November 30th, 2010
08:24 PM ET

Dueling billboards face off in Christmas controversy

From Laura Dolan, CNN

'Tis the season to be jolly? Not entirely.

An atheist billboard that calls Christmas "a myth" has sparked a growing controversy near the Lincoln Tunnel, a 1.5-mile-long twin tube that connects New Jersey to New York.

The full message, which appears with a nativity scene, reads: "You know it's a myth. This season, celebrate reason."

Its $20,000 price tag was paid for by American Atheists, a New Jersey-based atheist advocacy group, David Silverman, the group's president, told CNN.

"We are addressing the 50 million atheists in this nation," Silverman said.

He said the group erected the sign in a high-traffic area in an effort to challenge drivers to "think hard about whether or not they actually believe in what is, in reality, an invisible magic man in the sky."

Silverman said he is uncertain if it will stay through Christmas or come down on December 21.

The sign, located near the tunnel's New Jersey entrance, has stirred controversy among Christian organizations, prompting one group to erect its own pro-Christmas billboard.

"We decided to counterpunch after a donor came forward seeking to challenge the anti-Christmas statement," said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, a New York-based Catholic advocacy group.

The League's billboard reads: "You Know It's Real: This Season Celebrate Jesus."

It was erected at the tunnel's Manhattan entrance at a cost of $18,500, according to Donohue.

This is not the first time atheist billboards have called religion into question.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based atheist advocacy group, has placed comparable billboards in some 45 cities and 30 states since October 2007, according to the group's co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor.

In 2008, the British Humanist Association paid for buses in London, England, to be adorned with the slogan: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

But Donahue says such signs are antagonistic.

"I'm not Hindu, I'm not Buddhist, I'm not Jewish but I wouldn't go around denigrating other people's religions and their gods," he said. "[Silverman] ought to respect our religion. He doesn't have to join it."

Silverman says the holiday season has been co-opted by newer traditions.

"There is no flying reindeer in the Bible," he said. "This is not just about Jesus."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Christmas • Holidays • New Jersey • New York • Unitarian Universalism

soundoff (2,418 Responses)
  1. Cjat

    While I am an atheist, always have been my biggest complaint is that the guy talking for the Atheist group said "We need them to come out of the closet" or something along those lines. There is no reason they need to come out, Atheists should do what we want all other religions to do, not try and force others to think the same way we think. What he is doing does the exact opposite of this. I do enjoy the counter billboard that the Catholics put up, I want to see this extend to multiple religions and eventually a Flying Spaghetti Monster on one billboard.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
    • Mr. Blues

      I like the bill board because it promotes Atheism, and hopefully one day all Atheist will not be embarrassed to be Atheist, and they will stop pretending to be part of some other religion.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:54 pm |
  2. Toph


    If you don't believe in God, fine, you have that right. But why do atheists feel the need to p"ss on Christians, or any other religion's parade. How is X-mas a threat to atheists? If you don't believe in it, don't celebrate it.

    Because, and you really should know this, Christains ripped off Christmas from the Pagans. Jesus was born in the summer.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
  3. John

    To let us prey:

    Good point, but I would say that us atheists stick to Christianity because it is the only religion in the USA that is attempting to become the official religion of America. Since we want no part of that, thus the vitriol.
    Unlike some of my atheist brothers and sisters I do not descriminate... I think all of them are equally ridiculous.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
    • Let Us Prey

      @ John

      Sounds like you need to round up those bigoted extremists and give 'em a firm talking to. They're ruining atheism for the rest of you.

      December 1, 2010 at 5:14 pm |
  4. Nick

    While the person(s) posting the billboard says this is about more than religion, he obviously meant to take a shot at believers through the graphics used. If he truly wanted to avoid confrontation he would have used Santa instead of Jesus. Nothing more than a publicity stunt.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
    • Jeff

      ... why would he use Santa Clause? Santa belief isn't a religion, belief in Jesus IS a religion ... this is about pointing out peoples underlying gut feeling (which is correct) ... there is no god. You do understand that Christians are also Atheists don't you? Do you believe in the Goddess Shiva ... then to a Hindu you are an Atheist ... We're just like you, with just one more magical being we don't believe in.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:40 pm |
  5. Weathers

    Why can't we all celebrate the birth of Santa Claus in peace? Wait a minute, old man decked out in a red suit with a name that sounds eerily like Satan's Claws...whose holiday is this anyway?

