Why atheists should quit the 'War on Christmas’
The group American Atheists has placed this billboard in New York City's Times Square.
December 21st, 2013
10:22 AM ET

Why atheists should quit the 'War on Christmas’

Opinion by Chris Stedman, special to CNN

(CNN) - The “War on Christmas:”  what — or who—is it good for?

In recent years, one organization, American Atheists, has claimed the mantle of prime atheist promoter of the tired “War on Christmas” narrative.

This year, they ushered in the season with an electronic billboard in New York City’s Times Square carrying the message: “Who needs Christ during Christmas? Nobody.” The word "Christ" is crossed out, just in case their message wasn't clear enough.

The American Atheists maintain that their latest entry in the annual “War on Christmas” saga is a message to other atheists that they are not alone.

In a recent Fox News appearance, American Atheists President Dave Silverman said, “The point that we’re trying to make is that there’s a whole bunch of people out there for whom religion is the worst part of Christmas, but they go to church anyways, and we’re here to tell them they don’t have to.”

While that intention is important and admirable, very few people—atheist or theist—seem to interpret the message as welcoming to anyone. Many of the responses I’ve seen have been vitriolic and disturbingly anti-atheist.

Which raises the question: If the goal truly is to reach isolated atheists, why does the advertisement read as a dig at Christians? A better billboard for American Atheists’s stated aim might read: “Don’t celebrate Christmas? You’re not alone.”

As atheists become more visible in our society, the entire “War on Christmas” back-and-forth feels ugly and unnecessary. Worse still, it seems to do little more than offer ammunition to those claiming atheists are just mean-spirited grinches. Bill O’Reilly—one of the major “War on Christmas” soldiers—made that clear when he and I discussed the “War on Christmas” a couple of weeks ago.

Let’s not kid ourselves: There is no war on Christmas.

We live in a culture that privileges stories of conflict, so it’s understandable that this narrative would gain traction—with or without billboards. Much of this narrative is a manifestation of religious fears about our increasingly secular society, and it reflects widespread anxieties about atheists and religious differences. But it doesn’t reflect reality.

Rather, as religious diversity in the U.S. has become more recognizable, Americans have largely broadened their approach to this time of year. According to new data from the Public Religion Research Institute, the percentage of Americans who prefer the inclusive “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” has now exceeded the percentage that prefers “Merry Christmas.”

It’s not that Christmas is under attack; instead, our society is becoming better at embracing its religious diversity and challenging the notion that a single majority religion should dominate public expressions of belief.

So why does the “War on Christmas” narrative persist?

Based on how much play they give it each December, the “War on Christmas” narrative seems to be good for Fox News ratings. And American Atheists has openly admitted that it is good for their pocketbooks, as their talk show appearances bring in a swell of donations.

Consider this from a recent profile of Silverman:

“Silverman’s notorious anti-Christmas billboards and subsequent TV appearances have breathed new life into American Atheists and are often followed by an uptick in subscribers and donations. ... According to Silverman, the primary objective of the billboards is to get invitations to talk shows.”

In other words: American Atheists and Fox News - alongside conservatives like Sarah Palin - seem to have discovered a mutually beneficial relationship.

But does this relationship benefit atheists more broadly? Does it accurately represent the sentiments of nontheists in this country? Does it improve atheist-theist relations?

Does it lessen the widespread stigma and distrust that exists between atheists and theists, which enables atheist marginalization across the U.S.? Does it invite Christians to think critically about religious privilege?

Many atheists, myself included, suspect that there are more effective approaches to tackling these important issues.

To start, atheists can build positive relationships with believers to humanize our communities and educate one another about our differences. That’s something that billboards, for all of their flash and fundraising capabilities, likely won’t accomplish.

Atheists face real marginalization in the U.S., and it should be robustly challenged.

But we also have good tidings and great joy to offer—important contributions to the public square that are currently being drowned out by attention-grabbing billboards claiming “nobody” needs Christ in Christmas.

