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. TruthMonger

    All the atheists are doing is offering food for thought. The REAL war on Christmas, and all the holidays, are the corporations who force employees to work on holidays, who promote shopping and more shopping on the holidays, and everyone who goes out shopping and eating at restaurants on holidays instead of allowing those employees to stay at home with family and friends. That is the real war on Americans.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • lol??

      Jesus is the manna for thought. Accept no substi*tutes.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
      • tallulah13

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        Accept no substtutes.

        December 21, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
  2. gimli420

    I know lots of atheists who buy christmas gifts and even put up a tree, after all, there is nothing religious about that. Personally, I like to avoid the whole herd mentality of pointless consumerism – I find it as stupid as the herd mentality of religion. Of course, any time you stray from the herd like that, you may upset those who think we should all celebrate the solstice holidays the same way they do.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • lol??

      The tree has plenty of connotations.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
  3. Mopery

    Using the word "war" in this context does nothing but lessen the meaning of the word. The phrase was intentionally chosen to make real war more acceptable to the average citizen. Ask a Syrian if they're concerned about the "War on Christmas".

    December 21, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
    • lol??

      The Masters have suffered through the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs. Warlocks rule.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
  4. Ray

    To be honest, the "war on Christmas" is largely a jewish assault on Christians.

    Christianity is based on worship of a jew, but now and again Christians have gotten out of hand, from the jews' viewpoint.

    Christinsanity has to be properly managed, and muzzled when necessary.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Oh you poor martyr, you. It must be really painful for you to be a member of the dominant religion in this country. It must be difficult to make up stories about how everybody picks on you.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
      • Ray

        Not likely that a Christian would call his religion "Christinsanity," but there's still time for you to achieve functional literacy.

        December 21, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
        • tallulah13

          Sorry. I thought it was a typo.

          So I guess you are just anti-Semitic. It must be terrible for you to have to invent villains in order to rationalize your world view.

          December 21, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
  5. brian

    Christmas is just another business in this country.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
  6. hearties

    Merriam-webster: Christ·mas noun, often attributive \ˈkris-məs\ :

    a Christian holiday that is celebrated on December 25 in honor of the birth of Jesus Christ or the period of time that comes before and after this holiday

    They made a sign, paid for it, and publicly acknowledged Christ, crossing out his name, and said nobody needs him on the day celibrating his birth, effectively their wishing he'd never been born and that everyone should forget him.

    No thanks, instead, I'll remember him every day, all the time, Christmax. Yes, please and thank you for sending him.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
    • .

      Deliberately missing the point and misrepresenting the intent? Bearing false witness. Bam! 9th Commandment broken!

      December 21, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
  7. Nodack

    People hate people different than themselves. It scares them. They are a threat and must be evil and therefore destroyed.

    The different religions hate each other.
    The different races hate each other.
    Different political party's hate each other.

    Fear and hate go nicely together.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • lol??

      The only solution is mega wars and suicides.
      Jesus will stop that broad path.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
      • Tad

        He's done a stellar job so far. So stellar you just called the celebration of His birth a phony Holy day.

        December 21, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
        • lol??

          Stellar?? Man does seem to fall all over the sun everyday and all the time.

          December 21, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
        • HotAirAce

          Stellar? Is that what you call allegedly performing the odd miracle to save a few people while allowing many, including innocent children, to die horrible deaths? Go ahead, explain to me that your god works in mysterious ways and why bad things happen to good people.

          December 21, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  8. Mopery

    Let us all bow our heads, and pretend to be serious.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
  9. makesense

    "Don’t celebrate Christmas? You’re not alone.” Yeah that would be a much better billboard. Most atheist don't go out of their way to purposely offend Christians. Just as most Christians don't go out of their way to offend atheists. Media blows this stuff way out of proportion – An actual atheist

    December 21, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • Nodack

      Couldn't agree more.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I agree. This whole thing is beyond silly.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  10. Kenny

    You are free to speak out about you religious beliefs or lack thereof, but this is why I don't talk about mine. It is my business. No one is going to change it. I won't try to change yours. You don't like Christmas? Don't participate. It's much like the abortion debate. If you must put up signage to counteract the decorations around you, spend freely, the sign businesses need the money. It employs someone. You feel better. Everyone else will ignore you, and life goes on. And it doesn't go on fairly...

    December 21, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
  11. Jeb

    Happy Festivus.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • Mopery

      And now for the Airing of the Grievances!

      December 21, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
  12. Brian Ellis

    There is no "war on Christmas". It's a propaganda invention of Fox Lies Network to inflame people like those commenting here. Clearly, it worked. Believe what you want–let everyone else do the same. Whatever happened to "they'll know we are Christians by our Love"?

