Festive tidings for the faithless

Secular Christmas campaign divides opinion in US as non-believers plan alternative celebration.

Volunteers of America's "Sidewalk Santas" parade down Fifth Ave. Friday, Nov. 23, 2007 in New York. Volunteers of America is a national, nonprofit, faith-based organization dedicated to helping those in need rebuild their lives and reach their full potential. (AP Photo/Gary He)
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WASHINGTON // The holiday spirit will soon sweep across this mostly Christian nation as it prepares to celebrate Christmas, the anniversary of Jesus's birth. Nativity scenes - complete with models of baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary - will crop up on church lawns, Christmas carols will play on the radio and some congregations will see a modest bump in attendance. But for Americans who do not subscribe to a particular faith - or who do not believe in God at all - this can be a lonely time of year. That is, until now. The Washington-based American Humanist Association (AHA) - which promotes the belief that people can act morally without religion - has launched the first "godless holiday campaign", a blitz of advertisements that soon will appear on buses in the nation's capital. "Why believe in God? Just be good for goodness' sake," the advertisement reads, taking a line from the famous secular carol Santa Claus is Coming to Town. One version of the ad shows an Asian woman dressed as Santa and shrugging her shoulders; another has Santa as a black man with dreadlocks. The campaign kicked off on Tuesday with two prominent newspaper ads. By Christmas, the ads will adorn about 200 buses in the city's fleet, a presence that will cost about US$40,000 (Dh147,000). It is well worth it, said Roy Speckhardt, the group's executive director. "There are millions of Americans of strong moral character who don't happen to believe in God, but many feel alone in their convictions, especially during the holidays as we are often bombarded by religious messages," he said. The campaign has been pitched as the latest salvo in what they say is a growing tide of "godlessness". A slew of books that question organised religion - by such prominent authors as Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins - have received critical acclaim in recent years. Bill Maher, a US comedian, recently struck gold at the box office with Religulous, a documentary film that attempts to poke holes in the teachings of some faiths. Last month, the British Humanist Association launched a similar advertising campaign in London with ads reading: "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The British ads led to a flurry of media attention, a spike in donations to the association and a swift reply from the Church of England. "Christian belief is not about worrying or not enjoying life," the Church said in a statement, acknowledging the right of humanists to freely express their views. In the United States - where 92 per cent of the population believes in God, according to a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life - the "godless" ads have already found plenty of critics. "This may be successful in getting [AHA] some publicity, but I don't think it will be successful in getting them any converts, so to speak," said Peter Sprigg, vice president for policy at the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group in Washington. While Mr Sprigg does not question the right of the humanists to purchase ad space, he strongly disagrees with the idea that morality can exist without religion. "I think the Christian idea that all humans are sinful has been borne out by human history," he said. "The most brutal regimes in human history, specifically Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, were godless regimes." Susan Fani, a spokesman for the Catholic League, likened the group to "secular militants" whose message has been getting "bolder and bolder"."They're attacking Christmas," she said. "They obviously can't have a holiday because they don't believe in anything, so they are attacking our holiday." Some would argue that Christmas has already lost much of its religious meaning; in western culture, the holiday is almost as much about getting gifts and holiday discounts as it is about Jesus. Americans are more likely to flock to shopping malls than they are to church, and many stores count on Christmas sales to carry them through the rest of the year. Still, Fred Edwords, an AHA spokesman, said some pushback by the religious community is to be expected. "Some folks may be offended, but that isn't our purpose," Mr Edwords said. "We just want to reach those open to this message but unaware of how widespread their views really are." In fact, such non-religious views are spreading faster than those of any organised religion, the Pew poll showed. About 16 per cent of Americans are "unaffiliated" with any religion, though only about one-quarter of that group say they definitely do not believe in God. That represents a dramatic climb since the 1980s, when polls by the University of Chicago put them at between five per cent and eight per cent of the population. The AHA's membership has blossomed too, from 4,000 members in 2004 to more than 10,000 now. Mr Edwords attributed the rise, in part, to the outgoing president, George W Bush, a Methodist and self-proclaimed born-again Christian who speaks openly of his relationship with God. "There is nothing like a very religious administration to make a number of other people say, 'hey, wait a minute, we've had it'," he said. Still, any gains by the "godless" probably match a rising number of people who are clinging tighter to their religion, analysts said. Some point to an increasing split between the faithful and the faithless. A 2006 study by the University of Minnesota, for example, showed that atheists are the most distrusted minority in America. Forty per cent of respondents listed atheists as the group that "does not at all agree with my vision of American society", more than any other demographic. Mr Edwords said he hoped the ad campaign would be an important first step in breaking down that stigma. "This is just the beginning," he said. "You'll be hearing a lot more from us in the future." sstanek@thenational.ae