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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. Andy Christensen

    You cannot have the fruit without the root.

    December 29, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • raforrester

      That sounds like a Christian quote. I would replay, let God be the one to judge. He/She/It may be more merciful than His/Her/Its followers:

      Matthew 12, 31. "Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come."

      "But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned. "

      So I say that atheists may be angry at God, and that can be forgiven, but they are still responsible for how they treat others.

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

      Well I can speak for myself raforrester when I say that I treat people as well as any Christian that I've met. Believing in mythology doesn't make you a better person. Being a better person makes you a better person.

      And the notion that atheists are "angry at god", is a very old and tired Christian misrepresentation. "They're angry. I believe in god. Therefore they are angry at god".

      Let me say for the thousandth time. I don't believe in god, therefore I cannot be angry with something that I don't believe exists. If I'm ever angry or frustrated, it's with believers, not with their imagined fairy creature.

      December 31, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  2. raforrester

    Atheists often say there is no evidence of God. I say I have had evidence of God most of my life, but only realized it in my 40s. Many people, millions or even billions, have individual experiences of God that cannot be proven to others. What that says to me is that God does not want His existence to be proven. God wants us to have faith in Him. But this will not persuade anyone who does not want to believe. So I suggest before you respond, you look at this video of a talk by a cardiologist about near death experiences:

    http://www.btci.org/bioethics/2012/videos2012/vid1.html

    December 29, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      What a sick being to not give people evidence of his existence and then judge them based on whether or not they believed?! If god is going to judge people on their belief in something, then he should make evidence clear.

      December 29, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • raforrester

      I have no idea whether God judges people on whether they have faith. That's what some religions say, and others don't. The NDE link shows statistics that the occurrence of a near death experience is NOT CORRELATED with religious belief. Perhaps He/She/It simply wants people to treat others with kindness without knowing for sure that there will be a reward.

      December 29, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • raforrester

      @Moby Schtick, if atheists treat others with kindness in spite of the conviction that there is no reward in the afterlife, I think that deserves greater reward than those who do it out of fear of being judged.

      One of the things that is covered in the video is that people who have near death experiences get to look at their entire lives in an instant, not only what they did and said to others, but what the other people thought and felt as a result. The implication is that no deed nor thought is ever lost. The thoughts you have while you interact with someone are known both to you and to the other person, and remembered in vivid detail.

      December 29, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      The near death experience is a hallucination. Even NASA test pilots and astronauts who have been trained in centrifuges have had that same experience. It happens when the brain is deprived of oxygen. But the brain is still alive, and therefore the subject is never dead.

      Why do I know that for sure? Because they remember their vision. And memory is the function of a living brain.

      I do however, understand that this particular hallucination, experienced by people all through the ages, is most certainly the basis of our collective belief in heaven.

      December 31, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • I wonder

      raforrester,

      I know a Labrador Retriever that was brought back from an NDE. Too bad that he can't talk...

      December 31, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  3. Jeremy

    Silverman is a hate filled bigot. Were the tables turned (which they have been in the past) The Christians have/would be propagated as trying to establish a Modern Christendom. Silverman is a bigot trying to establish an Atheistic version of Christendom at its worst.

    December 29, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      I guess you're unaware of the death threats he's received for several decades from christians and their opposition to atheists being recognized as citizens?

      December 29, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  4. elgeevz

    mike- No, of course not. Objective truths are obtainable only from the ancient writings of Hebrew nomads.

    December 29, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  5. Rheinlander

    This is worse than sad. People of darkness with an ax to grind attacking an all powerful Deity? Not only has history played this movie, time after time, but they've gotten no-where. Here you are , yet again, atheists, trying to disprove and prevent God from being God. You're like the Ty-D-Bowl man in the toilet going round and round, soon to be flushed down the drain.

    December 29, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      It's different this time Rheinlander. Christians are stuck with us now, unlike in the past when you could just barbeque those that disagreed with you.

      December 29, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • elgeevz

      If He is an all-powerful deity, why does He not simply strike all nonbelievers down immediately? (I guess I really shouldn't ask that. Some of His most devout followers may be moved to do the deed themselves.)

