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The holiday season is typically characterized by tree-top angels, carols rooted in religious imagery and robed figures shivering in live nativity scenes. But this year, one local nonprofit has challenged Christmas convention with a less traditional message: “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone!”

It’s been more than three years since the Missoula Area Secular Society plastered a similar phrase on a billboard along Russell Street. According to President Traci Brown, that advertising campaign in summer 2011 helped double the number of active M.A.S.S. members. Brown hopes the new ad, which went up on a Mountain Line bus Nov. 21 and will continue through the end of December, drives a similar increase in membership.

M.A.S.S. has been a fairly quirky group ever since its inception in 2008. A holiday brunch gathering attended by the Indy in 2010 included a discussion of carbon sequestration led by a federal soil scientist. The irony of advertising a collective of non-theists at a time normally associated with midnight masses and church choir performances isn’t lost on Brown and her cohorts, though Brown acknowledges the nonprofit was “a little worried” about the likelihood of a negative response.

If anyone in Missoula does take issue with the ad’s timing, that criticism has yet to publicly manifest itself. Instead Brown’s been fielding emails and Facebook responses lauding the group’s push to “reach out to people who feel lonely around the holidays” due to their beliefs (or lack thereof). And the ad comes on the heels of an active effort by M.A.S.S. to get more involved in community activism. The nonprofit adopted a stretch of Montana Highway 200 last May and conducted three trash pickups over the summer. It may not be as festive as a Salvation Army toy drive, but bagging discarded Coke bottles on the roadside is certainly one form of giving back.

The M.A.S.S. ad comes at an interesting time, not just in light of Christmas, but of the growing prevalence of such groups in Montana and nationwide. Last June, nearly 50 people from across the state gathered in Helena for Montana’s first-ever secular summit, discussing, among other things, the issue of separation of church and state. We probably won’t hear modified carols like “Hark! The Pastafarians Sing” for a while yet, but there’s clearly room for more than mangers and menorahs this time of year.

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