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
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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. Former New Age

    I grew up with parents who were new agers (hippies). I had alot of wierd beliefs that as an adult I pitched in the trash. I never really read the Bible but I see atheists saying that Jesus never existed and Christians saying that he did exist. It doesn't seem to be clear to me historically either way. Where did all this come from? How is that for thousands of years man kind has believed in ghosts, spirits, dieties. Two thousand years is a long long time for something to just linger around. Maybe to big of a topic for one section of the CNN blogs

    December 20, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • lol??

      Science is claiming 400,000 years. And the race is at is peak according to the progressives.

      December 20, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Kal

      Power of marketing barnabas and scheming people cannot be discounted...Christian celebrated jesees birthday sometime in feb...but nobody actually shoed much interest as time progressed...then pope and trickmaster decided to interfere with Saturnalia December most popular festival...and moved the ever changing birthday of jesesess...it's a fiction and it can have any day as birthday..

      December 20, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Kal

      Guy on the stick roamed on the back of ass pretending to be king of Israel..then climbed the Jewish temple to shower profanity on common mass...carpenter, fishermen came out with idea to defeat uncivilZed west is really Funny and proves that any power on earth can be defeated with enough stupid people join hand...

      December 20, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  2. Apple Bush

    GOPer, I saw your Silmarillion post. 🙂

    December 20, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      your analogy of the 'burden and resurrection' is apt. Tolkien was a Catholic in a predominantly Anglican world.

      It's not a coincidence that March 25 (the destruction of Sauron and the ring) falls on the feast of the Annunciation / ~vernal equinox / which was the traditional new year's day (from 525AD) until it was later reset to January 1.

      March 25 is of course 9 months before the ~solstice / Christmas.

      December 20, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  3. Kevin F

    Atheism is not a world view. It is all just morality.

    December 20, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Answer

      Atheists in general are humanists. We care about our fellow man.

      December 20, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Etalan

      Atheist is a constant of all religion. It is the one thing that all religion have.

      December 20, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  4. lionlylamb

    People tend to dispute and become riled up and write sarcasms of ill will towards one and others who write their yearning’s desires to be so heard in hoping’s way. Others may find fond clement weather in the wordage of one’s domiciled fruition. The gingered bred saliencies do ever make revealing the melding of conditioned duplicities. Love seems no more the conquered or even for conquests except for the young of heart’s treasuring needs.

    Be ever so kind to others’ words if one so can do this season of rent and Lent homages bargaining days. Love, Peace and make fondness farewells one and all wherever one is to be found here or even over there and make friendships rather than showing unfriendly ways and means under one’s belts. Peace is seldom the fondness yet is always wantonness and Love is the treasures for all to take leavened umbrages upon without flailing one’s wordage toward indecent measures.

    My Loves for many so people are sanctifications unending bemusing. Unfettered by the bonds that bind up; my wordage remains. Stilled and ever translucent are my words opulence ever made to shine forth upon God’s Holy Spirit being the great seas of absolute nothingness! His Holiness Spirit reaches beyond the above celestial unknown abyss and fathoms ever inside the atomically told of immeasurable means! Nothingness is Godliness and of Godly does Nothingness so hold all mannerisms’ materially made essences.

    December 20, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • Everyone on the Belief Blog

      lionlylamb, what??

      December 20, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • RayJ

      Did you run this through a couple translation programs or something?

      December 20, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • lunchbreaker

      LL, best wishes attributed to you in a manner in whichever festivitous fashion you shall.

      December 20, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Athy

      Lamb is generally regarded as the blog's lunatic. Most of us ignore him.

      December 20, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • craniumthedumb

      Read carefully, look up words you don't know.

      He is lamenting how people shout down other peoples opinions.

      Observe the first line...
      "People tend to dispute and become riled up and write sarcasms of ill will towards one and others who write their yearning’s desires to be so heard in hoping’s way."

      Translation (loosely)...

      People argue, get upset and write sarcastic comments mean to harm the writer and anyone else who writes what they truly believe and hope is taken in a kindly way.

      December 20, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • Dippy

      Then why the fuck doesn't he just say it that way?

