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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. Salero21

    See, while the monkey just descends from the trees to the ground. The atheists descend way below the level of monkeys even below the level of earth worms. Then they end up in the other place, that is NOT Heaven.

    December 23, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Obvious troll is obsessed with monkeys.

      December 23, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • Salero21

      Not at all! Atheists can also descend below the level of earth worms but a barrel full of monkeys atheist is more fun than a troop of baboons.

      December 23, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • === o ===

      So you fought with a troop of baboons Salero?

      December 23, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • .

      Typical pointless christian
      Full of insults and cheap plat.itudes; but, zero meaningful content

      December 23, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  2. Salero21

    So... atheists don't know if they are in or out. Well that's what happens when you decide to place yourselves below the level of monkeys and begin to treat them as brothers. Some people love their guns more than they love their neighbors. Others like the atheists love the monkeys more than their fellow human beings.

    Then we have again the atheists rejecting Jesus who loves them more than the monkeys and their neighbors do, but choose instead to celebrate and invention like Satan Claus. I wonder if the GRAMMAR GESTAPO may be around today.

    December 23, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • tallulah13

      What are you talking about?

      December 23, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • Athy

      Salerno has some sort of monkey complex. No one's been able to figure it out yet.

      December 23, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • Akira

      Troll is obvious troll.

      December 23, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • Salero21

      I see only the fuzzy fool atheists are around here today like a barrel full of monkeys or like rabid baboons. Atheists are a very strange herd.

      December 23, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • tallulah13

      You're right, Athy. Salero has a creepy primate fetish.

      December 23, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • fintastic

      Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!! I just love monkeys so much!!!! monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey!!!!

      January 3, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
  3. lol??

    "Hbr 12:29 For our God [is] a consuming fire."

    December 23, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • fintastic

      Harry Potter; "Voldemort uses people his enemies are close to. He's already used you as bait once, and that was just because you're my best friend's sister. Think how much danger you'll be in if we keep this up. He'll know, he'll find out. He'll try and get to me through you."

      January 3, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
  4. Ex Atheist

    The argument for Intelligent design is growing stronger and stronger every day.

    December 23, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Your ability to lie appears to be growing stronger and stronger every day.

      December 23, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  5. inspiration for the rest of you

    To me, celebrating Christmas should be celebrated like Halloween – no too seriously.

    December 23, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  6. inspiration for the rest of you

    Religion and atheism can coexist? Sure, so can round Earth and flat Earth. But one of them is an obvious lie!

    December 23, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  7. MIKEY

    We have all stolen something from someone...perhaps that is what makes us human? Hohohoho.

    December 23, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  8. Atheist Scrooge

    Atheists are so evil, they make Ebenezer Scrooge look like an angel. Why don't they just invent their own holidays for their religion and leave ours alone?

    December 23, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      you stole christmas from the pagans, so get off your high horse.

      and atheists are evil? we don't have a book commanding us to kill all g.ays, non-virgin brides, disobedient children and anyone working the weekend. we don't have a book with a maniacal god that drowned everyone on earth but a single family - every baby, the elderly, infirm, physically disabled, mentally challenged, etc. we don't have a book that supports slavery and gives rules for how to beat your slaves and how to sell your own daughter into slavery.

      December 23, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • GodFreeNow

      Children don't believe in god until parents convince them to. Does that mean children are also evil?

      December 23, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Since we are all born atheist I'd guess that means we are all born evil.

      December 23, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • Akira

      Many people DO think that kids are born in sin, which only a baptism washing that sin away.
      Absurd.

      December 23, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Your right atheists are all Scrooges

      "Atheists are so evil, they make Ebenezer Scrooge"
      For example Bill Gates and Warn Buffet and all the BILLIONS of dollars they are spending to help make the word better. They should be burned at the stake for such greedy and anti social behavior

      December 23, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
  9. Bootyfunk

    I find it discouraging – and a bit depressing – when I notice the unequal treatment afforded by the media to UFO believers on the one hand, and on the other, to those who believe in an invisible supreme being who inhabits the sky.
    ~ George Carlin

    December 23, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      We are told that Sin consists in acting contrary to God's commands, but we are also told that God is omnipotent. If He is, nothing contrary to His will can occur; therefore when the sinner disobeys His commands, He must have intended this to happen.
      ~ Bertrand Russell

      December 23, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      If God is all powerful, can He make a stone so big that He Himself can't lift it?
      ~ George Carlin

      December 23, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • felix navidad

      The dead quoting the dead, passing gas as if intellect.

