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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. Katie

    I'm an atheist and still celebrate Christmas and will raise my kids to celebrate it, too. It's become a commercialized American holiday and has nothing to do with Jesus anymore. Jesus wasn't even born on Dec 25, he was born in the spring. Christians were just jealous of the pagan winter solstice festival and wanted their own holiday.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:34 pm |
    • Matt

      As a fellow Atheist I must correct you on certain facts here. The actual birth of Jesus is thought to have fallen somewhere between Dec 22nd, and Jan 1st. This is why we celebrate New Years. Going farther back, Jesus is an astrological allegory of the Sun, taken from Pagan texts. This is why Jesus (The North Star) in this case dies on the 'cross' (southern crux) on Dec 21st (the death of jesus coincides with the Winter Solstice/Equinox). In the spring, the spring equinox occurs, representing the rebirth of Jesus in pagan/christian allegory. Jesus is a metaphorical figure representing astrological events, not a real person.

      December 1, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
  2. Matt

    Whats antagonistic to me as an Atheist is when Christians try to 'own' the season as their own. There are multiple holidays including Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice (the original holiday BTW, fact). What antagonizes me is when a large semi truck, every year, parks itself at the most inconvenient of intersection corners, with a giant trailer that has a sign 'Jesus is the Reason for the Season' (by the way the placement of the semi causes multiple fatal accidents during the holiday time). Christians have always posted giant, gaudy, annoying holiday billboards, and once someone with an opposing viewpoint posts one, "OMG Us Christians are under attack! Villains! How dare you think differently? You're going to hell for that! God will punish you!". How about this one, Christians. Why dont you keep your beliefs private instead of trying to shove them down our throats, and us Atheists will do the same. Stop your door to door sales force. I am not joining your church. Stop putting anti-Atheist propaganda in my mailbox. Stop telling me what I have to call Dec 25th, this is a free country. Stop making so much noise over a child's holiday. This Christmas, be Christlike and become the 'meek' people you're supposed to be. Then maybe us 'sane' people will want to 'antagonize' you less with these clearly 'dangerous' billboards. And hey, CNN, next time you do a story on religion, how about a history of it for all those who seem to know nothing about how Christianity stole basically everything in their canon from older religions... religions older than they believe the earth to be! Waaaake up people.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:34 pm |
    • thessalonian

      Yes we should outlaw public expression of religion and imprison or shoot anyone who tries to express it! Oh wait that is sounding like the way russia in the early 1900s went. I thought atheists were supposed to be superior and more tolerant. NOT!

      December 1, 2010 at 1:37 pm |
    • Matt

      I as tolerant of your faith, as you are of mine pal.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:45 pm |
    • Troy

      Well said, Matt!

      December 1, 2010 at 1:47 pm |
    • Matt

      As for your 'superiority' comment, what about Manifest Destiny, Hereditary Rule, The Spanish Inquisition, The Crusades, and your current campaign to convert every last person on the planet until the rapture? I call that a superiority complex, you think you know better than science. Fool.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:48 pm |
    • Silverdog

      Matt, you are obviously young. Why not use some of that bravado by attacking radical Islam? Scarred? Sure, Christianity has a dreadful history, but they are tame now compared to radical Islam. Go get 'em. See what response you get. Beliefs are a funny thing. People tend to keep quiet about them when they are afraid, but yell to the heavens (err sky – sorry) when they know there will be no backlash.

      December 1, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
    • Matt

      Since this article is about Christmas Billboards, I am responding to the Christians. Yes, I think that Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Chrstianity etc are all glorified comic books as far as their holy books, and that religions are all in existence to make money and dominate the wills of their flock in order to advance a social agenda. Happy now? You could simply assume I feel this way as I have already outed myself as an Atheist, but there ya go again, assuming we only want to challenge YOUR beliefs. Christians are the most ego-centric people I could possibly encounter in this lifetime. You thought the Earth was the center of the universe... wrong.

