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. lol??

    Hark! King Herod's swordsmen swing. He didn't have a proper birth certificate and fought for baby killin' rights.

    December 21, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
    • Mopery

      What does this have to do with Ted Cruz?

      December 21, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
  2. Brad

    So odd. Why would they celebrate Christmas if they're not Christan? Oh yeah, because it's been secularized.

    December 21, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • Saraswati

      I always wonder the same thing about Christians cellebrating the goddess Easter. Could it be that traditions just evolve and no one owns them?

      December 21, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
  3. Ferdinand

    What war on christmas? You celebrate it or you don't. I've never heard anyone push their views on the subject except those who wish we were a theocracy instead of a democracy.

    December 21, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
  4. Robert Raulerson

    There are more than one kind of atheist. The laffin atheist is the one you need to watch out for. H. L. Mencken is one example. The Angry Atheist is a pain in the whatever. Ignore him. You are not worth getting angry over.

    December 21, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
    • Perry the Post-Theist

      So you assign different levels of hate depending on what stereotype of atheist you think you are encountering?

      December 21, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
      • Robert Raulerson

        Laughter signifies contempt – not hatred.

        December 21, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
        • Perry the Post-Theist

          Contempt is hatred.

          December 21, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
        • Dandintac

          I don't know if contempt is exactly synonymous with hatred, but the two are definitely close cousins. I'm not sure that one is any better than the other.

          December 21, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
  5. scootfl78

    Conservative Christians should quit the war on happy holidays first as their arguments about "holidays" are 10,000% more insane than an atheist complaining about religious propaganda invading their lives.

    December 21, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
  6. The clergy project

    John Compere, PhD

    "I was a fifth-generation Baptist minister, ordained at age 18, while in college. I served until age 32 when I left the ministry and the church to get a PhD in Clinical Psychology. I had already completed a three-year seminary degree following college, which only increased my doubts about the authenticity of the theology I had learned from childhood. Leaving the ministry was not an easy decision to make since all my friends and family were in the church. But it was a decision I ultimately HAD to make if I didn't want to risk being publicly phony and privately cynical. I became an agnostic, then an atheist, NOT because I hadn't read the Bible, but because I had! An atheist, by the way, is simply someone who does not believe in a supernatural being. I am convinced that the evidence supports that view. All religion suffers from being bound by unchanging myth.

    As a psychologist, I continued to try to help people find meaning in their lives. I taught at the university and medical school, had a private clinical practice, and then became a professional speaker on "Psychology You Can USE!" I seriously doubt that life has any ultimate meaning, but I'm convinced that we can make our own meaning, and I have spent the last 45 years since I left the ministry trying to help people do just that. Success is not the goal - all therapists have dealt with many a successful person who was miserable - life satisfaction is the goal.

    When I made my career change, I was essentially on my own. I wish something like The Clergy Project had been around then. I could surely have used it. The goal of this project is not to try to convince believing clergy to give up their faith. Rather, it is to help those in the clergy who, for their own individual reasons, are no longer able to believe, to try to figure out how to make a huge sea-change in their lives. It may well be the absolutely most challenging career change anyone can make. We simply want to help make it easier."

    December 21, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
    • Formosa

      Wow. Glad you have it all neatly "solved" for the rest of us. Your personal journey and choices in no way invalidates someone else's journey towards spiritual enlightenment. Further, reading the bible does not make you an authority anymore than someone reading the New England Journal of Medicine makes them an expert on medical science. Typical arrogant atheist zealot.

      December 21, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
  7. Jib76

    Jesus loves all of us!

    December 21, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
    • Kevin

      The Hulk smashes


      December 21, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
  8. Kevin

    A Hitchens marathon on YouTube sounds like the perfect way to spend my Festivus.

    December 21, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
  9. Greg

    What kind of world do we live in where adults suffering from insanity are overlooked and viewed as normal. Believing in religion is a serious mental illness. It is completely mind blowing how people can continue to make irrational decisions based on their imaginary friends, and reading a 2000 year old book, and are continually given social passes for this insane behavior. Stop the madness people!