      December 20, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • craniumthedumb


      By that logic, you get to demand that anyone communicate as you wish them to and they have to comply.

      He chooses to communicate how he chooses to just as you choose to communicate as you do. Using language like you just did only justifies his choice.

      December 20, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  5. shadwell

    I'm not a christian but celebrate xmas. Its for family, friends, good food and Santa and gifts. Goodwill towards fellow humans? Nice message. Im fine with calling it Holiday, to be honest. Take call christian elements out (it was hijacked anyway BY the christians) and have EVERYONE celebrate holiday. I have muslims, sihks and a buddhist (none of them very religious though) that all celebrate christmas with the tree and presents and santa. Even if you believe in the myth that is Jesus, you cant possibly believe he was born on DEC 25. But then again some of you christians actually still believe in creationism, so who knows

    December 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      shadwell, 30 to 40 percent of these dumb bums or Genesis literalists, so yeah, they will believe anything and even as I type this they are teaching there kids the same nonsense.

      December 20, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  6. Santa

    It's Santa Claus - not Clause.

    Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus.

    December 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Chico Marx

      Ain't no such thing a s Sanity Clause.

      December 20, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  7. CP in FL

    It is alarming the number of people that believe in the magic sky daddy. I am sure that it is because most of you were brainwashed at an early age to believe such nonsense. Where is the proof that god exists? And please do not quote me verses from your book of fairy tales written thousands of years ago by men. Religious folks should stop wasting their time praying to their mythical being and start doing some actual good.

    December 20, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Dem

      I completely agree with you, but the same goes for athiest. Stop wasting time bashing the mystical sky dadday and get off your duff and do something good. That book that talked about actually talks about that very thing.

      December 20, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  8. Jade

    People are stupid.

    Christmas is a traditional holiday. Celebrate it however you like. Quit telling people how to do it.

    It doesn't matter what the origins are; what matters is what it is now. It is a great festive time and family holiday. It is a fun couple of months of decorating, good food, family, friends, shopping, and fun.

    Why should it matter if religious people celebrate the holiday religiously? Why should it matter if someone celebrates it without religion.

    And for that matter, whether you think the nativity was fact or fiction, it is still a christmas icon like the tree, so what does it matter?

    I don't believe in God. But I love the nativity scene. I don't get offended by it. What I do get offended by is this group or that telling me how I should celebrate, and what I am supposed to include and what I can't.

    Have your opinion all you like.. but stop forcing it on everyone else. Celebrate the way YOU want, and quit getting offended if someone tells you "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays".

    December 20, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • The Krampus

      If more people thought rationally as yourself, the world would be so much better!! Merry Christmas, happy hannakuh, festivus, kawanza, whatever you celebrate, HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!

      December 20, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  9. Etalan

    I have a problem with tradition without the understanding of the culture. Yes, the true mean of the holiday has chance from what it is, but to change the history of the holiday/culture is just wrong. Christmas or yule or winter solicits was never about the birth of the christian's god, but the pagan holiday. To change history or fact to help promote another religion is one of the worst crime that can never be heal. I don't care what how people use this holiday, but no one should be able to change it history.

    December 20, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Will

      I get your point, but this stuff happens all the time. Maybe the winter solstice was stolen from someone else by the pagans. It's part of our culture regardless. As an atheist, I'm comfortable acknowledging that we live in a Christian-based society. I'm not supporting anyone legislating their beliefs, but the facts are the facts, so it's all good..

      December 20, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Etalan

      I don't mine the change in the culture, but people or any group of people do not have the right to change the history. The problem is that if we let people able to change history, we can let people change fact. People can not do the right thing if they do not have all the right information.

      December 20, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  10. mozrox

    I despise prosthelytizing...from both sides (religious folk and atheists). Don't tell me what I should believe in. It's atheists like Silverman of American Atheists and their silly billboards that give atheists like me a bad name. I repect if others are believers or non-believers. My only problem is with those that try to force their opinions on me. Keep the holiday "merry", whatever that means to you! Come on people. It's not that hard.

