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. Alex

    The atheist banner is just as annoying as the guy with the Jesus transparents and megaphone, or the Jehovas Witness people at the door. I don't need anyone to tell me what to believe, leave me alone!

    December 21, 2012 at 7:12 am |
  2. Sane Person

    Atheist divide? You'd think these idiots believe we all get together and form voting blocs. I dont care what you worship or how you do it, so long as you do not try to legislate your fantasies or force others to take part in them.

    December 21, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)


      December 21, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Sane Person

      Yes. Does the word confuse you? Try a dictionary, rather than a fable book.

      December 21, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  3. hoosier1234

    'From his point of view, atheism and religion can happily coexist, including at the holidays.'

    I'm hot sure about the word, "happily", but atheism and religion have co-existed since day one, and neither has destroyed the other, yet. They never will.

    December 21, 2012 at 7:10 am |
  4. JoeProfet

    For Christmas I'm sending each registered atheist a box of tissue! Merry Christmas and God bless!

    December 21, 2012 at 7:09 am |
    • sam stone

      registered atheist?

      December 21, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  5. floyd schrodinger

    We're all being forced to celebrate Xmas. There is no Christmas anymore in America. I'm all for the atheists wanting to celebrate the Winter Solstice. At least I don't have to buy anything for Solstice unless I want to. Celebrate what you want, just don't force it on anyone who has different beliefs. Merry/Happy Christmas/Yule/Hanukah/Solstice/whatever.

    December 21, 2012 at 7:05 am |
  6. creative36

    Christmas is fool.

    December 21, 2012 at 7:02 am |
  7. creative36

    Christmas has to end.

    December 21, 2012 at 7:01 am |
  8. creative36

    Christmas has to

    December 21, 2012 at 7:01 am |
  9. creative36


    December 21, 2012 at 7:00 am |
  10. Morbus

    I don't understand why atheists won't just leave people alone. We have religious pluralism in this country, and at some point, adults have to learn to deal with the fact that not everyone shares your beliefs, nor are they obligated to. There's no basis for their attack on other people's belief systems. You have your ideas and you can't escape the fact that other people have their own, for which they owe you no explanation. Frankly, atheists these days are a lot more obnoxious about pushing their beliefs than Christians have ever been in my lifetime (and don't claim you have no beliefs; the word just means opinions, and I doubt you would claim to have no opinions). You live in a diverse society. Grow up and deal with it.

    December 21, 2012 at 6:58 am |
    • sick of christian phonies

      If you replace the word "atheist" with "christian" in your post it would be MORE accurate. The christian right are the ones pushing their agenda- much more forcefully than any tiny band of atheists.

      December 21, 2012 at 7:04 am |
    • tcp

      Stop assuming every person who leans right is a christian and the every person who leans left is an atheist and every atheist leans left and every christian leans...well, you get it. It is simply not the case and is bigoted.

      December 21, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • Xmas

      Jesus, Morbus, it is called freedom of speech. It is not as if the atheists have decided to go around to every nativity display and put a pile of bullsh*it next to it.

      December 21, 2012 at 7:13 am |
    • Morbus

      I haven't been hassled by a Christian in years (and I'm not one, so I'm the sort of person they like to target). When it comes to what I see online, in non-religious forums where there is a mix of beliefs among participants, I see a lot more aggressive proselytizing by atheists than by Christians. Of course, I don't go out of my way to provoke Christians, either; if I were deliberately baiting them the way so many atheists do, I suppose I would hear a lot more preaching than I do. The fact remains that this is a diverse society and how comfortably you live in it depends to a great degree on how well you are able to tolerate that diversity. We'd all like to live in communities where people share our beliefs and values, just because it's easier in some ways, but that has never been what America offered. Disagreeing with people does not justify frothing at the mouth whenever you come face to face with evidence that they have the audacity to reject your worldview. Again - grow up and deal with it.

      December 21, 2012 at 7:14 am |
    • parker

      Well said Morbus.

      December 21, 2012 at 7:22 am |
    • JoshB

      Look at the picture above and HONESTLY tell me that doesn't look like an insult? Can anyone HONESTLY say that? How tolerant are you exactly if you insult me for my faith?