    December 21, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
  13. Regular Atheist

    The American Atheists will never get my support. They are becoming as bad as the the theologians they despise.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
    • GetReal

      Agreed. It's absurd. By definition you can't take Christ out of Christmas. But you can choose not to observe. And yes, regrettably Christmas has in many cases become a commercial holiday without religious observance. I'm not sure which part of that is a problem for atheists. it has nothing to do with them. It should be a problem for Christians.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
  14. Mark

    Let us all take the "CHRIST" out of Christmas. I propose to the world that we now celebrate "CHRYSTMAS" on December 25th. This will be our secular holiday devoid of Christianity for the growing masses wanting this. We can use a bearded fat man as our new symbol! Chrystmas, Chrystmas, Chrystmas!

    December 21, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • Jim

      Love it, Chrystmas for me now!

      December 21, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
    • Drummer

      The first reaction you moron's are going to do if an earthquake hits is look up, it takes more to dispell the existence of God then to believe, by the way, I love looking at a nice nativity displays on CHRISTmas.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
      • aldewacs2

        Sentence building 101 failure. Logic 101 failure. Failure all around.

        December 21, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
      • tallulah13

        I've been through a couple of earthquakes. Actually, my first thought was always "Is that an earthquake?" followed by getting beneath a stable structure for protection, then being very unhappy. I don't like earthquakes.

        I've never once thought of your god during an earthquake, even when I was a believer. I guess I'm more concerned with dealing with the situation at hand than begging an imaginary friend for help.

        December 21, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
        • HotAirAce

          I was in Tokyo for the 9.0 – never once thought about any supernatural being, but was thankful to real world engineers for designing buildings that stayed standing. But then our attention was turned to helping those that were not as fortunate, but again, no gods in evidence or required.

          December 21, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
      • Mark

        The nativity is just a toy set to try to make helpless young children of christians believe what their parents do. It could be spelled with Chrystmas too! Let's capitalize it since it is such a special secular holiday. Chrystmas! Chrystmas! Chrystmas!

        December 21, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
  15. rgalinato

    These wars have been going on forever

    December 21, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  16. Kenman

    Disturbing, on CNN's "Belief" blog, an atheist points out the anti-Christmas campaigns under way and then argues that there is no war on Christmas! CNN is becoming more anti-Christian that even its founder, Ted Turner!

    Your involvement in the liberal "mainstream" media, and those like you, are a big reason there is a war on Christmas, and everything Christian, and undermining every traditional thing and value that American society was built on. I'd say you should be ashamed, but you probably wouldn't understand the concept.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • Tad

      Knock it off with the "liberal mainstream" bs. Fox is the one that coined the freaking phrase "War on Christmas".

      Get over your outraged little self.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Ah! Yet another christian who didn't bother to learn that our nation was created by men who distrusted the church and very deliberately separated church from state.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
    • jenholm25

      "Your involvement in the liberal "mainstream" media, and those like you, are a big reason there is a war on Christmas, and everything Christian, and undermining every traditional thing and value that American society was built on. I'd say you should be ashamed, but you probably wouldn't understand the concept."

      There is no "war on xmas" – it's made up by the republicans to get other republicans all upset and in a tizzy. "Liberal media" is what republicans refer to when the truth doesn't support what they believe. No one is trying to take your religion or your beliefs away from you and I'm insulted to be blamed for such a thing. I'm an atheist, and like MOST atheists, we don't care what you choose to believe. We're not trying to change your beliefs. We DO get tired of hearing (from christians) about what we should or shouldn't believe, what we should or shouldn't celebrate and how we should celebrate different things.

      But, if you really believe in the whole "war on christmas" and the "liberalmedia" garbage you're being fed – then I'm talking to a a brick wall because you're so brainwashed you're beyond reality.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
  17. lol??

    ".............................Let’s not kid ourselves: There is no war on Christmas....................." It's a phony war against a phony holy day. The real message is dirtbag dustballs hate God and the Son, and that's a universal.
    "Quit butting in God, who do you think you are??"

    December 21, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • Tad

      Lol??, the chief proponent for Christianity just denied the day Christians designated to celebrate the birth of Christ.

      Judas and Peter would be proud of you.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
      • Drummer

        It's kind off ironic that when Judas sold out Jesus for silver he went after the fact and hung himself as the dirt bag should have.

        December 21, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
      • lol??

        Two birthday parties are mentioned in scripture. They didn't turn out well for some.

        December 21, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
  18. Mike

    It is kind of wacky to make a point that a group of people must stop their war against christmas by accepting it. That's a war on atheism.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • Mopery

      What about the War on Canned Vegetables?

      December 21, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
      • Mike

        Vegetables are supposed to be whole, from the Earth as God intended! Canning and preserving is a damnable offense!

        December 21, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
      • lol??

        Less water in the cans and more food, please, no matter that the managements want big XMAS bonuses.

        December 21, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
  19. Professor

    Honestly, I think billboards of that nature are kind of pointless, but can't blame em since Christians have been doing similar and persecuting atheists for thousands of years. As far as Happy Holidays vs Merry Christmas, happy holidays is just easier to say and covers all bases, so that's what I say. I don't care if people say Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah, however.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
  20. David

    The only war on christmas is the over commercialization of it. It's all about gifts and shopping.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
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