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. Jess Dopson

    Why are Atheist attacking Christians??? Why not attack other religions?

    December 21, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
    • Skarphace

      I am an atheist. I am attacking nobody. Why are you attacking me?

      December 21, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • fsmgroupie

      why do you knock on our door and tell my children that they are going to burn in hell?

      December 21, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
  2. Bible Truth

    I believe one of the more overwhelming testimonies regarding the depth of archeological evidence for the New Testament is in the account of the famous historian and archeologist Sir William Ramsay. Ramsay was very skeptical of the accuracy of the New Testament, and he ventured to Asia minor over a century ago to refute its historicity. He especially took interest in Luke's accounts in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, which contained numerous geographical and historic references. Dig after dig the evidence without fail supported Luke's accounts. Governors mentioned by Luke that many historians never believe existed were confirmed by the evidence excavated by Ramsay's archeological team. Without a single error, Luke was accurate in naming 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 islands. Ramsay became so overwhelmed with the evidence he eventually converted to Christianity. Ramsay finally had this to say:

    I began with a mind unfavorable to it...but more recently I found myself brought into contact with the Book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth.

    Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy...this author should be placed along with the very greatest historians.

    December 21, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • Caroline Kebnnedy

      Dave Silverman, a 3 percenter, Jewish? What a surprise!

      December 21, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
    • G to the T

      Luke – No record of a Roman Census as he describes. No record of Herod trying to kill the infants. Nothing.

      He named people and cities that existed in his time accurately. I could do that. But many aspects of his stories (assuming he wrote Acts as well) are confabulations.

      December 22, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
  3. Krampus

    I guess if someone believes there's a war on xmas, that pretty much just exposes an intolerance for different opinions. The main parts of Christmas festivities come from various non-Christian mythologies anyways, including the date. December 25th signifies nothing more than an arbitrary decision made in 4th century CE Rome.

    December 21, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • Steve

      Or maybe it was taken from Jeremiah 52:
      And it came to pass in the seven and thirtieth year of the captivity of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, in the five and twentieth day of the month, that Evil Merodach king of Babylon in the first year of his reign lifted up the head of Jehoiachin king of Judah, and brought him forth out of prison , And spake kindly unto him, and set his throne above the throne of the kings that were with him in Babylon

      December 21, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  4. Dr Tod Policandriotes

    I look at Christmas and New Year as a time to be with family and be kind to everyone not because of religion. In todays corporate society it is all about selling you something, but we should look at it as a time to be together with friends or family and celebrate our short little lives.

    December 21, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • Slippery Pete.

      My family does celebrate a form of christmas, but not retail. No one is allowed to give any gift that they did not make themselves. The family has many beliefs, so those who want to do their religion thing, then get together with family.
      We go retail for birthdays e5tc, but christmas is special.

      This has led to many in my family becoming quite good with various crafts or music, arts etc.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
  5. Barney

    You don't like it? Don't celebrate it. You don't picket someone who sells a different brand of automobile than the one you drive. Maybe you're too tense about things that others believe and enjoy.

    December 21, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • Phil

      Totally agree with you.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
  6. Journey

    In my experience, and at the risk of sounding maybe a little intolerant, people need to remember that a lot of these self-professed atheist nowadays pray and read the Bible when nobody is looking. They hide it under their bed at night. Sort of like that guy that everyone knows that absolutely hates gay people...but secretly.

    Same principle applies to most of the atheist on this board.

    December 21, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • MR

      Bull. Chit.
      Most atheists are former believers.

      You're projecting.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      I think that there are many more people who profess to believe but really don't than people who profess to be atheists but really aren't.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Oh look. Another liar for Jesus.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
    • JBullets

      I seriously doubt the atheist you describe exists, even in a single instance.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
    • Mopery

      I like the ending part about Rick Santorum.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
  7. Arggg

    I'm a Christian but I don't shove my beliefs down people's throats. I don't expect everyone to share my feelings.

