American Atheists President David Silverman has said that his group's holiday billboards this year, with a message to "skip church" this Christmas, are aimed at atheists who are living with theists in mixed families and are under pressure to participate in religious activities.
"That little girl on the billboard symbolizes the atheists who go along to get along, attending and possibly tithing a church that preaches a religion in which they don't believe, for no other reason than habit or familial pressure," Silverman told The Christian Post in an email on Thursday.
"We are using these billboards to spur intra-family communication, because we believe the communication is desperately needed," he asserted.
The billboards have gone up in Memphis, Nashville, St. Louis, and Fort Smith, Arkansas, while a fifth billboard in Milwaukee is co-sponsored by the Southeast Wisconsin Freethinkers. Silverman said the ads were priced at approximately $20,000, which was paid for by donors.
The billboards, which feature a young girl writing a message to Santa Claus reading: "Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is to skip church! I'm too old for fairy tales," have attracted various media attention.
While previous AA holiday billboards have been erected in notable urban areas, such as at Times Square in New York City, Silverman explained that this year's ads are the first ones to be placed in residential areas.
"The target market is anyone old enough to read the board, understand the message, and realize that it rings true with them, which we figure is young teens and up," Silverman told CP.
"Nobody seriously thinks little kids are reading billboards and having religious epiphanies from them, but older kids are statistically the most likely to be atheists, and we hope this billboard spurs them to talk about it with their parents," he added.
The secular group's press release on Monday noted that it was denied billboard advertising space in Jackson, Mississippi, because area lessors rejected the content of the ads. The AA president said that the group often experiences such problems, since billboard owners fear repercussions from Christian customers.
"Billboard owners have received death threats, and more often boycott threats, from Christians, just because they put up our ads," he said. "In Salt Lake City, for example, none of the local billboard companies would do business with us for fear of losing other business. This is legal, but it's not moral, and it's a clear symptom of the bigotry atheists face from Christians on a regular basis, further emphasizing the need for communication and activism."
When asked if there is any way to measure the success of billboard campaigns, Silverman said that, as a result of the media coverage, the group has seen "a huge uptick" in ticket sales for its upcoming national convention, set to take place in 2015 during Easter weekend in Memphis.
As for the number of atheists living in households where they cannot share their beliefs with close ones, Silverman pointed to a 2008 USA Today poll which showed that atheism has been growing across the U.S., including in the Bible Belt states. The survey found that close to 15 percent of Americans say they have no religion, which was up from 8 percent in 1990.
The "nones" were shown to have grown as the third largest group in the country, after Catholics and Baptists.
Silverman estimated that at least one in 10 Tennesseans "is an outed atheist."
"We think these numbers are much higher, however, and that there are many atheists in Tennessee who, due to familial and societal pressure (bigotry against atheists), call themselves Christians. We are trying to help them tell the truth," he added.