'Tis the season to attack the season, at least in American Atheist country. So here they go with the newest round of billboards sneering at Christmas, this time in the Bible Belt.
The atheists knew it would get a sleighful of media coverage, though with varying degrees of friendliness. But some media, likeThe Telegraph, added generous amounts of copy & paste of the atheists' release material.
The summary lede in The Telegraph is conventional enough:
Atheist activists are taking their campaigns to the Bible Belt this Christmas with a provocative billboard campaign that is expected to stir controversy in America's religious heartlands.
The giant advertising hoardings in the Tennessee cities of Memphis, Nashville, St. Louis and Fort Smith, Arkansas show a mischievous-looking young girl writing her letter to Father Christmas: "Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is to skip church! I'm too old for fairy tales," she writes.
Then the story starts lifting content, with little rewriting, from the American Atheists. Here's a paragraph from the atheist's webpage:
“Even children know churches spew absurdity, which is why they don’t want to attend services. Enjoy the time with your family and friends instead,” said American Atheists President David Silverman. “Today’s adults have no obligation to pretend to believe the lies their parents believed. It’s OK to admit that your parents were wrong about God, and it’s definitely OK to tell your children the truth.”
Now here's one from the Telegraph:
"Today's adults have no obligation to pretend to believe the lies their parents believed. It's OK to admit that your parents were wrong about God, and it's definitely OK to tell your children the truth," said David Silverman, the group's president, as he launched the campaign.
Again, from the atheist website:
Despite multiple attempts, American Atheists was unable to secure a billboard advertising space in Jackson, Mississippi, as area lessors rejected the design due to content. “The fact that billboard companies would turn away business because they are so concerned about the reaction by the community to a simple message that not everyone goes to church and not everyone believes in gods shows just how much education and activism on behalf of atheists is needed in the South,” said Public Relations Director Danielle Muscato.
Back to the Telegraph:
In a sign of the hostility the adverts are expected to generate, American Atheists said that it had failed secure a single billboard site in Jackson, Mississippi after leasing companies collectively refused to offer space, fearing a community backlash.
"The fact that billboard companies would turn away business because they are so concerned about the reaction by the community shows just how much education and activism on behalf of atheists is needed in the South," added Danielle Muscato, the group's spokesperson.
I can see only one major difference between the versions: The Telegraph ascribed hostility only to Christians (and without any quotes or evidence, mind you). Apparently, holiday-bashing billboards in the most religious region of the U.S. don’t count as hostility.
Nor did the Telegraph ask any billboard companies why they turned down the atheist ads. Did the companies truly fear a "community backlash"? Newspapers are supposed to report hostility, not assume it.
And how about pastors or other Christian leaders? Or maybe those potential community backlashers? Do their views count? Or does the Telegraph regard them as guilty until proven innocent?
Thirdly, the newspaper showed no curiosity about the cost of the billboard campaign. That's a standard question whenever Christian leaders announce a major initiative. And remember that, like every church, American Atheists is a tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization.
And it's not like space or time was tight. Half of the Telegraph story recites boilerplate facts on the rise of the "Nones," the slide in church attendance, and the lack of atheists in Congress. If there was time to dig all that up, why not take time to get more than one side?
But let's be fair. The Telegraph probably didn't give that much thought to this story. It's Christmastime, and the newspaper needs timely stories, and American Atheists had handy copy and art. A match made in heaven, assuming there is one.
And what harm could any of this do? Except, you know, to the sensibilities of devout communities. And to the credibility of a major newspaper.
Photo: Billboard ad from American Atheist's current anti-Christmas campaign. Used by permission.