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. vinster76

    atheists should really just shut up. They embarrass themselves every time they pontificate their idiocy. They think they are more intelligent than the billions of other folks that inhabit this planet. They very often fail to debate their views without personal attacks upon those of us who disagree with them....So, this Christmas Season, please just shut up.........

    December 21, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Idiotic fail. Atheists are not a collective group in exactly the same way that non-stamp-collectors are not a collective group.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
      • vinster76

        Cpt Obvious: you absolutely proved my point: you just cant say anything unless you call names like the little kindergartners on the playground.....Did you not get enough cookies as a kid???? Thanks for proving my point. You stepped right into it too, it wasn't like I didn't tee it up for you, you still stepped into it......Merry Christmas!

        December 21, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
        • tallulah13

          Wow. Did you intend to demonstrate your hypocrisy or was it just a happy accident?

          December 21, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          Your reasoning was demonstrably idiotic, and that's why you failed to address my reasoning, but simply choose to whine. Is that all you are capable of?

          December 21, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
        • Enigma

          I used to work in retail/service industry for almost 10 years and not once did anyone ever get mad that I said Merry Christmas to them. However, I have lost count of how many times I have been yelled at by someone for saying Happy Holidays. It's not like I'm doing this on Christmas Eve or Day. No it's December 1st or after Christmas, but before New Year's. It's completely ridiculous, imagine what it would be like if someone told you were a terrible American because you didn't say "Happy Fourth of July" in the middle of June. Just because some idiots put up a billboard does not mean that there is a War on Christmas. We live in a country where God is on our money, pledge of allegiance. There are more churches than schools in the USA. I repeat there is no War on Christmas.

          December 21, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
      • General Obvious

        Mega-idiotic fail, mr captain.

        December 21, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
    • tallulah13

      By your logic, you should shut up too. Because your little rant was a personal attack on people who disagree with you.

      However, I support the First Amendment right of free speech. Therefore I won't ask or tell anyone to shut up. It would be unAmerican.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • Mike

      Christians should just shut up. They embarrass themselves every time they open their mouths. Like how they all hate veterans, and gay people, and muslims... and really anyone who doesn't look like them. They think they're smarter than the 5+ billion people on Earth who don't believe in Christianity. So please, just shut up.......

      December 21, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
    • Richard

      I'm not sure what you mean by "shut up". Shut up about what? About who I am? Should you do the same then? Seems like an odd request to me. I'm an atheist and I get along great with all of my Christian friends. During this time of year, I decorate the house with pretty lights, I buy presents, I bake yummy confections to share with everyone, and I keep the car radio tuned to the local station that plays Christmas music all month long. The article is correct, there is no war on Christmas. Some people would rather not engage in any of the traditions or festivities, and that's fine. Some people choose to celebrate the solstice (I'm attending a solstice party tonight), and that's fine, too. I enjoy being honest about who I am, and so should everyone. I like that we're all different. It means I can learn something new from everyone I meet. And, for the record, my debate skills are pretty sharp. I will not attempt to debate another individual without being well prepared with a strong argument. This way, there is no need to resort to ad hominem or straw man tactics which, coincidentally, you just did while claiming people like me do it often.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
    • troll spotting

      vinster and S21 always show up together and troll around. They are pathetic and nothing but punks.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
    • KEVIN

      Your going to find that when people are offended by things there going to lash out, it doesn't matter what if you believe or not.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
  2. Stuart

    December 25th, Christmas, literally Christ's Mass, is the day chosen centuries ago (around 400 A.D) for celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. The giving of gifts on Christmas symbolizes the giving of gifts to the baby Lord Jesus by the Three Wise Men, in honor and praise of Him.
    In these modern times, Christmas is by and large a commercial holiday generating revenue for gift manufacturers and service providers alike. The expansion and encapsulation of Christmas to include non-Christians by replacing "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays", "Christmas tree" with "Holiday tree" and "Away in a Manger" by "Jingle Bells" is a commercially driven marketing strategy to generate additional business revenue via secular inclusion. In this scenario, Christmas becomes just another "Hallmark holiday" similar to Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Halloween etc.
    For Christian believers, the Christmas Holy Day is, and always will be, the celebration of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
    • igaftr

      I never say happy holiday, since there is no such thing as a holy day.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
      • Mat

        Your views certainly turns it into regretful day.

