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. Attack of the 50 Foot Magic Underwear

    I think everyone should chill and watch "A Charlie Brown Christmas".

    December 21, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
    • Perry the Post-Theist

      I am rather bummed that the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol isn't on this year. He and David Warner nailed it. But I can always enjoy Clark Griswold flailing away.

      December 21, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
    • Akira

      I want then to come over, wave their arms, and beautify my tree.

      Love that show.

      December 21, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
    • truthprevails1

      Absolutely, my 19 year old still watches it every year..it's been tradition since I was young and so it carried to her.

      December 21, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
    • lol??

      You got something against Platoon?? It's a classic.

      December 21, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
  2. Mike

    If you are truly secure in your faith why would something like this bother you? In my brain I know god doesn't exist, so when I walk by a sign that says something about Jesus (which is quite often around here) ya know what I do? I just keep walking, because clearly that sign is not meant for me.

    December 21, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
    • Dan J

      When you walk by a sign that says "atheists are wrong," it is meant for you. That's what this guy's sign said to Christians. It was intended to insult, nothing more.

      December 21, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
      • Mike

        Is that not what signs about Jesus are saying? Signs about God fly directly in the face of atheism. But why should that bother me? If somebody you don't even know has the power to ruin your day just by writing something, you've failed at life already.

        December 21, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
      • Dandintac

        That's one possible interpretation. I think of it as a message to people who are experiencing doubts. However, I don't agree with this approach. It seems to have a tone and att itude that I find disagreeable–and on everyone's favorite holiday. I like the idea of reaching out to atheists who are in a closet, but don't like this approach, and I think we have bigger fish to fry.

        I will say this though. If you feel insulted, just try to imagine the shoe being on the other foot. Imagine being an atheist, and everyone there are signs and crosses. You would see far more than what you will ever see coming from us.

        Furthermore, however bad some atheists can be, no matter how undiplomatic or downright rude, will never ever see an atheist sign saying that you will burn in Hell for all eternity if you don't share our beliefs. So take some solace in that, and maybe you might feel less offended by this sign.

        December 21, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
    • lol??

      If that ever fails try whistling.

      December 21, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
  3. A traveler

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

    December 21, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magic Underwear

      And to you and yours, from me and mine!

      December 21, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
    • jenholm25

      Happy holidays to all!

      December 21, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
  4. mary

    The article is written by an athesist who has given extremely good discussion points on the whys and why nots of posting this bill board. The paragraph that got my attention was that it is to paraphrase "good business for Fox and for the Athesist organization" Fox increasing viewership and the Ahtesists getting donations flowing in. Very hypocritical of both!

    December 21, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
    • Atheist.

      That's one atheist organization, and if you bothered to actually read the posts so far, you would see that many of us dislike their signs and don't feel they represent us.

      December 21, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  5. The GOP need to pack up and leave

    Christians need to stop their war on Halloween.

    December 21, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
    • lol??

      All the houses burned down in Detroit??

      December 21, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
      • The GOP need to pack up and leave

        I mean all those who want to change Halloween to "Fall Festival" or "Harvest Jubilee" instead of Halloween. Those who say Halloween is evil and anyone who goes trick-or-treating is doing the devil's work.

        They don't want anyone touching Christmas yet they're touching Halloween. Turn about is fair play, right?

        December 21, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
  6. Rev.O'Connell

    It's a holiday Just enjoy it. It maters not what custom came from where or what inspired it. Enjoy the colorful decorations and the company of family and friends. And if you feel compelled to do some good deed then do so. "All the world is a stage" – Shakespeare
    Go and enjoy the play. – me

    December 21, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
  7. Ralter

    I still wonder what would happen if the Vatican just up and announced they're moving the celebration of the birth of Christ back to the original date it was sometime in July. Christmas suddenly becomes pagan again? Chanukah suddenly returns to a less-than-important celebration? Would stores continue to mark down prices and make the whole holiday really all about consumerism, without the veil of religion that it's hid under for decades?