In the spirit of generosity, compassion, and kindness so often associated with this time of year, let’s ditch the billboards and build relationships of goodwill.

Chris Stedman is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, Coordinator of Humanist Life for the Yale Humanist Community, and author of "Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious." You can follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDStedman.

The views expressed in this column belong to Stedman.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Christianity • Christmas • Church and state • Culture wars • Discrimination • God • Health • Holidays • Opinion

soundoff (5,210 Responses)
  1. DoctorDJ

    Happy Festivus Eve Eve, everybody!!!

    December 21, 2013 at 11:06 am |
  2. Colin

    It’s a bit like watching “Housewives of Beverly Hills.” The two sides very publicly pull each other’s hair on national TV to their mutual benefit – increased ratings for Fox and increased exposure for the American Atheists. There is a kind of “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” behind the scenes as Bill O’Reilly publicly dresses down the Fox watchers’ most reviled villain.

    The problem is, the short term gain of more exposure for the organization comes with the price tag of making all atheists look mean spirited.

    PS: As an atheist, I still say “Merry Christmas” without giving a moment’s thought to the underlying mythology.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • Fan2C

      " As an atheist, I still say “Merry Christmas” without giving a moment’s thought to the underlying mythology."

      So do I... with no more notice than calling today Saturday and thinking of the god Saturn, who was worshipped for thousands of years, or calling next month January and getting all emotional about the god Janus (and on and on throughout the other days and months).

      December 21, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  3. smax

    Season's greetings, and happy holidays are messages that go back at least until the 1950s. They referred to Christmas and New Year's Day. The meaning was later expanded to include Hannukah and other celebrations, such as Kwanzaa.

    As for a war on Christmas, it's a national holiday, for heaven's sake, the only religious day so honored. However, I always admired my atheist ex-brother-in-law for flying the stars and stripes on Christmas, just because it was a national holiday.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • Saraswati

      That always cracked me up that you could make something a national holiday and then claim it's religious. It's a national day like The fourth of july or veterans day. If you want to add some religion go for it, but the holiday didn't even start out as Christian and even Christians mostly put Jesus' birthday in September. If you want to stick god in there go ahead. Celebrate Thor every Thursday, too, if it makes you happy.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:12 am |
  4. Tom

    Singling out Fox news for playing up the atheist Xmas angle, but yet here you are writing about the same subject. Please explain the difference between Fox and hypocrites such as yourself at CNN,

    December 21, 2013 at 11:05 am |
  5. Doug

    The day I stop hearing public and elected Officials stop claiming that this was a country founded on Christianity will be the day I stop correcting Christians ...oh wait...no... how about the day Atheist are legally allowed to hold public office in this country will be the day I stop correcting Christians ...well...considering that...how about Christians stop sanctimoniously telling everyone about a war on their Christmas,while simultaneously making Christmas a Holiday that now starts the day after Thanksgiving ...seriously...If this was a war,the fact that Christmas is now talked about non stop for a month would indicate that Christmas is not losing any war...good grief

    December 21, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • JP

      Christians didn't make Christmas last a month. Capitalism and corporate greed did that.

      December 21, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
      • UncleBenny

        A month? It starts in October now, fer cryin' out loud.

        December 21, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
        • Jonathan

          JP's statement still stands. It is the corporate greed that does this. Myself, I don't recognize any attempt by the stores to sell me anything Christmas related until two weeks before Christmas. In fact, should they try, there is a really good chance that I will avoid that store in the future.

          December 23, 2013 at 10:45 am |
    • Klarissa

      Is it true there are no atheists in foxholes? I have no belief in God...at ALL. But i've yet to face death and look into its eyes. I'm not sure the lengths i would go or not go to, to save my own skin knowing there is nothing else...

      December 22, 2013 at 11:23 am |
      • IWABS

        In a foxhole, two hands operating a weapon will do more to preserve your mortal existence than a million hands folded in prayer.

