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. M

    This article is right on it for how I view Christmas. I'm an athiest, but I love Christmas. I enjoy the aspects of it like Christmas trees, Frosty, gift giving, food, Santa, elves, and all the various fun aspects of the holiday. I really don't have a problem with the Jesus part of it as I view that part as a holiday tale with about as much validity as Santa actually flying around delivering gifts.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:13 am |
  2. DD

    If people knew their history they would be a lot happier, and feel better about doing whatever they want to celebrate. To Each, Their Own! This time of year its all about Sharing & Caring, not what we name it or what religion claims it. Because of our diverse heritage we celebrate 4: Hanukkah, Yule/Solstice, Christmas & Epiphany/3 Kings. Along with our 3rd of 4 New Year celebrations!!

    December 23, 2010 at 10:13 am |
  3. Albert

    Christmas is a man-made holiday which is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Early Christians did not celebrate it. Jesus certainly did not promote or celebrate it. This holiday is also based on pagan rituals. True Christians do not celebrate it. It brings dishonor to God.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:12 am |
  4. Nikki

    "Gotta love it when the Atheist knows more about Christianity than the Preacher!!" -Ostifari
    Hopefully this is not sarcasm, and that you do really believe that. Here's why. The bible, first of all. Is most likely nothing but someone's fantasy story. A book. Like Twilight, or Red Riding Hood. No one can actually prove for a fact that what happened in the bible, happened. Christmas is a stolen religion that Chrisitians used to con people into believing that their "word" is true. And like many people have pointed out already, they can't get the date right of when Jesus was born. Even though it aparantly has clues as to when he actually was born. Which points back to the fact that Christmas is a stolen holiday and what a preacher teaches you about Christmas is in fact not true! You are just mad that someone has been feeding you lies all these years and you fell for it. I am not against religion. I am just against the fact that sheeple kill others because they think their religion is better. The crusades for instance, the witch trials, and who can for get the fighting in the middle east and the
    Al-Qaeda. It's wrong....just wrong, to kill someone for reasons that are tied to religion. A wonderful Christmas mericle would be if everyone on this planet grew a heart. Peace on earth is something everyone, no matter what their beliefs are, can wish for.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:12 am |
    • Starlight_22

      @Nikki, Few things I feel the need to point out. Fine if you want to believe the Bible is not true, but I think to classify it on the level with Twilight. It would be more along the lines of origin type stories.
      "No one can actually prove for a fact that what happened in the bible, happened." References to a flood have appeared in multiple writings falling about the same time, so there is reason to believe that some of it is true. Granted it was an oral tradition long before it was written down so it is fair to question parts of it as well. But to label it on par with Twilight is a little insulting.

      "Christmas is a stolen religion that Chrisitians used to con people into believing that their "word" is true." Technically it was used as a way to easy conversion. Christians long ago made no attempts to really hide conversion or con people into beliefs. Pagan temple on sacred ground, mark a cross on it call it yours and then people would not resist the change too much. The transition between pagan and Christian held periods of overlap where converted Christians would continue to celebrate some traditional pagan holidays as well as Christian ones. It wasn't really a con period, very open.

      " The crusades for instance, the witch trials, and who can for get the fighting in the middle east and the Al-Qaeda. It's wrong....just wrong, to kill someone for reasons that are tied to religion." While I can't speak to the reasons why Al-Qaeda fights, your perception on the crusades and witch trials are slightly off. Both of those were more politically motivated then religion motivated; it just happens to be that religion is a great motivator. Witch trials for example (European ones) where more prevalent with high levels of killing in areas with political turmoil. England had very few compared to the German States that would end up killing all but 3 women in a village at times.

      But yes, you are right, the world could do with a little bit more tolerance and peace.

      And to everyone else talking about the slaughtering done by Christians, apparently you forget that pagans were just as bad with their slaughterings of Christians when the religion just started. It would appear both religions are just as bad on that account.

      December 23, 2010 at 3:34 pm |
  5. Yo Ho Ho Ho

    Why can't we just share the season with everyone else? Why does anybody have the right to claim it for themselves?

    December 23, 2010 at 10:11 am |
  6. Kyaru

    Born in a manger, baby Jesus spoke to asses and sheep. Apparently, he still does.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:11 am |
  7. steve

    II'd place more value on an athiest who lives a good and honest life because he knows it's the right thing to do, than I would on someone who calls themself religious, but only acts good to avoid being punished by his god. I see lots of religious hypocrites, but none that are atheist.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:11 am |
    • mike

      Amen Brother! Long live the humanism and civility.

      December 23, 2010 at 10:14 am |
    • Jimi

      Christians don't go to heaven because they are good or have done good things in this world. The worlds standards don't even come close to God's standards. As Jesus said; No one comes to the Father except thru me. He paid the price so you don't have to. God Bless.

      December 23, 2010 at 10:48 am |
    • noteabags

      You summed it up. Be a good person. Don't hate people and mind your own business.

