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.
Isn't Santa a myth as well? Isn't Santa a being with magical powers? Why would Atheist put a mythical magical being on their ads. They don't believe in those things when presented as religion. Seems that they missed that part.
Put more thought into your own words...
Look at the word "myth" and challenge yourself to see WHY it was put there!
A myth is a sacred narrative usually explaining how the world or humankind came to be in its present form, although, in a very broad sense, the word can refer to any traditional story. Bruce Lincoln defines myth as "ideology in narrative form". Myths typically involve supernatural characters and are endorsed by rulers or priests. They may arise as overelaborated accounts of historical events, as allegory for or personification of natural phenomena, or as an explanation of ritual. They are transmitted to convey religious or idealized experience, to establish behavioral models, and to teach.
Everyone (except small children) knows Santa is a harmless myth. The same cannot be said for religion. The concept of heaven is for adults like Santa is for children. Do well and you will be rewarded. Kids believe if they're good they'll get lots of presents. Grownups believe if they're good they'll go to heaven. Religion is just Santa for adults.
@answer. Look at the sign. Keep the merry features Santa. Lose the myth features Jesus...both are beings that Atheist don't believe in. It seems to counter the point they are trying to make.
@ Athy. Why is one magical being they don't believe in acceptable and other isn't? Keep the merry portion should not feature Santa...maybe a pic of presents...or a pic of friends and family sharing the holiday. To feature Santa is not well thought out.
"Keep the merry portion should not feature Santa...maybe a pic of presents...or a pic of friends and family sharing the holiday. To feature Santa is not well thought out."
You do have a valid point there.
The saying “Keep the Merry – dump the Myth” is only for morons. Jesus is a real historical figure who was born on the earth just as any other human being in history. Christians celebrate His birth. What significance his birth has is for each person to decide. But the celebration of his birth is not a myth. Believing in something does not make it true. Only something true is worth believing in. I don’t “believe” in the birth of Jesus – I know it is fact!!! Only a moron would say his birth is a myth.
There's a massive differnce between Jesus the man and Jesus the deity. It's the deity part which is a myth.
In the name of the Father, Zeus, the Lord thy God... please forgive mortals and spare their eternal souls.
My Lord God Zeus is King of all gods and the only TRUE god. The TRUTH.
II am a Christian that have debates regarding many issues, including religion and atheism, with friends that are either atheist and agnostic. I have no problem with anyone promoting their beliefs, but no one should have anything forced on them.
I also don't care if someone promotes a billboard that calls into question their beliefs. Your beliefs should continue to evolve as you learn and grow, though it will differ from person to person. If you react violently to someone discussing a differing opinion, then you are ignorant and will continue to hurt others with your ignorant beliefs.
Why do Atheists keep telling others what to do. Its no different than Mormons coming up to them on the street and asking them if they have heard the good news. Same arrogance, different belief system.
Go shovel my driveway slave.
Why? Because we are sick of people jamming religion and "god" in our faces every 2 minutes. You are probably just not conscious of how much that happens or how disgusting and upsetting that is to people who DON'T buy into the fairy tale.
Get over it. Sometimes you have to deal with other peoples quirks.
Why do people insist on taking sides when it comes to religion versus atheism? Why are there so many zealots on both sides of the spectrum who are intent on converting the masses to their belief systems? Leave it alone, guys! What does it matter if some of us believe in God and some of us don't. Who does it hurt? Religion is a personal choice, so keep it to yourself and stop causing trouble!
Roger, better take those blinders off. Religion matters because it impacts the laws and apparent social norms that we all have to live with.
Yeah, that's why I said "keep it to yourself." I'm not naive enough to believe that's going to happen, and I will resist those who attempt to "convert" me. I just don't understand why people can't be content to live within themselves and allow others to do the same.
Quite a lot of fear mongering this article has provided. Way to get into the Christmas spirit.
As atheists, we simply don't celebrate Christmas. Why should we? It's a day that celebrates the "birthday" of a person who probably never existed. Nor do we need to fill in the blank with any other wintertime celebration. But that does not mean that we are not charitable and loving people. We simply give gifts at other times, such as for birthdays, or "just because," and we contribute to charities and help many people in numerous ways. We are happy to see others buying gifts at this time of year, though, as that boosts the economy. We are also always happy to see the new year come, as that feels like a time of new beginnings. So, Happy 2013 to all!
I celebrate Christmas, just not the Christ part.
As an atheist, I DO celebrate the Christmas season as a time of love, peace, and sharing. I also celebrate the Easter season as a time of rebirth and renewal. What's wrong with that? It certainly doesn't hurt anyone and I still get to believe whatever I want to believe.
Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, if you are a giving individual donating to the needy or charities and helping other, I find that awesome. Helping others for the sake of helping others is a great thing.
I feel so sorry for all of you.
For what reason?
Religious dimwits on here blog are rejected so they have to fight back with those nonsensical one liners.
Non-issue. Atheists are a very diverse "group" to begin with.
Christmas as it is celebrated publicly is not religious, it's good old commercialism which is fine with me, so as an atheist I don't mind seeing Christmas everywhere or even saying merry Christmas. People can celebrate Jesus's birthday (which is actually in the summer supposedly) in their churches; that fine with me. Just don't have the nativity scene in public places. Front of churches, that's fine. In front of town hall, not fine because people of other religions and no religion don't appreciate it. I know cause I come from a family that is not christian.
"while other active unbelievers increasingly see Christmas as a central front in the war on religious faith."
How sad and sick that “active unbelievers” have a war on religious faith. This country was founded by people who were seeking religious freedom. And YES, these people practiced the CHRISTIAN religion.
People have the right to free will. There is no law that forces a person to believe any particular religion. I do not agree with the Muslim religion, so I simply do not practice it. You will not hear me speaking of a war on the Muslim belief. I do understand that Muslims have a right to practice their faith in this country. Indeed, this is their 1st amendment right.
As a Christian person, I cannot explain how offensive it is to see a picture of Jesus with the words, “Dump the myth” listed below. To those who are waging a “war” on religious faith, you WILL burn.
The STATE was founded by those in favor of religious freedom, many of whom were deists. The country itself, no matter how much people argued otherwise, was started by people escaping religious freedom. As long a you weren't Catholic, Britain was pretty lax about religion. The Puritans left to start a theocracy.
Atheists have equal right to protection under the 1st amendment. Freedom from religion is an integral part of freedom of it.
While you are free to be offended by the banner proclaiming your religion to be nothing more than a myth, you have no right to expect anyone to not display it.
Ah the terroristic threat of "Love me or burn." So dear to the heart of Osama bin Laden and his ilk.
I agree with you to some extent. It's not fair that atheists are attacking Christianity or holidays as opposed to religion to general but that is beside the point.
Saying "you WILL burn" doesn't make you seem very rational or credible.
I hate people say this country was founded on Christianity. Bullshi+! Raping Indians of their land and having slaves to build this country is no way Christian like!
PERFECTLY stated, B. Malone!
Feel free to burn in your mythical hell. I'll go on living my life. the reason there is a need to put up such banners is how much your religion pushes their crap down everyones throats. Stop telling people to burn, telling people how to live, and dictating from a comic book and we wont have a reason to put up such things. Burn in fire cause thats the only logical place you will.
you WILL burn
You DON'T have any idea whether or not this will actually happen.
While I agree that vocal atheism, like in the article, seems less about "We don't believe in any sort of god or deities," it does seem to be more about "We don't believe in Gods, neither should you. Only morons would. You're not a moron, right?" And that doesn't seem much different than cramming a belief system down someone's throat which Christians are accused of. However, your message about people burning is simply unfair. You have no clue what God, if there is one, will do with these sorts of people. Maybe they will be given one final chance when standing in front of God and when experiencing his glory agree that God does exists. Perhaps then they will be welcomed in just as the Prodigal Son was. Maybe then again they will burn in Hell. Maybe there is no God and absolutely nothing will happen. Regardless of the outcome, it's not your decision and your judgement of them is not what Christ would want.
It's no wonder people are tired of Christians when hateful words are spewed in the name of love.
This is great. These people have nothing of their own so all they can resort to is breaking down others. The ignorance about what is in the new testament is truly sad. I am sick of the lie that Christianity excludes people. The fundamental belief is that God became a man to come down and go through all of the potential suffering a person could experience in life to purchase our salvation. I have never before seen a group so hated for wanting others to live in paradise. We don't try to convert people to tell them they are doing wrong. We want them to live in paradise forever. We try to spread this love. That's it. Don't listen to all the foolish money hungry preachers you see on TV. Read the New Testament for yourself. God is love.
And you really believe this mythical story?
Your first line is hilarious. You're implying that non-myth believers "want" your myth because they don't have a myth of their own. They are by self-definition myth-less and want to keep it that way, so they can have a real, fearless perspective of this life. Meanwhile, the rest of you cannot fathom that there is nothing after this life, so you (and our ignorant ancestors) have concocted have wonderful, make-believe afterlife.
