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. ElderJefferson

    Having an opinion is one thing, but provoking people to anger is another. Not saying my Christian brethren aren't guilty of provoking non-believers at times, but this sign is clearly crossing the line. You mean we're not smart enough in this day and age to know how to hang an advertisement without causing an uproar? Or perhaps that was the whole intent; nothing to do with belief, everything to do with provocation.

    January 7, 2013 at 8:32 am |
    • meifumado

      Religion is shoving its crap in everyone's face all the time.
      Whats the matter?
      Religion can dish it out but not take it?
      If you had no doubts of your "god" then any and all criticism would be beneath you.

      January 8, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
  2. Doug Cain

    Matthew 24:27 For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
    This will be a very bad day for you who do not believe. But you will believe the great lie to be told by the antichrist.
    By the way I believe I will live to take part in the rapture and I am 56 so time is short. The last generation of Israel is alive today. It started in 1947 or 46 I am not sure of the date, but it was when Israel became a nation.

    January 6, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
    • Mel

      I agree with you and how sad it will be when these people learn the truth. I agree that I, along with you, may be here during the Rapture. I hope I am. How exciting it will be.

      January 6, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
    • Jessica

      Doug & Mel, You have no real reason other than you own belief that your beliefs are true. You could, and I believe, that you will be wrong about your beliefs, problem is that you will never know it.

      January 7, 2013 at 12:35 am |
    • meifumado

      You do realize this is crazy talk

      January 8, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  3. Jerry

    Do what you will with Christmas for it's Easter that we need to stay focused on anyway.

    January 6, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
    • Observer

      The Easter Bunny isn't nearly as popular with Christian kids as Santa Claus.

      January 6, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
  4. lordkid

    There is a GOD, I have met Him, now call me a liar...You are the FOOL for not believing...He revealed Himself to me, and I am Honored and Blessed, to have had that opportunity...People, He is real...

    January 6, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
    • LinCA


      There is a TOOTH FAIRY, I have met Her, now call me a liar...You are the FOOL for not believing...She revealed Herself to me, and I am Honored and Blessed, to have had that opportunity...People, She is real...

      January 6, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
    • Jessica

      Lordkid, Sorry but that was just me playing a trick on you.

      January 7, 2013 at 12:36 am |
    • Will Powers

      Lots of insane people believe that have met their vision of god, and not necessarily your vision of god. Can they all be right, too. I got stoned once and thought I saw god, and certainly not your version of god.

      January 7, 2013 at 9:20 am |
  5. Danny Hunt

    Atheists vs. Science & Logic (sections from an article)

    Life, the patterns of life, and the force behind life, the life force or God, what creates life are observable but Physicists and Mathematicians cannot measure them or apply their mathematics to it due to their limitations or scientific limitations and therefor this life force and God does not exist according to Atheists but the gravity force exists simply because Physicists and Mathematicians can measure this force, speed, acceleration, mass, but still do not know what it is or what creates gravity, it is also based on observation.


    Richard Dawkins arguments are through a comparison of Creationists vs. Darwinism, the ignorance linked to religion.

    According to Dawkins, Darwin made it possible to be an atheist. One of the issues between Creationists vs. Darwin has been the perfection of evolution or the designs of living things, the perfection was created by God vs. the perfection was created through evolution.

    Issue, Richard Dawkins praises science when some religions may feel threatened by it.

    Stephen Hawking (Hawking's Radiation)

    Stephen Hawking's recently published a book about God not creating the Universe based on the fact that time as we know it did not exist before the big bang.

    He recently lost a $100.00 bet when the God particle was discovered, The Higgs boson.

    Atheists vs. Science & Logic

    This article is about science and logic vs. the atheists based on science, scientific observation, logic, the limitations of science, and looking at both the past and the future.

    This article is about evolution, Darwinism, being a part of God, a force that pushes things to evolve, and Stephen Hawking's argument is linked to the limitations of science or knowledge.

    January 6, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
    • Observer

      Now do a similar set of comments about: the Bible vs. Science and Logic. It should be considerably longer.

