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. KidCanada

    Christmas is yet another pagan holiday hijacked by Christians.
    Ever wonder why the followers are called a flock? Baaaaah

    December 23, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
  2. Parlemort

    There is no heaven,
    There is no hell,
    There is no god,
    I wish you well!

    December 23, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
  3. LRonHoover

    There are some logical problems with my belief that Santa Claus created the universe. I'm aware of that. I don't know who created Santa. But someone or something MUST HAVE created Santa Claus, because complex things like him do not just appear by "random chance". I don't dwell on these logical problems because it makes me feel good to believe in Santa. I like the idea that I'll go to the North Pole when I die.

    December 23, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
  4. LRonHoover

    I don't want anyone in a science classroom teaching my kids that the sky is blue because space is full of floating smurfs. I don't want a Senator who thinks the "floating smurf theory" is a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught alongside plate tectonics. "The Easter Bunny did it" is always the simplest answer, I'll admit. It works fine until you have to figure out how to give someone an MRI. Then it becomes very problematic indeed.

    December 23, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
  5. Sam

    If David Silverman has a problem with the country shutting down for Christmas, I suggest he does something about it. Maybe something smaller and more local. Here's an idea: Every September the NY public schools close down for 2 days for the JEWISH holidays. Put a stop to that and then he has the right to spew his vial hatred.

    One point, I personally think it is right to close the schools so most of the teachers (most at one time being Jewish in NYC) can be home to celebrate the their high holy days with their family. It breeds love and decency for the next generation. Something Silverman seems to have missed out on.

    Lastly, let’s see what kind of man you really Silverman. When the Muslim holidays come around I dare you and your organization to rent a billboard out and put up the same type of message you did for Christians. You won’t, because you and your organization are cowards at best. Rolled up in the corner in a fetal position just as you described.

    December 23, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
    • KMW


      You are so right about Mr. Silverman and his views. I live in NYC and I know. I have been severely criticized for saying Merry Christmas. As a Christian, this is important to me because it means Christ's Mass. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

      December 23, 2010 at 1:39 pm |
  6. JMK

    The focus of most of my reading concerns Early Christianity and the Religions of Late Antiquity and the scholarship shows that the New Testament is proven fiction and the salvation character named conveniently salvation is likely to never have existed beyond myth. There are so many questions, problems with Christianity and the New Testament that the only people who can possibly believe the traditional beliefs are truly the ignorant and unread.

    December 23, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
  7. Steve

    According to the most recent Gallup survey, 15% of Americans do NOT profess a religion. Even though not many people admit to being atheist since the word bears so much stigma, for all intent and purposes, at least 15% are effectively atheist. Still a small number, but certainly growing...

    December 23, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
  8. stu

    I wonder how many Christians celebrate Halloween without caring about its origins? Christmas is no different for Atheists.

    December 23, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
  9. Mike from Vancouver Canada

    I don't believe in gods but were it not for the various religious customs like Christmas life could get pretty dull.

    Merry Christmas everyone.

    December 23, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
  10. lex

    Athiests will probably be in the majority sooner or later, so they will need to respect all orher religions (which will by then be minorities), and avoid efforts at conversion.

    December 23, 2010 at 12:50 pm |
  11. tony

    Problems with an after-life.
    Are human souls created at time of conception or time of creation? If former, then why the big fuss over abortion? Now a new soul will at least have an afterlife. If it had never been conceived, then it would never have existed, and hence no afterlife either.

    December 23, 2010 at 12:49 pm |
  12. LennyD

    Seriously? You use Wiki as a source? Seriously?

    December 23, 2010 at 12:49 pm |
  13. Charlie

    Do any of you honestly think you can change to minds of anyone else in this forum? Sure there are valid points galore, but do you think that YOUR most closely held beliefs could be dramatically altered by a CNN wall post? I think there's a lot of ego tripping and public catharsis going on here at the expense of others' beliefs, and frankly I think there are better things you could be doing. Yes, there are ignorant, arrogant people spewing nonsense and hate. That is a fact of life. This article is about beliefs coming together and coexisting, can we not just appreciate that and resist the urge to demean others?

    December 23, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
  14. John Pedant

    Goodbye "Merry Christmas," hello "Happy Bah-Humbug Days"

    December 23, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
  15. in OZ


    Happy Xmas!!!

    December 23, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  16. in OZ

    http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/calendar/saturnalia.html.....................Happy Xmas!!

    December 23, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  17. paulymath

    Had to laugh at the Kyev Tatum quote, which only confirmed the statement he was arguing against. Maybe he misunderstood the question?
    Accusation: Lots of religions have claimed the date as their God's birth.
    Rebuttle: Not true! Well, we did, but the name we all use is the one Christians chose, so I think that kind of settles it.

    December 23, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  18. Marcus W.

    CNN seriously needs to re-check that 5% Non-Believers stat'. The most recent polls consistently report 35%-40% Americans do not believe in any of the childhood fictional characters...God, Santa and the Easter Bunny are childrens stories and nothing more.

    December 23, 2010 at 12:46 pm |
  19. Robert Holt

    Kyev Tatum states that Jesus came for peace on earth and good will toward men. This is true, but he neglected to mention one important thing. Jesus came to pay for our sins on the cross. A man couldn’t do that, only God could. Only when a person accepts Jesus as their savior, will they will be right with God and can better appreciate the meaning of Christmas. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Matthew 26:28). "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16).

    December 23, 2010 at 12:46 pm |
    • Scott

      @Robert: "Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division:
      For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two
      against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father;
      the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law
      against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law." (Luke 12:51-53)

      December 23, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
  20. Bert in UT

    The great thing about America is that the religious get to believe what their holy books and their anointed leaders tell them, and I get to believe in things that can be verified by repeatable measurements and logic. And we all get to choose what we think is the right set of morals to live by.

    If Christians and others want to share in celebrating the solstice and the beginning of the return of light, a tradition that goes back to the beginning of human history, that's great. And they can call it whatever they want. Happy holidays, everyone!

    December 23, 2010 at 12:46 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.