    What's awful about militant atheists is that they're trying to tear apart something that keeps people strong, hopeful, and positive during the worst times of their lives. Religion can be like a lifeboat during a storm surge. Why would anybody think it's OK to wreck someone else's lifeboat? Who cares if you don't believe it? I don't think atheists are going to hell, but they'd better not make life hell for me.

    December 21, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • MR

      Think of it this way: the group that put up this billboard does not represent all atheists anymore than Westboro Baptist represent all Christians.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • Phil


      Well said.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
  8. Steve

    What's nice about the season? Few days paid time off. And you can really enjoy it if the shopping is done, regardless of affliation.

    December 21, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
  9. Brandon

    I am 100% Atheist. I don't like the billboard any more than I would a Christian billboard promoting God. I think that particular Atheist organization is being too aggressive. Atheism will slowly grow into prominence as time passes simply because it is a new time in human history. People are getting smarter and have access to more information than we did in thousands of years of history. Atheism doesn't need to be promoted over the blind, willful ignorance.

    December 21, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  10. mike johnson

    ... would Christ himself support Christmas? ... I doubt it

    December 21, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  11. uos_spo6

    All gods get replaced by new ones. What we study romantically and call Mythologies were at one time actual beliefs of millions of people. Make all the billboards and passionate pleas you want, the generational tides assure that all religions eventually die. Cheers to that!

    December 21, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
  12. isobareng

    Atheists claim to be very intelligent. So after they remove Christianity from this country what do they think will fill that vacuum??????? If one looks around the work Atheism doesn't replace Christianity Islam does.

    December 21, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • isobareng

      Work = World .... (time to turn off auto correct)

      December 21, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • nepawoods

      I find it hard to believe that people who were once Christian will turn to Islam because of atheists.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
    • FordGT90Concept

      Secularism. Atheists only exist in a situation where theists exist. Secularism is a situation where no religion (theism nor atheism) is observed. As an unaffiliated secularist, I don't celebrate Christmas in the way that any religion does. To me, it is just a time of exchanging gifts and seeing family. There simply is no deeper religious meaning to it for me much like virtually no one truly celebrates Halloween in the way that it originated. Halloween has almost been completely secularized. I think in many ways, Christmas has already been hugely secularized (just look at the popularity of Santa Clause). The same goes for Easter (Easter Bunny–has nothing to do with religion but it is something everyone can get enjoyment out of). Some people observe the religious reasons why the holidays exist but there's a lot of people that don't.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • igaftr

      Hopefully we won't trade one belief for another. Hopefully reason will replace christianity.

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

      Great arguing strategy: christianity is not true but it is better than other untrue cults so let's maintain the status quo. How about exposing all religions for the load of crap they are and establishing a very strict separation of church and state?

      December 21, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  13. Poll Time

    For Atheists and agnostics only.

    A. Do you like or dislike the billboards?

    B. Do you like Silverman and his group?

    C. Does this article represent your views?

    December 21, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • MR

      1) No.
      2) No.
      3) No.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
      • MR

        Should clarify: I dislike the billboard.

        December 21, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • Perry the Post-Theist

      A. Dislike. They are counterproductive.

      B. Dislike. They do not speak for me, and he seems more interested in electing himself leaderr of something

      C. No. No spokesmen for me, especially not one who looks like he is trying to be Justin Timberlake.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      I am ambivalent about the billboards. I neither like nor dislike them.

      I do not "like" Silverman and his group, but I do respect them. I have seen video footage of Silverman being shouted down by angry Christians who were angry that atheists were allowed to be American citizens. I have seen the copies of death threats by Christians toward Silverman and his group. I have witnessed extreme bigotry and hate directed towards Silverman and AA for several decades.

      No, this article does not represent my views, completely.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • Colin

      A. No, I think it is inept.

      B. By and large, yes.

      C. Somewhat.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • EighteenCharacters

      As an atheist, I think the billboards are completely unnecessary.

      I don't know much about Silverman or his group, but if the billboards are a way to gain publicity for atheism, I think his intentions are misguided.