      January 6, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
  6. shaynermaven

    iPods and puppies? I will celebrate any holiday in which there are presents (including ipods and puppies). I'm non-demominational, agnostic, and find infinitely more spirituality looking into the eyes of a beloved pet than reading the written word of a bunch of humans crafting a series of tales 2,000+ years ago with the intended purpose to control other human beings. No thank you. I'll celebrate puppies (and other creatures).

    January 6, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
  7. Marital Woes

    They don't talk about this but every boy and girl was married off before the age of 20. It was highly expected, even in a Jewish home, that boys and girls take this vocation. To do otherwise was unthinkable and questionable. Those that refused to marry were ostrosized from society (unless they were crippled, ill ect). Where was Jesus between the ages of 16 – 33???? WHERE? No mention of this,right? I question this glaring ommitance for a someone to be annointed as GOD, there is a need for more text. Thanks.

    January 6, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
  8. pbuotte

    Keeping the schism in christmas

    January 6, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
  9. Correctlycenter

    The harder Atheists try to disprove God and His holy word is a myth, the more I believe in the LORD. They seem to exert vast amounts of time, money and energy into disproving something they claim doesn't exist or is a myth... I'll pray for them...

    January 6, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • Mickey Weedon

      you worship some dead guy on a stick, you drink his blood and eat his flesh, you talk to some invisible space daddy in the sky therefore, you are nuts...

      January 6, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
  10. Correctlycenter

    " You are a pleasure-crazy kingdom, living at ease and feeling secure, bragging as if you were the greatest in the world! You say, I'm self-sufficient and not accountable to anyone!" Isaiah 47:8a...

    January 6, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
  11. Scott

    I celebrate Halloween and I'm not pagan. I observe MLK and I'm not African American. I've even spun a dreidel or two. I celebrate Christmas because its fun.

    January 6, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Ditto. Give me a holiday with food and music and I'm there. If I don't like some aspects, I'll drop them...that's how holidays have grown and changed throughout time.

      January 6, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
  12. Andrew

    I thought our corporate overlords have managed to highjack Christmas a long time ago. Why bother fighting when the fictional fat man in a red suit that hails from the north pole giving away Ipods and puppies has long since taken over Christmas.

    January 6, 2013 at 10:48 am |
  13. brokendowncarr

    Atheists sure do love to hang out at the belief blog! I guess there is nothing better to do, huh?

    January 6, 2013 at 9:31 am |
    • Lauradet

      Does that mean you're an Atheist, because you are here too?

      January 6, 2013 at 11:08 am |
  14. louie

    Atheist are so fvciking stupid it really is a shame we even associate in society with them. I cant even imagine what it would be like trying to get compassion from one of these turds.

    January 6, 2013 at 8:55 am |
    • Shannon

      Did you just make a point about compassion while simultaneously calling other people "turds"? Please read and try to understand the sermon on the mount...please...it is in your bible...that book somewhere (maybe) in your christian home. I beg this of you out of compassion for you and how confused you must be.

      January 6, 2013 at 9:14 am |
    • Saraswati

      France has one of thelowest levels of religiosity in the developed western world and also has some of the strongest support programs for its people. Regarding intelligence, a separate issue, I agree there are many stupid atheists, there's plenty of data out there indicating the more secular are both more knowledgable and have higher IQs on average. In general the extremists of any belief are less knowledgable...there just happen to be more extremist believers than non-believers.

      January 6, 2013 at 9:38 am |
    • Tyler

      And this is why I'm a "militant" atheist, because jackholes like this decide that atheists are stupid over a billboard.
      Well you know what i think is stupid, seeing billboards that support christianity. But how many atheists go around vandalizing those billboards, or raising a fuss over them? None to not many from what it seems. Stop being a whiny bigot and embrace the fact that your religion is failing in this country, and hopefully soon will fail world wide. Religion is a poison, a disease.

      January 6, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
  15. mason

    Merry Mythmas

    January 5, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
    • FriendofGodtoo

      One can choose to not believe...but don't celebrate the occassion either! It doesn't make sense that one who claims disbelief would still go out and celebrate the event...Myth? Really? I think you've mythed the point...