      My belief is that Christ died for our sins and the only way to eternity is faith. How mad would the Atheists (or any other belief system) be if I said you are all going to spend eternity in burning hell? Has any one seen anything like that lately posted in Time Square or some huge billboard?

      Yes there are always fanatics (just look at the nut jobs of Westboro Baptist Church) but by and large we don't insult people because they don't believe the same things we do. If anyone has a recent image please post it up of a Christian Church insulting other religions.

      You have a choice and it's not my place or any Christian that I've EVER personally seen tell an Atheist, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, that they are idiots for believing what I don't believe.

      December 21, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • Rational Humanist


      December 21, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • sam stone

      "not everyone shares your beliefs, nor are they obligated to"

      ironic, given the amount of effort christians expend in legislating THEIR beliefs

      December 21, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Pete

      Yes, I see a billboard on my way to and from work every day that says I'm going to burn in hell if I don't accept Jesus into my life.

      December 21, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  11. NHJ

    Athiests get over it.. You will not win. Christianity is here to stay and we will get God back in this country.

    December 21, 2012 at 6:58 am |
    • Mirosal

      The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians all thought their gods were here to stay too. Have you prayed to Zeus lately? If not, tell us why not.

      December 21, 2012 at 7:05 am |
    • floyd schrodinger

      What a nightmare that would be, just like the Taliban. Think like us or we kill you!
      Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.

      December 21, 2012 at 7:15 am |
  12. AmtheystApple

    I think what many are trying to say is that Atheism is a religion in that it props science as it's idol, creating a worship system that is similar to the way other faiths worship a deity. Anything can be an idol if one gives it's allegiance and way of life to it, if it becomes your entire world and forms the basis of every thought or action you commit to. In Christian circles, when you are accused of making something or someone your God or idol, we are essentially saying that you have found something that you believe – by devoting a great deal of time, money or personal energy to – will give you and/humanity the salvation it seeks.

    So going with the aforementioned understanding of an idol, yes Atheism is a religion where:
    a)science is the worshiped idol, and
    b)paradise/heaven is a world where everyone seeks enlightenment through scientific advancement and everyone agrees to this sole premise.

    The same way I would have reservations about living under a government that mandates any particular religion (even though I am Christian, but that's another topic), I would also have reservations about living in a world where Atheism is thought to be the answer to all of humanity's problems. Many atheist's believe that science and logic are a good replacement for God, but I worry all the focus on logic leaves little room for the unpredictable and irrational reality of human behavior and emotion. If your entire world view is constructed from a realm in which everything can be quantified and manipulated to achieve an expected result, how do you reconcile this view within the realm of human emotion? A vast and dark place that doesn't always require overt rationale to be accepted as valid.

    December 21, 2012 at 6:57 am |
    • tcp

      How to account for us wacky solipsists then?...Hey, it's MY world!

      December 21, 2012 at 7:13 am |
    • Rational Humanist

      Epistemology and skeptical analysis is "worshiping" the scientific data? *facepalm*

      December 21, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • AmtheystApple

      Rational Humanist:

      No, but believing that rationality can save mankind from all of it's problems, despite evidence that human beings are incapable of behaving in a completely rational way 100% of the time, IS a form of worship in where science is your God. To think that science can be an alternative to a religious system is to assume that people will ALWAYS choose rationale over faith or simple belief, and human emotion guarantees that this will not always be the case. In many instances, feelings of jealousy are not rational, feelings of guilt are not rational, feelings of fear are not always rational, however these feelings propel people to do sometimes great and sometimes terrible things. You would never be able to rid the human heart of those feelings, the only thing people know how to do is mask them behind religion or in some cases, science – this country's history of medical experiments on african-americans was nothing more than fear driven discrimination cloaked in "science".

      December 21, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Rational Humanist

      If there is anyone so messed up in the head that they actually worshiped the field of science, they would not be atheists then, would they?
      You really should think these things out. As an atheist, I merely lack a belief in any gods because that is the definition of atheism.
      As a humanist, I care about everyone. And being rational about it doesn't hurt, either.