      December 1, 2010 at 2:25 pm |
    • Matt

      And Silverdog, I might be young enough not to put 'silver' in my name because I still have hair color, but I am not a 20-something year old. Try mid 30's.

      December 1, 2010 at 2:27 pm |
  3. thessalonian

    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 1:34 pm |
    • Matt

      Clearly you don't know what an Atheist is. We don't have 'faith' in science, as science is testable and provable. Faith denotes that you believe something, as told the first time. Science tests, refutes, tests again, and again, until the result is reproduced from experiments hundreds of times before anything can be considered a useable fact. Therefore, I have more understanding of the world through the scientific method.

      Religious people accept what they read in a book, and do not test 'god', rather they think that 'god' is testing them. Its a backwards perspective and one that is consistently proven to be erroneous. Since you can't disprove a negative, this silly debate of reason vs religion will endlessly go on until religious people stop worshiping and start thinking critically.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:39 pm |
    • Matt

      Also, there is NO historical or secular evidence as you put it that Jesus existed. All supposed historians that supposedly mentioned him have been either proven false, or were taken out of context as the term 'The Christ" was an actual rank amongst early Romans, which plainly means 'the anointed'. The Shroud of Turin is long known to be many centuries too young to have been worn by Christ, as it was fabricated in the early 1300's. There are no remains of Jesus, and you'd think if he was walking around ancient Sumeria, performing miracles, more than one false historian would have written about him. Face it, Jesus Christ is an astrological allegory adapted from the Pagan faith, and never existed at all. You;d know this if you read any other history book than the Bible.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
  4. Sandy

    Religion of all types is stupid and unnecessary and only breeds hatred. It is for weak minded folks who cannot cope with life on their own.

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

      Sandy,

      Seems you are quite capable of hate without religion. So your point is moot.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
    • Lisa

      I am weak, but with Jesus I am made STRONG.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:36 pm |
    • Troy

      Amen, Sandy!

      December 1, 2010 at 1:38 pm |
    • Dan

      The people who use religion as a tool of hatred are far outnumbered by those who use it for peaceful purposes. However they don't make the news and they certainly don't fit into Sandy's bigoted narrative.

      Congrats, Sandy. You are as naive and bigoted as those you rail against.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:42 pm |
    • dc

      Religion does not NECESSARILY breed hatred. In many cases, it teaches moral behavior (E.g. Love thy neighbor, do not steal, do not kill, etc), avoidance of conflict (Turn the other cheek), and respect (honor thy mother and father). It can provide comfort when grieving for the loss of a loved one. And scientific studies have shown that the power of prayer, regardless of religion, has healing powers (look it up). Religion has inspired great works of art and beauty.

      It is not in and of itself, bad. Neither is it stupid to want an explanation for things we don't yet understand.Calling all religion stupid is not an act of reason, but one of prejudice. It demonstrates the same type of hate that some accuse religion of instigating. In other words, the human wants, desires, and emotions that are responsible for the hatred and intolerance attributed to religion are the same demonstrated by those who want to insult, hurt or degrade the faithful for their beliefs.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:46 pm |
    • steve

      You're breeding a bunch of hate by yourself. Nice hypocrisy there.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:51 pm |
  5. Hawaiikaos

    I'm an atheist (and I personally do detest xmas because it's just a consumerist spendfest), but I think this billboard is unnecessarily antagonistic. Jesus was an actual historical figure, although no more divine than you or I. Celebrating his birth (and role as a significant contributor to philosophy) has nothing to do with whether anyone actually believes in a sky god. If atheist groups want to put up billboards, they should stick to the ones they had in Britain, or ones that promote evolution or critical thinking, and other values of central importance to atheists.

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

      Yeah, but Christmas is fun. Enjoy the colors, music, food, mood, etc. Without it, winter would be terrible. Besides, if making another person happy doesn't make you feel great, you are already dead. You don't need a belief system to live an honorable life. Go ahead smile....there ya go!

      December 1, 2010 at 1:55 pm |
    • Suz

      That is an excellent point.