    December 20, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Will

      Thank you sir. You've repeated what I've said many times on this board. Celebrate, don't celebrate. Believe whatever you want – just don't try to legislate your beliefs.

      December 20, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • lol??

      "Mar 1:17 And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men."

      December 20, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  11. Dina

    @TAK Yes dear 3 embodies 1 Hey how about you ask for a bible for christmas it comes in handy when your lost its also a map for your lost broken heart. ! @ kevin oh and yes their will come a day and I cant wait to find you in line going else where we will pass each other and one of us will smile but one of us will cringe then... good day

    December 20, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  12. Dem

    This subject always brings out the crazies, so as a certified crazy leader i will chime in. I saw someone talk about the difference between an aithiest and a christian, so here's my take. an athiest is either a person who what told there is no god from the time they were born and beleieved what they were told or an ex-christian who came to the realization that christians are doing some of the same things so called sinners are doing. The fact is I believe in God but I don't believe in people, whether they are athiest or chistian they all have their own agenda. There is no need for me to bash an athiest or a christian because it is not my problem and if everyone would do what they bible says, which is work out your own salvation (or lack their of) the world would be a better place. I don't need a bible to know that speaking ill of someone or their beliefs is not nice so if you dont what want to use the bible just use common sense. As for christians, stop using the bible to bash people. It's a book not a hammer. It is a blueprint for "you" to follow, not for you to force everyone else to follow. Jesus said preach the Kingdom until I return (not damnation and hell)stop beating people up and do what He said.

    December 20, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  13. RayJ

    The thing I never seem to see adequately explained is why it is so urgently important for atheists to be actively anti-Christian. Is this really a worthwhile pursuit for you to to devote the 80 or so years before you become wormfood and have no ability to appreciate the results of your efforts? And why Christians specifically? If you prescribe to the idea that any time a religious person does something bad that their religion is the most important motivating factor, why are there never any attacks on Muslims? Isn't there a much better case for saying that Islam 'causes' suffering in the world today than Christianity? Christian zealots didn't destroy the twin towers, there are no oppressive Christian theocracies out there. I don't want to ascribe motivations to anybody for sure but this sounds a lot more like the methodology of people who are bitter and angry than rational and enlightened.

    December 20, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  14. Karly

    I don't know where some of you live but I don't have anyone trying to shove Atheistism or Christianity down my throat. Why all the anger on either side of the issue. You believe what you want and I will believe what I want. It is a happy time of year no matter what you believe.

    December 20, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  15. HeavenSent

    Horrors, earth quakes, floods, disasters are God's wrath against all of us because of you carnal fools doing evil. You have no eyes to see or hear His truth. My daughter was born on a pool table but we had plenty of bar rags. You better throw away that users manual or fry for eternity.


    December 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • bob1144

      prove it.... oh wait

      December 20, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  16. David

    If those little God haters hate that Christmas on the 25th of December then they can celebrate the Solstice on the 21st. America is a place of religious freedom, not religious suppression if you don't like it then go to North Korea where Christmas is definitely a non issue.

    December 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Kal

      Crucifiction thru palm is not fact...this lie pope carry on his stick...21dec,2012will herald new era of knowledge and era when stupids rule will be thing of the past....rational people will dump the myth and stop the churches to interfere in the affair of human kind...

      December 20, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  17. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:

    A 21st century summary:

    Christmas, the embellished story of the birth of a simple, preacher man named Jesus.

    As per most contemporary NT scholars, his parents were Mary and Joseph although some say Jesus was a mamzer, the result of a pre-marital relationship between Mary and a Roman soldier.

    http:// http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html

    Jesus was not born in Bethlehem at least the one we are familiar with and there were no pretty wingie thingies singing/talking from on high, no slaughter of the innocents by Herod, no visiting wise men and no escape to Egypt.

    "Mark's gospel, the most historical of the four gospels, does not even mention the event.

    And from Professor Gerd Ludemann in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 269-272, "The historical yield of the Lukan infancy narrative with respect to the birth of Jesus is virtually nil.

