The Times Square billboard is not shy about its war on Christmas: “Keep the merry, dump the myth,” it reads, juxtaposing an image of jolly St. Nick with one of Christ’s agony on the cross. Sponsored by Cranford, N.J.-based American Atheists, the sign is funded in significant part by small-town nonbelievers nationwide.
“In New Jersey and the New York area, you don’t have as much of a feeling of oppression. We have a very diverse population,” says American Atheists managing director Amanda Knief, explaining the group’s backing in rural and small-town America. She points out that their 2010 national convention in Newark, which included an Easter Sunday trip to the American Museum of Natural History, attracted few local participants. By contrast, the 2011 850-person Des Moines gathering drew more than half of its attendees from inside the state. “It was the first opportunity in Iowa for people who were non-religious to come together. And it was the first time where it was safe to do so.”
Forget Hollywood and the Upper West Side. The angriest atheists are from the American heartland, where they live surrounded by the faithful. A 2007 Pew Research Center study found that 50 percent of rural atheists and agnostics see a “natural conflict between being a non-religious person and living in a society where most people are religious.” That’s 10 points higher than among their urban counterparts. Maybe Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly has been looking for the War on Christmas and its “secular progressive” leaders in all the wrong places.
“Here’s the bottom line: Where religion is weak, atheism is weak” in its intensity, says Pitzer sociologist Phil Zuckerman. “Where religion is strong, atheism is strong.” Zuckerman has found that people in Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden, among the world’s most profoundly nonreligious, generally eschew the “atheist” label and even marry in Lutheran churches. He labels the dominant attitude “benign indifference.”
“In small-town USA, people are much more likely to be anti-religious because they have religion thrown in their face all the time — prayers at little league, prayers at city council meetings, Nativity scenes and Ten Commandments billboards, preachers on the radio and TV, etc. — and their lack of religion is often associated with being immoral.”
But take out the conservative Christian dominance, he says, and “the natural default position of secularity is a mere indifference to religion.”