      You fear what ignorance and psychosis has done in the past. This is understandable and common. I feel the same way about vicious actions taken by violent or hateful people or those who do not view certain people as being "as human" or worthy as they are, and so have a greater potential to harm others. I am against people like that.

      I want a future where people and their cultures and societies are reasonable and mentally healthy as well as compassionate and intelligent and logical as possible.

      And let's not leave out knowledge.
      Without good information you cannot make good decisions, you can only try to react and hope it "works" in a good way.

      The Book of Genesis starts with pure BS, and moves right into a demonstrably insane story of utter nonsense that glorifies ignorance and stupidity and lifts up ignorance as being the supremely desirable quality that makes a garden into a paradise.

      In short, Original Sin is nothing less than ignorantly offending an imaginary being who hates intelligent primates who want to wear clothes. Cretinous primates running around nayked in the jungle are A-OK.

      Most Christians have never really read the bible or have never taken the time to examine it closely or even spend time reasoning out the logical aspects of what is written therein. Religion is a stylized form of schizophrenia.
      It is a sickness. Sickness can not be rationally desired. If you desire to be sick, you probably don't know what you're doing.

      December 21, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  13. DanteDante

    I guess the next thing that the atheists are going to say is keep judaism out of Hanukkah and Islam out of Ramadan

    December 21, 2012 at 6:52 am |
    • tcp

      That makes exactly NO sense whatsoever. Atheists aren't asking christians to take christianity out of christmas...celebrate whatever the heck you want but don't prevent me from celebrating whatever I want. If I have five people who form a religion will you let us put our displays of faith in the courthouse? On money? In a publicly funded (with MY money too) park? If not, WHY not?

      December 21, 2012 at 7:16 am |
  14. NHJ

    How's come the athiest can put up their signs but when Christians put theirs up the athiests cry like big babies and get the stupid aclu involved until the Christians have to take their signs down???????????

    December 21, 2012 at 6:49 am |
    • pacoder

      The signs that atheists file suit over are put in government owned public places, we all own those not just you. The atheist signs you're talking about are private property and paid for. Huge difference.

      December 21, 2012 at 6:51 am |
    • sick of christian phonies

      Learn to spell and write like an adult and we'll answer you.

      December 21, 2012 at 7:12 am |
  15. merlinfire

    Not all Christians are putting up billboards and "fighting" over Christmas. A lot of us realize the fact that Dec 25 is an arbitrary date set by the Catholic Church that has no bearing on when Jesus was really born. But if atheists start putting up posters like the one pictured above, you're going to start alienating and insulting us all, and get us more involved.

    December 21, 2012 at 6:48 am |
  16. pacoder

    I'm an atheist who believes that religion can and does cause a lot of pain in the world BUT I also see a lot of religious people including christians who are just good decent folk that do good for their communities. They don't attack my beliefs and I don't attack theirs. I do take issue with those who spend more time judging others then looking in the mirror but that's on them not me. Enjoy your holiday however you choose to celebrate it the last thing this country needs is yet another artificial line of division between us reinforced by the media who have nothing better to do.

    December 21, 2012 at 6:48 am |
    • Bigboard

      Amen to that.

      December 21, 2012 at 7:04 am |
  17. remoteDef

    This argument is irrelevant. Christmas long ago ceased to be a religious holiday in America. It is a commercial holiday, plain and simple.

    December 21, 2012 at 6:39 am |
    • dogmandg

      I agree. Santa is no more Christian than the Easter Bunny or the Great Pumpkin.

      In so many public schools across America, there are clashes between religions on this issue. If an elementary school puts up a Christmas tree, then Jews want to put up a Menorah, and other religions add their symbols. Then Christians come back and notice that all the other religions have their symbols, so they want a Nativity scene, since a Christmas tree is a pagan symbol, and has nothing to do with Christ. This prompts atheists to put their slogans. The whole thing becomes a war on children.

      Legally, a Christmas tree should be defined as a non-religious symbol. This would (hopefully) avoid the mess I described above.

