First Methodist Newnan responds to atheists
by W. Winston Skinner
During the holiday season, American Atheists sponsored an electronic advertisement in New York City’s Times Square asking, "Who needs Christ during Christmas?” and answering: “Nobody."
The lighted, digital billboard measured 40 feet by 40 feet. The group's 15-second ad appeared three times every hour and was shown more than 1,000 times in New York’s busy shopping district. The advertisement declared, "Christmas is better without Christ."
Members of a Coweta County church beg to differ.
First United Methodist Church of Newnan sent a large poster with a message to the atheist group, disagreeing — politely — with the message in the advertisements. The local church’s response is one of many across the nation, including vocal opposition from Andrew J. Lanza, a New York state senator.
Stuart Greene came to Newnan last year to serve as pastor at First Methodist. He was already aware of the American Atheists’ ongoing Christmas advertising efforts, which have been taking place for several years. When he learned of the latest one, he felt compelled to speak out.
“We hear this stuff. We kind of get immune to it,” Greene said. He said this year’s American Atheists message went beyond a “you believe what you want” theme to an effort to convince people to ignore Christ during the season when Christians remember his coming into the world.
“I came to the sense the organization is no longer content for themselves not to believe. They seem to be emboldened to try to convince everyone else not to believe,” Greene said.
Greene addressed the issue in a sermon at the downtown church in December. For the chorus of the carol, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” Greene had the congregation sing “O come let us ignore him” instead of “O come let us adore him.”
He recalled how uncomfortable the “ignore” version felt — with some parishioners expressing anger.
At the end of the service, Greene asked everyone who wanted to sign a message to American Atheists. Greene stressed the letter is not a petition, but a message “sharing that Christ does have power to influence lives.”
The church’s message, addressed to David Silverman, president of American Atheists, reads:
“We cannot help but notice your current ad campaign denouncing Christ and his centrality in the celebration of Christmas. As those who love Christ and whose lives have been changed by him, the ads are hurtful and cause great concern. Without Christ, we would be prone to respond with anger, as would anyone.
“But the Spirit of Christ is powerful and loving; influencing us to respond differently. Christ gives us clear instruction in these matters: ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ (Matthew 5:44) As you might agree, these are not natural, human responses. They can only be explained by the influence of a loving God in a person’s life. They can only be explained by the Christ of Christmas!
“At this holiday season, as you denounce the Christ of Christmas … the Christ of Christmas enables us to love, forgive and pray for you. We pray God’s blessings upon you and your family. As a witness to our faith and to the truth of Jesus Christ we, the members of Newnan First United Methodist Church, send this message to you in hope you might one day reconsider your efforts and come to see for yourselves the power of Christ and the Joy and Hope of Christmas!”
In addition to the Times Square advertisements, American Atheists had three billboards with the same message at Penn Station in New York.
American Atheists was founded in 1963 by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who filed the suit successfully eliminating mandated prayer from public schools in the United States. The organization was originally in Austin, Texas, but now has its headquarters in Cranford, N.J.
Silverman said Christmas “is a great time of year for a hundred reasons — none of them having to do with religion.” In a press statement in early December, he urged Americans to skip church and volunteer — or spend more time with friends and family during the holidays.
“Most people don’t care about any religious ties to the season because church and religion are not what Americans care about during this time of year. They care about family and friends and giving presents and food and having fun,” said Dave Muscato, public relations director for American Atheists.
“Christianity has been trying to claim ownership of the season for hundreds of years,” Silverman said. “But the winter solstice came first and so did its traditions. The season belongs to everybody.”
Lanza said the advertisements are part of a continued “War on Christmas” — and upon the beliefs and values of Christians, Jews and Muslims. He prepared a petition — to the New York City mayor and council, the New York attorney general and the Times Square merchant community — asking that the advertising be stopped.
“The American Atheists organization has ridiculed the solemn beliefs of millions of New Yorkers,” Lanza said. “It is our solemn responsibility as Americans to defend each other’s right to believe in God or not, however, I denounce this organization’s lack of decency, civility and kindness to people of faith as expressed on these billboard messages.”
Lanza said he had been contacted by people from across the country saying the American Atheists messages were unkind. He said there is a need for “decent people to send a message loud and clear that there is no room in our society for religious hatred or persecution toward people of faith.”
Greene said First Methodist’s poster-sized message is “a statement from one congregation.” He said a response is needed to the American Atheists’ message. “Being forgiving does not mean we let people just run all over us,” he said.
“This is a wakeup call for our church. Most of us don’t realize the extent to which our culture is becoming secular,” the pastor said.
On Friday, Greene had First Methodist’s message in a conference room — and a mailing tube on a nearby table. “I’m going to roll this up,” he said. “We’re going to mail it to the organization.”