      December 29, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  6. sqeptiq

    Let's remember that the Pilgrims, held up by our religious folk as christian paragons, DID NOT CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS and frowned on the practice by others. The Puritans held more extreme views: "In fact, by Christmas, 1659 the Five-Shilling Anti-Christmas Law was enacted by the General Court of Massachusetts." The first "War on Christmas" in our country was led by its most devout christians.

    December 29, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  7. cuzIsaidso

    I tallied up the Christmas yard decorations in my neighborhood:

    Santa 17
    Frosty the snowman 8
    Rudolf the red nosed reindeer 4
    Snoopy 3
    Jesus 2
    The Cookie Monster 1

    I don't think Jesus is going to make the playoffs this year.

    December 29, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Memphis

      @cuz That's funny!

      January 1, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
  8. Happy

    To have some.
    Where Does All Earth's Gold Come From? Precious Metals the Result of Meteorite Bombardment, Rock Analysis Finds
    Sep. 9, 2011 — Ultra high precision analyses of some of the oldest rock samples on Earth by researchers at the University of Bristol provides clear evidence that the planet's accessible reserves of precious metals are the result of a bombardment of meteorites more than 200 million years after Earth was formed.

    December 29, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  9. elgeevz

    The most honest, decent, and benevolent folks I have known in my 80 years were not at all religious. On the other hand, essentially everytime I have been ripped off or stabbed in the backs, the deed has been done by devout Christians. So guess which side of this argument I'm on.

    December 29, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • mike

      Devout Christians do not stab people in the back- so Im not sure who is responsible for "stabbing you in the backs." Frankly, your personal experiences have no bearing on objective truths. This illogical argument leads many to false conclusions. Adam Lanza killed kids and he was an atheist, therefore atheism is bad. Same argument, also unreasonable.

      December 29, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  10. Val

    'Father, forgive them for they know not what they do'. This is what Jesus is saying on the sign that David Silverman has put up.

    December 29, 2012 at 8:10 am |
    • really?

      Whoa.... jesus spoke to you.....you've got to get that and go viral...you will be famous!

      December 29, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  11. laughcry

    The attack on Christmas is not from non-Christians, but rather the retail industry. years ago major retails switched to "Seasons Greetings" from "Merry Christmas" in an attempt to gain a few extra points during what is a traditional gift giving season in many cultures. They were extremely successful in sublty switching a religious event to a sales event & have since abandoned all sublety. As an Atheist it bothers me, not that people celebrate Christmas or what they call it, but that they would somehow blame me for their max'd out credit cards & long line ups at Walmart & the air polluted with terrible music & commercial jingles. It is a wonderdful time to celebrate family, reflect on the past year & look forward to a renewed year, putting the "merry" back into what should be a joyous season for all is a fight against cultural commercialism not against cultural diversity.

    December 29, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • noontime

      Very well said and whoever said "money is the root of all evil" was pretty close to the mark.

      December 29, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • jesus giron

      well said

      December 29, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      But I say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, and I don't own a store. I say it because not everyone is a Christian. I don't have any commercial motives.

      December 29, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  12. Givemeabreak

    Festivus for the rest of us! Another festivus miracle!

    December 29, 2012 at 4:04 am |
  13. IslandAtheist

    We're still united on the god question.

    December 29, 2012 at 2:35 am |
  14. Mark

    "You have created all things, and for Your pleasure they are and were created". ....Revelation 4:11 "He upholds all things by the Word of His power" ...Hebrews 1:3 "In Him we live and move and have our existence". ...Acts 17:28 God's people get it, but "the fool has said in his heart, there is no God". ...Psalm 53:1

    December 28, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • really?

      And your saying what......? Try a new language, if communication is your intention by commenting, It's very unclear !

      December 29, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • EnjaySea

      Can you express the same thing without quoting your user's manual?

      December 29, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  15. Happy

    Origin of Life: Hypothesis Traces First Protocells Back to Emergence of Cell Membrane Bioenergetics
    Dec. 20, 2012 — A coherent pathway – which starts from no more than rocks, water and carbon dioxide and leads to the emergence of the strange bio-energetic properties of living cells – has been traced for the first time in a major hypothesis paper in Cell this week.

