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. Scott Deaver

    I think the expression is "never interfere with your enemy while he's trying to commit suicide". And I think all atheists everywhere should revel in the mercenary nature of Christmas (now far more Jewish/East Indian in its execution than anything else) and its exposure of "faith" as a conduit for greed, judgment, and repression. That, along with the sheer stupidity of preachers generally, those who treat evolution as an issue of faith rather than science even as they take their children to visit dinosaurs in the museum, and the IQ level of Southern Baptists, and I think "believers" will be the butt of jokes by future historians for a very long time, just as Neanderthals are now.

    December 21, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Hey man - Neanderthals are no joke!

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

    Pwogwessive atheists are always fixin' things. "The fix is in" is commonly heard in the sacred halls of gubmint everywhere now. How would the atheists like it if the Christians hired some Muslim friends to fix them?? It's not like there's no precedent.

    December 21, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • Tad

      And you have denied the day chosen to celebrate Christ's birthday as a "phony holy day."
      Good Christian you aren't. What else are you unqualified to pontificate nonsensically about? I'd say, everything.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
      • lol??

        A Tad over the top?? I don't know of any Christian holy days. They all seem to run together.

        December 21, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
    • jenholm25

      You're not making any sense.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  3. Eric

    Christens, err, I mean, Republicans should shut. Aren't they the ones that believe in free speech?

    December 21, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  4. FreeThinker

    Xmas is what you make it, period. I'm an atheist, and yet all of the "Christ" yapping does not bother me... just DON'T force your views on me, and I won't do the same

    December 21, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
    • jenholm25

      Too bad there's not a "like" button for this.

      December 21, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
  5. Alan

    Those poor good ol Christians really needed a place to get back at us Atheists, and once again pretend to be the "victims" of a "war", and pretend to be so polite and cuddly with their cute comments ! It's just pathetic !

    April 17, 6 BC is your Lord's birthday, you know the blue-eyed pretty boy you worship, the one you are slave to ! You may become one of those eternally damned souls if you continue to celebrate a Pagan festival ! Just saying ! April 17 is your day ! You are most welcome

    December 21, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
  6. WillK

    This whole war on Christmas is nonsense, total nonsense. It only serves the purpose of the fringe atheists, the fringe religious, and those who profit from it. I have been an atheist nearly my entire life and have never considered Christmas to be anything but the time of year when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. I have celebrated the secular aspects of Christmas with family and friends, and enjoyed the good feelings and hopefulness expressed during the season. And I have never met anyone personally who has acted otherwise. One need not be a Christian to celebrate the message of Jesus – peace on earth, good will to men and women.

    December 21, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
    • SecularSpiritualist

      Very well said! One does not need to believe in God to celebrate Christmas. At the same, I agree with Chris Stedman, such billboards are just a way to incite others and bring in money for their organization. Many may not agree with me, but religion has played a crucial role in keeping order in the society historically that is a lot more in magnitude than historical violence in the name of religion. The essence of all religions is to be good and do good but sometimes people get carried away by human frailty that results in undesirable actions. As a non-believer, I urge all atheists to not hate the people of faith.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
  7. jenholm25

    I'm an atheist and I celebrate a non-religious xmas. It's easy... celebrate, appreciate, and spend time with family and friends. Thank them for being in your life. Be kind to others and give to those who are less fortunate. i don't tell others what to believe or what they should or shouldn't celebrate – or how. So I'd really appreciate it if others would quit trying to tell me what I should/shouldn't celebrate or how.

    December 21, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  8. wildmangreen

    who gives a fling fook?

    December 21, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
  9. Alan

    That one random guy with piercings on CNN tells us to stop, I guess we should stop... cause he said so ! I really don't get why devoted Christians celebrate Christmas... It's not your precious "Lord"'s birthday in case you didn't know ! It was and still is a pagan holiday... remember that !

    Nice piercings btw (well, not really) !

    December 21, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
  10. vinster76

    some of you atheists are still talking.......I can hear you......the little patter of your heart as it increases in rate because you are so ticked off at those mean 'ol believers whom you hate so much you just have to put all your time into the CNN posts dealing with faith and God......You are so predictable.........blather on without me though, I have to go get my sons from practice, so you will have to spew your hate on those left behind....Merry Christmas! One and ALL......

