In America, we have both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. We are entitled to live our lives according to our own choices and values, and that is what makes us a great nation. But that is also why I find billboards such as the latest one in New York City proclaiming "Who Needs Christ during Christmas? Nobody" childish at best and counter-productive to the atheist cause at worst.
Atheists feel marginalized in our society. I sympathize with that and support their fight to be viewed in the same light as any religious person. After all, atheists can be just as compassionate, as loving and as giving as anyone else, regardless of whether they believe in God or not, so why should they be treated differently?
But where is that positive, hopeful message? Certainly not in a billboard insulting the cherished beliefs of others. If anything, negative messages like this only polarize our society further. Angry rhetoric (even if driven by frustration) does not win respect from anyone, and by knocking down others' beliefs, atheists are acting exactly like the religious zealots whose intolerance they are fighting against.
If atheists want their views to be taken seriously, they should learn from the recent battle over gay marriage. The gay community, probably more than any other group, has been vilified and marginalized for decades, and yet despite their justifiable anger, their message to America has been generous and mature: We support your right to marry and be happy; we just want you to do the same. It was a positive, fair, and extremely powerful message and it won the day. The gay community never attacked those in traditional marriages, never took out billboards deriding the institution of marriage, they just asked for the nation to treat a union between two men or two women in the same way.
Not only was that politically astute, but it also ensured that when Americans came around to accepting gay marriage, they did not do it out of resentment but out of the realization that the gay community deserved to have the same rights as everyone else. Respect cannot be legislated or rammed down people's throats. It comes out of positive dialogue and the willingness to live and let live. Trying to throw Christ out of Christmas is not in keeping with that spirit, and the atheist group who put out the billboard should understand that.
America is evolving fast and attitudes are changing, but the end goal has to be mutual respect and for diverse groups of people to live together harmoniously, even if they disagree. Part of that process involves respecting others in the messages we put out. Atheists may consider a belief in God to be irrational, and they are welcome to debate that in the public forum, but simply saying that religion is useless or stupid is not a solution.
Coming back to the latest billboard itself, the group that put it out there claims that 'nobody' needs Christ in Christmas. Well, the fact that they felt the need to put up a billboard in an expensive venue like Times Square in the first place clearly suggests that a large number of people do need Christ in Christmas, so what exactly was the group trying to say?
Not a lot, and that is the problem. If atheists really want to advance their cause, their message should be positive and inspiring, not negative and deliberately offensive. The only saving grace is that they didn't go after Santa.
Follow Sanjay Sanghoee on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sanghoee