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. Kandy

    Trying to find out where the photo/montage/quilt pic above came from, too. Where's the credit for such a lovely piece?

    December 23, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
  2. Morrigan

    invading foreign christian terrorists wiped out most of my ancestors' culture and history.

    December 23, 2010 at 3:07 pm |
  3. Kandy

    Can somebody tell me where this beautiful photo (montage?) came from? Who made it?

    December 23, 2010 at 3:07 pm |
  4. Yasha the dog

    Some of you are fooling yourselves if you believe modern day Christmas can be so easily separated from its Christian origins. Even the legend of Santa Claus – one of the most frivolous yet best-loved aspects of the holiday – is linked to a Christian religious figure (St. Nick) who, like Jesus was a real person. The holiday is about the love, peace and inclusiveness – lessons Jesus taught his followers and principals that Christianity is based upon. Those are also lessons that the legend of Santa Claus teaches us. Whether atheists acknowledge it or not, when they they set out cookies for Santa, exchange gifts or wish someone peace and love for the holiday, they are participating in a religious-based activity. Those are simply the facts.

    December 23, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
    • Kristen

      I don't think anyone denies that modern day Christmas has been linked to Christianity. I think the point is that those links have been created to suppress other religious holidays that were celebrated before Jesus existed. Many people feel Christians need to understand that many people do not celebrate this as a religious holiday, and that should be respected.

      December 23, 2010 at 8:35 pm |
  5. Don

    Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time!

    But He loves you. – George Carlin

    December 23, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  6. Jack

    Real Christians don't celebrate this pagan holiday.

    December 23, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
    • Kristen

      Thank you! I agree completely.

      December 23, 2010 at 8:30 pm |
  7. KMW

    I think it has been said there are no atheists in foxholes.

    December 23, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
  8. KMW

    In my comment to Jenna, I misspelled CATHOLIC. As a Catholic, I want to spell my religion correctly. I also pressed the Report abuse button incorreclty. Please keep my response to Jenna and do not delete it. Thank you. KMW

    December 23, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
  9. Dan

    I see the atheists are having a field day bashing everyones beliefs. For the record Atheism is a religion. Their god is Man. They are a group that gathers, is organized and believe that theirs is the right way and everyone else is wrong. That is no different than any other religion. Atheism is defined by its hyprocracy and contradictions.

    December 23, 2010 at 2:37 pm |
    • Scott

      @Dan: Please elaborate on the hypocrisies and contradictions. I don’t see any. Perhaps you can help?

      Atheism is not a religion in the same way that bald is not a hair color

      Religion is about believing in some ultimate power beyond yourself, usually a god or gods, though in the case of communism and Nazism the state takes the place of god. Atheism is about not believing in an ultimate power beyond oneself

      December 23, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
  10. Grant

    Hard to believe a man who was supposedly "educated" in theology, could tell such a blatant lie as the one he told about christmas being the birth of jesus. Not even close on the calendar according to the majority of historians AND there are volumes of pages written about the Pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice prior to the Christian Cult becoming mainstream. Our worlds' religions wonder why people are leaving them. How can we not when they tell us things they know for FACT are lies. All in the name of protecting their donation trays. Time for a new witchhunt, this time going after the true evil-doers; christians

    December 23, 2010 at 2:36 pm |
  11. Carrie

    Ummm. JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON!!!! Regaurdless of what the religion or belief. Just because you are the "DOUBTING THOMAS" of the world & everything. Doesn't mean all of us have to be. GOD! BLESS AMERICA!!!!!! WE NEED IT!!!!!!!

    December 23, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  12. Justin Observation

    The "Christmas" Tree, a pagan symbol celebrating resilience of life. An ever"green" proving it is still alive in the darkest days of winter.

    The Yule log, a pagan tradition of keeping a fire burning during the longest night of the year, a bright light to help the sun find it's way back.

    Mistletoe and holly, pagan symbolism of fertility, the white flowers of mistletoe represent sperm, the red berries of holly represent menstrual blood.