        December 21, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
        • igaftr

          How....it simply means that is a day like any other.

          Happy randomly chosen day to honor a man-gods brithday, even though the experts agree if he existed he was born in summer.

          December 21, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
  3. Truth is

    The whole premis of this article is flawed. Atheists DO NOT have a war on Christmas. Just like the religious right has their wacko groups, so do Atheists. The "War on Christmas" is nothing more than a device Fox News uses to real in viewers so they think they are being persecuted (even though they are the majority), and to try and marginalize others who disagree with their views.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
    • lol??

      Mob rule. You wanted it. You got it.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
    • David

      Did you read the article? He said all of that.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
  4. Mark Hensley

    How about the religious stop their war against everyone who doesn't follow their religion.
    Stop forcing your lifestyle and faith based views on props thru legislation.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
  5. Lana


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

      Oh, stop it. No one cares.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
  6. GetFiddle Man

    The Palins and other like-minded so-called christians make atheist billboards necessary. They use religion as a self-righteous tool to self-promote, make money and feed red meat to their base–calling anyone who disagrees immoral haters. The "religious wars" have always been around because believers will not be satisfied until the rest of us have all been beaten into submission with the same religious stick.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
  7. 2bits

    The great fallacy of religions worldwide is that they depend on the brainwashing of theirs and others children to perpetuate their myths. Just like we don't allow children to drink, to drive, to get married, etc until the age of 16, 18, or 21 depending on culture, we should not be forcing kids to workship a mytholgical god until they are old enough to determine the validity of that myth themselves. It's child abuse plain and simple.

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

      Just like your abuse of stressing God doesnt exist. You are trying to brainwash the innocent about your Belief or non belief.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
      • HotAirAce

        How is allowing children to form their own opinions about religion child abuse? Oh, I see it now – your answer doesn't relate to what you are responding to! Please try reading for comprehension. Who knows, you might escape the cult your parents apparently indoctrinated you into, without your permission.

        December 21, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
    • WillK

      One of the problems being a child is that you are subjected to the direction and discipline of the parent or parents. One of the problems being a parent is that we influence a child whether we want to or not. There is no alternative to teaching a child that God exists, does not exists, or may or may not exist. You have to say something when your child asks you about God, life, death – comes with the job. Most children will figure it out for themselves when they are older, one way or another.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
      • HotAirAce

        There is a difference between explaining what might be and leaving the decision to them, and telling them what you absolutely know (but are actually only pretending to know) and what they will believe because that us what you believe and your parents believe and what people in that geography believe. The latter is how cults maintain their market share.

        December 21, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  8. Observer

    Christmas is the exciting time of year for Christian children when Santa Claus comes. It's even bigger than Easter, when the bunny brings candy.

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

    "Stop the war on Christmas!" said the Christian, tazing someone for their Christmas gift (as Jesus intended)

    December 21, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
    • lol??

      Cute. It's the socies that LUV their neighbor's stuff as their own.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  10. cooldaddysquid23

    We'll stop the war on Christmas if you stop the war on Halloween.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
    • lol??

      Detroit got anything left to burn??

      December 21, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
  11. Katie

    I don't know of any 'war' on Christmas. Indeed, if anything, there is a war on atheists. Christians are so intolerant. Christmas is shoved down everyone's throat every year, as early as October. Everything this time of year is about Christmas – there are special greeting cards, special stamps, special lights, special decorations, special festivals, special music. You can't escape it. Hardly any place is open on Christmas day. Schools shut down. Churches have special extra services.

    There is no war on Christmas. This is a myth and an inflammatory argument put forth propaganda style by people who are so insecure in their faith that they are threatened by the very idea of people who do not believe in God.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
    • lol??