    December 1, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
  6. Brett

    I'm donating for another Atheist Billboard.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
  7. Sandy

    Kind of begs the question: How do they KNOW what I KNOW? Unless you are in my head and have experienced my life firsthand you can't claim to know what I am thinking or feeling. So why is this even a debate when their first point/argument is simply, logically, objectively, scientifically untrue and ultimately indefensible? The only thing they really KNOW is how to act like children trying to pick an argument for no good reason; they simply have nothing better to do with their lives. So pathetic and desperate for attention, aren't they? I guess that's what happens when you live a pointless life and refuse to grow your soul.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
  8. kazz

    find something more productive to do

    December 1, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
  9. Ranch Mubay

    The only reason why Atheist ridicule other beliefs (and let's get real here, Atheists truly don't believe in the freedoms of religion, never have, never will) is that they can't offer positive reasons to become an Atheist nor can offer any positive success in society related to being an Atheist. Without those vital reasons, merely slamming someone else with hate speech will only hurt their cause, not help it.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
    • Brett

      I'm an atheist and secular humanist, and I have a beautiful life I wouldn't trade for anything. I'm surrounded by people I love, and I celebrate the beautiful qualities of humanity and this wondrous planet. I'm passionate about art and science and the thrill of discovery that happens everyday. Life is a journey. Thank you.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:24 pm |
    • Knightly

      Ranch, just because you say "let's get real here" doesn't mean what you're saying is indisputable. Plenty of atheists respect religious freedom. I respect your right to believe because I know that belief isn't always about historical accuracy. I know that people do good things in the name of God, and that good is real.

      We don't offer positive reasons to become an atheist because we aren't an evangelical religion. To put it bluntly, we do not CARE what you believe. We think our theory of the world makes the most sense. It's not the happiest and it's not the most reassuring but it works for us. In short, atheists are atheists because they think they're right. I'm not really sure what other sorts of reasons you're looking for.

      The reason you don't see news stories about atheist organizations doing good for others is because that's not really how atheism works. People tend not to identify themselves first and foremost through a negative. When was the last time you heard of a humanitarian effort organized by a group dedicated to not much caring for seafood?

      When an atheist does good in this world, you don't read about some atheist saint. You read about a scientist, or a teacher, or a doctor, or a PERSON. We are people. We have morals and sympathy, and we can do good in this world. The only difference is that when we do good, we don't chalk it up to God.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
    • Russ

      Like Brett I am a secular humanist as well. I see a lot of richness in the human story and how we explain the universe around us – Greek / Roman, Jewish, Christian, Islamic mythologies, all reveal much about our ancesters as well as present day humans. What bothers me is not so much the stories themselves but the way they are used to cause and exacerbate human suffering in the 21st century. Until I see some sort of compelling evidence you'll pardon me if I don't buy into what I'd call flimsy stories. There are so many possibilities but perhaps we don't have the sophistication to better discern it: No god/gods, one god (disinterested, cruel, caring, uncaring, loving, unloving), several gods (competing, cooperating, disinterested), every living thing a god/spirit – the possibilities are endless. So, in the absence of anyting compelling I prefer not to make things up or buy into fiction created by bronze age people.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:55 pm |
  10. JR

    Since theologians admit that Jesus was more likely born in April and that Christmas was a pagan Winter Soltice celebration called Saturnalia which commemorated the birth of the sun god, I would have to say that the Christmas story as presented today is definitely a MYTH.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
  11. tintin

    I guess the atheists don't target dharmic religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism is because they are "not in your face" preaching and proselytizing. They don't target Islam coz let's face it there is no need to, Christians already do it. Now about Judaism, that I couldn't get a reason...