    December 21, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
    • Formosa

      Ah Greg, as life has no meaning and you are a simple organism which happened by chance ... why do you care what is in another organism's brain? People choose to listen to pulsating beats with men yelling obscenities yet that does not seem to bother you? What difference does it make? Are you upset with comic books? Books over 100 years old are invalid in your "mind"? There was another group in the 1930's who was upset with anything or anyone they didn't like ... I happen to think your survival instinct is a sign of a weak mind - as this existence has no "meaning" why even bother? Why even rate the concept of "good"... what's the point ... we are just organisms which procreate and generally destroy. Why "live" your life at all. I suggest it is the atheist which is suffering from the mental illness. You wish to remain on this planet for what purpose specifically? Leave something lasting? Make the world a better place? Why? When you die you will not care, or have any memory - yet you continue day after day building a life scrapbook with this full knowledge (some would say belief). That is insanity.

      December 21, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
      • G to the T

        Just a tip Formosa – the first person to allude to or mention the Nazi's/Hiltler as part of their argument automatically loses the internet.

        December 22, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
  10. Jib76

    Jesus loves those who hate Him:

    December 21, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
    • Kevin

      Batman saves


      December 21, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • jenholm25

      Atheists don't "hate" the christian god or Jesus, we don't believe in their existence.

      December 21, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
      • G to the T

        Right on. Many Christians seem to believe that the opposite of Love is Hate. It isn't. They are 2 sides of same coin. The opposite of hate/love is Indifference.

        December 22, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
  11. Bible Truth

    It's our right to keep Christ in Christmas just as it is another's right to celebrate their own way. The Bible is truth whether you believe it or not or celebrate it. I believe one of the more overwhelming testimonies regarding the depth of archeological evidence for the New Testament is in the account of the famous historian and archeologist Sir William Ramsay. Ramsay was very skeptical of the accuracy of the New Testament, and he ventured to Asia minor over a century ago to refute its historicity. He especially took interest in Luke's accounts in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, which contained numerous geographical and historic references. Dig after dig the evidence without fail supported Luke's accounts. Governors mentioned by Luke that many historians never believe existed were confirmed by the evidence excavated by Ramsay's archeological team. Without a single error, Luke was accurate in naming 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 islands. Ramsay became so overwhelmed with the evidence he eventually converted to Christianity. Ramsay finally had this to say:

    I began with a mind unfavorable to it...but more recently I found myself brought into contact with the Book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth.

    Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy...this author should be placed along with the very greatest historians.

    December 21, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
    • Perry the Post-Theist

      Would you mind telling us about all the times you personally have not been allowed to have Christ in your Christmas? You know, all the times that people have actually forced you to not celebrate Christmas in your own way in your own home?

      Let's hear it.

      December 21, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • heywaitaminit

      Batman is truth! And I have way more books and movies to back up that claim than you do for yours!!! 😛

      December 21, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • Ponyboy Garfunkel

      The fact that New York City exists does not make Kramer a real person.

      December 21, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
    • jenholm25

      Yes, I too would like to hear about the times that someone you know has told you that you cannot believe what you want to believe. Or that they've told you that you cannot celebrate whatever you want to in your own home. I hear christians claim all of the time that "someone" is telling them they "can't have christ in their christmas celebration", but no one can tell me WHO specifically has told them that. No one is telling you what you can or can't believe, what you can or cannot celebrate in your own home.

      December 21, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
    • heywaitaminit

      Seriously, though, LUKE?!? That is one of the easiest books of the bible to deconstruct and refute. Because Luke cites so many actual people, it makes it very easy to fact check. For example, there was no such census that would have required Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem; the Romans LOVED their record keeping, and we have no record of this ever happening outside of Luke's anecdote. Also, requiring Joseph to do so because he was a decedent of David is just logically ridiculous for two main reasons: 1- given the generations between Joseph and David, it would be like requiring me to travel to Scotland to pay my taxes, and 2- David had a bunch of wives, and his son Solomon had 700 wives +300 concubines, so basically who WOULDN'T be descended from David at that point? Finally, what about the massacre of the babies when they fled to Egypt? As stated before, the Romans LOVED recording things, and not just mundane things either. They loved poetry and song and drama, and if some upstart hebrew vassal king ordered Roman peacekeeper troops to kill all the kids under age two, well, first they wouldn't have done it and Herod would've been in big trouble with the Roman governor and second there would be TONS of songs and poems and painted vases and frescoes all depicting such a gruesome act. News of it would have spread all over the known world, and we would have the artifacts. Instead, all we have is the story Luke told 60 years after the events "took place".

