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.
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.
I find that people who get overly offended at a salutation of good will, no matter what phrase is used, is curious, to say the least.
It's pretty funny – folks who've worked retail all have stories of getting in trouble no matter what they say. Got yelled at for 'Merry Chrsitmas' then got yelled at for switching to 'Happy Holidays'.
Finally quit saying anything until someone spoke first, then just said, "Thanks! You too!!"
Been there, done that.
Got yelled at more than once for saying "have a nice day".
Got yelled at if I wasn't effusive enough with my "thank yous".
Christmastime? Got yelled at constantly.
Got out of retail.
Congrats! I don't miss it a bit.
A person can be an atheist and still celebrate Christmas, which has basically become a secular holiday anyway. (Some Christmas traditions are pre-Christian, in fact.) I do not believe in God, but I see value in some of Jesus Christ's teachings about love and forgiveness. I have no problem telling people "Merry Christmas!"
If you want to celebrate a religious holiday and justify it by claiming that it's become secular anyway, please go right ahead. But you're just playing into our hands.
Nothing creepy about that. Which 'our' is this you belong to?
Yeah. Well, I honestly could care less what christians feel about a sign made for atheist. In that, the purpose of the sign is to remind atheist that they aren't alone this holiday season. No we won't sit quietly in the corner...
With millions of non-believers coming out of the closet, articles like these that try to explain how free-thinking groups ought to behave are going to become more common.
I see this as progress. 10 years ago, nobody would have cared.
Also as an ex-Catholic and non-believer I agree as well, and a look at some of the comments on this board by non-believers makes you scratch your head and wonder about their superior morality.
It's called defensive retaliation to the 'superior morality' exhibited by the folks who keep trying to legislate their delusions.
It's called immaturity, insecurity, sociopathy, etc. Superior morality should not yield inferior conversation.
While certainly that does occur, I do not see mention of the foul and childish comments from Christians. We have had one say he would run atheists over with his car if he would, another who wanted us all imprisoned, and a great many who seem very happy with their notion that we will be eternally tortured.
And being called a satan worshipper and being happily told I'm going to be tortured and that people want to run their car over me, that I am a hater and being told all these things I supposedly do but don't, yeah, that probably lowers the level of debate from me.
But indeed, some atheists are jerks. That will happen in any large group of people. I imagine that if you are honest with yourself, you will see there are some people in your own political party who behave badly too. That's the way life is.
Furthermore, internet forums like this tend to bring out the worst in all of us. I suspect it is due to the fact we are basically anonymous and isolated from the others, so there is no consequence for poor behavior. I have seen camera forums get really abusive over lenses, and, my favorite, a really nasty hate-fest on a pen forum over fountain pen ink. It's the nature of the media.
So there are a lot of factors at play. But I still don't understand why you chose only the atheists to direct that comment to when a Christian behavior here is generally worse.
Oh, YT. Pot, meet kettle. Run along now, holier-than-thou!
And YT – Perry used decent logic. Try and take something away from it.
Perry made a great argument. Right up until the point where he said that the Christians are worse. We're all bad, but you're worse. We all do this stuff, but you do it more.
Kind of takes a bit away from his point, I think.
Translation for 'fake marine' – Perry was right until I stopped agreeing with him.
@FrmrMrine (it's okay to use vowels, you know): That was based on a number of comments where we were told by Christians that they would like to do things like run us over with a car and the like. Certainly there are jerky atheists here, but I do not recall seeing any say things like that. Not wild about the glee with which they have at their myth that we will be eternally tortured for having a different opinion.
I prefer the term "recovering Catholic".
I also think that a moral system that differentiates "lying" from "murder" is superior. Any moral system that just considers them the same (sin) is inferior.
If you had been a Catholic, you would know the difference between venal and mortal sins. You would know that there is a differentiation between lying and murder.
So, since you are very obviously not a Catholic since you don't know this incredibly basic part of the Catholic faith, I think that no one needs to listen to what you have to say on the subject.
1) There's no such thing as a 'former marine' unless you bitched out. Did you bitch out?
2) Sin is a made up construct, which you're using to pretend you understand how to define a 'real catholic'. Very funny.
I guess that means no one needs to listen to anything you say on any subject. Thanks for playing.
Now where did I say that the moral system I was refering to was specifically Catholic? Many Christians do not differentiate between sins though Catholics do give SOME differentiation. Catholics do teach that "thought crimes" can be the same as actual behavior which is equally ridiculous.
I spent my 6th grade year under Sister Peter...I did my time.
I'm an atheist. I do not believe Jesus was "our" lord and savior. I celebrate Christmas. I don't get offended when someone says Merry Christmas to me.
That's level-mindedness. That's commended.
I think being wished well is cool, no matter what.
I agree with you completely, I say Merry Christmas. But it does bother me when it is implied that the season belongs to CHristianity. It bothered me when I was a christian too.
I think everyone should accept everyone since we are really celebrating winterfest not the birth of Christ but whatever. Constantine made everyone confused. Anyways supporting the charlatans at FOX only encourages more of their Jerry Springer flavor of journalism. I'm not sure Jesus message was hate liberals and people that are different.
"don't make fun of Jesus. it's not nice. and by the way, if you don't believe in Him, well, you're going to rot in Hell for eternity. Merry Christmas!"
Jesus is the guy who mows my lawn. I'm pretty sure his birthday is in June.
I hope this is a series of articles with "Why the religious should stop the war on gays" and Why the religious should stop the war on people who don't think like them" coming in the next few weeks.
It's not a "war on CHristmas" as much as it's a "Christmas offensive". CHristianity adopted the season and now they seem to claim they gave birth to it.