    December 21, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
    • The GOP need to pack up and leave

      Santa delivering toys in the middle of the summer? He'd burn up in that oversized Kringle outfit. 🙂

      December 21, 2013 at 6:15 pm |
  8. romany

    if they are atheist why are they even celebrating christmas, they should be working, no presents no special meals its a religious event, if it means nothing to them, they can be the ones to volunteer to be at work that day so the ones it does mean something to can take the day off

    December 21, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
    • igaftr

      Old traditions run deep. Often atheists HAVE to celebrate since they are normally surrounded by christians. Also, you needn't celebrate Christmas at all, yet keep some of the other traditions, like celebrating with family. I personally celebrate the winter solstice, and do very little on christmas, since the christians have the whole country shut down.

      I suppose you also think that you have to be religious to get married as well?

      December 21, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
      • lol??

        In a proper marriage the man rules. His castle and his property rights are God given.

        December 21, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magic Underwear

      Because "Christmas" has evolved into something much more than a religious celebration. Many non-Christians celebrate the holiday season, call it Christmas, and sing religious Christmas carols – because it's nice music they learned in their childhood.

      December 21, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
    • Perry the Post-Theist

      We do Christmas here, rather like it actually. We don't change the name or discuss religion/atheism at all. Just a nice family holiday, fun to be generous, all that. No worries.

      December 21, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
  9. Mick

    I like that he's putting up billboards. We certainly have enough Christian billboards...what's wrong with another group expressing their religious views? But I agree with the author that the message is wrong. If the goal is to let atheists know that they're not alone, or to tidy up our image and show theists that we're not angry puppy-dog killers but just regular folks whose religious views differ from theirs, we're not going to do it by insulting religion on billboards.

    December 21, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
    • lol??

      mick sayz,
      "..............not angry puppy-dog killers..............." The pwogwessives sent an Illinois man to prison for shooting his OWN dog that turned into a biter!!!!!!!!

      December 21, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
    • Dan J

      Ha, that billboard wasn't "expressing their religious view." That billboard was a diss on another religious view, directly. If Christians came up with a billboard that said "non Christians are wrong," people would be right to feel insulted. So why doesn't the flip apply?

      December 21, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
  10. sailor

    I will bet most of you so called atheists would call on god if you were in a really bad situation, Like the possibility of a gun to your head or a child missing or something like that..

    December 21, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Do you by any chance have God's number?

      December 21, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
    • Answer

      "God, please tell these christians to fuck off."

      December 21, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
    • Foxhole Atheist

      I have been in many life-threatning situations in the U.S. Army and never once needed to call upon any god for help. My fellow soldiers were all I needed.

      -Foxhole Atheist

      December 21, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
    • igaftr

      That "no atheists in fox holes" is just another myth, one you christians like to soothe yourselves with, but simply not true.

      December 21, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
  11. Maani

    "War on Drugs." "War on Terror." "War on Poverty." "War on Christmas." Isn't it sad that some people insist on creating and maintaining an "us vs. them" mentality, and approaching things from an "either/or" perspective rather than working to create truly helpful, broad-based, non-confrontational, non-divisive solutions? I don't care if you are a believer or a non-believer: if you "buy into" this mindset, then you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    December 21, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
    • lol??

      The Frankfurt School did give you the gift of the dialectic through the conduit of Bloom. That was a War on the Republic. They won.

      December 21, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
    • Answer

      And there you sit, proclaiming to yourself that "I'm above it all. I sit right in the middle, but I can tell you off ~to both sides~ that you're petty. I remind you, that I'm perfectly in the middle."

      December 21, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
  12. RB

    A Christmas present for my atheist acquaintances on the belief blog. If you have a few minutes read the gospel of Luke. It has been said that Luke is the thinking persons gospel. Merry Christmas!

    December 21, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
    • Answer

      We, atheists, urge you to also re-read your bible. As well as, picking up other books that aren't quite full of bs.

      December 21, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Hello Robert. Luke was a favourite in my family at Christmas when I was young.