      But I guess every belief system has its fundamentalists. Silverman does not represent my beliefs - or lack of - and I do not want religious-minded people attacked just because I don't happen to buy into their ideology, no more than I want them attacking me.

      For me, atheism isn't such a militant viewpoint. It's simply a lack of religion.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • tallulah13

      The billboards are silly. I don't know Silverman and his group so I can't know if I like them or not, but neither they nor this article speak for me.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
  14. Colin

    I think one question can help explain why many of atheists feel the need to oppose the mythology (as opposed to the morality) of Christianity. What is the only thing capable of making 40% of the country utterly stupid enough to think the entire Universe began less than 10,000 years ago with one man, one woman and a talking snake:

    (a) a horrid mental disease

    (b) a failed education system

    (c) a successful Al Qaeda plot to undermine the scientific future of the nation; or

    (d) Christianity?

    December 21, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  15. Mike

    Being a Christian made me not like Christians... Looking at these comments makes me not like atheists.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Sure, Mike. Why be specific when blanket generalities will do just fine?

      December 21, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
      • Mike

        For someone with a name like that, you seem generally oblivious. Nice try though

        December 21, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
  16. The Thenkare

    Why must the atheist celebrate anything at this time of year, especially on our Christian holy day! Christmas, to true Christians, is not about having Santa Claus bring gifts, but it is a celebration of the gift that Christ gave us all. If the atheist as the saying goes, "want to look a gift horse in the mouth" that is up to them. If they want to get gifts and have a holiday, proclaim one of their own. I'm sure the retailers will welcome it with open arms. I celebrate Christmas as I believe in Christ. As Yoda said "Do or Do not" but the freedom of speech that you atheists honor so highly must surely apply to Christians as well. Please get your own "holiday" and I will keep "Christ" in my "Christ"mas.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • karlotious

      Ironic considering Christians stole this holiday from several others.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I celebrate Hanukkah with my jewish sister, Christmas with my christian sister and consider my holiday to be something more in tune with Saturnalia. I don't honestly care what your celebration is about.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • migod307

      Why do Christians have to celebrate anything at the Pagan most holy day. It's just plain rude.

      Let's keep the Saturn in Saturnalia!

      December 21, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
  17. Ronnie Harper

    You and the rest of the millenials don't need to question every strategy of the generation before you. Instead, you can thank us for kicking religion while it's down. I'm sure you think all.your ideas are novel but in fact they are old ones. You would know that if you were familiar with history or books. Your criticism of the atheist movement is neither needed nor appreciated and a simple thank.you will suffice. It's clear that rather than read a history of the movement you pretend to be an expert about, you would have us spinning in circles for another generation because you are too uninformed, too inexperienced in life, to learn about the history of your own accord. Like everything else, millenials like you would have us start all over again on everything, a symptom of a generation bereft of education or perspective. What an odd world for which to opine, I feel very sorry for your clueless generation. We've wasted a lot of time setting the stage for yours with social democratic reforms and work against the religious oligarch in this country. Too bad you can't learn from it and thanks us instead of whining like millenials are want to do about everything.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • ann Angle

      Atheism is not new, but the younger generation thinks they have to BELLOW their beliefs to the Christian world. There is NO way you are going to turn us against God. Don't you know that we pray everyday for you to find Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. With Christ in your heart – you wouldn't have to SCREAM your beliefs at everyone; they would show on your face and your countenance. You DO NOT have the celebrate Christmas, but you DO NEED to leave others who believe differently to their own beliefs. IF YOU ARE TRULY AN ATHEIST – there would be NO need to try and Ban a holiday that most people believe in. You see, you are trying to FORCE others to believe the way you believe and WE ARE NOT going to do THAT. CHRIST is the reason Christmas is Celebrated. Without CHRIST there is NO reason to celebrate. So go your merry way – leave those of us who believe in the TRUE Christmas meaning to celebrate it without you.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
      • igaftr

        The solstice is the reason for the season...the christians just tried to hijack the celebration, but the evergreen is a dead giveaway that it is NOT christian...similar to Easter...it is a celebration of fertility in spring...that's why the chicks and bunnies.

