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TRENDING: An atheist view of December
December 23rd, 2010
07:00 AM ET

TRENDING: An atheist view of December

By Katie Glaeser, CNN

“Christians don’t deserve a monopoly on holiday cheer," reads a simple yet loaded statement on the American Atheists’ website.

But how could Christians monopolize a holiday that is based on their beliefs?

It turns out that traditions associated with Christmas have morphed into social norms adopted even among nonbelievers.

Everywhere you turn there are decorations, cookies, and music. But for many of the 5% of Americans who say they don’t believe in God, December is not that different from what it’s like for those affiliated with a Christian religion. Those who don’t believe in the reason behind the holiday still celebrate the season’s concentration on values, family, and kindness.

Liz Turcotte from Kentucky grew up Catholic, but her views on religion changed during college. “I feel like a lot of people associate atheism with a lack of tradition and bitterness towards religious holidays when this is far from the truth, at least for me,” she tells CNN in an interview.

Atheism is a very broad term. David Silverman, president of American Atheists, says it can be the lack of belief in God, or never giving much thought to God, and can also include those unwilling to make any sort of decision about what they believe in.

Turcotte says the holiday festivities feel more secular than religious and she’ll be celebrating like many others on Christmas Day.

“We celebrate the end of a long year, whether it was difficult or fruitful, and the start of a new year to come,” Turcotte says. “For me, it is about being appreciative of the people in my life who have helped me through the past year.”

Silverman, with the American Atheists, says many nonbelievers celebrate December milestones like Christmas and the winter solstice.

“Me personally,” Silverman jokes, “I do nothing. I roll in a ball and hide in the corner until it’s over.” But his wife, who is a practicing Jew, puts up a menorah in their house and celebrates Hanukkah with the couple’s daughter.

Silverman says it’s a problem that Christmas is a religious holiday that’s also a U.S. federal holiday. “If you’re going to force Jews, atheists, Hindus to observe Christmas by shutting down the country, what we’re going to observe is the most secular parts of the holiday,” he explains.

Christmas has been a federal holiday since 1870. The explanation offered on the government website America.gov is that the holiday “began to honor universal values such as home, children and family life, and to incorporate secular customs like exchanging gifts and cards, and the decoration of evergreen trees.”

So, Silverman says, “A tree with tinsel and chestnuts roasting on an open fire … it’s perfectly acceptable for an atheist to celebrate these.”

Atlanta resident Adam Olansky says he doesn’t believe in the existence of God, but he and his family still have traditions around the Christmas holiday. They celebrate it by focusing on family and food. The tree was recently trimmed and on December 25 they’ll have brunch and exchange presents.

To Olansky, it’s not the customs that are the problem with Christmas. “I think the most overwhelming part of the holiday season is the way people behave, not the way the stores are dressed up or the music.” He says it comes down to the crazy holiday shoppers - “the person who has allowed a season that’s presumably about peace and joy to drive them off the deep end.”

Silverman says some atheists are upset with Christmas because “Christians do not own the season.” In fact, he accuses Christians of stealing the holiday. “Christianity is one of over a dozen religions that named the winter solstice as their god’s birthday. This is not original,” Silverman says. “It’s not about being out against Christmas, it’s about Christmas being a monopoly.”

Kyev Tatum, pastor of Friendship Rock Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, disputes Silverman’s assertion. “For him to make that kind of claim is just flat out untrue," he says. "It’s Christ-mas.”

“Christ was born during this time. While there is a debate about whether the 25th was the actual date, no one debates it was called Christ-mas to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” says Tatum, president of the Fort Worth chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

As for atheists celebrating Christmas, Tatum says that’s their right. “We want them to embrace it,” he says. “Christmas is about peace on Earth and goodwill towards men. Whether you believe it or not that’s the reason Jesus came.”

Liz Turcotte will be spreading goodwill this Christmas but says it will be on her own terms, “Exchanging gifts and donating to charity are not religious statements but more of a chance to stop and show people you care.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Charity • Christianity • Church and state • United States

soundoff (1,186 Responses)
  1. Matt

    I shared a observation post in Iraq with a hard core atheist, so he said. That is all he talked about and how much he hate religion and people who worshipped etc. After changing posts we were attacked by several insurgents and pinned down for approx. 3 hours until backup arrived exchanging gunfire at regular intervals. Needless to say, at that exact moment he left all the atheist talk and prayed to God that he would not die then and there. He kept apologizing and crying to God and asked forgiveness. So for all you "hard core" atheists, it is easy for you to say that when the most you ever have to worry about is slipping on ice and falling, or burning your mouth drinking Starbucks coffee, but when your life is on the line, I have seen that ideology crumble to the ground.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:38 am |
    • SuzNC

      Really you are trying to play the old "there are no
      atheist in fox holes". Yes there are, I wish you had your service buddy on here to back up your claims that he was crying and begging forgiveness. I just can't believe what you wrote is true.