      December 21, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
      • RB

        Hey Tom, sorry about the name change, I was suddenly unable to use my original one any longer. Luke is very readable, I like to read some to the kids on Christmas Eve. I hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday.

        December 21, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
    • JJ

      May I suggest a Science book instead or perhaps reading up on all the pre-Christian December traditions Christians borrowed/stole from?

      December 21, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
    • dogon

      That's a great suggestion! I actually read the bible a couple of times when I was searching for answers and that book alone led me to be an atheist. There are lots of wonderful passages that speak to love and peace etc. But then there's stuff like Genesis 18 & 19. Really??

      December 21, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
  13. JJ

    Today's the Winter Solstice, the real, real reason for the season. Let's all celebrate the days getting longer again here in the Northern Hemisphere and light a yule log and decorate a tree with lights.

    December 21, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
    • Jazzman

      Atheists are like lost puppies, eventually they will find their way home.

      December 21, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
      • no

        That's an outlandish statement. Prove it.

        December 23, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • lol??

      Be your natural self. Use real candles.

      December 21, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
  14. Chris

    I considered atheism, but their Christmas music is lousy. Instead I became an antiunicornist. Whenever I see these 6-8 year olds going to school with colorful pictures of unicorns on their backpacks, I make it my duty to let them know there are no unicorns and they are just totally ignorant for a 7 year old. I have started a group to get the word out. We will start to boycott stores that sell unicorn products.

    December 21, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
    • Answer


      Cheers, and thanks ~ for a good read.

      December 21, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
    • lol??

      What next, the pink pony mom promised you??
      "...................Unicorns are not found in Greek mythology, but rather in accounts of natural history, for Greek writers of natural history were convinced of the reality of the unicorn,...................."

      Gonna betray evolutionism, too??

      December 21, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
  15. EvinAR

    What atheists are trying to show is that the vast majority of people who celebrate this holiday today don't really give a crap about Jesus while celebrating it. They really don't–the concept of somebody saving their lives from a crucified execution occurring 2,000 years ago is appropriately distant and irrelevant to them, because the vast majority of believers put as much thought and effort into what they believe about their religion as WHY they believe what they believe about their religion.

    December 21, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
    • Chris

      Ah, sorry I'm from smoking Colorado; like what??

      December 21, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
  16. lajmh

    Well, I;m part of the movement to put Christ back in Christmas. He is the reason for the season. Tell me, do these non believing atheists still do their holiday shopping in December?

    December 21, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
    • Fan2C

      Well, the reason that today is called Saturday is because of the god Saturn... and the reason that you call next month is the god, Janus. Are you gonna put them back too?

      December 21, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
    • VEW2012

      No, Saturnalia is the reason for the season.

      December 21, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
    • John Sharp

      It's not a war on Christmas you simple person.

      it is a search for the truth and past the childish mythological beliefs of our ancestors.

      I like the sign. We all should be shaking the religious people by the shoulders and screaming at them.

      Wake Up! There is a very good reason you have never physically seen your god. There is a very good reason your parents never physically saw your god. There is a very good reason your grandfathers have never physically seen your god.
      There is a very good reason we don't have your god on video,.
      There is a very good reason we don't have photographs of your god.
      It is because he or she doesn't exist. Wake Up!

      December 21, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
    • Right

      You may as well be part of the movement to put leprechauns in the boxes of Lucky Charms.

      December 21, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
      • R

        There should be leprechauns in lucky charms.

        December 21, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
    • truthprevails1

      An education is a useful thing...Christmas has nothing to do with your imaginary friends illegitimate child...read on and open your closed mind:
      " Early Christians had a soft spot for pagans

      It's a mistake to say that our modern Christmas traditions come directly from pre-Christian paganism, said Ronald Hutton, a historian at Bristol University in the United Kingdom. However, he said, you'd be equally wrong to believe that Christmas is a modern phenomenon. As Christians spread their religion into Europe in the first centuries A.D., they ran into people living by a variety of local and regional religious creeds.

