You’re entering the Lincoln Tunnel on your way to New York City when you see it. Orange and black, the billboard displays images of Neptune, Jesus, Santa Claus, and a grinning devil with horns. The caption above states, “37 Million Americans know MYTHS when they see them.” The question in the middle asks, “What do you see?” The line below tells us the sponsors of the billboard: a group called American Atheists.
This year’s version is a bit tamer than last year’s “You Know It’s a MYTH” slogan set against a nativity scene with three wise men and two figures in a manger. That one provoked a response from the Catholic League. They posted their own billboard on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel proclaiming, “You Know It’s Real. This Season, Celebrate Jesus,” set against an image of the infant Christ with Mary and Joseph.
This time around, the Catholics don’t think the atheists’ new billboard is effective enough to warrant a response. It turns out the American Atheists are primarily targeting other atheists. They want to prevent the fascinating trend of atheists going to church at Christmas.
A new study finds that 17 percent of atheists in the survey attended a religious service more than once a year. They seem especially willing to attend at Christmas, embracing the traditions of the season for personal and family reasons. An earlier study found that about 20 percent of atheist scientists are “spiritual,” if not formally religious.
How should we respond to the atheists’ new billboard? Let’s begin with its logic. If they linked Neptune, Santa, a devil with horns, and George Washington, should we therefore believe that our nation’s first president was a myth? Saying it doesn’t make it so.
The atheists are wrong: the existence of Jesus Christ is an established fact of history. If you didn’t open a New Testament, you could prove from early historians Tacitus, Thallus the Samaritan, Mara bar Serapion, Pliny the Younger, and Josephus that Jesus of Nazareth lived and was crucified by Pontius Pilate. According to their records, early Christians believed he was raised from the dead and worshiped him as God.
Now let’s reflect on the purpose behind the billboard. I’m not surprised that atheists would be drawn to church at Christmas, and for more than the traditions of the season. Pascal was right: there’s a God-shaped emptiness in each of us.
Do you know people who have not experienced the joy of salvation through Jesus? Pray for them by name during this Christmas season. Ask the Lord to help you find compassionate ways to share his love in yours. Invite them to attend a Christmas service with you. And don’t be surprised when they accept your invitation.
As St. Augustine said so well, our hearts are restless until they rest in him. Atheists included.