It seems every few weeks a new ad campaign is launched to convince the public atheism is more reasonable and beneficial than theism. The latest move of placing an anti-Christmas billboard outside of the Lincoln tunnel in New York has garnered a great deal of media attention. The billboard depicts the nativity, the Star of Bethlehem, and the three wise men with the words: “You know it’s a myth, this season celebrate reason.” Ironically, any biblically literate Christian would agree the scene depicted is inaccurate. The wise men (we are never told if there are three or thirty) never visited the baby in the manger, meeting Jesus up to two years afterwards in a house. But why post this message at this time? According to the American Atheist’s website the purpose seems to be to put a dent in the loneliness atheists feel during the Christmas season. They believe that, due to the obvious superiority of their position, there must be more atheists out there. If they would make themselves known they could break the hold Christianity has on the winter holiday. Unfortunately for atheists, it seems like this latest billboard is accomplishing what the previous atheist ads did: a few news segments and little else.
In September in Oklahoma City atheists erected a billboard that said: “Don’t believe in God? Join the club.” Last Christmas Atheists purchased ads in Vegas that read, “Yes Virginia, there is no god.” In the U.K. last year, atheists took out bus ads stating: “There’s probably no god. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.” In 2008 outside of Philadelphia a billboard was put up that read: “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” In the same year bus ads in Washington D.C. stirred controversy declaring: “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake.” In February a billboard in Sacramento read: “Are you without God? Millions are.” Apparently some theist with a can of spray paint took some creative license and added the words “also lost”. Thus, the billboard read “Are you without God? Millions are also lost.”
Recently an ambitious effort was launched by the American Humanist Association featuring television spots on NBC encouraging Americans to “consider humanism”. Humanism is man-centered, non-theistic, and insists we must save ourselves. One ad quotes Proverbs 3:5 – “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding” – and juxtaposes it with atheist Richard Dawkins encouraging people to abandon belief based on “revelation” and “tradition” and accept belief based on evidence and logic. Another ad quotes 1 Samuel 15:3 – “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant…” – and juxtaposes it with Carl Coon urging humanity to come together. The goal is to convince viewers humanism is intellectually and morally superior to theism.
So why have atheists turned to the highly intellectual mediums of billboards, bus, and television ads to make their case? I’m not one so I can’t say for sure, but I imagine it’s born out of a bit of frustration. While their views seem obviously superior to them, Americans don’t seem to agree. Surveys tell us the number of non-religious Americans has grown to between 12 and 15%, but only around 2% self-identify as atheists. During the last presidential election a USA Today/Gallup poll determined 53% of voters would disqualify a candidate if they were an atheist – more than any other category including if the candidate were gay. In light of this, these ads have the feel of a desperate Hail-Mary pass late in the fourth quarter in a losing game.
What has made influencing the public to embrace atheism a losing effort despite the disproportionate number of atheists in higher learning? I think there are two reasons:
One, atheism is not simply the rejection of a god; it is the embrace of a naturalistic worldview. Naturalism holds that everything that happens in the world is entirely explainable by natural causes that we can access with our senses. The supernatural including God, miracles, revelation, spirits, etc. is impossible. Random chance directed by purposeless, natural forces has given rise to life on earth. There is no human “spirit”; all courage, bravery, love, beauty, passion, joy, and sorrow is nothing more than genetic programming and chemical reactions in the brain. Life has no transcendent purpose and ends absolutely at death. Good and evil, right and wrong are merely cultural constructions. Now, if this is the way reality is we should accept it. But human experience argues strongly against this worldview. Until atheists find a compelling way to explain away all of human experience and convince the public there is nothing beyond their senses they will continue to be frustrated.
Two, atheists refuse to take seriously those who disagree with them. They can’t imagine anyone as intelligent as they are not holding to atheistic naturalism. So instead of dialoguing with theistic scientists, theologians and philosophers, they ignore them and continue to make straw-man arguments that fail to persuade the faithful. In his “Consider Humanism” ad, Dawkins encourages belief based on “evidence” and “logic” because he believes only those who think like him use evidence and logic to arrive at their beliefs. In his movie “Religulous”, Bill Maher skips respected theologians and philosophers and opts for a Trucker’s Chapel, an actor playing Jesus at the Holy Land Experience Theme Park, and Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda who thinks he is the second coming of Christ. While funny, neither Maher’s movie nor Dawkins’ commercial will convince anyone who has put even a little thought into their faith. Until atheists are willing to acknowledge people as smart as they are have compelling reasons for their faith and are willing to engage thoughtfully with them, they will continue to be frustrated.
The cultural impact of the latest round of atheist advertisements will likely be minimal. However, they should remind Christians to think well about and live consistently with their faith. We should be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). It will accomplish far more than a sign outside the Lincoln Tunnel.