      December 21, 2012 at 7:01 am |
  18. Dave Green

    There is no rift among atheists because there is no set standard for atheists. It's merely a label that denotes a person who does not believe in a god. It's the same way with theists...There is no set theist ideology. The only thing theists have in common is they DO believe in a god or gods.
    There are groups that fall under those broad categories that have a set ideology on both sides, but both atheism and theism are very general, broad labels. I know atheists that I don't agree with on just about anything. Just like I'm sure there are some theists who don't agree with some other theists on just about anything.
    It's important, because when we start lumping people together and making assumptions about them based on our categorizations, we ultimately run into problems. If there is a rift at all, it's in the basic understanding of what theism and atheism really are, and what it means.

    December 21, 2012 at 6:30 am |
    • lol??

      Sorry Dave, the default for mankind is having a god. When you run out of external gods you elect yourself......"Phl 3:19 Whose end [is] destruction, whose God [is their] belly, and [whose] glory [is] in their shame, who mind earthly things.)"....So I hope you don't want me to believe you, when I prefer my God for the origination of truth.

      December 21, 2012 at 6:42 am |
    • Rational Humanist

      Well said, Dave! You should save that and toss it out now and again.

      December 21, 2012 at 6:53 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      lol??: So you do not care that what you believe is true? This is the 21st century and your supposed default position is no longer the case. Your default position has been the result of many issues in this world, not the least of which has been abuse of children, women and gays. Quoting your buybull proves nothing more than the fact that you are not capable of thinking for yourself. If you didn't have that book of fairy tales to guide you, would you be out there killing?

      December 21, 2012 at 6:58 am |
    • Mirosal

      Sorry, but the default position for man is Atheism. If never told about any "god", someone would have no belief in a god. You are not born thinking there's a "god". You are born with no knowledge of one whatsoever. You are indoctrinated into thinking there is one. If you're going to use a default position, start at birth, ok?

      December 21, 2012 at 6:59 am |
    • lol??

      Polytheists, eh? You know I don't and can't buy that.

      December 21, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  19. lol??

    Kick the ol' wise latina mama off SCOTUS and put Miss Venezuela in so we can have fun in the surf! No laws needed. The Big O has all the wave waivers required if needed.

    December 21, 2012 at 6:24 am |
  20. opinion4

    I always considered Atheists to be a specific religion of their own (it appears with a fanatic group and a more open group). I am glad to see the latter. It is cute how the fanatics are trying to ram their opinion down your throat just like how they are describing currently religions do it. I guess they are no different in the end. I do question that Alliance thing in OH though: to me the Movie version was a farce...commercializing a story about how terrible commercializing an event can be and is an odd choice. It would have been neater to see an organization research how the winter solstice had been honored in the past and do that instead.

    December 21, 2012 at 5:57 am |
    • Rational Humanist

      I think I hear Glen Beck calling you....you'd better go before you get in trouble. He might cry or get out some chalk or both.
      Don't risk it! Go! We'll cover for you!

      December 21, 2012 at 6:12 am |
    • opinion4

      It is also funny to see how non-religious people can be more zealous and intolerant than religious people. Keep on spouting off, you are proving my point.

      December 21, 2012 at 6:16 am |
    • Rational Humanist

      Can't handle satire? Why should I care? Explain it to me using clear language, please.

      December 21, 2012 at 6:19 am |
    • Kate

      As aethists we have had Christianity shoved down our throats for only god knows how long. The point is, there is another point. No god. No religion. BUT live and let live.. If one wants to believe in a supernatural teflonguy who can cure all their problems, so be it.. but do not make me think it is true. The billboard in times square is a reminder that jesus is myth and can easily be proved as such.. but that sign also say BE HAPPY, BE JOLLY.. it's the end of the year.. give.. love.. not such a bad thing given that we now have kids with artillery murdering babies. Love. Care. TOLERANCE. Atheists have had to live in crosses for hundreds of years, a few billboards are not going to kill a jesus follower. Merry christMAS to all. Peace on earth, goodwill to each and everyone of you. May 2013 be a wonderful and great year for aethists and religious folks.

      December 21, 2012 at 6:49 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.