    December 1, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
  12. mrrusss

    You can't prove that I am not God right now posting on this forum.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
  13. thessalonian

    We are not far from loosing religeous freedom in this country. Atheists are becoming more and more antagonistic toward Christianity. What happened in Russia when the Atheists got control? Millions murdered. There are no moral bounds in Atheism.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
    • stu

      zzzz. atheists didn't gain control in Russia – religion was stamped out in order to control the people. Study some history kook.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
    • Mr. Blues

      Classic fear mongering!

      December 1, 2010 at 2:01 pm |
  14. Not a believer

    I'll admit that I do not believe in God. There are just too many inconsistencies to follow it blindly.

    Think about Santa Claus. A magical being that can bend space and time and visit everyone's house in one night. We tell our children that they need to be good in order to get a visit from Santa Claus and that he is always watching. We use this story to try to keep our children in line and have them behave a certain way. There is no basis in fact that Santa Claus exists and the kids believe it only because the parents tell them to.

    Compare that to organized religion. Do we not use God in the same way? We tell people that they need to be good and follow the bible or they can't get into heaven. It sounds remarkably like a grown up version of santa claus! If you follow this logic, then religion is simply a way to get the masses to stay in line and obey the rules. Christmas was based on a pagan ritual and there is no proof he was even born in December. The story is made up to serve a purpose, just as Santa Claus was made up.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
    • thessalonian

      First lets deal with the problem of the evidence of God rather than taking a jump from science to Jesus. Jesus does require faith though the atheists seem to want to jump from science to faith, ignoring history.

      One can look at science and see the incredible design in nature. The symetry and beauty of the butterfly. The intricacy of the eye that man cannot duplicate not to mention the billions upon billions of other scientific wonders that atheists claim happened by accident. It is far more difficult for me to believe in these things than to believe in a God.

      Now what God? People mention Santa Claus and Budha and Zues etc. etc. We know the historical reasons for the existence of these stories. We also know the historical reason for Jesus. There is historical and secular evidence that he existed. The writings of scripture are testimonies. The depth of scripture when one understands over 40 writers, separated in time and space, intimately linked beyond human genius. It is easy to say Bah when one does not understand and see this in scripture. It is also very sad. But scripture speaks to the human heart if you will let your heart listen. Open your heart.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:33 pm |
    • Maybe

      "One can look at science and see the incredible design in nature. The symetry and beauty of the butterfly. The intricacy of the eye that man cannot duplicate not to mention the billions upon billions of other scientific wonders that atheists claim happened by accident. It is far more difficult for me to believe in these things than to believe in a God."

      - Incredible design – stuff goes wrong all the time; things are crashing and exploding out in space constantly.

      - Intricacy of the eye – many lower animals have much better eyes than humans. Eye defects/disease are rampant.

      - Beauty of the butterfly – some are, some aren't; and some such at the cabbage butterfly are nasty pests.

      December 1, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
  15. avemedea

    i just don't get why people have a problem driving by nativity scenes or the like. my town lights a huge 'menorah' (obviously not with real candles, but a giant replica) on the first night of channukah. doesnt bother me. they also put up a big christmas tree in the park. doesn't bother me. references to greek and roman gods and goddesses are everywhere, in store / product / company names. doesnt bother me. i wouldn't mind seeing more references to various religions either – the more
    my kids can be exposed to, the better. a sign that says something to the effect of "your god does not exist" is stupid (as it doesn't change anyone's mind, it only serves to intentionally upset people) but here's a thought: if you don't like it, ignore it!

    seriously, does a lit up christmas tree or nativity scene or menorah or an anti-religion billboard in the town park really hurt you? if it does, well, you're pathetic. get a life. join a club.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
    • Just be good

      Well said:)