      December 23, 2010 at 11:08 am |
  8. ryan

    the "reason for the season" is to spread cheer, grace, and generosity to our fellow humans regardless of their race, religion, or whatever. Unlike christians like to pretend, the reason is not to foist a specific dogmatic belief on others. (in this case a belief that is entirely delusional)
    The symbols of christmas – including the nativity story, only have meaning in the sense that they support human kindness and generosity. There are plenty of dogma's in the bible such as the doctrine of hell that are ignored by most because they do not align with the universal truth of unconditional love, empathy and compassion.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:10 am |
  9. MrJTP

    Anyone that has studied the history of religions knows, unlike Kyev Tatum, that the person referred to as Christ was not born anywhere near December 25th. It was in the 3rd century CE that Holy Roman Emperor Constantine declared 12/25 be celebrated in honor of Christ's birthday. It had previously been celebrated variously in the spring or fall. The emperor's motivation was 'payback' to his new found religion for helping him slaughter his enemy in a battle. Most historians feel he chose that specific date because it was already being celebrated by most other religions as a day of 'rebirth' as the northern hemisphere began to enjoy the 'rebirth of the sun' following the winter solstice.

    As I'm sure you've heard, everything about the celebration of Christmas has its derivation in Paganism. Decorated trees, exchange of gifts, large celebrations, etc, etc, all in celebration of the return of the sun and its warming light and harbinger of spring. Many other religions shared these traditions but NO religion owns them.

    My biggest complaint about the Christians is that they, the 'johnny-come-lately' to the religious world, think they OWN the season even though many other religions still celebrate their own holidays during the same period and have since long before the alleged birth of the Christ-child.

    And, even though I am an atheist (a mild mannered one) I do wish everyone a HAPPY HOLIDAY season filled with love for one another.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:09 am |
    • wintex81

      Hello MrJTP mild mannered Atheist. Actually Constatine was never baptized as a Christian. But here is a a Catholic Christian view of Atheists: Christmas is a sign that you can choose to ignore, but with some difficulty. This celebration of an impossible birth of an impossible man, you perceive as a great deception or illusion. You may even believe this person existed, but if so, you have to believe he could have been locked up for claiming to be God!

      I was once an Atheist, and there is no reason to condemn those who are not sure about God or those who wonder if he even exists. For some, it’s like getting married. They know it’s nice to be able to believe in God, but not sure they want to make that commitment. Fear of being a hypocrite is another factor. But not to worry! God does exist, and he doesn’t hold a grudge. I know this through personal experience, not from an intellectual exercise. I can’t give you the God I know, but I can give you some thoughts that may jar your complacency.

      In the first place, man is different. If there is a divine creator, of supreme intelligence, then everything he makes should make sense. Why is man different? Animals have instincts for survival. For instance we marvel at the instincts that allow birds to find their summer and winter homes after flying thousands of miles. Or there is the well-known example of Penguins who survive by mating and birthing in the middle of Antarctic winters.

      But man has a unique quality that separates him from animals. He knows he will die! Intelligent men in ancient civilizations tried to rationalize this knowledge by envisioning life after death for the Human spirit. This is so prevalent that I hold it to be our instinct for survival. Our soul has an inherent instinct for survival beyond this human existence. This is why, as we grow and age, most of us search for a deeper meaning in our life, beyond this earthly and fleshly existence – which we know for certain, will end.

      Those who deny this impulse are denying reality. They know they will die, but they simply refuse to deal with this knowledge.

      What to discover: The universe is either friendly or unfriendly. If you believe the world as we see it is all that there is for our existence, then you know that the world will eventually let you die, or just kill you in one way or another. So you have to believe this universe is an unfriendly place. On the other hand if you believe that the universe was made for you by a loving God, who plans much more for your existence than this short-lived experience of tears and pain, then you know that a loving God has a lot more in store for you. If he is infinitely loving of his creation, and you are his most unusual and triumphant creation, then he wants you to be a part of his infinitely beautiful and loving existence.

      I believe, and I can’t give you my faith. However my advice is don’t trust those who don’t love you. But be sure that God does love you and you can trust the creator who made you. Just give him a chance to prove it.


      December 23, 2010 at 7:23 pm |
  10. T

    I hate to admit this, but it is true everything from the Christmas Tree, Christmas Wreath, Holly, Mistletoe, Stockings, Presents, etc have nothing to do with the celebration of the Birth of Christ. Christmas is the Christ Mas. Mass is what Catholics call their church service. So all of your Baptists and Methodists out there enjoy celebrating a holiday for a Catholic Mass.

    Also the birth was not always celebrated in December. Google it if you don't believe me.

    In 2010, 11% of the USA population claimed they were sceptical about belief in god. That is a lot of people.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:08 am |
    • UncleM

      It's disappointing that 89% aren't more skeptical.