      Quit blaming Christians. The Public Servants will NEVER give up the holy day.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
    • Mat

      Really? Showed down your throat.You can elect to not celebrate it. You certainly cant take away my freedom to celebrate.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
    • JoeyE

      wow so naive! I'm a christian and I'm tolerant.. We do not force anybody to change to christian but only show LOVE and witness others to convert to Christian.. nothing more! IF you reject my witness.. so be it.. it's your choice not to follow.. that's all. so don't make up the false truth.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
  12. Dear Internet

    Christmas always wins.
    No Time To Hate

    December 21, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
    • jenholm25

      I think you need some history lessons.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
  13. Ann Terhune

    Phony war. The real war is on all non–christians.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  14. Jeb

    There's no "war on Christmas".

    Will the Fake News stupidity never stop?

    December 21, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
  15. Sage Allsgood


    December 21, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
  16. Rainer Braendlein

    What people actually disturbs is Christ. Nearly everybody, even an atheist, is ready to believe in an impersonal God, and to think God as a kind of energy or force. Nearly nobody wants to believe in a God who became man: Christ.

    The issue is that Christ revealed God's high ethics, and we feel not able to apply this ethics in our world of selfish commerce. We could face to many disadvantages.

    Indeed, if we decide to believe in Christ, at the same time we have to choose between fortune here and fortune in the world to come. If we believe in Christ we have to endure suffering and rejection here but eternal joy beyond.

    Considering that we could die every moment literally, and meet the great Judge, it is better to choose eternal life instead short luck here and eternal torture over there.

    The actual issue is not if God exists or not, or if Christ exists or not but the issue is Christ's unselfish character. Christ's character is completely opposed to the human nature which is dominated by selfishness. We deny a being which can cure us of our selfishness only because we fear some suffering in this godless world. Ain't we cowards.


    December 21, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
    • aldewacs2

      Copy – Paste – Copy- Paste.
      Good job, Rainer.
      Keep up the delusions.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
    • tallulah13

      "What people actually disturbs is Christ."

      You keep spamming that but it continues not to make sense. Did you mean to say "What actually disturbs people is Christ."?

      December 21, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
    • wjs

      Contrary to what you believe about atheists, they do NOT accept an impersonal god; rejecting Christ is just part of rejecting theist myths. As for a "war on Christmas", that's just two sets of bloviators exercising.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
  17. Santa Claus

    Happy Holiday

    December 21, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
    • Santa Claus

      Merry Xmas

      December 21, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
  18. Nodack

    I think all religions are cults, but I am not offended by them. To each his own. I don't really like the Atheist organization declaring war on Christmas. It's the same as Christians declaring war on Muslim holidays. I am ok with there being an organization of Athiest's so people that don't believe in religion can come together and unite, but I think its in poor taste to attack somebody else's religion.

    I celebrate Christmas. To me its just another reason to get together with family and spread good cheer. The holidays weren't picked by me, but I grew up with them and make the most out of all of them because being with family is what is important to me, not bowing down to some imaginary God.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
    • Steve

      I agree. I do not think of Christmas as a religious event, but rather a time to get together with friends and family and celebrate the time we are able to spend together.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
  19. Mopery

    Let's up the ante, we can have Bill O'Reilly state that Atheists have now declared a "Nuclear War on Christmas".

    December 21, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • tallulah13

      How about Alien Atheists Declare Nuclear War on Christmas!

      That way it'd sound like an Ed Wood movie.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
  20. Mike

    If the American Atheist group is causing an atheist war on Christmas, then I ask Christians, with your brothers and sisters in the Westboro Baptist Church, to please stop this Christian war on Veterans. What's that you say? The beliefs of one segment of a group are not indicative of the beliefs of the whole group? Well that's downright... logical

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

      Or ask religious people in general to stop having wars with each other. Of course, they are extremists, but the total is huge over time.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
    • Maddy

      I agree, and I said as much elsewhere on this blog.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
    • Katie

      Let's just ask the Christians to turn the other cheek. Isn't that was Christians are supposed to do? If they think Atheists want a war, why do they persist in giving them one?

      December 21, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
      • igaftr

        The christians started it...just like many actual wars.

        December 21, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.