      December 21, 2013 at 7:00 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Too bad the Smithsonian doesn't agree with you about The Babble. They have clearly declared The Babble to not be a historical doc.ument. Perhaps you should inform them they are wrong. You can back up your claims about The Babble, can't you?

      December 21, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
      • Carl

        Love your user name. You tend to blow a lot of hot air. So, you are saying that the Smithsonian is the final word on the Bible or on all subjects? Their determination of their classification of the Bible was their own personal feelings and was greatly done for political reasons. Can you imagine the stink on Capitol Hill would have been like had the Smithsonian declared the Bible to be THE Word of God as we Christians believe it to be? Can you imagine the outrage of Muslims? Of you atheists? Of Hindus, Buddhists, etc.? It is the same way the Smithsonian does not classify the Koran, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, or any of the writings of religions as being from God. They have to say that the Bible isn't God's Word for the same reasons they don't declare any religious wring to be from God. Separation of church and state thing you know. There would be bloodshed in the streets. So better to say that none are from God rather than any of them are from God. So your evidence by using the Smithsonian are totally way off base.

        December 21, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
      • HotAirAce

        Typical persecuted christian response – there's always a conspiracy against you poor believers. In the absence of any other evidence (and you have no real evidence for your beliefs, more properly called delusions), I'm going with the folks at the Smithsonian, not a bunch of fairy tails.

        December 22, 2013 at 12:10 am |
    • tallulah13

      Troy was found using geographical information from the Iliad. Zeus is real!!!!!

      December 22, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  12. Ponyboy Garfunkel

    Roger this. PG reporting from N.C. Just punched out to elves. May day! Repeat, May day! Mall security is in close pursuit. Please send back-up. Over.

    December 21, 2013 at 6:40 pm |
    • Ponyboy Garfunkel

      two, not "to" – how embarrassing

      December 21, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
      • Ponyboy Garfunkel


        December 21, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
  13. heywaitaminit

    I admit it... the War on Christmas is my fault. I gave this speech a few years ago and it just spiraled totally out of control:

    I'm putting together a special team, and I need me eight-hundred soldiers. Eight-hundred rational American thinkers. Now, y'all might've heard rumors about the holiday happening soon. Well, we'll be celebratin' a little earlier. We're gonna be dropped into Christmastime, dressed as civilians. And once we're in enemy territory, as a bushwhackin' guerrilla army, we're gonna be doin' one thing and one thing only... killin' Christmas. Now, I don't know about y'all, but I sure as hell didn't come down from the gawdam suburbs, cross five thousand feet of parking lot, fight my way through half of J.C. Penny and jump out of a freakin' el-e-vator to teach the Christians lessons in humanity. Christian ain't got no humanity. They're the foot soldiers of science-hatin', mind-murderin' maniacs. Now, I'm the direct descendant of the mountain man Jim Bridger. That means I got a little Injun in me. And our battle plan will be that of an Apache resistance. We will be cruel to the Christian, and through our rationale they will know who we are. And they will find the evidence of our persuasiveness in the disenfranchised, disillusioned, and dis-converted minds of their brothers we leave behind us. And the Christian won't not be able to help themselves but to imagine the clarity their brothers endured at our fair and factual words, and our presented evidence, and the credibility of our sources. And the Christian will be sickened by us, and the Christian will talk about us, and the Christian will fear us. And when the Christian closes their eyes at night and they're tortured by their subconscious for the evil they have done, it will be with thoughts of us they are tortured with.
    Sound good?
    That's what I like to hear. But I got a word of warning for all you would-be warriors. When you join my command, you take on debit. A debit you owe me personally. Each and every man under my command owes me one hundred Chocolate Santa scalps. And I want my scalps. And all y'all will git me one hundred Chocolate Santa scalps, taken from the heads of one hundred dead Chocolate Santas. Or you will die tryin'.