      We should all just go back to celebrating the solstice, though. It's a great excuse to be festive and have a party!

      December 1, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
    • Matt

      I'll be going back to my roots this season. Will be celebrating YULE instead of Christmas, as it was originally. And I'm talking full bore with the Yule log, and 3 day feast. Oh yes, a tree and presents as well. Time to celebrate the changing of the seasons, not the invisible man. Even as an Atheist, I have very little to change while making this adjustment. Except I'll probably be fatter 🙂

      December 1, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
  6. Mojonaamdi

    ey.. what's all the fuss about now? They are still running ads in NY and elsewhere (On buses etc) that denigrates Islam and calls upon Muslims to convert or leave. I hear no protests about that from the very people who are protesting the ads by the athesists.
    So now, the chickens have come home to roost, you want to limit free speech.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:33 pm |
  7. Ross Pulanty

    This world gets more mentally ill every day and especially so at this time of year!!! Almost to the degree of a psychosis with this Christmas shytt

    December 1, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
  8. Observer

    Athiests are retards.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
    • Jonesey

      I guess you, Observer, are one of THOSE. You know... an un-Christian-like Christian.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:45 pm |
    • Hawaiikaos

      And why is that exactly? Please support your argument.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:45 pm |
  9. dc

    I'd like to know why it's OK to freely attack Christianity, but it's considered intolerant to attack Islam or Scientology or any other religion??? This sign (and any other signs criticizing a particular religion) is insensitive, rude and extremely intolerant of diversity.

    I've always tried to be respectful of others' beliefs and I don't try to change them. I'm saddened to find that the people who put this sign up, and many of the people on this board, think that anyone who is a Christian is automatically bigoted, prejudiced, and intolerant. How is it different from thinking that all Muslims are potential terrorists? That sort of prejudice is not enlightened or scientific. It is hateful.

    I don't blame today's Germans for the Holocaust. I don't think all Catholic Priests are child molesters. I don't blame all Muslims for 9-11. And I don't blame all atheists for the desire of a few to take away the comfort of religion from those in pain or mourning that may need it. I expect anyone who claims to be a person of reason to be logical enough to acknowledge that I am not personally responsible for the crusades, that I have not killed anyone in the name of religion, and that under the laws of this country I have the right to hold my own religious beliefs without persecution and ridicule such as this billboard.

    Is tolerance of my Christian beliefs too much to ask?

    December 1, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
    • Truth

      In regards to your last statement, the answer is glaringly yes. If this same billboard attacked gays, blacks, musloms or any other group, it would easily be branded as "hate"...Attack Christanity though, and you are protected. And we wonder why the nation is going down the tubes.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:34 pm |
  10. Silverdog

    The notion that a group that claims to be non-religious is behaving just like a religion is pretty ironic and hilarious. By finding it necessary to promote a belief system, they are acting as missionaries. Hey atheists, maybe reason = God. Maybe science = religion. Science will never answer the question "why?" Anyway, as an agnostic I find anyone who claims to know the truth to be silly. Let's believe whatever we want as long as we don't bother each other with it. Lighten up. If there is a God, it's probably laughing at us trying to guess the ultimate truth and killing each other over our rediculous notions. If not, oh well.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
  11. Artimus

    This whole holiday is borrowed from pagan origins and has nothing to do with Jesus. It would be nice if Christianity would at least acknowledge that.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
  12. Joe

    I was raised Catholic and was programmed at an early age to believe in God ... or else! It's a very powerful recruitment tool, capture followers before they're old enough to understand what you're polluting their young minds with. I envy true Athiests, I'm tired of carrying this ridiculous baggage through life.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
  13. SK

    So why do atheists celebrate "Christ"mas at all? Hypocritical that they feed the Santa Claus myth to their children.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:31 pm |
    • Knightly

      We enjoy spending time with our families and exchanging presents. I'm sorry if you feel it only counts if we do it in the name of your savior.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:36 pm |
    • Jonesey

      Perhaps you could entice the notion that unlike Christians adults, who "indoctrinate" their children into religion, Atheists do not... allowing the children to make their own decisions about their faith when they are old enough to decide.

