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. mcp123

    "Let’s not kid ourselves: There is no war on Christmas."

    Yes...but fabricating things that don't exist is what Fox News and republicans do best....whether its WMD's that don't exist or the faux War on Christmas.

    As always...they get p0wned by Jon Stewart after Fox News eye candy "reporters" call them out.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:30 am |
  2. EaglesPDX

    Only if the Christians release their Christmas hostages, the winter solstice celebration, decorated trees, Odin (aka "Santa Claus"), Yule log, gift giving...all the good stuff they expropriated.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:27 am |
  3. bostontola

    In most movements, there are people all along a spectrum. The quiet, build bridges approach alone might work over decades. Mr. Silverman doesn't want to wait that long. Multiple groups of atheists, each with different tactics will likely usher in change faster. The beauty is, they all have the right to use the approach they want as long as they don't break the law.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      I wouldn't want to be mistaken for one of Mr. Silverman's group. That man's self-aggrandizement doesn't serve anyone.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • RickK

      Yep. As an example, gay rights would still be a distant dream without the "loudmouths". A phrase many atheists take to heart: "silence equals acceptance".

      December 21, 2013 at 11:31 am |
      • Tom, Tom, the Other One

        I've tried to imagine what the atheist analogue of Stonewall might look like. I just don't think the experience of LGBT people in America is similar to that of non-theists.

        December 21, 2013 at 11:59 am |
    • Deidre Kennedy

      Chris, while I understand that some may find Silverman's tactics unpalatable they are effective. A few short years ago we may have been having a conversation about Humanism/Atheism but it would have been in someone's basement not on the national stage. It's just this type of advertising that affords us the opportunity to join the conversation that has previously gone on without us. I'm disappointed that you aren't seeing this issue clearly and that you have chosen to disparage American Atheist efforts.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
  4. Dave

    I am not a christian and I see no need for a 'war' on christmas. Are jews offended when someone tells them 'Merry Christmas' or gives them a Christmas card? I tend to go with 'it's the thought that counts'. I may not subscribe to your beliefs, but appreciate that you were thinking of me around your holiday. I don't go all bah humbug if someone gives me a card or invites me to a Christmas party... but I do make it clear that I am not a Christian.

    My belief is that the 'war' is being waged by what I call 'angry atheists'. And to be fair, many of them have a right to be angry. Many christians are EXTREMELY confrontational and have zero tolerance for any variation of their beliefs. Atheists interacting with this crowd tend to get angry and as confrontational as the christians they despise. Me? I avoid those nutters like the plague. Maybe that is why I am not as cheesed off as some atheists.

    Now that said, I am strong advocate of church/state separation. The 10 Commandments do not belong in courthouses. Christian nativity scenes should not be allowed on public property... unless equal access is granted to all including Atheists that want a Festivus Pole, or even Satanists. So either all religions and expressions of lack of religion are allowed, or none are. None is easiest to implement. Private property? Knock yourself out.

    But generally speaking, I do not participate in the 'war'. If Christians stay out of my face, I stay out of theirs. If they respect my beliefs, I can respect theirs. If they get pushy with me, I will get pushy right back or leave.

    But I don't make it my missions in life to blast someone for a well intended 'merry christmas'

    December 21, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • ironman59

      Let's face facts. The "war on christmas" was created by the religious right to show how "persecuted" they have become. Persecution that they have done to every race and gender on this planet for thousands of years. Now they know how it feels to be attacked for their views which are not wanted.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • Saraswati

      I'm pretty sure most atheists in the US not only are comfortable hearing "Merry Christmas" but say it themselves. The issue has only really ever come up in a business context in respect of people of other religions. The whole war on Christmas idea is just right wing propaganda.No one cares if you put manger scenes on your lawn or outside the church. We just ask that you not put them outside the town hall.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • ToadBrother

      The "War on Christmas" is a social conservative fabrication. Demagogues always need an enemy to rail against, and where no enemy is willing to step forward, some group or another can be demonized and made to fulfill the role.

      December 21, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
  5. ironman59

    So the right wing is upset that we don't want the religious aspect of their pagan winter festival shoved down our throats. They also refuse to admit that their birth stories are false in time and detail. The actual alignment of the planets was summer of 6BC and the pope emeritus even admitted to that scientific fact. I find it hilarious that we have to put up with religion in our government but when we try to take our government back from religion they whine. Just as they whine about the war on winter pagan festivals.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • Saraswati

      Yeah, they are actually better of snagging the autumnal equinox. I wonder what such a "Christmas" would looks like?

      December 21, 2013 at 11:43 am |
  6. aroomadazda

    But, what would Fox News have to complain about this time of year?

    December 21, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  7. Scott

    Religion is a dying human invention. Every year fewer people believe in religion. It won't be long (generations probably) when people look upon all religions like most people look upon greek mythology.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:19 am |
    • mary

      It is an evolutionary process but economic stress tends to reinforce religion .
      People enduring great hardships often hang onto the promise of heaven for emotional reasons .
      However , as long as we can keep the singing and great holiday foods , I'm OK .
      As a Buddhist , I like the Asian holidays but do kind of miss the Christian singing .
      I'm for fusion Holidays !