It was a well-medicated c-section done in secret, yet they keep trying to convince everyone it was 17 hours of labor and everyone should be grateful for it.
Sure. It would be good – plus 'why the religion still holding majority stake in this country is so threatened by what they don't understand'.
Most atheists are not really atheists but rather satan worshipers.
they just trade one make believe being for another
did Satan ask anyone to sacrifice their children?
Most Christians don't know what the word "atheist" means.
Boring troll is boring.
Argle blargle blargle! That's all I'm getting from you here, mossi...
So, basically, Atheists should shut up and accept the constant bombardment of Christianity down their throats? No thanks.
Christians love to push their religion on people all the time, but the moment somebody pushes back, suddenly they are the victims, and they whine and whine about it.
The general problem is that the author's suggestion – back away from the arguments and share goodwill – is never going to happen. Christians do not want to share anything that is not their point of view. They are hugely threatened by sharing the stage. They want to be indisputed majority, write the laws, and eradicate whatever does not follow their ideal.
There's no other way to deal with the loudmouthed faction than to stand up to them. And encourage them to keep eating chick-fil-a so they'll die off faster.
Basically you are describing the actions of Christians the way they describe your own.
"Nobody's right, if everybody's wrong...." -Stephen Stills
True. There is a stalemate, which is usually fine, and keep anyone from getting away with too much.
Unless one side is the majority. Then there's a problem.
Several states have laws on the books that say you cannot hold elected office if you do not beleive in god.
In no state does it say the opposite.
Sounds like a majority that needs to be made to sit down.
Bibles from centuries ago still ring true. You may be able to make a sign and cross out Christ's name, but you can't change what he did, or all the people that now know about it. You can't change their love for Jesus. We will still love him, just as his followers still loved him when they put him on the cross.
Then why have you complained 30 times about this billboard? Get over yourself.
Jesus would be ashamed of you and your idiot version of chrisitians.
Actually I could change everything Jesus did. All I really have to do is edit the bible and put out a new addition. King James did it so why can't I? Perhaps I want to edit in that Jesus actually used to be a bit of a player and farmed his miracles out to third parties? I'm not saying my version of the bible would be correct but with how many "books" they got rid of because they didn't mesh with the current view of Christianity what is to stop me from putting out my own version of what Jesus did.
You mean the bibles that were written by man, for man, and edited over the centuries in an effort to continue the controlling aspect as people got smarter and started to reject the insane claims in the bible?
I used to read a weekly opinion column on USA Today called Common Ground with conservative Cal Thomas and liberal Bob Beckel. It is a nice format where both Cal and Bob discuss the issues at hand from two different perspectives in a very civil manner. I really enjoyed it and learned from it. It is a good example. I really recommend reading it if possible.
p.s. Thanks for the poster who mentioned Cal Thomas earlier. That reminded me of what I wanted to say above since a while back. Our discussions on the CNN Belief Blog can make a very good use of Bob and Cal example.
Sounds like the dialectic. The serpent used it on Eve. Jesus wouldn't play that game.
No. And Jesus would totally denounce you if He met you. You're the type He warned against.
And you would know that... how?
Please keep in mind, the Bible, upon which you and so many others seem to want to use as the basis for everything, is a book written 200 years after the death of Christ and was sponsored by an emperor who needed to tool to bring all his subjects into line.
I know that based upon Christ's own words.
Keep in mind that what you choose to believe or not is up to you; lol?? is here a lot, professing to be something he plainly is not.
I have no quarrel with you or atheists. I do have a problem with people misrepresenting themselves as a believer when their every word here belies that.
Any Scotsmen 'round here?
Well, the point is that we can disagree with each other without hubris nor ad nauseam.
Yeah, Vic. Sweet. You DO realize that both Cal and Bob work for Faux Nooz, son't you? Beckel is their Token Lib'rul(tm) whose job is to lie down and let himself be whipped by the RWNJs, or failing that, to apologize for not BEING a RWNJ. So yeah, of course they were civil; it was Bob's job to lie down for Cal...
Are the other kids jealous when little Johnny has two Santas?? I hear that in prison jealousy can be a bother when the warden is dad.
The words are in English, yet they are strung together in a way that makes no sense....
My own personal theory is that somewhere out there is a cat who walks back and forth across a keyboard, accidentally creating and posting this stuff. I have a very hard time believing it's the product of a human brain unless it is very senile and heavily medicated.
I give this post a thumbs up.
Or he's using a random word generator and just posts them in no particular order.
I wouldn't want a poor cat to suffer at the hands of this person.
Perhaps an example of what too much god can do to an already damaged mind.
OK, back N forth in the translator a few time in different languages has settled on this:
Have the other kids jealous when little Johnny has two Santas??
Whenever I read the word "privilege", I think the author is envious and small.
Thank you for celebrating my day everyone! Why you keep on calling me baby Jesus???
Celebrate National Atheism Day on December 25
Christmas is just a business in this country – if we want to be honest about it.
It's been secular and commercial for a long time. People like to make a fuss about nothing.
When Christians say 'war on Christmas' what they really mean is 'I don't feel like the most special snowflake around here, anymore'.
The atheist message goes to the heart of the reason for Christmas. Love it or hate it, no Christ, not Christmas. Why not go after Allah during Ramadan.
Atheists don't believe in gods. Any gods. At all. None. Nada.
Get a clue.
So is healthscare but when Santa gives it to ya it's mystical, Virginia.
Thank you for celebrating my day everyone! Why you keep on calling me baby Jesus??
Not really. Christmas was purposely stolen from pre existing faiths to sucker others into joining up.
Celebrate National Atheism Day on December 25
I'll stick with Christmas. I don't feel the need to make a holiday a political thing when I can just have a nice time.
Yeah, that's a better way to go.