An atheist organization has set up its own version of the Nativity scene in Madison, Wis., replacing the traditional Christian depiction of Jesus' birth with figures and objects honored by secularists.
"We nonbelievers don't mind sharing the season with Christians, but we think there should be some acknowledgment that the Christians really 'stole' the trimmings of Christmas, and the sun-god myths, from pagans," said Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Emma Goldman, the goddess Venus, the Statue of Liberty, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Thomas Jefferson replace the magi, or wise men, in the atheist's Nativity version, while the baby Jesus has been replaced by a baby girl.
The display is set up on the first-floor rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capitol now through the month of December, and officially celebrates Winter Solstice, which falls on Dec. 21, when the sun will appear at noon at its lowest altitude above the horizon.
"The display celebrates the human family, reason and the Winter Solstice. It was placed last year after a religious right group put up a devotional nativity scene for the first time in the Capitol," FFRF said in a statement.
The group explains that evergreen trees used for Christmas are "deeply rooted in pagan tradition," and that the Winter Solstice they are celebrating has been honored for millenniums in the Northern Hemisphere with festivals of light, evergreens, feasts and gift exchanges
Dan Barker, FFRF co-president, added that "Christians tend to think they own the month of December. We don't agree. No month is free from pagan reverie! In celebrating the Winter Solstice, we celebrate reality."
The atheist display is accompanied by a "solstice message" instead of a Christmas carol, composed by Anne Nicol Gaylor, Foundation co-president emerita, which reads:
"At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
The Wisconsin Family Action group, a nonprofit that defends traditional family values, has called the atheist Nativity scene "irreverent."
Facing criticism for its own display last year, the organization released a statement recalling the story of the birth of Jesus as presented in the Bible, and said that it has long been foretold that some people will continue disputing the miracle of Christ's birth.
"In the meantime, modern day Herods such as Freedom From Religion Foundation will continue to rail, threaten, belittle, mock, scorn, and put up displays that blaspheme the Truth of Christmas. However, those of us who know the Truth – Jesus Christ Incarnate – we will go on secure in our belief that the Baby Jesus is one day returning as King of Kings," Wisconsin Family Action wrote.