      January 6, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • dao

      The strength of a Religion lies in its ability to draw the masses into a purpose. As with nationalism, the laity will lay down their lives to this end, like bees in a hive. It is the most frightening part of faith.

      January 6, 2013 at 10:23 am |
  16. None can deny that Jesus is the most powerful influence in all of history.

    Anyone who sees created things and deny the fact that there is a Creator is clearly a blinded fool born to perish. I wont waste my time on proving something that is so obvious. A blind man will never see unless he is given sight and that's one simple truth. I will leave all you non-believers with a few simple verses.
    Job 27:8-"For what hope do the godless have when God cuts them off and takes away their life?
    1 Corinthians 1:18-"For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.
    1 Corinthians 2:14-"But people who aren't spiritual can't receive these truths from God's Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can't understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means.
    John 14:17-"the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you
    John 8:47-"Anyone who belongs to God listens gladly to the words of God. But you don't listen because you don't belong to God"
    John 6:47-"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life"
    John 3:36-"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him."
    John 3:18-"Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God."
    John 5:24-"I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life."
    Matthew 25:46-"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
    Romans 6:23-"For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

    Life is nothing but a CHOICE. No one is forcing anyone to do anything, you all have a CHOICE. Just know and understand that some decisions will have permanent consequences. Life by right and by eternal law belongs to the Giver of life. He can take it and give it to whom ever He pleases. Life is a choice. Finally before you judge my Lord and God, the Creator of all things; take into considerations His words. Ezekiel 18:21-23-"But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. All their past sins will be forgotten, and they will live because of the righteous things they have done. I don't want wicked people to die." declares the Almighty LORD. "I want them to turn from their evil ways and live."
    I pray that your eyes and ears are open to the Word of God and you choose life and not death. Peace and grace from my Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

    w w w the eternal wisdom . com

    January 5, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
    • God is make-believe

      Really. You support your position by quoting scripture?? FAIL.

      January 5, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Your first sentence says that many are "blinded fools born to perish," and then you go on to say that everyone has a choice; then, your last sentence says that we should make the right choice.

      Are you always this stupid? If many are "blinded fools BORN TO PERISH" then we obviously don't have the ability to choose anything different.

      January 5, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
    • End Religion

      One would think, with lying being a Top 10 Sin, the religious wouldn't do it so bloody often.

      January 6, 2013 at 1:52 am |
    • Gregory Lewis

      Millions of Christians went to church on Christmas day and pretended to eat a 2,000 year old corpse, again, in anticipation of the Second Coming. Did the witchcraft work this year? Did they pay the parasitic priests anyway?

      January 6, 2013 at 6:34 am |
    • ml

      Utterly ridiculous.

      The FACT is, whether you want to believe it or not, that you have no idea if there is a "creator".. And the FACT is , neither do I .. nor do ANY of us. You can believe whatever you want, and so can I .. but we really DON'T KNOW. What the hell is wrong with that???? Why is "I DON'T KNOW" such a bad thing? What the hell is everyone so afraid of???

      January 6, 2013 at 7:12 am |
    • meifumado

      I deny it and so do 3 billion others who are atheists or followers of other religions

      January 8, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  17. sweenbass

    I worship no one & nothing.

    In every one of the books that are regarded as holy (bible, koran, gita etc..),

    Are there interesting stories? Some are. Some are not.

    Are there philosophies there that one can reflect on & apply to your life in order to live better & help your fellow human beings? YES & those can be found in all of those books.

    But on the questions of spirituality, (a deity, creation, afterlife, soul, and the like), all of those books can do nothing but speculate

    Some choose to hang their spiritual hat on speculation. I do not

    Is there a spiritual component to the universe? I don't know.

    I have not read anything in any of those books that convinces me that any of those speculations about the spiritual are anything more than that.

    That is why I am an agnostic.