      December 21, 2013 at 11:28 am |
      • Saraswati

        I like celebrating the secular or historical aspects of as many holidays. possible. But yeah, they should have as much singing, dancing, food and cheer as possible.

        December 21, 2013 at 11:44 am |
    • sqeptiq

      We will always have the ignorant and poorly educated, so religion will diminish but never go away.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:42 am |
      • Darrell

        We will always have the ignorant and poorly educated, so atheistic will diminish but never go away.

        December 22, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
        • tallulah13

          Darrell translated: "I know you are but what am I?"

          December 22, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • seirios78

      While I wouldn't argue, whether it's a good or a bad thing, I actually feel there's a surge in new religious zealotry just about everywhere. Also, the question is which religions are we talking about and in which societies: the followers of Islam are multiplying by the minute and Christianity is also on the rise in African nations, China, etc. But even in Europe, political parties identifying themselves with "Christian values" are gaining ground in many countries.

      My personal problem with this whole process is that the debate becomes increasingly radicalized: on one side stand the dogmatic religious hardliners and on the other the equally aggressive and intolerant atheists. I find both equally repulsive, because both are dismissive and arrogant. If we ever want to achieve a peaceful society, we have to grow up from the infantile stupidity of dreaming of a monocultural society. Let's finally accept the complexity and diversity of life and forget about simplifying it for the sake of grasping it.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:55 am |
      • G to the T

        While I think I see where you coming from, I think the same phenomenon may be explained by the moderates dropping out or remaining silent while the more extreme versions are only reinforced by what they see as fulfillment of their beliefs in persecution.

        December 21, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
  8. Mary

    As an atheist I would like to tell the organization / American Atheists . . . STFU already .
    I KNOW there are other atheists and BTW , most of us have NO issue with religious holidays .
    It does NOT bother me that people who believe in a god , sing , dance and give presents .

    Get over your 12 year old selves already .
    As long as it does Not involve violence , Let Others do their thing !


    December 21, 2013 at 11:16 am |
    • Glenn

      Nice post Mary. And I believe that the vast majority of atheists believe as you do. However, in the interest of creating a sensational news story, it's the squeaky wheel that gets air time.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:19 am |
    • Michael

      Thanks Mary

      December 21, 2013 at 11:19 am |
    • JakeAZ

      right on.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      In fact I think we should give presents to believers – little things like fancy foods and candies, perhaps wine or ice cider, that sort of thing. After the holidays they may feel less inclined to subordinate women, or restrict the freedoms of people not like themselves, or promote their beliefs among people who really don't want to hear about it.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • Saraswati

      It would be nice if they could get some mature adults on board as consultants to help guide the folks in this organization. I understand the developmental stages through which these folks are going in building a new identi.ty, but to have this much power to make a fuss when still working out these personal issues is a problem. Folks who feel they need this kind of support should be greeted by an organization that will explain to them how one works through a past of religious oppression to a mature understanding of how the world works.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:50 am |
    • jack

      Thank you Mary, you are exactly right. That is how I feel as an Atheist. American Atheists has hijacked our ideology and turned it into their own cult for personal gain and do not represent the majority of real Atheists. They give Atheists a bad name. Atheism is an individual choice. They are not different than the other religions that try to push their beliefs upon others. Atheism is an individual realizing a higher consciousness and awareness of our human existence in the universe based on facts, science, and reality.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  9. Terry G

    Give me a break. I've seen nothing to indicate there is a war on Christmas. I'm hoping to see a war on Christmas excess one of these days though as it has been turned into little more than a well coordinated scheme to sell merchandise.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:16 am |
    • cnet

      Christians would join you on that one.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  10. roberta

    Christ was not and could not have been born in December. The shepherds were out on the field at the time of His birth announcement according to the New Testament. December is very cold in Palestine. Starts warming up end of February. So the shepherds were not out on the fields in December. The so-callled "Christmas" has nothing to do with Christ but everything to do with pagan worship of the solstice. This has nothing to do with emotion but is factual.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:14 am |
    • cnet

      Nobody is actually claiming that Jesus was born in December. December 25th is simply the day we set aside to remember and celebrate Christ's birth.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:21 am |
      • Bob

        Uh huh. A date that Christians stole from others and subverted for their cult. Religion is on its way down. Get used to it.

        December 21, 2013 at 11:27 am |
      • sqeptiq

        Oh yeah, lot's of people believe passionately that jesus was truly born on December 25th, and are shocked if you try to convince them otherwise.

        December 21, 2013 at 11:46 am |
    • Valerie

      We know that Roberta. Jesus was born in the springtime. "Shepard's keeping watch over their flock by night" They would be doing this during "lambing season" when the lambs are born and this is in the spring. December 25 is right after the winter solstices when the daylight hours become longer. Jesus said, "I am the light of the world, whoever believes in me will not walk in darkness but in the light". THAT is why December 25 was chosen as the day we CELEBRATE Christ's birth. It had nothing to do with pagans and we all know he was not born in December. Now you know.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:22 am |
      • Bob

        No, Valerie, you have just made clear what you don't know.

