The Christmas Billboard Controversy
The Christmas Billboard Controversy

The Christmas Billboard Controversy

Times Square billboards are rather prominent, so it was inevitable that the message recently posted there by an atheist group would get a reaction. It said: “Who needs Christ in Christmas? Nobody.” (Last year the message was “Keep the Merry. Dump the Myth.”)

Christians take offense at such insults to their faith. Why, they wonder, do atheists choose to be so mean-spirited? Some conclude that atheists envy the joy that the season brings Christians. Others, that atheists are defensive because of the difficulty they have trying to prove a negative. Still others, that they resent the common equation of their unbelief with moral impoverishment and lash out in retaliation.

Whatever may have motivated the atheist group to create the billboard message, they should regret doing so for two reasons.

First, the idea of taking Christ out of Christmas is ridiculous. It’s like suggesting that presidents not be mentioned on Presidents’ Day, valentines be outlawed on Valentine’s Day, and memorials be ignored on Memorial Day.

The point of all such “days” is to honor someone or something considered worthy of that treatment. To remove the person or thing from the occasion is to rob the occasion of its meaning. Christ is central to Christmas in precisely the same way that mothers are central to Mothers’ Day. He quite literally belongs there; in popular parlance, he is the “reason for the season.”

The second reason atheists should regret the billboard message is that it violates civility and the spirit of tolerance, ideals respected by religious believers and unbelievers alike.

Am I suggesting that atheists have to like Christmas? Not at all. Only that if they dislike it, they not publicize their sentiments, particularly on billboards. And rather than suppress their ill feelings, they should consider channeling them into benevolent expressions, which psychology has shown contribute to emotional and physical health.

Here is an example of a benevolent expression an atheist might offer to neighbors and co-workers, among others:

As an atheist, I don’t celebrate Christmas. But I know you do and I wish you a happy celebration. (By replacing “Christmas” with “Chanukah,” “Eid-al-Fitr,” or another religion’s special occasion, this can serve as an all-purpose expression of kindness.)

Or the atheist could say more simply: I hope you enjoy your special holiday.

If atheists made this approach a habit, it wouldn’t be long before a group of them decided to put up a billboard on Times Square that said something like this:

From atheists to Christians: best wishes on your holiday.

Imagine the good will such a billboard would generate and the impact it could have on Christians. It might cause them to reflect more deeply on the meaning of the feast and of their Christian faith—the kind of reflection that prompts humility and the desire not just to celebrate Christ’s birth but also to follow His example.

Such a billboard might even encourage Christians to put aside their animosity toward atheists and see them as the neighbors Christ encouraged everyone to love.

Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero