so many do. Billions of Christians are going to sit down, exchange presents, sing beautiful songs, eat delicious food, go to Mass or services, and show goodwill and kindness to others. Including atheists. And Jews and Muslims and Hindus and everyone else where Christianity is the philosophical majority. Christmas is celebrated for more than a month, it’s probably the singular most influential feature of Western culture. And you know what? It’s Christians who made it that way. Christianity is why I’m guaranteed a few days to be with my loved ones without work hanging over my head. Christianity is why all those pagan practises that they appropriated have survived for thousands of years so they could be enjoyed by us today. Christianity is why Christmas trees are everywhere, why charities do so well this month, and why I can’t listen to “Oh Come Oh Come Immanuel” without cold chills.
Christians didn’t create Christmas, nor do they own it, nor should they insist that others celebrate it. But they made it awesome.
And American Atheists are pouring pepper on my Christmas turkey. “Celebrate Christmas however you want, but don’t tell others how to or how not to.” That’s the whole atheist philosophy on Christmas. We say it time and time again. You celebrate your way, I celebrate mine. To tell others how to celebrate or what to treasure on this incredible day is, well, just boorish. And it’s beneath us, to be honest.
Listen, I understand the point of some atheist billboards. I like the ones that have a person simply saying ‘My name is such-and-such and I am an atheist.’ It’s nice to be reminded I’m not alone and there are other happy, content people with reasonably attractive facial features out there who are like me. I like the billboards that defend atheism, stating that you don’t need God to do good things. Because we are so often stereotyped as being intrinsically immoral, it’s a necessary message.
But to attack how people celebrate Christmas? No. There’s no need. Because it’s not our job to try and de-convert anyone from their religion. We are not an ideology, nor a religion, nor a philosophy. We are people who don’t believe. There’s nothing to prostelytise about. We don’t need to turn people to the Dark Side. Sure, we can disprove various parts of religion in the public arena. We can defend our stances and positions, criticise the beliefs and stances of others, speak out when religious people use their religion to harass, persecute or terrorise others as they so often do. But these billboards, the ones that are meant to deride and mock people just for believing in God or celebrating the Christian version of Christmas, don’t fall under any of these categories. They’re just responding to pettiness with more pettiness.
Being the cynical person I am, I suspect that the American Atheists had an ulterior motive. Atheists often thrive off the Christian persecution complex. It’s ridiculously easy to watch a Christian froth at the mouth about atheist persecution in America and then say something like, “Syria. Egypt. Indonesia.” And many atheists are more than willing to stoke the fire with a little passive aggressiveness to provide a steady stream of Christian indignation to plaster all over the internet. I’ve done it myself, I admit it.
But with a billboard flashing in Times Square? What a big steaming waste of money. Even though the particular billboard in question didn’t cost anything since it’s part of a larger contract, it’s by far not the only one. Fellow atheists, if we’re going to criticise the church for spending money on mega-complexes and golden thrones instead of using it to help people in need, we need to apply the same standard for ourselves. Instead of paying for an antagonistic Christmas billboard, maybe we could give the same amount of money to a soup kitchen. Or a homeless shelter. Or maybe we could hold a fantastic Christmas dinner for some foster kids.
“You shall know them by their fruits,” says the Bible, and for once it has a point.
So here’s my Christmas billboard. Merry Kwanzannukkristmastice Eve, from the Irish Atheist.
Images Credited to: Flynn-the-cat.com, makani.deviantart.com, atheists.org