      December 1, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  16. Doug

    I find atheist very amusing. They spend so much time and effort to disprove Christ which leads me to the old saying “Me thinks they protest to much”. If in fact Christ does not exist why waste time to point out the obvious?
    A good example is:
    There is a building and its clearly painted GREEN. We got people insisting its RED.
    Some will go by and say ‘No, its green” and walk away. So if you know its Green and not RED why get all uptight to prove it? It should be clear to everyone its GREEN.
    Eternity is a very long time to know if you was right or wrong.
    If the atheist are right nothing happens. No down side after you die. Short and simple, BUT if there is a Christ and you made the wrong choices in life then spending a eternity in hell is going to suck.
    So, which of the 2 has a higher cost? Are you will to gamble where you ‘could’ spend an eternity?
    Jesus is there if you ever decide to go to him. He wants all to know him and learn what he says is true. If you read the Bible start to finish and examine it, especially Revelations to today’s news its very accurate on what is going on.
    Obama been talking about New World Order. A 1 world government is coming and everyone will be micro chipped. We micro chip our pets and think nothing of it. Makes sense. When they want to micro chip the world’s population to be a cashless society it will make perfect sense. It will cut down on crime, can trace all transactions and many other things, but taking that micro chip will be a symbol of accepting the world and all it stands for. Beware cause its coming. Think its far fetched? Well they thought the world was flat, they thought flight was impossible, breaking the sound barrier was unheard of and so forth.
    I wish you all well and that what I said you will think about.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
    • Mr. Blues

      The reason why they spend so much energy is so that people who do not really believe in any religion can finally STOP pretending they do. Promoting Atheism allows people to label themselves properly and feel good about the label.

      December 1, 2010 at 2:07 pm |
  17. Rev. Steven C. Case

    Praise be unto our 1st Amendment writer(s) who made sure that we in America had freedom of religion and freedom from religion. ONLY IN AMERICA could this debate really take place.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
    • nyser

      Actually, contrary to the beliefs of many Americans like yourself, there are many countries around the world in which such debates can and have taken place. America does not have a monopoly on freedom of speech.

      December 1, 2010 at 2:16 pm |
  18. 1shade22

    I'm 15, but know that I respect all religions. I don't believe in God, or any god for that matter. But I do believe in America. Here we have freedom. Freedom to practice whatever religion we choose. If you cant respect other people's beliefs, then get out of a country that does. And for those who try to get people to believe, STOP. They're not believers for a reason. If you want to have respect for your religion, then show that you deserve it.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:18 pm |
  19. Michelle

    Atheists can't prove God doesn't exist.
    The religious can't prove God extists.
    If Christians are wrong, there is no consequence after death. We simply all disappear.
    If Atheists are wrong, they are doomed to endless pain. Endless. As in, the worst dispair and pain we can't even imagine.
    So yeah, I'll be Christian. Anyone with half a brain would choose that option. Because we just don't know.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:18 pm |
    • BB

      I will not disclose what I believe because I question everything daily. During my questioning everything I initially came to the conclusion that you might as well believe because worst case is nothing happens at death; hoewever, if there is a God then what do you think he is going to say when you get to the gate. "YOU ONLY BELIEVED IN ME BECAUSE YOU WERE SCARED NOT TO".... that isn't faith. So that is where I get stuck all the time.

      December 1, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
    • Mr. Blues

      I am not gonna waste my time pretending to believe in god... goto church.. meet other fakers... believe in fairy tales... not respecting myself... praying everyday asking for favors....doing good deeds to please a god that I am really not sure exists.. and not even sure that all that I am doing is going to be enough to get into this so called heaven.... Maybe I need to be a 100% TRUE believer and not question anything to get into heaven.

      Waste of time, be a good person with good morals, live a happy life and do good deeds because you want to... this is what an atheist life is all about.

      December 1, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
    • Michelle

      BB, it beats getting to the gate and being like "oops, I'm screwed." No one has perfect faith. That's why God forgives. But abandon him completely and He'll also abandon you.

      December 1, 2010 at 4:27 pm |
  20. Joker

    @Let Us Prey no bigot here, I find it funny that adults of today do not believe in santa, fairies, flying witches but believe in any god LOL

    December 1, 2010 at 1:17 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.