        December 22, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
      • tallulah13

        Anyone who says that there are no atheists in foxholes does a great disservice to the atheists that serve in our military.


        December 22, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
      • John Sharp

        Look, just because you are limited and the concept of there being no god terrifies you doesn't mean everyone is afraid.

        I am an Atheist, I served in the Marine Corps, and that statement is simple fluff for the religious to feel good about themselves.

        I was in the foxhole and there was only one person in that fox hole that believed in god. Good guy, loved him, not knocking him in the least. Just telling my own truth.

        So three out of four thought like I did, that the concept of god is complete b.s.

        It is not by coincidence that religion is the strongest in the areas with lower education and lower income.

        When I was in undergraduate school and I went to a Catholic Jesuit University. In one of the many theology classes I took there the Jesuits listed the reasons for people leaving the church and their belief in god.
        The number 1 reason they listed.

        Education! – enough said.

        December 22, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
  6. WMesser58

    There would be no war is christians would stop insisting their way is the only way and we'll kill to get you on board.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:05 am |
  7. Pablo

    Atheist should not take part in the Christmas holiday celebration. It is a Christian holiday based on Christian beliefs. Atheist should lobby for their own holiday and leave Christmas alone.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • Bob

      As others have noted, Pablo, Christians stole the holiday from others. Get over yourself already.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:05 am |
      • Pablo

        Oh, so the letters CHRIST in Christmas came from a pagan celebration? I don't think so.

        December 21, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
        • Bob

          Pablo, the date and much of the gift giving ceremony was stolen, you ignorant moron. Now get back out and plow my driveway with your monster truck and act useful for a change, lowlife.

          December 21, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
        • UncleBenny

          The date of December 25, which was the winter solstice 2000 years ago, was stolen from pagan religions and adopted by early Christians.

          December 21, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
        • Rett

          Doesn't "stolen" imply the pagans don't have it any more? I am sure pagans around the globe still celebrate the day as they always have......maybe early Christians simply kept some of their pre-Christian traditions and adjusted them to their new beliefs.

          December 22, 2013 at 6:22 am |
    • bmurdoc

      You need to research your history.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • Saraswati

      Lol...where do you think the Christian ideas and traditions come from? No one owns a cultural festival. If an atheist had a tree and presents on December 25 growing up, how is he or she any less deserving of that fun than the Christians or pagans who preceded them? Let people celebrate how they want, and let the Christians and atheists and whoever else recruit to their heart's content.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • Doug

      The time and date are stolen from Pagans and the Romans... Christmas tree not yours...stolen from Germanic tribes that hung silver from trees in the forest in honor of the spirits...Jesus birth was in the spring this is factually proven by Herod's murdering of the children during the tax collection for wool...from the sheep...that happens in spring...not in the dead of winter...and speaking of winter the winter solstice is the largest Pagan celebration in the world dating back 1000's of years before Christianity ...yeah Atheist need to do nothing except explain to you how lacking you are of knowledge in the Holiday you celebrate

      December 21, 2013 at 11:15 am |
      • Pablo

        Carl Sagan, the noted astronomer and cosmologist, was once asked if he was an atheist. He said "no, I am an agnostic. You would have to know a lot more than I do to be an atheist". Lord Bertrand Russell said that he sees no evidence of the existence or non-existence of a supreme being. How smug the atheist are.

        December 21, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
        • Doug

          don't fool yourself what seems like smug...it's really just laughing at your ignorance ...like you laugh at children's stories I laugh at your faith...I won't have an intellectual conversation with a person who lives his life for a fairy tale

          December 21, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
        • Steve McMuffinHats

          If you claim to be an agnostic without any further designation, you are an agnostic atheist. Sagan was very smart, the reason he would say what he said was to not offend the mental midgets who worship the space ghost. If you do not have faith in a god, you are an atheist. End of discussion. The agnostic in front would just indicate you're not making any claim of certainty about there not being a god. Most atheists are agnostic atheists, meaning they do not believe in god but do not claim to know with certainty that there is no god. The talibagger christians have tried to redefine atheist to mean a gnostic/strong atheist in all cases, which is wrong. But that's not surprising since that's what those type of people do.

