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Christmas exposes atheist divide on dealing with religion
December 20th, 2012
06:00 AM ET

Christmas exposes atheist divide on dealing with religion

By Dan Merica, CNN

Washington (CNN) – The Christmas season is revealing a growing rift among American atheists when it comes to the question of how to deal with religion.

Some atheist activists are trying to seize the holidays as a time to build bridges with faith groups, while other active unbelievers increasingly see Christmas as a central front in the war on religious faith. With the dramatic growth of the nonreligious in the last few decades, more atheist leaders are emerging as spokespeople for atheism, but the Christmas rift speaks to growing disagreement over how atheists should treat religion.

On the religion-bashing side, there’s David Silverman, president of the group American Atheists, which raised one of its provocative trademark billboards in New York’s Times Square last week. “Keep the MERRY!” it says. “Dump the MYTH!”
The sign features a picture of a jolly Santa Clause and another of Jesus dying on the cross – a not-so-subtle attack on Christianity.

“Christianity stole Christmas in the first place and they don’t own the season, they don’t own the Christmas season,” Silverman said, pointing to pagan winter solstice celebrations that predated Jesus Christ. “When they say keep Christ in Christmas, they are actually saying put Christ back in Christmas.”

The New York billboard, which will be up until early January and is costing the group at least $25,000, is the latest in a long line of provocative American Atheists signs, which attacked then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s religion during this year’s presidential campaign.

It’s not the only way Silverman is using Christmas to attack Christianity. In a recent TV interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, he said the American Atheist office be open on Christmas Day and called for an end to Christmas as a federal holiday.

O’Reilly, in turn, called Silverman a fascist.

Despite Silverman’s knack for making headlines, however, other prominent atheists are putting a softer face on the movement, including during Christmastime.

“I just think the whole war on Christmas story is bizarre” said Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, who has emerged as another spokesman for the burgeoning atheist movement. “I think that any atheist or humanist that is participating in that story needs to find better things to do with their time.”

From his point of view, atheism and religion can happily coexist, including at the holidays.

At the chaplaincy, Epstein has reached out to local religious groups, packaging holiday meals and breaking bread with believers to discuss their similarities and differences.

Sponsored by the Humanist Community at Harvard, evangelical Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Zoroastrians, along with a number of atheists, were among those represented at a recent meal packaging event for hungry kids in the Boston area. Around 250 people participated and over $10,000 was raised – including donations from local Lutheran and Methodist churches.
Epstein calls this sort of inter-religious dialogue “healthy.”

“We as a community need to be about the positive and we have so much positive to offer,” he said. “I think that we really can provide a positive alternative to religious holidays that are not meaningful because of their religious content.”
Silverman, for his part, is more than comfortable being negative when it comes to religion.

“We should look at the results - people are listening to us because we are shouting,” he said. “They don’t hear you unless you shout. … Sometimes you have to put political correctness aside. We need to get louder. I believe we are seeing the fruits of that volume.”

As proof, American Atheists points to the way their donations skyrocket after every billboard campaign. “We get donations and memberships because we are taking the stand that we do,” said Silverman, who would not give specific numbers on fundraising. “The donations are flowing in right now. People are loving it specifically because of the billboard.”

Epstein would rather see more emphasis on volunteerism, though he acknowledges that some atheists are drawn to Silverman’s vocal model. Both men said they appeal to different parts of the atheist movement.

“We are GOP and Dem, man and women, black and white – the only thing that holds us together is atheism,” Silverman said. “A movement like ours needs all sides. It needs people who are working to be conciliatory and it needs people who are willing to raise their voices.”

Religious “nones” – a combination of atheists, agnostics and the religiously unaffiliated, have been growing their ranks in recent years. According to a Pew Research study released this year, the fastest growing "religious" group in America is made up of people with no religion at all as one in five Americans is not affiliated with any religion.

The survey found that the unaffiliated are growing even faster among younger Americans. According to the poll, 34% of “younger millennials” - those born between 1990 and 1994 - are religiously unaffiliated.

Though not monolithic, younger atheists, according to Jesse Galef, communications director of the Secular Student Alliance, are more prone to celebrate a secular version of Christmas than to ignore the holiday.

“I am very much in favor of celebrating the secular Christmas,” Galef said. “It is a celebration of the spirit of giving and I think religious divisiveness goes against that effort.”

Other atheists celebrate Festivus, a December 23 holiday meant for atheists looking to celebrate during the winter without participating in a Christian holiday. The holiday, which entered into popular culture through the television show “Seinfeld” in 1997, has gained popularity in recent years.

At the Secular Student Alliance office in Columbus, Ohio, the staff will play Secret Sagan, a nod to the famed scientist, instead of Secret Santa. And instead of Christmas decorations, they put up a Winter Solstice Tree with ornaments from the movie “When the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

“We celebrate the holiday season, just not the religious holiday,” Galef said.