FYI, Jesus came to destroy religion. Those of us with no real religious affiliation, can still be truly faithful Christian's. I go to Church quite often, but I am not religious. I am following the teachings of Christ, not a specific sect or human set of rules.
Read that OLD TESTAMENT.
Sure hell as funny with the other 'love' we call 'hate'.
Perhaps we do not see it as paradise. Perhaps we see it as being at the feet of a vindictive pr1ck.
Aross: If your church is not part of a religion, when can we expect that the taxes off those donations will start hitting the treasury?
Perhaps we'll start taking the money away from the free medical clinic we offer and give it to the government if the law changes – I suppose you believe all that you think you know with regards to the activities of churches. The truth is you are largely right. Gandhi once said that he loved our Christ but hated our Christians. This is because most of us do not live like Christ actually teaches, but a lot of us are. To your point, "Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s." Jesus advised us to follow the law, but I do not worship the government. By the way, the definition of religion I am referring to is specific to the rules man has added to all the teachings of the New Testament. I do not subscribe to man's interpretation. I was not referring to how the government decides to classify my Church.
I have read the New Testament. I've read the entire bible and, interestingly, always won the bible trivia game (like trivial pursuit) in my family. They are all tremendously religious and I am not. I consider myself an extremely well-informed atheist.
It's very simple, really. For you and those who believe in Christianity, or any religion, you mentally and emotionally connect to something in that story and you truly believe it. I don't. At the risk of offending people, I find the events of the bible as believeable as Grimms Fairytales. I believe they have some basis in historial fact, but the rest is an attempt to explain things people of the time couldn't understand. They need to believe that something is out there and has control of the universe. It just doesn't make sense to me.
Sure, the idea that some mystical being loves me no matter what and will take away all my pain and suffering sounds appealing. But I know it is no more true that the existence of Santa Claus. So please stop trying to save me. I just want to be respected enough to be left alone.
I do celebrate the holidays secularly as an opportunity to enjoy my family and share my love with them.
On the other hand, I do respect the religious beliefs of others because that is what I want in return – respect to have my own beliefs (or lack thereof) and be left alone.
I'll start by saying that I am a Christian. I also say I feel I'm a rational individual, but the comments on this board will say otherwise. I am also of the opinion that the Christmas holiday in America no longer embodies the spirit of Christ's birth as it was meant to. Yes the holiday was set up on a pagan holiday and it was done in an effort to convert these religions. Christmas, as it stands is pretty much now a corporate holiday, the point of which is to give people stuff they don't need which has no lasting value, while trampling others to make sure your holiday is the most perfect it can be. Now there are groups of people and organizations that make the holiday something really special that I think Christ would be proud of through charity, community togetherness, and love. But that's not what this holiday has become. It is, what it always was, a pagan holiday. A celebration of worldly values that while potentially not always bad, essentially is against what Christ taught. We should take Christ out of Christmas. Call the day the Solstice, Festivus, Xmas, whatever you want to call it. I don't care. Christians should do their best, as a group, to abandon 'Tradition' and 'Rules' and move the celebration of Christ's birth to a more appropriate time in the year, and celebrate Christmas at that point. And it should be a time of sacrifice of our greed so that others can experience joy, as Christ would have wanted. All things in this world pass away. I'm not so prideful as to fight for a day that 'Jesus was born' to be angered by what these people say to us. Have it. It's yours. And everything that comes with it. If I had my way, I'd make it happen right now.
You're right, I would say otherwise.
As an atheist, I celebrate the gift giving and vacation/family part of the holiday. I could not care less if anyone wants to say Merry Christmas...and I say it myself. Those who screech out "Keep the Christ in Christmas" or the Fox News mongers saying there's some sort of war on Christmas forget that Christmas has gotten so large as to start eating other holidays like Thanksgiving...and Halloween even. That part's the tiring part. NO...I don't want Nativity scenes in public places where tax dollars go, but don't care if there's a decorated tree there (no angels ornaments please). Don't ask me to pray with you, nor ask my kid to do the same. Don't expect me to say grace at your home when you serve the holiday feast...though you can go right ahead. Just recognize that the atheist population is a growing percentage of those out there...and though there are the extremes of them, there are an equal amount of total Jeebus freaks too.
Agree with you completely. I never heard of a war on Christmas until FOX news overreacted to some requests to keep nativity scenes out of public places. If anything, most atheists just want all beliefs and "non-beliefs" to be equally respected since we know that we can never convince everyone to be atheists. Why this whole is such a big deal is beyond me.
Josh is the new troll. Remember the Belief Blog Zoo rules. DON'T FEED THE TROLLS.