    December 21, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Nice piece of holiday trolling.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
    • Mike

      nobody talk to Vinster, you don't want to jinx it, he's trolling a perfect game

      December 21, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
      • tallulah13


        December 21, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
    • Maddy

      Well, sweetheart, this is a story specifically about atheists, so by your own rules that you outlined below, why are you commenting?

      December 21, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
    • jenholm25

      Why are you so bothered by those who choose not to believe? Why do you care what I choose to believe in or not believe in?

      December 21, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  11. Tracy

    I've been an atheist for over 30 years and I'm so embarrassed by this group. Atheists should make sure to protect their rights to not practice a religion, but attacking religions is certainly not the way to do it. A little civility between the two sides will go a long way.

    December 21, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
    • edpeters101

      Agree completely. "Live and let live!".. Basically: If you can't say something nice then you should - STFU

      December 21, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • kevin

      I agree with you all the way. The group is giving the rest us a bad name

      December 21, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
  12. Bill Graham

    It is the height of arrogance to insist that this time of year is reserved for Christmas. Happy Soyal, everyone.

    December 21, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
    • tallulah13

      And happy Saturnalia to you.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
  13. vinster76

    here is another observation: with all the places on CNN they could debate on, why do the atheists choose the ones dealing with faith, or God? I am curious about the motive here. I mean, there are plenty of stories on CNN, why come here to blather on nonsensically ad nauseum??? I am really curious about that. Do they think they are going to illumine us with their brilliance? Or do they just hate God????? Methinks a poll should be conducted to get to the bottom of this quandary......But in the meantime atheists, Please continue to shut up....Thank you, and Merry Christmas to you all!

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

      It's already been explained to you multiple times despite your lies and misrepresentation. If 90% of the country believed in the tooth fairy and thought we should all live by laws originating in the tooth fairy and run our country according to the tooth fairy's wisdom, you'd probably be on blogs dealing with the tooth fairy and arguing against the use of her existence as a basis for running society.

      And if you'd like people to respect you and take you seriously, you'd have to stop with the obvious lies.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
      • vinster76

        Hey lets all take up a collection and get some cookies for Cpt Obvious............Then, after that, we will sing you a lullaby and put you to nappy nap, Mr. Whiner...... Wahhhhhhhhhhhhh

        December 21, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          Why do you only ever accuse others of being mean instead of addressing the reasoning put forth to you? Can't handle addressing the argument itself?

          December 21, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
    • Maddy

      Because this is a blog about how religion impacts people's everyday lives... And talking about religion on The Marquee Blog or Eatocracy, unless the story references it, would be absurd.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
  14. myrtlemaylee

    I'm gratified that there are several references in this piece that state plainly that these "atheists" are completely self-serving egomaniacs. There IS a war on Xmas because there IS a war on belief in God. Are there really atheists that attend church? I doubt it – I'd like to see some statistics. I think we're long overdue for a separation of "atheist" from "anti-theist". From those who do not believe in a God to those who want to destroy anyone's belief in ANY god. They're bigots, IMO, and every bit as dangerous as the religious zealots they constantly condemn.

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

      Do you think Westboro Baptist represents all Christians?

      December 21, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
    • jenholm25

      As a long time atheist (and former christian), I can tell you that the MAJORITY of atheists do not care what others believe. They are not trying to have some war on christmas, your religion, or your god or anything along those lines. They DON'T care what you believe. All we ask is 1. that you don't try to change our beliefs and we won't try to change yours, 2. don't assume that everyone you come in contact with is christian, 3. show some respect for those who don't believe what you believe.

      Religion and spirituality is very personal and everyone needs to find their own path. That path is not going to be the same for everyone.

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

        THANK YOU! I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church and went to a Christian high school too. I'm an atheist. We don't have meetings. We don't participate in some conspiracy.

        When you are in your home, I don't care to whom you pray. You could take off all your clothes and dance around in goat's blood for all I care.

        I'm tired of being accused of trying to take away someone else's freedom of religion.

        December 21, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
  15. Steve T.

    Most atheists (like myself) grew up with Christmas, and realistically we would all be sad to see it disappear if this 'war" went all the way. It's a nice holiday, very cool if you're a kid, and actually it adds some art and color to normal life.