        Your rant shows you are just a misinformed christian supremacist who likely knows little about your own religion. It shows in your ignorant post.

        Even the experts who believe in a Christ walking the earth agree that he would have been born in summer,if he existed.

        December 21, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
    • lizzie

      Sounds like an old person bellyaching person who wants to insult people and then say "with all respect… a human being"

      December 21, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
  18. innersixx

    If people are so offended by an athiests view then it really shows how strong they are in their faith. Other peoples lack of belief in your diety shouldn't bother you at all if you are a firm believer in your religion.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  19. Hewitt Rose

    Stedman's points are well taken. The holiday time should be set aside for promoting good cheer to all, not organizational funding by inflaming people.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • G to the T

      True – but I also think the road should go both ways.

      December 22, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
  20. Kris Black

    Dear Atheist Community,

    I don't understand your fight against Christmas and religion because neither of those things are what you are fighting against. I believe that you are fighting against history. Whether you believe in God or not, Jesus is a historical person. Whether you believe that Jesus Christ did the things he did or you don't, He still lived and walked this earth. In that context your fight is against history and not Christmas. So unless you can prove that Jesus Christ was non-existent (and please use RELIABLE sources if you are to respond to this), then please keep yourselves out of Christmas or change what you are fighting for.

    With all respect,

    A fellow human being

    December 21, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • innersixx

      As an atheist why should we celebrate the birthday of a normal person who died thousands of years ago? Thats what the war is about, not the dispute of if Jesus was a real person.

      December 21, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
      • kyzaadrao

        You don't have to celebrate the religious aspect of Christmas if you don't want to. But in this country we don't just make things go away that we don't like. Otherwise things you do like or believe are in danger of going away as well.

        December 21, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
      • igaftr

        You could celebrate Sir Isaac Newton's birthday...he ACTUALLY existed, and ACTUALLY was born on dec 25. Not so sure of that Christ guy.

        December 21, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • Hewitt Rose

      A little research would reveal that there are no contemporary historical accounts of Jesus Christ. The stories written about him decades later are inconsistent with each other on important details, went through an editing process hundreds of years later, and incorporate a number of myths of other religions popular at the time.

      If you want to believe in Jesus, then you have to believe as a matter of faith, not evidence.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • MR

      Dear Kris,

      Think of it this way: the group that put up this billboard dies not represent all atheists anymore than Westboro Baptist represent all Christians.

      There is no war on Christmas; that's the construct of the wily Fox News, who dies this every year, much as this American Atheist group puts out an offensive billboard every year.

      Publicity. $$$. Nothing more, nothing less.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • Colin

      But it is not the mere existence of JC as a person than is the foundation of Christianity, it is the belief that he is the son of God sent to save the World. That is not history. It is, in fact, classic Greco-Roman Jewish mythology

      December 21, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • fsmgroupie

      1 Corinthians 14:34-36 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
      • kyzaadrao

        And yet there are accounts of female ministers, pastors and in leadership roles in the Bible. I find that most people that aren't trying to live and understand it shouldn't try to interpret it. If you don't believe, move on, you're not going to get it. You already believe none of it.

        December 21, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
        • tallulah13

          The bible is full of contradictions, so no surprise it contradicts itself on the topic of the role of women in the church.

          December 21, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
        • kyzaadrao

          Yes, there are many seeming contradictions. They are ours to try to understand. If you don't believe, I'm not sure why you would waste your time when there are so many other important issues in life.

          December 21, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
    • Charm Quark

      I am a deist. No problem for me to believe an itinerant preacher named jesus may have existed at the time claiming to be the Messiah, there were dozens of others in the area. It is the divinity of jesus and all the supernatural mumbo jumbo that goes into the stories, that have never been replicated, that make his myth as believable as Dionysus or any other man inspired god.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
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