Atheist billboards: Christmas a 'fairy tale'

NASHVILLE (BP) -- Holiday billboards sponsored by an atheist group that call the Christmas story a "fairy tale" are indirect evidence of the "continuing cultural strength of Christianity" in the view of a Southern Baptist apologist.

Atheists "feel that they need to do this sort of thing to mark themselves out as brave and distinct," Mark Coppenger, professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press. "If Christmas had just been watered down to nothing, if there was no longer something of a theistic consensus in America, then I think they would find these billboards pointless."

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Beginning Dec. 1, the New Jersey-based American Atheists sponsored billboards in Memphis, Nashville, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Fort Smith, Ark., featuring a picture of a young girl with the caption, "Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is to skip church! I'm too old for fairy tales." The bottom of the billboard has information about the American Atheists' national convention in April.

The Milwaukee billboard is cosponsored by the Southwest Wisconsin Freethinkers, according to a press release from the American Atheists. The atheist group said it was unable to secure a similar billboard in Jackson, Miss., because billboard companies rejected the content of the sign.

The billboards are located in residential areas near schools and churches in order to target "in-the-closet atheists who are pressured to observe religious traditions during the holidays," according to the American Atheists press release.

"Even children know churches spew absurdity, which is why they don't want to attend services," American Atheists President David Silverman said according to the release. "Enjoy the time with your family and friends instead. Today's adults have no obligation to pretend to believe the lies their parents believed. It's OK to admit that your parents were wrong about God, and it's definitely OK to tell your children the truth."

Memphis resident Eric Hart raised enough money to purchase a competing digital billboard in his city that reads, "Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is to keep it sacred without being bullied. Peace, dignity, and respect for all," Deseret News reported. The American Atheists responded with new billboards in Memphis and Nashville Dec. 5 reading, "Dear Christians, I share my toys. Why won't you share the season? Happy holidays for all!"

Coppenger said the freedom to erect such billboards is part of "the glory of America." He invited observers to judge for themselves whether the atheist or Christian message is more compelling.

"Those of us in apologetics find some challenges more daunting than others," Coppenger said. "But when these billboards go up, they just seem so lame. And I take some encouragement from that. Put your wares up there, and then let society judge."

The past two years, the American Atheists have purchased similar billboards in New York City's Times Square. Other billboards sponsored by the group date back to at least 2010, the Washington Post reported.

Silverman said atheist persecution by Christians is one reason his group must stand against religious holiday traditions.

"Millions of American children are forced to go to church under the threat of being denied meals, losing household privileges, having their college tuition cut off or being kicked out of their homes," Silverman said. "Many atheist adults are forced to go to church under threat of divorce or lose custody of their children. We must ask the question, who are the real bullies? Those who are unafraid to stand up for our views on billboards, or those who destroy families from the inside out?"

Coppenger hopes atheist billboards have a "bracing effect for Christians" and help dispel the myth that everyone in the Bible Belt is a follower of Jesus.

"Some people think that by just living in the South you're saved," Coppenger said. But atheist billboards "draw sharper lines. They show there is a contrast between Christianity and secularism and these people are serious. So you're cast upon the task of asking, 'Am I serious?' There really is a difference, and so I need to know whether I'm on the right side of the line."

Rob Phillips, leader of the Missouri Baptist Convention's apologetics ministry, said the billboard campaign is a "great opportunity" to show that "atheism is a belief system, not a proven fact." He critiqued an American Atheists spokeswoman's statement that what "religious people" believe "is not true."

"How does she know that?" Phillips, who also serves as the Missouri convention's communications team leader, told BP in email comments. "What evidence can she produce to prove that God does not exist? Has she thoroughly and objectively examined all the evidence that supports the possibility of a divine designer -- from cosmological arguments to the existence of universal moral standards?

"The simple truth is that when atheists proclaim as fact that there is no God, they are blind to their own beliefs. As Christian apologists Norman Geisler and Frank Turek are famous for saying: 'I don't have enough faith to be an atheist,'" Phillips said.

Ken Ham, founder of Answers in Genesis, called it ironic that "these billboards are pressuring kids to skip church because they're 'too old for fairy tales,' but they seem to have no problem with kids writing letters to Santa Claus, an obviously mythical character."

"Ultimately why do atheists care what our children, or their parents, believe?" Ham wrote in a blog post. "After all, if there really is no God and death is the absolute end, why does it even matter what anyone believed during their time on Earth? According to atheism, once you die, that's it -- it's over. What a hopeless, purposeless message!

"But the message of Christ offers real hope and purpose," Ham wrote. "Jesus Christ came to Earth, lived a perfect life and died on the Cross to take the penalty of death that we deserve because of our sin upon Himself. Three days later He rose again and now offers eternal life! The message of the Bible is a message of hope, and it is truth."

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.
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