      Christian missionaries lumped all of these people together under the umbrella term "pagan," said Philip Shaw, who researches early Germanic languages and Old English at Leicester University in the U.K. The term is related to the Latin word meaning "field," Shaw told LiveScience. The lingual link makes sense, he said, because early European Christianity was an urban phenomenon, while paganism persisted longer in rustic areas.

      Early Christians wanted to convert pagans, Shaw said, but they were also fascinated by their traditions.

      "Christians of that period are quite interested in paganism," he said. "It's obviously something they think is a bad thing, but it's also something they think is worth remembering. It's what their ancestors did."
      Perhaps that's why pagan traditions remained even as Christianity took hold. The Christmas tree is a 17th-century German invention, University of Bristol's Hutton told LiveScience, but it clearly derives from the pagan practice of bringing greenery indoors to decorate in midwinter. The modern Santa Claus is a direct descendent of England's Father Christmas, who was not originally a gift-giver. However, Father Christmas and his other European variations are modern incarnations of old pagan ideas about spirits who traveled the sky in midwinter, Hutton said."

      December 21, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
  17. hearties

    They paid money to cross out the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. It's like the high priests paying Judas to betray him, paying guards for the tomb and to deny Jesus rose from the dead. They just don't want Jesus saving people.

    December 21, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
    • Mike

      Which is funny, because the person that you know as Jesus Christ would have never heard that name in his lifetime. Maybe he cares more about the message than the name, but sadly most Christians don't.

      December 21, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
  18. Mike

    If I were to say something like, 'I believe the Earth is the second planet from the sun, because I don't believe in Venus. Who needs Venus anyways? Nobody!" Would you cry foul? No, because you believe that you know better. So why does something like this bother Christians? It's because you've wrapped your faith around your ego (and your ego doesn't like being told it's wrong), untangle it and get back to practicing what you supposedly believe in.

    December 21, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • Answer

      They're all wrapped tight in their delusions. They made so many lies to themselves that they have to keep at it.

      It is the failure point that they can not handle. So rather than accept the possibly of the lies being the lies they are; they will continue to posit the lies as truths.

      Preserving their little bubble is the ultimate form of protection from reality.

      December 21, 2013 at 5:38 pm |
      • Fred

        Interesting that you think that magic super invisobuddy is "reality" and that accepting the real world as it is without any imaginary supernatural forces is "lies."

        December 21, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
        • Answer

          Hey stupid – re-read the post.

          December 21, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
    • Right

      Number of planets: verifiable with evidence.

      Religion: not the slightest shred of evidence

      December 21, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
  19. jenholm25

    RESPECT... It's all about respect. No one has the right to tell others what they can/can't, should/shouldn't celebrate or who they should/shouldn't celebrate. Part of the benefit of living in the US is that you can celebrate whatever you want to.

    December 21, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
    • albie

      someone should tell christians that - they love to tell people what to do and what not to do

      December 21, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • Saraswati

      No one has the right to tell people what the can celebrate, but everyone certainly has the right to tell people what they think they should celebrate. That is a conti.tutionally guaranteed freedom of speech..

      December 21, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
      • JAG

        Why is always forgotten that everyone has the right NOT to listen. Like the young people who play their radios so loud with the bass turned all the way up when they are driving down the street. The vibrations rattle every car around. I don't like their music, so why should I have to forceably listen to it. If anyone wants to evangelize and I do not want to listen, why am I wrong? And that can be the same issue with some atheists, too. The billboards, the preaching seem to exemplfy not the diversity but the many divisions we have in this country.

        December 21, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
      • no

        I'm forced to go out of my way for other's religious wants every year. Forced. And it should stop.

        December 23, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  20. JohnJ

    The christians have already lost christmas. Walk outside any nite in any neighborhood and look at the decorations. Count them...one, two three, four, five Santas....one, two three four Rudolphs, one, two, three Frosty's. You MIGHT see a manger scene...you MIGHT. But in all probability you won't. Santa, Rudolph and the christmas tree are the signs of christmas now, not christianity.
    The people have spoken loud and clear.

    December 21, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
    • VEW2012

      And a lot of them display a Grinch.

      December 21, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
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About this blog

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