    January 5, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
    • slave

      This is not an argument, simply a thought for all to consider. If you look at the history of mankind, everyone worships something. It may be a god, a pantheon of gods, a sports team, science, maybe even your family or yourself. If I was a Christian I would worship God, if I was a Hindu it might be Krishna. Say I am an unreligious individual but live and breathe a particular sports team, the stadium is my church. That is worship. Worship doesn't just mean bowing down, putting faith in, or praying to. The way we invest our time and resources reflects what or who we worship. But we all worship something, even if we don't acknowledge it as worship. I am not trying to come from any particular vantage point simply just something to chew on. I know what I believe (I am not ashamed but I will not disclose for I did not comment to argue.) but I also believe in testing what I believe to be true as well as listening to what other people believe and considering before I throw to the wayside. Test everything (don't believe everything you hear blindly) and no matter what you believe, be able to tell why you believe with intelligence and not with ignorance of other's beliefs.

      January 6, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • NFL

      That is true since my religion is the NFL.

      January 6, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  18. Keith

    I do not believe in God yet I refuse to classify myself as an Atheist because of nonsense like this. Atheism itself is a religion! It has spokespeople, beliefs (founded in science yes, but a set of a guiding principles nonetheless) and want influence similar to religious groups. It's almost as ironic as Anarchists joining and organizing a club. Atheists should be against how religion infiltrates schools, law, etc- not trying to remove Christmas. They are doing the SAME THING Atheists claim to hate-trying to impose their beliefs on society. Separation of Church and State is fundamental, i agree. But they have become what they hate.

    January 5, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • Ryan

      I agree, preaching division and intolerance are for fundamentalists, of any or no religion.

      January 5, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color.
      Atheism is a religion like not-collecting stamps is a hobby.
      Atheism is a religion like "off" is a tv channel.

      Don't be stupid.

      January 5, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • Bobby

      I hate to break it to you, but you are an atheist. Your first sentence is the very definition of "atheist," so sayeth Webster:Definition of ATHEISM

      archaic : ungodliness, wickedness
      a : a disbelief in the existence of deity
      b : the doctrine that there is no deity

      January 5, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • End Religion

      Just as the Pope does not speak for every religious person, nor does Billy Graham or Al Sharpton, the dude in this story doesn't speak for all atheists. He speaks for his organization. I don't have any intention of stopping my Christmas time festivities.

      January 5, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
    • pbuotte

      and agnostics in the middle = believe in something undefined...

      January 6, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
  19. IamSamJackson

    Taking away Christmas as a Federal Holiday means no days off for Holiday. Don't Americans work enough?
    I am a Christian and do not celebrate Christmas. The Bible teaches that the Jews got into trouble with God on several occasions cause they tried to mix pagan rituals with Judaism. What makes Christians today think it is okay to mix lies and pagan rituals with Christianity is beyond me but I'm not going to stop others from enjoying their Holiday or fight for taking it out of stores. That is people's personal choice plus even though I don't celebrate I like my days off.
    Do we really need less days off of work? We work 8-10 hours a day, leaving us 16-14 hours a day left, 6-8 of that sleeping, leaving only 6 hours to get all the other stuff in our life done. I want more days off not less. Silverman just suck it up and deal with the holiday music and peoples happy time whether it is false, wrong or other. Just leave it alone and leave our day off alone.

    January 5, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
  20. Mark

    athiest myth is mankind's redemption.

    January 5, 2013 at 7:39 am |
    • Missioni

      Gotta love that picture, awesome reminder as to why Christ was born.

      Keep the belief, dump your foolishness atheists!

      January 5, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
    • Ryan

      Jesus Christ is a symbol and example for mankind to follow. Not a literal human being. Its the principles set forth in the Bible that we should emulate. Forgiveness, tolerance, charity, turning the other cheek etc. Rituals and ceremonies are for the narrow minded.

      January 5, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • Anon

      Yep like castrating yourself if you lust after random women, some great influence.
      The Jesus myth and their feeble minded followers can go screw themselves.

      January 6, 2013 at 1:19 am |
    • Paradox

      Missioni, doesn't your Christian religion teach you to be kind and loving to one another and forgive others no matter the reason? Yet you come out calling non-believers fools therefore turning your back around and taking a dump on your bible.

      January 6, 2013 at 11:35 am |
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About this blog

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.