          December 21, 2013 at 11:40 pm |
    • asdfasdfasdf

      Ok, I celebrate Saturnalia instead. It's the same thing only older.

      December 22, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
    • John Sharp

      LMFAO. Yea, you do realize Christ was not born on December 25th. that it is a totally made up day to celebrate his birthday.

      I mean, you must know that.

      December 22, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
  8. bmurdoc

    Christmas was stolen from the Pagans.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • cnet

      The celebration of Christ's birth was stolen from the Pagans? lol.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:13 am |
      • Doug

        It was

        December 21, 2013 at 11:16 am |
      • UncleBenny

        December 25 was stolen from the pagans.

        December 21, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
    • aldewacs2

      And here I thought the Grinch did it.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  9. cnet

    Silly atheists. Stop proselytizing with your beliefs.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • Bob

      "Atheism is no more a belief than not collecting stamps is a hobby."

      December 21, 2013 at 11:06 am |
      • cnet

        There is no "belief" required to collect stamps. You actually have to believe and have faith that there is no deity to be an atheist. You also have to believe some pretty ridiculous theories too.

        December 21, 2013 at 11:12 am |
        • UncleM

          Scientific theories based on a canon of knowledge built upon since the Ancient Greeks. Religion based on the writings of men who didn't know where the sun went at night. Which is ridiculous.?

          December 21, 2013 at 11:35 am |
        • aldewacs2

          "... You actually have to believe and have faith that there is no deity to be an atheist. "
          – – –
          It is obvious you are only able to frame a sentence in Christard fashion.
          Atheism just asserts that there is no proof for the religious claims. Bring on a smidgen of proof, and you'll convert every atheist in the world in an instance. The FACT that such proof has been lacking for thousands of years makes the religious position rather ... desperate.

          Your homework for today: get some proof. Or STFUYM.

          December 21, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
        • Heroic Slug

          Atheism is not believing in the gods.
          So... you have to believe... to not believe.

          Interesting. I believe you fell asleep in school too much.

          December 22, 2013 at 4:11 am |
        • John Sharp

          Okay, you got me. What ridiculous theory do I have to believe in as an Atheist.

          I am 100% certain that the god of christianity, judaism, and islam is a lie.

          Nothing ridiculous about that.

          December 22, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
      • Mike L

        Bob, when I see you post, all I can think of is the similiarity between you and and extreme Muslims that hate Americans and christians based on lies and propaganda. Enjoy devoting your life to a spaghetti monster in the sky, I just wish I could see your reaction when you die and realize it was all for nothing.

        December 21, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
        • third

          Mike – if indeed you are right in your belief of no after-life, are you dense enough to not realize Bob will be unable to reflect on what he did or did not believe in during his life?

          If people go through life believing in something that makes them happier and sleep better at night, why is that a bad thing? No one knows for sure what happens to us when we die, but to spend your life "HATING" something that allows people to be happy, what kind of life are you leading?

          December 21, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
  10. Free Global News

    Atheists should should quit war on Christmas? How about Christians quit war on everything else.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • cnet

      And a Merry Christmas to you Mr. Scrooge.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:05 am |
  11. Adam Caramon

    As an atheist, I like that religion continues to take a downward turn. It doesn't mean I dislike all religious people, but prefer they keep their religion private. As far as taking out billboards, no matter what kind of billboard an atheist group takes out, it is going to appear confrontational. Atheists are suggesting people not do something, which is always going to appear negative.

    I've never met an atheist that wanted to seize bibles from people's homes or ban the mention of any particular god. But religious displays on public property? Shouldn't be allowed.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:01 am |
  12. Joe

    Any atheist I know are passive people. People that don't really think about nor care what religion you follow.

