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Billboard by atheists targets holiday season

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

President Donald Trump isn’t the only one making claims of “fake news.”

The American Atheists organization is also sounding the alarm – but its Christmas season target is religion.

Earlier this week, a large billboard went up next to Interstate 25, south of Montgomery. Located on the west side of the interstate but facing northbound traffic, the billboard contains a Nativity scene with a crescent moon and star above it. Large lettering to the right reads: “Just skip church. It’s all fake news!” Along the bottom of the billboard, in smaller lettering, is the message, “Happy holidays from American Atheists!”

Nick Fish, national program director for American Atheists, which has headquarters in New Jersey and Washington, D.C., told the Journal on Friday that he understands some people believe the billboard message “is a slap in the face of people of faith.” That, however, is not the intention.

People are “rightly skeptical” about some of the news they see on social media, hear from family or friends, or are told by elected officials. “But too often, they don’t extend that skepticism to their religious views and what their religious leaders are telling them,” Fish said.

“Fake news has been a topic of conversation for two years now, and the best way to fight against fake news is to think critically and look at the evidence. We want people to do that in all aspects of their lives and not shut off that part of their brain that does critical thinking for two hours when they attend their houses of worship each week.”

Critical thinking is not what’s being advanced by the billboard, said the Rev. Richard Mansfield, senior pastor of the New Beginning Church, which is less than a quarter mile from the highway billboard.

“They’re not promoting conversation; they’re just saying Christianity is false, the Nativity is a farce, the church and everything we stand for is fake, the Bible is a lie and we are all liars.”

The billboard is “mocking everything that Christians around the world believe in and they’re saying ‘skip church because it delivers fake news,’ ” he said. “They are attacking the church.”

The billboard will remain up through December. The Nativity scene and the reference to church were used because this is the holiday season and because most Americans who profess to be religious are affiliated with a Christian denomination, Fish said. However, the message of the billboard is meant for all religions, he added.

Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld of Congregation Albert said he was offended by the billboard.

“If it said, ‘There is no god; happy holidays,’ I would not be offended, because that’s an issue of free speech and freedom of religion,” he said.

Because the billboard uses the Nativity image and tells people to skip church because churches promote fake news, “the message is, ‘None of this is real; you’re all being fooled; don’t do it.’ That’s a different message than think critically.”

Further, Rosenfeld said, the term “fake news” is a pejorative that is now being used “to put others down and shut off discussion and debate.”

The billboard demonstrates a lack of sensitivity to people of faith, particularly coming at this time of the year, said Mostafa Amini, general secretary of the Islamic Center of New Mexico. “At the same time, we support freedom of speech and recognize that atheists have the right to express themselves as they will,” he said.

The Islamic faith “also supports, in fact commands, critical thinking,” Amini said. “Islam tries to argue rationally for the existence of God, and that is not fake news to people of faith.”

Richard Wood, a University of New Mexico professor of sociology specializing in religion, says he detects a type of dishonesty in the billboard’s message.

“I have deep respect for principled humanism,” he said, “but that billboard expresses a certain kind of secular fundamentalism that’s a mirror image of religious fundamentalism in that it denies all truths except their own.”

That kind of secular fundamentalism “is just as ethically bankrupt as religious fundamentalism,” he said. “If the message is ‘think critically about everything,’ I’m on board. But that’s not what the billboard says, which is, ‘Religion is fake news.’ ”