Belief blog...right...keep clapping and maybe your fairy will come back to life.
I expect foolish thinking from you smug atheists. God, who is the Lord, wrote a letter to us the Holy Bible which reveals Jesus' truth. My toilet has been broken for six months but the fridge still works. Jesus’ wisdom is roaring it's ugly head throughout the world.
I knew that was fake HS a while back. You forgot to change back Apple.
Scotty is stealing my handle again because he wants to spew lies about Jesus' truth. He already got fired from his other webmaster job for running off all the Christians. I have already been mistreated by my atheist bosses tommie tom so no luck.
Shhhhh...I am trying to recover....
He wrote a letter? What did he use for a stamp?
How dare you? My Lord God Zeus is King of all gods. His lightning bolt spear will destroy your weak stupid jesus.
Zeus is the Lord they God... please forgive this mortal and spare its eternal soul.
@Middle_Finger_To_Jesus- you have a odd little username.
If one believes in Jesus as God, then who cares about your finger since he is so far above such petty insults.
If one does not believe, then you are insulting something you don't even believe in.
Damn it, took the bait.
life of 3.14.....jesus is above the petty insults but not above being excluded from school prayers?
"Santa Clause" with an "E"??? For Pete's sake, that's a fifth-grader mistake..
That bugs me too, Jennie... blame it on Tim Allen and that dang movie!
If my one minor misspelling is what it takes for you to feel superior to me, be my guest.
Again, can the religious and non-religious agree to just leave each other alone?
The faithful atheists will some day be violent towards people of other faiths. This is true for any person who believes their faith is worth killing for or the faith of others is so dangerous it should be destroyed. The reason I follow Christ is because the question he confronts me with is whether or not love and goodness as he explained it is worth dying for. That is the question I believe we all face now. Would you die for what you believe in?
What's a 'faithful' atheist?
You said, "The reason I follow Christ is because the question he confronts me with is whether or not love and goodness as he explained it is worth dying for. That is the question I believe we all face now. Would you die for what you believe in?"
It sounds an awful lot like the strong beliefs the terrorists had that flew airplanes into buildings.
Yes, I would die for what I believe in, but I don't "believe in" atheism. Atheism is a lack of belief. Atheism is belief only to the extent that "off" is a tv channel.
As for people killing for their beliefs, you should be familiar with the Inquisition and the Crusades which really don't compare with the disgusting evil of torturing people for all eternity. A hell-creating-and-sustaining god is the most evil character ever imagined because nobody could ever imagine anything more evil than that.
I'm an atheist and would never harm a human being. Instead of telling yourself and the world what kind of people we are, perhaps you could consider asking us?
You seem to have forgotten those crusades from the faithful Christians?
Yes! I would lay down my life for that which I believe to be God's Word of Truth that God does allow me to share here among CNN Belief Blogs! I dare say that my life is no more in peril than anyone else who lives upon this world which is not of the kingdom domains of God! Such Godly domains are upon all life's insides within a realm of such small vestiges that our only way to get back into these very small kingdom domains if by dying! We all are godly buildings made of bio-molecular machineries all being upon inside vestments of our megalithic structures mechanical essences! Even the stars up above are mere mechanisms of Godliness ways and means all approved of by all that is godly!
The reason you follow Christ is that you are a sheep that doesn't have the ability to take a long hard look at foolishness that has been passed off as a belief system.
Simply by passing judgement so broadly on all atheists, you show your bias and ignorance. There are atheists in foxholes, fire stations, and every hell hole inbetween doing good deeds because of their humanity, not because of some book cobbled together by a committee 1700 years ago.
Adam Lanza, faithful atheist who carried through with his convictions.
@ 2357: Not information that has been confirmed, and you really don't want to get started comparing the religious fruitcakes who've follow through with THEIR convictions.
I'm atheist, but they need to just let this one go. I'm happy to have the vacation time, even if I don't buy into the "reason for the season." And yes, Christian brethren, atheists do a lot of charitable good toward their fellow man. And we don't do it out of fear that some invisible deity is watching and keeping score.
"And we don't do it out of fear that some invisible deity is watching and keeping score." If this is the basis of your understanding of Christ's teaching and example, you may want to take a second look. Peace.
I don't think Atheists win by trying to be louder or more obnoxious than (name your religion).
I feel my hackles raise every time I hear some idiot talking about how the Newton murders are all part of God's plan or that those poor dead kids are having a heck of a time playing Legos with Jesus. But very rarely are you going to change the minds of the ones who've chosen to cling to these myths, you can only hope to influence the ones who have not been corrupted.
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.