    Is this perceived as a "war" because the number of non-religious folks is just simply growing?

    Common sense and science are prevailing. Sorry.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • Saraswati

      They call it a "war" to whip people into a frenzy. It's all just propaganda...what could more accurately be called a war on atheism. They seek to deceive and mislead in order to curb the decreasing power of their own group.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • Como Mike

      Joe – Who invented the science?

      December 22, 2013 at 6:00 am |
      • Joe

        Mike – Humans, or more like we discovered what as already there.

        Please dont ask who invented humans. haha. Just in case you do not know, stars did. As to who or what made the boom. NO ONE can answer that. No religion, nor human can answer that question. To think anything or anyone on the planet earth can answer that is falicy.

        This humbles me. I make no assumption of what is behind creation, it is almost an impossibility to gain this widom in my lifetime.

        December 22, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
      • John Sharp

        Who invented science??? What??
        Man of course. Who else.

        December 22, 2013 at 7:29 pm |
        • Jonathan

          Twas the church that invented what we know as the scientific method. Only with the belief that a logical creator would create the world in a logical manner that could be understood by the created man gave mankind the groundwork needed to begin understanding. Where ever we have taken science since then has been completely the fault of man.

          December 23, 2013 at 10:38 am |
  13. Howard

    Could it be payback for the centuries long war on atheists? Naw, that's too simple an explanation.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • Science Works

      It might be a Mr. Ham vs Mr Silverman thing ?

      December 21, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  14. Pagan

    Happy Winter Solstice to all, keep warm.

    December 21, 2013 at 10:57 am |
  15. nev

    forgive for writing and posting this comment,im new to commenting in blogs like this religious belief blogs,and after a while i began to suspect that conflict by varied religious organizations and the atheist is nothing more than a childs idiosyncracies in matured humans.,and nothing more.

    December 21, 2013 at 10:55 am |
  16. Red Rocker

    Is it just me, or does Chris Stedman have a tiny condom in his ear?

    December 21, 2013 at 10:53 am |
  17. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    The true meaning of these holidays will come to pass in about ninety minutes in this time zone. The days will start becoming longer. Happy Solstice everyone.

    December 21, 2013 at 10:35 am |
    • Saraswati

      Happy Solstice!

      December 21, 2013 at 10:55 am |
  18. Saraswati

    1. The ti.tle of this story is purposely misleading."Why atheists should quit the war on Christmas" implies that the article is about atheists, which it is not. It is about one small group representing a tiny percent of atheists. It's like ti.tling an article "Why Christians should stop their war on blood transfusions"

    2. Even looking at the American Atheists the term "war" is overkill. These people have never aimed to prevent private practice of religion in Christmas and are making no efforts to eliminate the holiday as a whole even in their own communities.

    December 21, 2013 at 10:35 am |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      This post is directed at Fox News and David Silverman who have found common cause in fueling the "War on Christmas" myth.

      It would be better t.itled "What do Fox News and David Silverman have in common?"

      December 23, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
  19. Stanley

    Ironically that billboard might actually have some Christians think about the true meaning of Christmas this season.
    Thanks to the atheists for making the believer pause for a moment and think!

    December 21, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • John Sharp

      Your welcome. To bad you didn't keep thinking.

      December 22, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
  20. Isaiah

    For unto us a Child is born,
    Unto us a Son is given;
    And the government will be upon His shoulder.
    And His name will be called
    Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
    7 Of the increase of His government and peace
    There will be no end,
    Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
    To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
    From that time forward, even forever.
    The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

    December 21, 2013 at 10:24 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Enjoy your Christmas.

      December 21, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • DoctorDJ

      Thus spake Linus, that purveyor of pop wisdom.
      Come on, that's just the lyrics to Handel's Messiah.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:14 am |
    • Dan

      Enjoy your delusions!

      December 21, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55
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.