    Matt 1:18-25: , pp. 123-124, "The fathering of Jesus from the Holy Spirit and his birth from the virgin Mary are unhistorical". Ludemann gives a very detailed analysis to support his conclusions. One part being the lack of attestations to these events and the late time strata of said story.

    "Lüdemann [pp. 261-63) discounts Luke's account as a legend deriving from Jewish Hellenistic circles that were concerned to hold together the procreation of the Spirit, the authentic sonship of the Messiah and the virginal conception. "

    Professor Bruce Chilton

    "In [Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography] (2000), Chilton develops the idea of Jesus as a mamzer; someone whose irregular birth circu-mstances result in their exclusion from full participation in the life of the community. He argues for the natural pa-ternity of Joseph and finds no need for a miraculous conception. In his subsequent reconstruction of Jesus' life, Chilton suggests that this sustained personal experience of exclusion played a major role in Jesus' self-ident-ity, his concept of God and his spiritual quest.

    Professor John Dominic Crossan

    "In [Historical Jesus] (p. 371) Crossan treats this cluster, like 007 Of Davids Lineage, as an example of the interplay of prophecy and history in the development of the Jesus traditions.

    "In [Birth of Christianity] (pp. 26-29) Crossan uses Luke's account of Jesus' conception and birth to explore ethical issues concerning the public interpretation of the past. He notes the tendency of Christian scholars to disregard "pagan" birth legends while investing great effort in the defence of biblical birth narratives. He concludes:

    I do not accept the divine conception of either Jesus or Augustus as factual history, but I believe that God is incarnate in the Jewish peasant poverty of Jesus and not in the Roman imperial power of Augustus. "

    "The following ancient parallels to Jesus' miraculous conception should be noted:

    Birth of Moses (Exod 2:1-10)
    Birth of Plato (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 3.45) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 507]
    Birth of Alexander the Great (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, 2.1-3.5) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 502f]
    Birth of Apollonius (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, I.4) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 505]"

    And some final words from Thomas Jefferson, not a contemporary NT scholar, but indeed a very learned man:

    "And the day will come,
    when the mystical generation of Jesus,
    by the Supreme Being as His Father,
    in the womb of a virgin,
    will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva"

    - Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
    Letter to John Adams, from Monticello, April 11, 1823.

    Conclusion: Christmas is historically a non-event. Ditto for the Feast of the Magi and the solemnity of Mary aka New Years day.

    December 20, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • lol??

      She religiously posts in a down market. Is her stuff just fluff, a dream of ownership, a piece of the pie? Only the real Realtor knows for sure.

      December 20, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  18. WestboroBaptistChurchMember

    I sure am glad there are no groups of Chrisitains doing stupid stuff.

    December 20, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  19. megan

    omg.......December 25th is the day we celebrate Jesus. whether he was "actually" born on that day or not it really doesn't matter. Why else do you think its called Christ-mas genius? ya'll are wasting my time lol. have a nice day im getting off of here.

    December 20, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  20. NYpragmatist

    This billboard shows no logic. Santa Claus IS St. Nicholas, a Christian saint. So, what exactly is the message here? Keep the saint, ditch the man/God that inspired him to become a saint? Or is it just "worship consumerism, not 'God'." Either way, it's just pointless and makes atheists look stupid and illogical.

    December 20, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Reality

      The Apostles' Creed 2012 (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

      Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
      and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
      human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

      I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
      preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
      named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
      girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

      Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
      the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

      He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
      a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

      Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
      many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
      ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
      Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
      grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
      and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
      called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

      (References used are available upon request.)

      December 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      What does Santa Claus with the red fur suit and the flying reindeer have to do with an obscure Greek Saint from the 4th century, other than some v@gue notion of generosity?

      December 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • illusive

      Actually that can be argued quite extensively, the Santa Claus that we now know is a can be traced back to Pagan Yule, and that Odin (Yes the God) was the original Santa.

      December 20, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • mozrox

      Whoa whoa whoa. Don't bunch all of atheists in the same group. Jason Silverman's American Atheists group speak for themselves, not me and millions of other atheists.

      December 20, 2012 at 6:06 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.