Atheist activists are taking their campaigns to the Bible Belt this Christmas with a provocative billboard campaign that is expected to stir controversy in America's religious heartlands.
The giant advertising hoardings in the Tennessee cities of Memphis, Nashville, St. Louis and Fort Smith, Arkansas show a mischievous-looking young girl writing her letter to Father Christmas: "Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is to skip church! I'm too old for fairy tales," she writes.
The advertising campaign by the American Atheists group will run until Christmas Eve and is the first time the group has aimed its anti-God adverts directly at residential religious areas, having previously targeted urban audiences in big venues such as Times Square in New York.
"Today's adults have no obligation to pretend to believe the lies their parents believed. It's OK to admit that your parents were wrong about God, and it's definitely OK to tell your children the truth," said David Silverman, the group's president, as he launched the campaign.
In a sign of the hostility the adverts are expected to generate, American Atheists said that it had failed secure a single billboard site in Jackson, Mississippi after leasing companies collectively refused to offer space, fearing a community backlash.
"The fact that billboard companies would turn away business because they are so concerned about the reaction by the community shows just how much education and activism on behalf of atheists is needed in the South," added Danielle Muscato, the group's spokesperson.
America remains deeply religious relative to Europe, with not a single self-professed atheist among the 535 members of the US Congress. US presidential candidates are also expected to believe in God.
However recent social surveys have shown a sharp rise in religious non-affiliation among young people, accompanied by a decline in attendance among mainstream Anglican, Episcopalian and Catholic churches over the past 30 years.
According to the Pew research group, one third of Americans aged 18 to 29 now say they have "no religious affiliation", compared with less than 10 per cent of their grandparents' generation.
At the same time, America has seen a rise in the number of so-called "mega churches" where mostly Evangelical congregations of 10,000 or more worship with rock bands and charismatic preachers in converted baseball stadiums and other large venues.
However recent research by Mark Chaves, a divinity and sociology professor at Duke University and author of "America Religion: Contemporary Trends", has indicated that Evangelical groups could now be succumbing to the same forces of secularisation as other churches.
Using data from the University of Chicago's General Social Survey, Prof Chaves discovered that among White Evangelicals born in the decade 1981-90, some 22 per cent now say they have no religion, a figure close to the 24 per cent of mainstream Protestants born in the same decade who said the same.