    December 28, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  16. sensible

    Dump the Myth? Do they even know what purpose and value myth provides to a culture? Obviously not. Myth in anthropological terms is a story, legend, paradigm, or guiding song that helps define values for a society. Dumping this "myth" as the atheists suggest would be to dump a very core psychological tool used within our society to engender good will, love, hope, peace, humility, long-suffering, etc... – all good and great stuff. Even with the argument of truthfulness aside, in anthropological terms, the merry cannot exist without the myth. CANNOT exist without the Myth. It is scientifically impossible, psychologically impossible, sociologically impossible. It is also, theologically impossible.

    December 28, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • Blatant Atheist

      Nobody is saying dump the myth. Just saying to accept the myth as... myth. 🙂

      December 28, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • jarhead333

      Pretty sure that sign in the article, and the article itself say "dump the myth"...just saying.

      December 29, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  17. Lucinda

    I am the only Athiest in my family – My mom is very "religious" and lights candels for me all the time. I can't help the way I feel but I respect her beliefs. It would be alot easier for me to just say okay – I believe in God – but that would not be the truth and I'm not sure what the answer is. All I know is that I love my family and they love me too. I feel like I have to be true to myself.

    December 28, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Just my experience

      I had the same type of conversation with a friend the other day about belief in general. Just that it's hard to form a belief without a personal experience to back it up.

      December 28, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  18. Happy

    Raising a chalice of wine into the air, Pope Leo toasted: "How well we know what a profitable superst_ition this fable of Christ has been for us ...

    December 28, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  19. nobody in paticular

    I have a few questions: What kind of gain do atheists get tfrom wii[ng converts? Why do atheists have an agenda to destroy reigious beliefs? (I know that there are some who say that the world would be a better place without religioun, but that is a bunch of 'crock'; the world would have just as many problems without religion; man is the problem, not religion. Man is on the way to destroy himself as it is and it has nothing to do with religion, it is about greed.) What harm does religious beliefs bring to atheists? Is there any sort of book published by atheists that gives guidelines on how to order one's life, ie, what is moral and what is not moral (there may be such a book, I just don't know about it)?

    December 28, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Ken

      There is a superst ition that rhino horn helps with a man's potency. You might as well ask why people fight the poachers who kill the rhinos?

      December 28, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Jim

      The problem is ... morals can not truely be taught from a book! Religions tend to depend on written word as opposed to real life example. I feel that to many people assume that God will take care of their problems instead of dealing with them directly.

      December 28, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • davidloc

      The problem with religion is that it affects all of society not just the "believers" . The growth of the human race has been severely hampered by religion. Just imagine how much more advanced we would be if the first to look up to the sky would have sought truth instead of just making up fairy tales about what was in the sky ?

      December 28, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Mids

      More wars have been fought in the name of a deity than for any other single reason in human history. PERIOD.
      More people have been tortured, maimed, murdered, displaced, and ostracized, than any other reasons, in history. PERIOD.
      More people have wasted their talent, passion, and lives, on religion, than any other VICE. PERIOD.

      Religion is a symptom of social disease. Religion is a political and social weapon. PERIOD.

      The world is incapable of being a perfect place, but a lack of religion, and all her horrors she unleashes on us all, would be a better world that this one is right now.

      Your comment is not merely biased, it is STUPID.

      December 28, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Blatant Atheist

      We don't convert. We educate.

      December 28, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • counter

      Educate on what? You don't know anything more than anyone else, and you reject what others believe. Atheists believe in... nothing...... that somehow all the complexity around us just happened. Sorry, your so called explanations don't wash any more than anyone else's. Atheism is just a excuse to live your life any way you choose.

      December 29, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • cuzIsaidso

      The difference between atheists and those who believe in a religion is that each atheist decides what to believe on their own, religious people choose to join a group with a relatively fixed set of beliefs. That is why there is no "atheist bible". If an atheist does put their beliefs on paper, it will represent their beliefs only, other atheists will have no obligation to agree. Of course it is possible for like minded atheists to form groups as Silverman has done. But he speaks for his group only, not for me. Generally, I find what his group does to be quite humorous, but I'm not sure if their confrontational approach is really effective.

      December 29, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  20. DWN

    Christmas has roots in paganism and a lot of christians of varying denominations don't embrace it.

    December 28, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • jesus giron

      The true meaning of Christmas is a gift exchange between God (John 3:16) and man (Prov.23:26)

      December 29, 2012 at 1:13 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.