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Atheism • Christmas

soundoff (4,367 Responses)
  1. carpinteyrotzs

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    October 28, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  2. TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE

    1 Corinthians 1:18-21
    18 For the speech about the torture stake is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is God’s power. 19 For it is written: “I will make the wisdom of the wise [men] perish, and the intelligence of the intellectual [men] I will shove aside.” 20 Where is the wise man? Where the scribe? Where the debater of this system of things? Did not God make the wisdom of the world foolish? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not get to know God, God saw good through the foolishness of what is preached to save those believing.

    February 10, 2013 at 12:00 am |
    • End Religion

      It's just Cult 101... "Only cult members see the truth. Others are blind. Stay ignorant. Don't believe it when others present intelligent arguments. Stop thinking. Get back to cult business. Oh, and it is time for another tithe."

      February 10, 2013 at 12:15 am |
    • TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE

      "No sciences are better attested then the religion of the Bible."

      "I find more sure marks of authenticity in the Bible than any profane history whatever."

      I wonder who quoted these above? Oh yeh, Isaac Newton, one of your gods, End Religion.

      February 10, 2013 at 2:33 am |
    • TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE

      Shall I quote another another one of your gods, Robert Boyle?

      "The subsequent course of nature, teaches, that God, indeed, gave motion to matter; but that, in the beginning, he so guided the various motion of the parts of it, as to contrive them into the world he design'd they should compose; and establish'd those rules of motion, and that order amongst things corporeal, which we call the laws of nature. Thus, the universe being once fram'd by God, and the laws of motion settled, and all upheld by his perpetual concourse, and general providence; the same philosophy teaches, that the phenomena of the world, are physically produced by the mechanical properties of the parts of matter; and, that they operate upon one another according to mechanical laws. 'Tis of this kind of corpuscular philosophy, that I speak."

      February 10, 2013 at 2:49 am |
    • A Frayed Knot

      TWSYF,

      Guess what? We learn to figure out what can be verified before we accept the words or philosophies of *any* man.

      – Aristotle had some great ideas which have been verified to be useful and beneficial to us; but you should read how he thought that human conception occurred (a real hoot) and he believed that thinking occurred in the region around the heart and not in the brain!

      – Isaac Newton was heavily into alchemy, numerology and the occult.

      – Brilliant Nikola Tesla thought that a pigeon was his wife.

      Verify, verify, verify. There is not a whit of verified evidence for any of the supernatural beings or events told about by men in The Bible nor anywhere else.

      February 10, 2013 at 3:05 am |
      • ideket

        I find it strange that science has its own unverified beliefs, which are common and respected in their communities, but seldom ridiculed and challenged. Like the belief in alternate universes. Yet when religions talk about alternate states of being and planes of existence, they are ridiculed by believers in 'science.'

        December 16, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
    • TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE

      Knot,

      All scientific evidence to date indicates that life can come only from previously existing life as we can see from observing life all around us. And all life are produced according to their kind. If that is not the truth, then verify and prove your case.

      February 10, 2013 at 8:57 pm |
    • TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE

      Most of my points came from this article, if you wish to see our point of reason, supported by atheist scientists.

      http://download.jw.org/files/media_books/lf_E.pdf

      February 10, 2013 at 9:14 pm |
  3. kenrick Benjami

    Given the fact that Energy is neither created or destroyed, but its properties(Motion, Heat and Light) are laws that came about as a result of the First Cause.

    January 11, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
    • kenrick Benjami

      Gave credence to a creator.

      January 11, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
  4. lkmlmlkm

    I need your help! I have come up with a solution to this schools problem! I say we help them obtain examples of artwork representing ALL religions! The email is , phoward@jcs.k12.oh.us , he is the districts superintendent.
    Tonight, the school board decided that the picture stays. I just think that it would help if they also displayed artwork to reflect as many religions as possible.

    http://www2.nbc4i.com/news/2013/jan/08/portrait-jesus-southeast-ohio-middle-school-causes-ar-1304467/

    January 9, 2013 at 2:17 am |
  5. WachetAuf

    "Christmas" is a "Christian" holiday but does not sufficiently follow Jesus' teaching to qualify as anything but a pagan ritual. Oh, I "celebrate" "Christmas" myself, along with many agnostics, pagans and atheists. It is a time of good will and reflection. It therefore may be some benefit. It serves mostly to perpetuate the malignant narcissism which was the central concerned of Jesus' message.

    January 8, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
  6. meifumado

    I think instead of the picture of Jesus they should have depicted the myth that is the virgin birth

    January 8, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • George Ferguson

      I am mystified by the atacks on the virgin birth of Jesus. With artificial insemination technologies available today, we have many virgin births in the world today. For some reason, in spite of the fact that science has repeatedly demonstrated not just the theoretical, but the actual basis for virgin birth, many people seem to deride it.