      December 23, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
  2. Untestable Claims

    "God doesn't cause all of the cruelty in this world. The free will that he gives to humans does."
    it sounds like free will (which was non-freely forced upon us) isn't all that its cracked-up to be.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:36 am |
    • Scott

      @Untestable Claims: "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things." (Isaiah 45:7)

      December 23, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
  3. Gnarly Erik

    The time of the winter solstice has been celebrated by humans for thousands of years, and well before the historical time of Christ. This makes the universal christian chorus of ’keeping Christ in christmas’ disturbing to many atheists and non-christians. Since the reality of Christ’s actual birth date isn’t even near christmas, insisting the time has exclusively a holy, christian religious significance is merely an attempted christian theft of the meaning of the season.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:36 am |
    • Theresa

      Would you feel better if christians celebrate christs birth on another day ? I don't think so, the problem to people like is hate, you just cant stand the truth of God, because you don't believe, its not the date that bothers people like you, its ok though they have always been those who killed christiand starting with Jesus so its not surprise you hate..they hated him and Jesus said they will hate you, so rejoice,

      December 23, 2010 at 11:27 am |
    • Scott

      @Theresa: Google the "Srebrenica massacre" and learn about modern Christians slaughtering 8000 unarmed museums

      December 23, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  4. desacration

    It's hard to believe people still believe in religion in 2010.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:36 am |
    • The Doctor

      Dear desecration – Please see my comment posted at 10:23 am.

      December 23, 2010 at 10:56 am |
  5. JAB

    Christians did steal the season. Pagans and others celebrated the season well before Christianity. Christians converted millions and injected their beliefs and traditions into the season. Period. The season is now called Christmas because Christians are the majority in this part of the world. The end.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:35 am |
    • Theresa

      The pagans were killing Christians for the first 300 years and christians survived and grew the more pagans slaughtered the christians the more followers they gained, same thing will happen now the more athiest and others attack christians the stonger they will become, and grow, you can't stop the the message of christ, try as hard as you want to silence the truth.

      December 23, 2010 at 11:23 am |
    • Scott

      @Theresa: If you take a look at history you will find that many more pagans have been killed by Christians that have ever killed Christians. E.g. crusades and inquisition.

      December 23, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  6. blah9999

    @Whoever thinks that Christians molest boys,
    Christians in general don't molest kids. Catholics do. An unfortunately large cult that claims to be Christian. If you make that generalization that's like saying all Mulsims blow people up.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:35 am |
    • Scott

      Actually the bible states or at least strongly suggests that child molestation is just fine at least for girls. And Moses said unto them
      “Have ye saved all the women alive?... Now therefore Kill
      every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that
      hath known a man by lying with him, but all the women children,
      that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for
      yourselves” Num 31:1-2, 9-11, 14-18

      December 23, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
  7. Joe

    @BAN ALL PUBLIC DISPLAYS

    What's the point in living in the free world if you can't be open about how you believe? That would set us back a few hundred years if we take that approach. God Bless!

    December 23, 2010 at 10:34 am |
  8. jean2009

    Basically these are the celebration of the winter solstice, Saturnalia, Yule, the long night and other pagan celebrations.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:34 am |
  9. JonathanL

    Fact is that this time of year is a holiday for practically everyone. Pagans celbrate the winter solstice, the equinox, Jews usually have their Hanukkha overlapping (not always as this year since the lunar calendar varies widely with the solar calendar followed by the outsiders they call Gentiles), Ramadan sometimes overlaps but was early this year (sept – Oct?) because Muslms follow their own lunar calendar with different rules. And don't forget Christmas which I semi celebrate (we have a tree and presents and bake cookies and breads and have multiple nice dinners etc..). And Kwnanza which I admit I don't really know much about. But us Atheists tend, amidst all the religious confusion, to be reminded of our own intellectual enlightenment and freedom from all of that. We inherently celebrate reason, science, learning, knowledge, truth (not based on mere blind faith, but real truth on what is known along with an awareness of what is not known). It is OK to borrow from other cultures. It is commonly done. There is no law against celebrating during the Holiday season whatever the reason! So no one has a monopoly, no one. At least in America we don't have sectarian inspectors running around punishing people not of their faith, or who diverge from their opinions. And thank reason for that! ! I hope we always have the common sense to not let the Religion de Jour to force itself upon the masses – keep government and religion separate always and forever. One last thing, I would rather be known as a philosopher of reason and not for something I don't believe in so the label 'atheist' really has little meaning to me. I also don't believe in the tooth fairy. Does that make me a black sheep infidel of some sort, an "old fogie"? A boogie man?