      December 23, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Atheist Scrooge

      I wonder if George Carlin is having a change of heart in his current situation?

      December 23, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      Is man one of God's blunders or is God one of man's blunders?
      ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

      December 23, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering.
      ~ Joseph Heller

      December 23, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      felix navidad wrote:
      "The dead quoting the dead, passing gas as if intellect."

      kind of like when christians quote dead jesus?

      December 23, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Silly Scrooge! The dead can't have a change of heart. Unless you are talking about organ donation, but I don't think they actually replace the donated heart with the one that is removed from the transplant recipient.

      December 23, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      Passover is my idea of a perfect holiday. Dear God, when you’re handing out plagues of darkness, locusts, hail, boils, flies, lice, frogs, and cattle murrain, and turning the Nile to blood, and smiting firstborn, give me a pass, and tell me when it’s over.
      ~ P.J. O'Rourke

      December 23, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Akira

      Feliz, isn't that what quoting scripture is?

      December 23, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Run Along

      Atheist Scrooge
      "I wonder if George Carlin is having a change of heart in his current situation?"

      Why don't you go on to the afterlife and find out, then come back with verified evidence and tell us... we'll wait....

      December 23, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • MIKEY

      Some people understand that many things exist we cannot see. Hmmmm...perhaps that is why we have telescopes and microscopes? If we believed things we could not see did not exist we would not now be here doing this. It just so happens that crazy people who believed there were things that existed that we could not see, such as shores of other land masses, or atoms, or subatomic particles or threads of energy did not fall prey to those of us who were blind and pushed foreard to prove and show how totally ignorant we are...just because we cannot see. Thank goodness for people who saw things in their minds and hearts the rest of us could not our eyes. Thank goodness for those few who still see more than the rest of us who do not bow down to the ignorance of the many. Interesting how the intelligence of the human mind can push us forward and hold us back. Everything is possible...nothing should be off the table- keep the eyes open to find that which we may deny but may be there surrounding us.

      December 23, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  10. oneworld2

    i am atheists and like Christmas.
    There is nothing wrong with the spirit of Christmas.

    December 23, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      especially when you know that christmas is based on pagan holidays and traditions.

      December 23, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Fr John French, OSB

      I could not agree more with those here who are atheist and celebrate what and when they want. I think we all need to respect each others differences as opposed to trying to tear each other apart. We are all Americans...we need to focus on that out of respect for the children, if nothing else. Happy Christmas or Yule, or whatever makes you happy.

      December 23, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • Leeana

      Much love to ya oneworld2. I am a Christian and if I hated atheists so badly I wouldn't have married one. I don't go to his death metal concerts and he doesn't go to my church. We've been fine for fifteen years.

      December 23, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  11. Happy

    If you have a job that pays you for the holiday, thank the invention of holidays for the paid day(s) off.

    December 23, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I am indeed grateful.

      December 23, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  12. St. Nick

    Silverman is a Jew.... No surprise he hates Christmas...

    December 23, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Christians have a long history of hating Jews. Pot, meet Kettle.

      December 23, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  13. St. Nick

    Atheists are NOT Americans.... Screw them

    December 23, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      People who think citizenship is based on religious belief or lack of belief are, by definition, un-American.

      December 23, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • oneworld2

      lol, how very "Christian" of you...

      December 23, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Akira

      St. Nick wasn't American, yet you are using his handle...you must be un-American.

      December 23, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Christmas is a difficult time for trolls like St. Nick. His mom's basement is lonely and no one invites him to holiday parties.

      December 23, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  14. Happy

    An Ancient Holiday
    The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.
    http://www.history.com/topics/christmas

    December 23, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Keep the Sol in Solstice

      December 23, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • ME II

      Keep the RA in rAmen! It is the solstice after all.

      Alternative:
      The reason for the season(s), daylight.

      December 23, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  15. schremeg

    I fail to see the purpose in the "War on Religion." I would like to hear a justification from an atheist on why it is so important to stamp out the belief in a higher power. Tend your own garden as Candide would say.

    December 23, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Damocles

      @schremeg

      It isn't a war on the belief itself, you can believe in whatever the hell you want, it is a war against the goofiness and hate and ignorance that some believers show.

      December 23, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • niknak

      We will tend to our own garden Shmukmeg when you religious people stop forcing us to go along with your myth.

