'Tis the season for American Atheists to put up billboards in Colorado Springs, one of the most heavily Christian communities in the country, encouraging residents to skip church for Christmas — and so it has come to pass.
Billboards were scheduled to be erected in the Springs this week, and they're expected to remain on display throughout the holiday season.
The billboards have become something of a Colorado Springs tradition. We first wrote about them back in 2008 — and last year's version used Santa Claus as a spokesman for the atheist philosphy.
The 2016 designs (including one with a Trumpian twist) are on view below. They're also expected to appear in four other cities, all in the deep South: Lynchburg, Virginia; Augusta, Georgia; Shreveport, Louisiana; and Georgetown, South Carolina. The latter community is not far from Charleston, where the American Atheists plan to hold their 2017 convention.
Nick Fish, American Atheists' national program director, says the focus of the billboards is "almost always to start a conversation in places like Colorado Springs, where you don't normally hear from atheists or where folks may not think there are any atheists in the community. It's to reach out to atheists in that area and tell them, 'It's okay. You're not alone.' The message is that it's okay to not be religious and not believe in this."
He adds, "We also want to let people know that it's okay to do the holidays however you want to. Religion doesn't have a monopoly on the holiday season."
People in Colorado Springs "have this misconception that everyone there is a Christian, and we need to push back on that," Fish maintains. "And this is one of the ways we can do that — by forcibly demonstrating that there are a lot of atheists in the country and in Colorado Springs."
According to Fish, the responses to the billboards in Colorado Springs and other cities "kind of runs the gamut. We get a lot of people who send e-mail messages through our website or post on Facebook and Twitter saying, 'Thank you for putting this up. I think I might be the only atheist in Colorado Springs.' They're probably being a little sarcastic, but what they're basically saying is, 'I don't see anyone like me, and knowing you guys are doing this is important to me.'"
Predictably, the billboards generate less positive reactions, too. "In political terms, we hear from the other side of the aisle," Fish notes, "where people will say things like, 'You're going to hell,' or 'I'm going to pray twice as hard because you're coming here.'"
Still, Fish sees plenty of signs that American Atheists' efforts are having an impact. "The number of people who are atheists and non-religious continues to grow at a huge rate. A recent survey [by the Public Religion Research Institute] showed that 40 percent of people under thirty are non-religious. Obviously, not all of them are atheists, but they leave behind a lot of the religion stuff, even if they believe in God. And in the general population, a quarter of the people are non-religious, and that number has gone up from something like 15 percent ten years ago. So we're making progress as far as people knowing it's okay to leave behind religion."
Not that all the organization's goals have been attained. "We need to break down the stigma about being an atheist," Fish stresses. "There are too many people who go to religious schools and lose their faith while they're there, and end up losing their scholarships and getting kicked out. And there continues to be a lot of bigotry and casual discrimination against non-believers and atheists in the political arena. We saw it on both sides during the election. On the Republican side, we heard that atheists can't be good citizens and aren't qualified to be president, and on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders's perceived lack of religion was used as an attack line. So this isn't a partisan issue. We see it all over the place, and it's something we have to continue to fight against and work on."
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Not that Fish objects to all displays of yuletide spirit. "At this time of year, something like 95 percent of people — even about half of Jewish people — have a Christmas tree. We're saying, 'If you want to do that stuff, great. But don't pretend that you believe in it. Don't call yourself a Christian. Be open and honest' — and by doing that, we'll break down those barriers."
Even in Colorado Springs.