In early November, the American Humanist Association launched what it described as the “largest, most extensive [advertising campaign] by a godless organization” in the history of mankind, complete with TV commercials on NBC and cable and print ads in USA Today, the Village Voice, and a handful of other publications.
A couple weeks later, the American Atheists followed up with a billboard near the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey that depicts the three wise men on their way to the manger. “You KNOW it’s a myth,” the billboard reads. “This season, celebrate reason.”
“If the religious right wants a war on Christmas, this is what they’re going to get,” American Atheists president David Silverman told a New Jersey newspaper. “If they want a war on Christmas, we’re going to make sure they know what one looks like.”
“What is the mentality that you want to put this stuff up and offend people who enjoy Christmas and believe in Christmas?” groused the Fox News culture warrior Bill O’Reilly. “It’s kind of an asshole move,” concluded the feminist blog Jezebel.com. Lost amid such responses is the notion that the controversial billboard is actually most notable for its diplomacy and restraint.
Traditionally, anti-Christmas forces have fought Christian hegemony at Yuletime by suing pine trees and banning Baby Jesus from the public square. But the Lincoln Tunnel billboard isn’t trying to enforce through a judicial ruling; it’s merely seeking to persuade. As provocative as it may be, it isn’t trying to compel people to change their behavior against their will.
In effect, then, this seemingly confrontational and offensive atheism is a softer, less unilateral form of engagement. And you can see it taking root all across the country. In Denver, the Colorado Coalition of Reason has put up a billboard that suggests that a Nativity scene that graces the steps of City Hall at Christmas time would be better situated at a local church. In Fort Worth, the local chapter of the United Coalition of Reason has placed ads on the sides of four buses that read “Millions of Americans are good without God.”
In shedding some of their monkish asceticism, in packaging themselves for easy mass consumption, atheists are ironically following in the footsteps of their Christian nemeses. You can’t create a culture out of dogma alone. You need symbols, rituals, traditions and props that can be used to make life more meaningful. Christmas, of course, is the ultimate example of this. The Bible may have little to say about eggnog. Black Friday super sales may not be the most intuitive way to celebrate core Christian values like humility, obedience, and charity. But everything that makes Christmas Christmas — including the stuff that commercializes and bastardizes it — helps cement Christianity’s central place in our culture.
In contrast, atheists have few traditions. But their annual Christmas protests are arguably evolving into one, especially as these protests morph from heavy-handed lawsuits into more playful forms of discourse, like brash ad campaigns, or marching in Christmas parades, or inventing symbols like the Tree of Knowledge (it’s an evergreen tree decorated with laminated book covers instead of ornaments). Certainly it’s not going to unseat the real deal any time soon, but each year atheist Christmas grows a little more elaborate, a little more festive, a little more merry.