    December 23, 2010 at 10:33 am |
  10. J

    Most atheists know more about the origins of christmas than christians do. I recently said to a friend of min "have a good solstice". My friend, who is a very devout christian, replied with a blank stair. I then explained to him what the solstice was. He said "wow its really amazing that the solstice is almost on christmas", as if that proved the existence of his god. I simply smiled and walked away.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:32 am |
  11. Otto Palindrome

    I accidently hit send before proofing my previous comment, can't type well. I am an athiest and the only holiday music I actually enjoy iare traditional christian carols. Charlotte Church hitting high c while singing Oh Holy Night is beautiful; Rockin Around the Christmas Tree is torture. The ubiquity of the holiday gets to be far to much for me, but I wouldn't deny anyone the right to celebrate in his or her own way. As for non-believers being forced to take a day off on the 25th, that is a simple issue of practicality. If more than 90 percent of your office staff or student population requests that day off, it is most practical to close on that day. In some cities in Michigan with high Muslim populations close on major Muslim holidays. It's not an endorsment of religion; it's a matter of practicality. In some towns in upstate NY, people lobied to close the schools for the opening of deer hunting season. Happy Festivus.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:32 am |
  12. Not All Docs Play Golf

    I don't feel that Christians have a monopoly on the celebrations of the season, but I do often feel like they think thay have a monopoly on affirmative values and ethics, which they don't. Yes, they espouse great values, but you can have great values and ethics based on "good for goodness sake" without having to subscribe to the "worship" aspect of any particular deity (among the many deities in human spiritual history). Many "Christian" type works have been done out of secular philanthropy and charity. So if Christians believe in the divinity of Christ, I'm gald that it works for them. Happy Holidays to all!

    December 23, 2010 at 10:32 am |
  13. poncho

    Facts are facts, the pastor interviewed in this article obviously is not a historian despite the fact he makes caustic claims against a factual statement (the fact that winter solstice is celebrated by multiple religions as the birth of their god). Want the truth on Christmas? Look up the zeitgeistmovie.com.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:31 am |
    • Gorilla Guerilla

      As a non-christian I was attracted to the thought of zeit-geist esousing the truth. And for roughly the first half of the movie it was very informative and interesting. The second half was nothing but a rant against christianity mixed in with some massive consirosy theory. It's like the guy who wrote it tried using the first bit of truth to try to validate his wild theories...

      December 23, 2010 at 10:56 am |
  14. Joe

    @MAJOR MAKE BELIEVE

    Nobody I know has robbed the blind or killed anyone my friend. A true Christ follower wouldn't do such a thing. i can't speak for the radicals that twist certain "holy books" into an excuss to blow people up... Don't pin all that non-sense on us.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:31 am |
    • Gorilla Guerilla

      While it is true that modern christians don't go on rampages to kill unbelievers any more, they used to. And you, my friend, are falling victim to the same blind hypocrosy that you are speaking out against.

      December 23, 2010 at 10:58 am |
  15. blah9999

    If it wasn't a christian holiday then it wouldn't be called Christmas. Maybe Atheistmas?

    December 23, 2010 at 10:31 am |
  16. Derek

    I would bet either of my testicles that more than 5% of the country are atheists. Many people are afraid to outwardly label themselves as atheists because they either don't realize they are, or are afraid to outwardly align with a minority that it's still totally socially acceptable to flagrantly discriminate against.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:30 am |
  17. Steve

    The statement of the silly baptist minister sums up the arrogance of those who profit from the weak and the level of logic needed to bamboozle them. The fact that the holiday is called "christmas" by one of many different religions in this era of human history means nothing to the rest of the world and in no way proves ownership of the holiday season.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:30 am |
    • Theresa

      And you are even more arogant that the person you attacking, why do you care what he beleiveds ? the reast of the world celebrates christmas, well large parts of the world so, more so then any other advent, or religion. so get over it, stay in your basement for the month until christmas is over, that way wont have to see the joy we feel, because it seems to hurt you.

      December 23, 2010 at 11:13 am |
    • Theresa

      And you are even more arogant then the person you attacking, why do you care what he believes ? the reast of the world celebrates christmas, well large parts of the world so, more so then any other advent, or religion. so get over it, stay in your basement for the month until christmas is over, that way wont have to see the joy we feel, because it seems to hurt you.

      December 23, 2010 at 11:15 am |
  18. Carolyn

    My mantra: most athesists suck. The saddest realization of this time of the year that the kindness & goodwill fades after the 1st of the new year for most people.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:30 am |
  19. Al the Atheist

    Happy winter holidays to EVERYONE! Celebrate what you want, when you want. Just be good to other people. To some atheists it really is as simple as that.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:29 am |
  20. Shaun

    Festivus for the rest of us!

    December 23, 2010 at 10:29 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.