    December 21, 2013 at 6:40 pm |
    • How are things on Fantasy Island?

      You're hearing things. Some meds and therapy would help.

      December 21, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
  14. texrer

    Christians should stop their centuries-long war on anyone who's not a Christian...

    December 21, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
    • Bible Truth

      What war? If you knew that people around you were in danger and you knew a free gift from a King would save them, wouldn't you try to get as many people as possible to accept this gift? We don't want you to suffer, we want you to defeat Satan with us and gain peace forever.

      December 21, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
      • Trey

        Just...stop. Free gift is an oxymoron. Overused , tired, and completely not true.

        December 21, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
      • Ponyboy Garfunkel

        That durn Satan. I'm gonna give him the old one-two. Were do I find that rapscallion?

        December 21, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
  15. Kevin

    Who let FOX in this place?

    December 21, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
    • heywaitaminit

      What does the FOX say?
      war warwar war war war war
      war warwar war on christmas

      December 21, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
  16. Bob C.

    I don't think people realize there's two holidays on the same day: secular and non-secular Christmas. Everyone I know celebrates secular Christmas: Santa Claus, pine trees, presents, parties, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph, etc. There's no war on that Christmas.

    There's no war on the religious Christmas either, except Christians are slowly realizing that there is more than one religious holiday going on at the same time. I think capitalism, Fox News's favorite concept, is trying to promote the secular version of Christmas because they attract more customers with that version. It isn't that non-Christians are offended by Christ– they realize they live in a country where the majority of citizens are Christian. it's just that all Christians celebrate both versions of Christmas, but some people only celebrate the secular version.

    My town hall called it a holiday tree this year. Even though it really is a Christmas tree. At first I thought that was a little too PC, because Hanukkah does not involve a tree. But then I realized there were no pine trees in Bethlehem, either. Or snowmen. Or sleighs. And Santa didn't deliver the gifts to Jesus. I realized it's really been a Holiday Tree this entire time, we've just been using the wrong name until now.

    December 21, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
    • G to the T

      "I realized it's really been a Holiday Tree this entire time, we've just been using the wrong name until now."

      Best comment so far. Most of what non-believers are trying to do is UNDO a lot of the "christian-only" points of view that have dominated our culture (most esp since the 50's).

      December 22, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
  17. Paul

    "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."

    Let's also climb out of the stone ages and into the modern era where we have much more understanding than people did 2000 years ago. Let's use our head instead of a 2000 year old dogma that continues to make people feel guilty for being human and let those who have faith in it down on an daily basis.

    I wonder if humans are still here 5000 years from now will there be so much determination to hold on to the Bible. How long will it take for people to figure out Jesus is not coming back and if there is a God he doesn't care what happens to you here on earth.

    December 21, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
  18. jonquil123

    People need to engage with each other, in the social realm and find common ground on kindness, community and graciousness. I'm a vegan and I always say that vegetarians and meat eaters should rally for livestock industries to improve, to where we both can agree, up until the moment of slaughter. Those with deep, moral differences, need to work to strengthen and improve where both share common ground. I feel this way about issues like, abortion, too. We have to reach out to each other and keep trying.

    December 21, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
  19. Mike

    Christians cry war because they want to convince everyone, and themselves, that Christmas is still theirs. He may still be the namesake, but the mascot is Santa, and it has long worshiped the dollar.

    December 21, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
  20. Marisa

    christmas is about the birth of christ (hence CHRISTmas) it is a CHRISTian holiday. get over yourselves

    December 21, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
    • Paul

      Nope. I celebrate Xmas

      December 21, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
    • heywaitaminit

      It's cute that you're so naive. Hey, since you're already on the internet, why don't you head over to google, maybe even wikipedia, and ask where the following comes from: christmas trees, mistletoe, gift giving, decorating homes with pine and lights, and any other holiday tradition. Go ahead, it'll be both fun and EDUCATIONAL.

      December 21, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
    • jenholm25

      Why are you trying to tell me what I can/can't celebrate, what I should/shouldn't believe, and how I should/shouldn't celebrate? II'm not trying to tell you what to do, so what are you trying to tell me what to do?

      December 21, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
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.