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Godless vs. God-fearing on Christmas billboards

In the future, Christmas may be less heralded by lights and carols than the greatly hyped, atheist vs. Christian billboard controversy. For some as yet indiscernible reason, atheist’s groups in North and South Americas, Europe and Australia get all pumped up around November to fight the possibility that anyone will celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas. (No such action is taken for Ramadan.)

They may have been inspired by the very successful Christmas posters plastering Britain since 1999. In a campaign by ChurchAds.net, striking posters are posted in bus shelters and billboards, with associated radio spots, encouraging the public to consider Christ and the original meaning of Christmas.

ChurchAds.net 2010 and 2011 campaign posters in UK

Last year’s poster (2010) portrays the holy family as refugees huddling in a transparent bus shelter. A burst of yellow nimbus over each head stands against the blue and obviously cold family while strangers stare in curiosity. It is quite painterly and manages to resemble a traditional nativity card, in spite of the disjointed placement and modern context.

This year’s version is deliberately Wall Street hip. The slogan “However you dress it up, Christmas starts with Christ” explains the bling and couture of a contemporary manger group resembling celebrities. Mary, in her trademark blue dress (stylish, cocktail this time), bears a likeness to Gwyneth Paltrow, although not enough to sue anyone. An elegant, dark-skinned man hands the child Damien Hirst’s famed diamond covered skull (valued at $100 million), which could also double as a memento mori of Christ’s eventual crucifixion.

ChurchAds.net 2011 campaign poster in UK

Wise men in suits offer a gold, jewel-encrusted, Fabergé egg and beautiful bottle of perfume. Gold, frankincense and myrrh. A baseball player and hunter, or returned veteran with camouflage and plaid shirt, stand as shepherds. Is that a gun in the shadows? Nod to “cattle lowing” is the clever cowhide rug beneath the group and a bicycle in the background. Even the artsy crib is the fruit of set and interior designer Lyndsay Milne Mcleod. The poster may not be high art, but it concerns itself with beautiful objects, art, money and what we value, as opposed to Christ.

Atheists in the UK responded to these posters with the Atheist Bus Campaign in 2009, bearing slogans like, “Let me grow up and choose for myself.” This campaign has traveled to buses in Ireland, Spain, Canada and many other nations. Atheists claimed the date for the launch was to coincide with the United Nations’ Universal Children’s Day on Nov. 20. Must protect children from Christmas at all costs.

Back in the states, we battled our own Christian culture wars on land, school and air until finally using billboards to promote Christmas as well. Three Ohio women scraped up money in 2007 to place a few billboards wishing “Merry Christmas,” and the idea caught on in various places. This seems to have alarmed U.S. atheists, who in the last few years have become increasing vocal and visible, including via billboards.


American Atheists’ billboard at Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey

This has became a running war on the New Jersey side of the Lincoln tunnel where the American Atheists first placed a huge anti-Christmas sign in 2010 and the Catholic League responded in defense of the nativity.

Neither the atheists’ sign declaring Christmas a “myth” nor the Catholic response was very attractive or catchy. I would rate the atheists’ design at two out of 10, for art/design and, unfortunately, about the same for the Catholic League’s counter. It may actually help their cause to use aesthetics in this war of public space and perception and make it more compelling. Steve Fogg of (I didn’t make this up) ChurchMarketingSucks.com claims they are “pretty much of a draw, no real ‘winner’ as far as impact or conviction.”


The second anniversary of the New Jersey billboard wars begins with a more cautious piece from the atheists. Perhaps they were stung with the backlash of rage from angry residents. This Christmas season, approximately 120,000 daily drivers will be greeted with the question, “Do you know what Neptune, Jesus, Santa Claus, and Satan have in common? 37 million Americans know MYTHS when they see them.” American Atheists sponsored the giant ad there and in several other states as part of its new campaign.

According to the American Atheists’ website, the group hopes to “p-ss off” the “God-fearing portion of our readership.”

“We all know that they have a particular hostility toward Christianity and especially Catholicism, and that’s why they chose Christmas to get their message across,” said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League.

But renowned evangelist Ray Comfort is thankful to see the group causing debate about Jesus, even through attacks. Speaking to WND, Comfort said he is happy to see atheists do something to cause “people to reason, think and talk about Christmas.” He prays people who are asked to “reason” may actually find faith in that way.

This year, the Catholic League won’t put up a response, Donohue said. They are both short on money and feel the 2011 billboard isn’t as offensive as last year’s.

Mary and pregnancy test billboard at St. Matthew-in-the-City Church in Auckland, New Zealand

Atheists have encountered a little resistance to their advertising in certain states and nations. For instance, the Lind Media Company in Ohio denied the group use of its billboards for evangelizing. Atheists in Australia filed a complaint of religious discrimination to the Human Rights Commission when they we denied permission to put atheist advertising on buses.

But a “progressive” New Zealand church has managed to do what atheists couldn’t: utterly infuriate at least a portion of generally placid Christians.

St. Matthew-in-the-City Church in Auckland, New Zealand, unveiled a new billboard for Christmas with a shocked mother-to-be of Christ holding a pregnancy test bottle. The church leaders intended the art to “spark thought and conversation in the community,” and it definitely did. There are no words included in the piece, so as to leave interpretation up to the viewer.

One Catholic resident interpreted it as a crude attack and took up their offer, responding in kind by ripping the sign. Arthur Skinner of the Catholic Action Group confessed his action, requesting the church arrest him and warning that he would vandalize it again if it were replaced.

About 100 other Catholics prayed and protested the billboard, which St. Matthews labeled as “Christian intolerance.” This has the appearance of a small-scale holy war between Catholics and Anglicans here. Even Muslims found it “very weird,” and the website OnIslam.net quoted someone asking, “Can it be more offensive?”

Officials at the local Catholic diocese feel the billboard deliberately conveys a false version of the Immaculate Conception. “Mary is not a shocked solo mother but a young woman who has given her assent and trust to God,” diocesan spokeswoman Lyndsay Freer told the Daily Telegraph.

In excuse of their unorthodox assault on Mary’s virginity, Vicar Glynn Cardy mouthed platitudes a la Sermon on the Mount, totally out of context. Something pious about a “young … poor … unmarried girl” who should, apparently, then be slandered. It’s a shame, because the painting is lovely, resembling a 17th century Dutch Madonna. Claiming to wish to avoid “the sentimental, trite and expected,” they succeeded on two counts but remained solidly trivial.

With a goal to do the “unexpected,” it has done far worse. A few years back, St. Matthew came up with such a nasty comment on Mary, God and sex that I could easily imagine in Hustler magazine. Perhaps the church was not “expecting” the number of lewd and profane comments on its Facebook page, which logically followed the seasonal offering.

With friends like that, who needs to fret over a few atheists and their public comments?