      December 23, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
  11. Nothing

    "And they, having heard the king, departed, and lo, the star, that they did see in the east, did go before them, till, having come, it stood over where the child was." Matthew 2:9

    This is a very specific major celestial event that can only occure once in history and it does so via retrogade motion on June 17th -0002.

    Also, the shepards would not be in the fields anytime within the bitter winter of the time, they and thier animals would have froze.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:08 am |
    • Scott

      Step outside at night, look up into the sky and try to decide which star stands over the place where you live. I don’t think retrograde motion can account for that “standing over” part. By the way, which planet’s retrograde motion are you referring to?

      December 23, 2010 at 2:12 pm |
  12. Ann

    To the poster who talked about the dates of the "census" as described in the gospels. There is absolutely no historical support that there was ever a census in Judea. The Romans kept great records and there is no non-biblical reference to a census in Judea during the reign of Augustus. Or a census in Judea at any time in recorded history. To quote the great Christopher Hitchens,""What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof."

    December 23, 2010 at 10:07 am |
    • steve

      Thanks, Ann. To add to your point, I remember reading some time ago that there is no mention of Jesus in any historical writings.

      December 23, 2010 at 10:15 am |
    • David Johnson


      I think you mean no mention in secular writings. But, there are some. But they are suspect as either being later insertions or hear say.

      There were no eyewitness accounts of Jesus. The gospels were not written by the apostles. The earliest gospel was most likely Mark, somewhere around 65 CE.

      Keep in mind that the gospels were written to "prove" Jesus was the Messiah/Son of God. Like the gunfighters of the old west, the stories of Jesus were embellished. It is all a work of fiction. Just like the census, which was necessary to get Jesus to be born in Bethlehem.


      December 23, 2010 at 2:03 pm |
    • Bill In STL

      What about the other Gospels ..... the ones that did not make it into the bible???? Some of them show a side of Christ that you would probably believe in more.....

      Yes they exist ... but you have to find them .... you have to look.

      December 23, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
  13. Slovensko

    Jesus was NOT born on Dec. 25th. There is no way shepherds are going to be chilling in the field in one of the coldest months of the year. Historians have shown its not the 25th. We(Christians) ganked the holiday from the winter solstice. You don't need a holiday to celebrate Jesus' birth, do it 365 days a year.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:06 am |
  14. Jack

    Athiets? Christians? Jewish? Muslim? etc, etc, etc. .......it would just be nice if we could all just get along and simply let others have their beliefs, or non-beliefs....whatever....and stop trying to convince the "other side" that they are wrong.
    I am afraid that will never happen.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:05 am |
    • Scott

      The problem arises when part of their beliefs includes changing my beliefs

      December 23, 2010 at 2:07 pm |
  15. Religious Sects

    I don't care if you celebrate Christmas with or without religion. It's the judging of others negatively for how they choose to celebrate it that's wrong .. that goes for either side of the debate.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:05 am |
  16. mike

    Thank goodness for the Carthaginians! Ho Saturnalia everyone!

    December 23, 2010 at 10:04 am |
  17. Bill O'Rights

    Who decided that Christmas originated with the birth of Jesus? The holiday was celibrated long long before that by the Romans. Christians just hijacked the date.
    Christmas became, quite some time ago, a secular holiday in the US that Christians, Atheists and even we rational agnostics can celebrate

    December 23, 2010 at 10:04 am |
  18. Silver Chair

    I am a Christian, and I love Jesus Christ. For me He is the reason for the season. Regardless of your views, I sincerely wish you all peace and joy, and may the new year be filled with good cheer for everyone.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:03 am |
    • Phil

      @SilverChair: Were you to be a follower of C. S. Lewis' "Narnia" book series, you are aware that the purpose of the silver chair was to keep Prince Rillian "brainwashed". Just a rather darkly ironic comment considering your earlier commentary. No offense, but I think you should know.

      December 23, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
    • Scott

      I am an atheist. Thank you for your kind wishes and may you have a happy Holiday and good New Year

      December 23, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
  19. Not All Docs Play Golf

    Just because when you reached adulthood you no longer believed such things as a guy named Jonah spending 3 days in the belly of a whale, or a guy named Noah loading 2-by-2 all organisms including microbes onto a boat when the "whole world" flooded doesn't mean you are a bad person and have no morals. Quite the opposite, secular humanists believe strongly in values of charity, acceptance, love, sharing and not looking down on those with less fortune. In fact, many "believers" are more concerned with "worship" than in genuinely doing good works, for the sake of pure goodness, rather than as a ticket to get into 'heaven." I think the term "non-theist" is more appropriate because "atheist" has so many negative connotations, as if it means criminal.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:02 am |
  20. Isabelle

    I guess the problem is calling Christmas "christian" when it is not even a christian celebration. True christians never celebrated the birth of Christ nor Jesus asked us to celebrate it.
    Please read the Bible to find out if Jesus was born on December and to find what the true meaning of being a christian is.
    Thank you

    December 23, 2010 at 10:00 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.