    December 25th, a widely celebrated astronomical occurrence. The very first day that begins the sun's daily procession back into the northern hemisphere. Often referred to as the sun's birthday, and to many as the son's birthday, it begins it's sojourn across the earth, defeating darkness and eventually taking it's rightful place as ruler of the sky or heaven on easter day.

    The three Wisemen, aka three Magi, aka three Kings of the east. an astronomical reference to the three stars of Orion's Belt, which line up and point to the exact spot of the sunrise on December 25th. Stars were often called "kings" as earlier traditions believed their dead kings became stars in heaven. Thus the sun became the "king of kings" in many religions.

    The death and resurrection of the sun, oddly celebrated on easter by Christians, is also a winter an astronomical feature where the sun "dies" on Dec. 23rd and 24th (rises in the same place as it did on Dec. 22nd) but on the third day (Dec. 25th) it "lives" again. Easter is actually the celebration of the spring equinox, the day that light officially defeats darkness, or good triumphs over evil, or when the days become longer than the nights. The sun now rules, until harvest time, aka the autumnal equinox, aka Halloween, that often scary time when darkness takes over, and people either Trick the evil one and his minions, or bribe them with Treats. but that's a whole different story.

    The birthday of our Sun draws near, may the King of Kings shine many blessing upon you and and your families! May the sun be your lord, your shepherd, show you the light and deliver you from darkness, and guide you to the heavens, should you pass.

    Merry Winter Solstice Everyone!

    December 23, 2010 at 2:27 pm |
    • Grant

      Thank you and nicely written.

      December 23, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
  13. dollarsign

    Yeah I remember all those atheists that I served with in Vietnam. When the crap hit the fan, they were the ones praying the loudest!

    December 23, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
  14. wiley

    I love how each side has to keep proving their side of the story. Get over yourselves, no one really knows any of the answers. It's a matter of faith and if you have it great...if not great. To each their own.

    December 23, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
  15. Mommyof2

    All I want to say is I don't care what religion you are in, or not in for that matter. If you celebrate the Holidays, awesome, if you don't, well more power to you.
    My husband and I love the Holidays! We go all out with the decorations and we set it all up right after thanksgiving dinner just because we can't wait. We love to see our kids excited about it. It brings joy to our hearts. My husband and I believe Christmas is a time to spend with family all day, eat all we want, hot cocoa, watch all the kids tear open gifts, make a mess, run around, and enjoy eacothers presence. For the young children its about opening gifts and playing with their cousins and friends. For us Adults, its about cooking in the kitchen, sitting at the table, talking and seeing family and friends we don't get to see through out the year. Even more so since some of our family is in the service. Even though our family has Christian and Catholic beliefs, that doesn't seem to make any difference for us. Not everyone in our family believes and celebrates for religious reasons. We just get together to be together and thats that.

    Christmas has a different meaning for everyone, and I am perfectly okay with it. All it matters is what it means to me and how I want to celebrate. I won't put down others because they have a different way to celebrate or choose not to celebrate it at all. I respect everyone and there decision, they should do the same for me and everyone else. I just say mind your own business and do your own thing. Don't worry about others and what they do when it comes to the holidays or religion and everyone should be fine. If you don't tell me how I should or shouldn't celebrate the holidays or what religion to believe in, then I won't tell you. If you believe Christmas is about Jesus, then that is your right. If you believe its to shop, spend your entire life savings and spoiling the kids, then good for you. Do what you want, believe what you want, and I will do the same for myself. I don't go to church and I don't force my kids to read the bible. I believe as long as we do good in our lives, be kind to everyone, help when we can help, we will all end up in a good place, where ever that may be. I just want my children to enjoy the Holidays season and have fun before they grow up and have to take on the responsibility of an adult. (I still teach them responsibility now, but I do believe a child should be a child for as long as they can).

    I hope everyone has a Happy, fun Holiday and a wonderful start to the New year!