      The non believer is tired of you trying to inject your fairy tale into our lives.
      When you religious people stop trying to put god into our government, our laws, our schools, our medicine and into our bedrooms, and stop having us pay taxes to support the deadbeat church's and their tax exempt status, will be the day you won't hear from us.

      Look, if you want to go out on a hill and howl at the moon, knock yourself out.
      But stop trying to make us go out and howl along with you.

      December 23, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • ME II

      A reaction to the war on science, aka creationism/ID.

      December 23, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • Happy

      @MEII
      Agrree 100 percent. New science (STEM) standards for 2013 devoloped by 26 states.
      Courts have ruled can't teach creationism/ID in public schools in US.

      December 23, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • humble man

      I can tell you. As with absolutely any other war, it's not about principles, ideals or people it's about the desire for power, money or both for the leaders. The followers are just poor sheeps for whom the leaders think. For example they don't realize that all they are doing is just just replacing a religion (for God) with another one (for this movement)

      December 23, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Christian camp "You cannot find true happiness unless you accept Christ as your savior"

      Atheist "I'm fine, thanks."

      Christian camp "Maybe you don't understand, only Christians can be happy, and we want this country of America to be happy so we must be Christians!"

      Atheist "No thanks, as I said, I'm fine."

      Christian camp "Well if you can't understand we will just get a majority to pass legislation to force you to obey Christian laws, we'll put references to our God on your money, we'll make your children proclaim "One nation, under God" in your pledge, we will deny the rights of legal relationships to those who don't follow our biblical custom of one man and one woman, we will ban the right of a mother to terminate a pregnancy based on our belief that a fertilized egg has an ever living soul, we will deni.grate and persecute those who do not accept our truth, we will get a tax exempt status for our Church so they will not be chipping in when it comes to providing real benefits to all Americans, we will put a litmus test on any and all elected positions to make it almost impossible for a non-believer to be elected to any position of power. And on top of that if you complain we will say you are the ones being hateful. I mean, why do you spend time on these boards bashing us, why do you even care?..."

      Atheist "F*** you guys..."

      Christian camp "See, so much hate...."

      December 23, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Keep telling yourself that not so humble man. But you are right religion is about power and money, religion has always been about power and money.

      December 23, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      because we don't like having your religious beliefs stuffed down our throats. sounds like a great reason, doesn't it?

      December 23, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  16. Name*Chedar

    Winter solstice is treated by some as a greater event than the Chinese New Year in China. It is the start of the shortest day slowly turning into longer day. A turning of karma wheel to the better.

    December 23, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • niknak

      Or just another natural process that happens with our planet orbiting the sun.
      Nothing special about it.

      December 23, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  17. Test

    Ironic

    December 23, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  18. Ironic

    test

    December 23, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  19. TvNyC

    all atheists are confused and rather psychotic. May God help the atheists, and may God bless us all.

    December 23, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Thank you for judging ALL Atheists...now should you not be going to your weekly brainwashing session soon?
      It would seem that you're the one confused...you seem to be residing in a time where your god was useful for bringing together the masses, however this is 2012 (2000 years since your book of fairy tales was written). Care to join this century and accept things based on facts and evidence instead of blind faith and gullibility?

      December 23, 2012 at 7:22 am |
    • Mirosal

      Were you born an ass or id you have to work on it? Atheists aren't the ones deluded into thinking there's an invisible man living in the sky who created us with imperfections, then punishes us for those imperfections. Your "god" is no more real than Zeus, and there is exactly the same amount of evidence to prove either exists. And that amount is precisely ZERO. Before you go on about how Atheists don't "know" your deity, you need to realize that the majority of Atheists have actually had religious schooling and/or education.

      December 23, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • niknak

      Phuck god.

      December 23, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • tallulah13

      I wouldn't paint all christians with the same brush, but TvNyC seems to be ignorant and hateful. I would hate to be such a bitter person.

      December 23, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  20. Patrick

    I am an atheist and celebrate Christmas as I do Valentines day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, or any other holiday I may not believe in the religious part of the day but enjoy the festivities, I don't believe in ghost or such but enjoy Halloween the same I don't believe in god yet enjoy Christmas

    December 23, 2012 at 2:35 am |
    • Mirosal

      I'm waiting to see how the fundies would turn the American 4th of July into something "god did".

      December 23, 2012 at 7:28 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.