    Even from an atheist's perspective, if there was a giant Thor holiday wouldn't it be cool? If you believe that the god isn't there, then how does it matter? Do we fight Halloween because we don't believe in spirits? It just means this sort of beauty, almost escapist beauty, erupts out of nowhere for a month. Not only that, but it brings the message of giving. Just like how the Renaissance brought the greatest works of art, does it really matter which god is involved and why?

    IMO there are different groups of atheists, but there is a large group which is driven by an unhealthy brand of cynicism, which basically stems from insecurity. If you're secure that God doesn't exist and in your belief, then why fight? Why feel threatened in the first place? You can enjoy the mythology - and you are actually lucky. Because if you believe religion will exit the world in 200 years then we are seeing the last of its beauty.

    Don't be so quick to call other people "stupid," all human beings are the same, each with their own quirks and beliefs.

    December 21, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
  16. kaemicha

    I respect the beliefs of atheists, as I wish they would allow Christians to believe in what they believe in. No matter what your belief system is, let the others be. We can't all think the same.
    Happy Holidays, atheists.

    December 21, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • jenholm25

      As an atheist I agree. i'd flip that wording around – where it's says atheists, I'd put christians and vice versa. Unfortunately, I've had many christians try to tell me that I can't celebrate xmas because i'm atheist. I don't try to tell them what to believe or not to believe, or what they shoud or shouldn't celebrate – or how they should celebrate it. Everyone has the right to celebrate whatever they want to and not try to tell others what to do. It's all about respecting others.
      Peace be with you. Happy holidays!

      December 21, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
  17. clarinet

    Atheism is simply hate and intolerance committed by the ungrounded.

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

      Please explain why you believe that. Or post the URL for the Babble Humper website you read it at.

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

      Actually atheism is simply the lack of belief in any god. I hope Santa brings you a dictionary for Christmas.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
    • igaftr

      A newborn baby, does not believe in god. They are also hateful and intolrant?

      The Dalai Lama is hateful and intolerant?

      Sounds like you were looking in the mirror when you wrote that, and projected.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
    • Casey

      You give all woodwinds a bad name.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
  18. Gyrogearloose

    the Christian religious right 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 4:05 pm |
    • callmeconfused

      I wonder if the atheists will be so aggressive against the Muslim believers once they take over the USA. Infidels are not so well received by that group,

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

        We aren't that well received by christians either, as demonstrated by all of the laws the christians have passed to force their beliefs on everyone else, and the ones who say we are satanists, etc. At least with the muslims, you can spot them 5 times a day.

        December 21, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
  19. dave D white (Chicago)

    You know the atheist is WRONG when they feel the need to attack the other side, who they perceive as correct.

    December 21, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Is this why christians have been attacking non-believers throughout most of their history?

      December 21, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
  20. Salero21

    😀 😀 😀 This is just one big piece of evidence of the Total stupidity of atheism. I you don't really believe why bother with something that you don't believe in. Who needs atheists during the so called "christmas season"? Nobody! Truth is that not even all who claim to be "christians" celebrate or believe in "christmas". It is not even required to be Save or for entry into the Kingdom of Heavens. So why the fuzz? Live and let others live. If you're an ingrate and malcontent not everyone is like you.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Are you suggesting that the "war on terror" is stupid and illogical because the people fighting terror don't believe that Allah exists?

      December 21, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
      • General Obvious

        Well, you are so obvious, are you?

        December 21, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
      • the five-four morons and an idiot

        the "war on terror" is about a fake a war as the "war on drugs". crawl out from under your bed and go outside to the park today, get some sunshine and realize not everyone os out to kill you. you may even find golf to be a rather good time to smell the flowers and hear some birds sing.

        December 21, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          My response has nothing to do with the effectiveness or lack thereof on the war on terror and has everything to do with the "logic" employed by the OP. Obviously, my criticism of the 'logic' of the OP was over your head; your post proved it.

          December 21, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
    • Mark Hensley

      If only so-called Christians lived by that principal. Live and let live.
      But they don't.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
    • Atheism4Me

      Atheism is no more stupid than any other belief or non-belief. Most atheists I know have no problem with Christmas or whatever thing you happen to celebrate (or not) around this time of year.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
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