    December 23, 2010 at 2:17 pm |
  16. UH60L

    Not sure if this has alreayd been said, but I think the number of non-believers is a bit more than 5%. I recall reading on this site this last year that it was more like 15% (maybe higher, I'm getting old and can't remember 🙂 )

    December 23, 2010 at 2:16 pm |
  17. Faith Based Realist

    This debate has more gray shades of opinion, facts and rhetoric as subtle as a Winter Solstice night. But as a recovering Catholic, I find a debate of whom co-op'd whose faith and practices simply insane. My faith based education (parochial through my masters) demanded that I believe the biblical fables as fact. Than the good sisters (God Bless'em) would teach science, mathematics and the disciplines of empirical thinking to provide fact based evidence to support a hypothesis in the next class. (See why I am still in religious rehab). For me and this is just one girls opinion, the message is "eat drink and be merry" the best way you can. Reflect on the good fortunes of the past year and take the lessons from the bad stuff into the New Year as not to repeat the same mistakes. Remember those who are not as fortunate as you. But carry through all year. (When was the last time you gave a homeless person a bag lunch? Me? This morning, just like I do every work day. Extra fruit and cookies since I'm off tomorrow) Good living to all, and to all a good night!

    December 23, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
    • Scott

      Sounds great to me... Why don't you be God?

      December 23, 2010 at 6:54 pm |
  18. Stephen

    It's ironic that Mr. Tatum refers to Jesus as "our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ of Nazareth". That's funny, because Christ was indeed from Navareth, and NOT from Bethlehem. The whole story about his being born in Bethlehem was made up after the fact to reconcile with the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. The idea that Christ's father would have to go back to his "home town" for a census doesn't make any sense, since he was supposedly descended from King David, who lived a thousand years earlier. Why would the Romans consider Bethlehem as Joseph's "home" town based on his lineage from so long ago? Furthermore, the logistics of sending everyone to their towns of their ancient heritage would have been nothing short of mayhem. Plus there are no records at all of any such world-wide census, only very local censuses. Lastly, why would a very pregnant Mary ride a mule all that long distance? She would have likely died on such a journey. The Christian myth of Christ's birth in a manger in Bethlehem is clearly just a made-up story. Incredible people take this as true.

    December 23, 2010 at 2:10 pm |
  19. lacoaster

    Nice pretty colored decorations. Lots of sales and price drops. People being more mindful of each other (even some fanatics). Gift exchanges. More days to rest than other months (for some). The end of the season of a year and a new year coming (an opportunity to schedule future plans and goals, do it or not). Time with loved ones. Opportunity to get cozy (better in places where it get cold). Better quality music in churches and streets than the rest of the year. Happiness. Extraordinary displays of kindness and tolerance. Summary: You rub my belly, I rub yours. I like it. If only one life is not good enough for some, no problem. If people dream and wish they could live forever, no problem. As long as their thoughts make them happy and help them managing theirselves. The best we can do is the best we can do. I am very grateful even with just one life with goods and bads (which for me is normal). I do not feel the need of living forever, as I understand that other people and generations might need the space and things I occupy when my life ends. In a perfect life, there would be no chance for thriving, growing, learning, appreciating, no need for saviours, heroes or faith and boring after a while. Things are not always perfect, and that's very fine for me. Back to the Christmas topic "Atheist" says: "Atheists" 1 point, "Christians" 2 points. I forgot, Santa Claus seems to be a really cool dude too (discrimination agains the chubby seems to slow down a bit during Christmas). I love most of you! Merry Christmas! = )

    December 23, 2010 at 2:09 pm |
    • Scott

      I agree with you except for that part about music being better. The same old songs over and over again for weeks on end

      December 23, 2010 at 6:47 pm |
  20. HogJaws

    Seems to me atheists have a hard time living by their worldview. They say there is no God.. therefore there are no absolutes (ie., nothing is true, nothing is false). Yet, many of them have no problem saying Christians are "wrong" which seems rather hypocritical. If nothing is true or false in this universe then what Christians believe and do is just as irrelevant and meaningless as you are! Why can't you leave them alone? Perhaps it irritates you that the Christian worldview gives them a much different perspective on life.. there IS a God, there are moral absolutes, we do have a purpose for living, we do have hope for the future...and it all centers on that little baby born 2000 years ago in a stable. That was no ordinary baby.. get to know Him. You'd be amazed what He can do to your heart..

    December 23, 2010 at 2:08 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.