Atheists and Catholics have posted dueling billboards in New York City, creating a metaphysical face-off near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. One, put up by the group American Atheists, proclaims that Christmas is a “myth.” The other, posted by the Catholic League in response, urges commuters: “You know it’s real. This season, celebrate Jesus.”
Atheist organizations have tens of thousands of members, and the number of American adults who say they have no religion has doubled to 15 percent over the past 20 years. The stepped-up ad campaigns are a way for these secular organizations to compete for the increasing market share of potential atheists, experts told the New York Times.
In June, a billboard set up by a local atheist organization in North Carolina was defaced by an unknown vandal. The billboard proclaimed “One Nation Indivisible” — the way the Pledge of Allegiance read preceding the 1954 insertion of the words “under God.” According to the Charlotte Observer, someone inserted that phrase in spray-paint over the sign.
“It was done by one or two people off on their own who decided their only recourse was vandalism rather than having a conversation,” Charlotte Atheists & Agnostics spokesman William Warren told the paper. “It does show how needed our message is. As atheists, we want to let people know we exist and that there’s a community here.”
Three of 10 atheist billboards erected in Sacramento, Calif., were defaced in February, and more recently several atheist bus ads were vandalized in Detroit. But even with these conflicts, the ads keep coming. In 2009, an anonymous $25,000 donation paid for ads blanketing New York’s subway stations. “A Million New Yorkers Are Good Without God. Are You?” the ads read. A similar ad campaign by the same national group will debut this holiday season in Fort Worth, Texas, and in Washington state. The Fort Worth chapter of the Coalition of Reason’s ads read “Millions of Americans are Good Without God” and appear on four area buses. Critics in the area say the message is insensitive during Christmas. (The Dallas transportation department rejected the ads.)
The Freedom from Religion Foundation, which has billboards up in a dozen cities, recently launched a series of bus and billboard ads in Madison, Wisconsin, to encourage people to “come out of the closet” and admit they are atheists.
Not all religious leaders feel threatened or offended by the atheist message. “If the ads aren’t intended to be hostile, then they shouldn’t be met with hostility,” Pastor Karl Travis of First Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth told the Dallas Morning News.