      January 8, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
  7. bluemoonmom

    As a Christian, I am appalled by the billboard as it attacks my God in such an ugly way. However as a Christian I am not concerned at the same time, because I know how the story ends! Someday "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord," upon His return. All the religious nones in the world won't make a whit of difference to the truth of Christianity. The best thing we can do as Christians is to live like Christ did, and show love to all, even the ones who make ugly attacks. We can also pray for them as they are headed to a dark place. Christianity has ALWAYS had enemies. But they never win. After all, they put Jesus to death on a cross about 2,000 years ago and here we are still discussing the Risen Lord. He is a big enough God to withstand a modern culture. But I had to laugh at the comment that Christians stole Christmas .... jeepers, this had been a tradition for over 1,500 years –to say it is new is disinenuous at best. Christ will never be taken out of my Christmas. I celebrate the birth of Christ not season's greetings or happy holidays. I don't insist other religions offer me a secular version of their holidays and my Christmas ins not up for grabs to anyone.

    January 8, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
    • meifumado

      "when one person is delusional its called insanity.
      When many are delusional its called religion"

      January 8, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • Jesus

      "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord," upon His return

      and then we can all hop aboard Hale-Bopp comet and ride around the solar system with Jeebus....

      January 9, 2013 at 10:18 am |
  8. Banjo Ferret

    There is no peaceful coexistence during holiday happy time when Ferretianism is the one true religion. Repent!

    http://www.banjoferret.com

    January 7, 2013 at 10:44 am |
  9. Adam Mastrocola

    This will probably go unseen, disregarded, and forgotten most likely, but I'm asking for a favor. Please, all of those who want to tear down Christianity, or any religion for that matter, and destroy our faiths(of course not all atheists, agnostics, and unaffiliates because I know there are a lot with good hearts), please stop. This stuff does make me a little angry, but it really just makes me depressed, upset, and heartbroken that people can be so ruthless towards someone's beliefs. I've been through a lot in my life, that is why I believe in God, Jesus, and Christianity. You don't have to make me feel like every second I prayed, worshipped, or adored went to waste. Let us Christians just lead our humble lives(those of course that are humble) , and let the result of afterlife be enough. I don't need other people telling me "no". Thank you, and have a good day.

    January 7, 2013 at 10:21 am |
    • LinCA

      @Adam Mastrocola

      You said, "Please, all of those who want to tear down Christianity, or any religion for that matter, and destroy our faiths(of course not all atheists, agnostics, and unaffiliates because I know there are a lot with good hearts), please stop."
      I'll make you a deal. You will fight to keep all religion out of public life and I will stop making fun of your infantile beliefs. Deal?

      If there was a little more support from reasonable believers to fight against the constant intrusion of their fairy tale in the lives of others, you probably wouldn't hear nearly as much from atheists. Tell your fellow cult members to keep their bullshit out of secular law, public education, health care and science.

      You said, "This stuff does make me a little angry, but it really just makes me depressed, upset, and heartbroken that people can be so ruthless towards someone's beliefs."
      Don't get angry, open your eyes.

      Beliefs should be challenged. While you have the right to hold whatever belief you want, just because you have that right doesn't mean the beliefs you hold are valid in any way.

      You said, "I've been through a lot in my life, that is why I believe in God, Jesus, and Christianity."
      Going through shit is no excuse to close your eyes and mind.

      You said, "You don't have to make me feel like every second I prayed, worshipped, or adored went to waste."
      Consider it a public service announcement. You might as well have "talked" to the Tooth Fairy. There is no difference between her and your god, other than that you were allowed to stop believing in one and not the other.

      You said, "Let us Christians just lead our humble lives(those of course that are humble) , and let the result of afterlife be enough."
      If christians would actually just lead their lives humbly, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:49 am |
    • meifumado

      @ LinCA

      Very well said!

      January 8, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • David Stoecker

      LinCA
      Personally, I am grateful to those who put their faith out in public. I am a counselor, and I do psychological first aid and trauma counseling after natural disasters. I am amazed at the number of churches that set up tents and stands as well as groups like Convoy of Hope that give out food, water, clothing, bedding, etc. I have yet to see agnostic, atheist or humanist presences. If those who claim no religion, which is said to be 1 in 5 now, would be more public then there would be 20% more aid and help given to those who are suffering. It is real fun to stand on the roof top and shout out problems with others, but what are you doing to make the world a better place. For the most part, the most vocal non-churched seem to be part of the problem, not the solution for the troubles in our world today.

      If there is such a problem with Christians and other religions, stop going to their hospitals. 6 of the 10 largest hospitals in America contain either Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist in their name. How dare those Christians reach out to the sick and help them. They should have stayed out of the public eye.

      I for one am glad that Christians are on the front lines, helping people where and when they need it. I would love to see more in the non-faith community follow their lead. Until then, the public service I see is mostly done by the Christian community and if that "fake" God is why they do it, what is the harm.

      January 9, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
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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.