        December 21, 2013 at 11:28 am |
      • Bob

        It's pretty funny to see the Christians whine endlessly about Christ and the holiday that they stole from others. The whole Jesus-sacrifice story is a steaming pile of bull-do to begin with. How is it again that your omnipotent being couldn't do his saving bit without the whole silly Jesus hoopla? And how was Jesus' death a "sacrifice", when an omnipotent being could just pop up a replacement son any time with less than a snap of his fingers? Pretty pathetic "god" that you've made for yourself there.

        Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement.
        Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.

        December 21, 2013 at 11:30 am |
      • roberta

        Did He ask us to do this?

        December 21, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • George

      It is almost certainly true that Jesus was not born in December. That was a non-issue to Constantine, a Christian, who re-purposed a week-long fest for the Roman god Saturn to a celebration of the birth of Christ. Saturnalia was itself a collection of practices borrowed from Pagans and included debauchery that I'll skip here (you can look it up). Even most non-Christians reading this post would regard it as an improvement.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:29 am |
  11. Wyattbw09

    In a lot of ways atheists are like loudmouths, if you just ignore them all their power will diminish. They are too tiny of a group to have any real impact on their own they depend on people reacting to their absurd shouting in order to get any traction. So ignore their handful of billboards and bus advertising is really the best way to handle it.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:12 am |
    • DonP

      As usual, there is a tiny faction that ruins it for everyone else. Ignore this, this is media created fervor. They are just as many Xtians who want Xtianity shoved down our throats as Atheists who want to make these statements. Ignore all of them. 99% are live and let live. Merry Xmas.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • RickK

      Do you completely miss the point in all aspects of your life or just here?

      December 21, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • Sue

      Well, actually, it is religion that is diminishing, but thanks for coming out.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • sqeptiq

      I have never had an atheist come to my door and try to persuade or shame or scare me into believing their myths...but lots of christians do. I've never seen an atheist television network devoted to scamming money out of the gullible. Talk about loudmouths!

      December 21, 2013 at 11:51 am |
    • Saraswati

      Atheists used to be a tiny group in Scandinavia, and now the majority do not believe in gods. That same trend is taking place throughout the developed world.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:53 am |
    • Factoidlover

      I agree with you that at times any group can vocalize their points of view to the extreme (become loudmouths). Generally serves a point of view poorly. But ignoring 20% of the US population and the growth rate of atheism is not a good strategy for religious points of view. Having reasonable dialogue might serve every one better. Heck, you may find you are closer to atheism than you think.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
  12. JakeAZ

    i relate and agree with the author of this article. the billboards are what most religious people think of when they think of us atheists. its just not positive or productive dialogue. most of my friends and family are either atheist and agnostic. they are kind, sharing, and tolerant people. this doesn't represent us.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:11 am |
    • aldewacs2

      Do you feel similarly about religious billboards?

      December 21, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  13. Marty

    Consider this: If you believe that there's no war on Atheists, then please name me one national politician who's an atheist. 99.9% of our Washington representatives label themselves Christian, yet that percentage nationally is under 70%. Try campaigning as an atheist – you'll never win – and you'll know why.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:11 am |
    • cnet

      That doesn't mean there is a war on atheism. That just means that there aren't many people that hold that belief.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:22 am |
    • There, their, and they're

      And yet - how many Americans know that our founding fathers were not Christians, but theists, agnostics, or atheists. They were men of the Enlightenment.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:32 am |
      • cnet

        What do the founding fathers have to do with celebrating Christ's birth. Christianity has been the primary religion in America since its independence. Why are we surprised that people practice it???

        December 21, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  14. Stephen

    I do not know if Stanley is correct or not, but stories on religion on this web site attract commenters who are not just atheist but harsh anti-religionsits. If atheists would prefer not to be marginalized, the author of this piece is correct, the bast way to do that would be stop the war on Christmas and the harsh anti-religious commentary. I get the impression that the author of this article is someone with whom I could have useful dialog and actually learn something I don't already know about the perspective of atheists in a country in which most people are at least nominally religious. On the contrary, the anti-religious venting that dominates the comments on this and other web sites accomplishes nothing but to affirm the stereotype of atheists as unhappy grinches.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:11 am |
    • Colin

      Engage in debate and you'll find people are not as nasty as they seem on the internet.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • JakeAZ

      we can start the dialogue right here stephen. what do you want to know about atheists? we are definitely not all unhappy grinches. i love christmas in fact.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:28 am |
  15. steve

    This is all about the on-going war on Atheists.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  16. Harry Ballsachs

    What about the Jews?

    December 21, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  17. Rob


    December 21, 2013 at 11:08 am |
  18. mainer

    "While that intention is important and admirable"? Huh? Are they after Ramadan and Quanza too? Get off it.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:08 am |
  19. Daremonai

    Considering what a tiny, tiny percentage of the dialog is made up of such atheistic billboards and comments, if we are going to talk about "quitting the war on christmas", such groups are really not the ones we should be talking to.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:07 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55
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.