The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Atheists and Billboards

Have you seen the billboard put up by a group calling itself American Atheists? It's located in North Bergen, NJ right outside the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. For those of you unfamiliar with the area, the tunnel is one of the key access routes into Manhattan. The billboard, which depicts the Bethlehem Nativity scene in silhouette, complete with Mary, Joseph, the Babe in the manger, a donkey, and the three magi, all illuminated by a bright star in the heavens. Across the top of the billboard are the words, "You KNOW it's a Myth / This Season, Celebrate REASON!" (See below.)
Atheists' Billboard in New Jersey
If the comments I heard this morning at the soup kitchen are typical, a lot of Christians seem to be very upset about this billboard, considering it a sacrilegious affront to their faith. Personally, I don't find it very offensive at all, and certainly not sacrilegious. Indeed, it's pretty much what one would expect an atheist to say about Christmas. In truth, the billboard is actually far less offensive than much of the anti-Christian pornography that passes for art these days. And, too, it's important to realize that the American Atheists -- God bless them --  have every right to buy space on a billboard in New Jersey or anywhere else in the USA where freedom of speech is protected by the Constitution.

Actually, I'm far more inclined to pay attention to what atheists have to say, than to the words of many others. At least atheists believe in something, even if that something is nothing. Speaking with a true atheist about God and faith and transcendence is actually far more interesting and productive than speaking with an agnostic or even a lukewarm Christian who really doesn't know what he believes and seemingly doesn't care. And don't forget what Jesus said about those lukewarm Christians: "I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth" [Rev 3:15-16]. I'm with Jesus: Give me a cold atheist over a lukewarm believer any day of the week. Believe me, they're a lot closer to God than many others.

It's also important to understand the purpose of the billboard. Sure, it's designed to upset people, maybe even shock a few. But as a representative of the American Atheists stated, this billboard and its message are not really aimed at Christians; rather they're aimed at atheists who hypocritically celebrate Christmas despite their non-belief. I suspect this is true even though it's a rather absurd concern on their part. Many (most?) people today, even many who claim to be Christians, don't actually celebrate Christmas -- i.e., the birth of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ -- but celebrate instead some ill-defined "holiday season" as a time of gift-giving and parties and family reunions. As one parishioner told me a few years ago, "Christmas? It's for the children." Like him, I really don't think those atheists who take part in these holiday festivities give even a moment's thought to Jesus Christ.

I'm also more likely to give atheists a pass since most really don't understand the close relationship between faith and reason and have probably never read Aquinas. And few, if any, atheists are very familiar with Scripture, so they have at most a vague concept of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and the truth of Scripture. If one comes to Scripture from somewhere other than faith, I expect it does seem like a myth. Of course this is why so many of today's Scriptural scholars are at best agnostics.

And finally, I really believe the billboard might turn out to be a plus for Christianity. I don't know about you, but when I'm driving in heavy traffic and happen to notice a billboard, I can rarely look at it long enough to read its message, but rather form a quick gestalt-like perception of what it's all about. With this particular billboard all I would probably see is a rather nice Nativity scene causing me to utter a quick prayer: "Thank you, Father, for giving us Your Son. Your love is unsurpassed."

Pray for our atheist brothers and sisters. Once they hear the Good News, many of them will lead others to Jesus Christ.

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