      December 1, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
    • Brett

      I don't remember reading anything about decorating a tree, exchanging gifts, hanging stockings on your mantel, and leaving cookies out for Ole St. Nick in the Bible....

      December 1, 2010 at 2:03 pm |
  14. James

    I do not know a beautiful blonde girl in sweden named Ingrid Eckberd. Does that mean that one doesn't exist?

    December 1, 2010 at 1:31 pm |
  15. sg

    I say that if Xtians can put up billboards about say that god is watching you, then athiests are totally justified in putting up a countersign. I personally dont read billboards, nor do I care at all. You people are just looking for a reason to argue about something that no one has any evidence of. Its I belive vs i dont believe. There is no "fact" to point to so the arguement is pointless. Enjoy it though, as reality tv apparantely doesnt have enough drama to satisfy you.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:31 pm |
  16. Evilchicken

    Ahhh, Atheists want you to subscribe to their BELIEF that is just as devoid of proof as the religions they target. I've never met an Atheist who could tell you the reason for existence, or explain miracles, or prove that life after death is false. But wow, they certainly want to convince you that reason is the only choice...what about faith? Still no answer.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:31 pm |
    • Cjat

      Just a quick note EvilChicken (like the name btw). Most Atheists claim never claim to have all the answers and one of the reasons many actually are Atheist because they don't think the idea of Miracle we would rather think that a string of random events creates a positive event for you just as much as a string of random events can cause a negative event for you. You call it a miracle only when something rare happens in your favor but what about the opposite, it is a blessing in disguise. We think of it simply as events that happen, and we don't know where we came from which is why we look at Science as a chance for maybe solving those answers but unlike most we can live with the idea of not knowing the answers to these questions then I guess you can. Why can't some of the world be a mystery, why does a man in the sky have to have all the answers for us even though the church would often deny what Science has proven true for decades before they finally admitted a change in thought (not them being wrong and killing people for it).

      December 1, 2010 at 1:37 pm |
  17. Looking for the Light Switch

    Is 'atheist' the new word for 'thought-police?' Not sure whose business it is in what other people believe in. This group is coming off, to me, as a bunch of attention hounds. Also, I noticed they chose a belief system that is traditionally passive when it comes to attacks. If they chose Hinduism they'd be labeled as racists. If they targeted Judaism, they would be anti-Semitic. If they chose Islam, well, we can only begin to imagine. My feeling is you believe in what you want, but don't try and force feed your views to others, it's not very "academic."

    December 1, 2010 at 1:31 pm |
  18. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    This whole religious or non-religious propaganda is just a proxy to spread hate.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:31 pm |
  19. Philo Cafe

    If you can successfully argue on this message board the existence or non-existence of a god or gods, then you have done what no other philosopher or theologian in recorded history has been able to do.

    If you THINK that you can successfully argue on this message board the existence or non-existence of a god or gods, then you are either incredibly arrogant, delusional, or a combination thereof.

    To accomplish the first feat would necessarily be the result of an accident of brilliance.
    To presume a priori that you can accomplish this feat would be an accident of psychosis.

    December 1, 2010 at 1:31 pm |
  20. alex

    Look, I am a Christian and I believe in God and Jesus, however I do believe that man wrote and interpreted the Bible to his "history" and wants. The story of Jesus and December 25, well it is a lie. If you study the Bible and history....this all occurred during late January or maybe if you take into account, the animals were grazing.....perhaps Spring. But definately NOT December. This whole lie is to get you to spend money and the only group behind this is, well lets just say, they own all the tv stations and pretty much all news services. December 25 is about money and that's all. Now if you choose to make it more, than more power to you for faith will get you through. and if you think I am wrong, then why are more stories done on Black Friday shopping and holiday spending forcast and what is the gift of the year than done on the true meaning of Christmas?

    December 1, 2010 at 1:31 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.