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. Linus

    As for trees, I have a terrifically boring revelation for you: Since the second century, churches (formal separate buildings or informal house churches) were “required” (in quotes because the authority structure was quite informal until the 10th century or so) to have green plants in the church as an expression of creation and new life. For all services, not just special ones. You can go into any Catholic Church today for a service and there will always be plants except on Good Friday. (And if not, they ought to be reported to the bishop; it’s liturgical law and they’re breaking it.)

    If you’re in Northern Europe, and it’s late December, and you’re required to have greenery in your church, what are you going to use?

    Oh, right – fir trees, evergreen boughs, and holly.

    Which is probably, more or less, the same theological justification for their use in pagan winter celebrations.

    The reason Christmas trees are so popular as a symbol of the season is because Hallmark is a company coming out of a Northern European-derived culture that maintains those Christmas traditions. Prior to 1950, Italians would have looked at you like you had two heads if you tried to give them Christmas trees. (Well, there are evergreens in Italy too and some were used as Christmas decor, but not exclusively because there’s other greenery available during that season, so there’s not the same strong association of Christmas with firs. Lots of cultures prefer Christmas lilies. In Northern Europe, lilies had to be confined to Easter.)

    December 22, 2013 at 12:15 am |
    • Pam

      Hallmark? You believe Hallmark is responsible? Interesting perspective, but makes me think your got your information from the web.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:26 am |
    • Maddy

      Hallmark started in 1910 in Nebraska.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:36 am |
      • Linus

        "Hallmark is a company coming out of a Northern European-derived culture"

        Nebraska was mostly populated by Northern Europeans.

        December 22, 2013 at 12:43 am |
        • Linus

          And they certainly promoted those traditions. Many other Americans learned to accept and appreciate them.

          December 22, 2013 at 12:44 am |
  2. dietrich

    So long as organizations use the false "War on Christmas" dialectic to haul in millions of dollars, we'll see those who know it's bogus will continue to fight against this ridiculous pseudo-Christian, pseudo-conservative propaganda war.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:11 am |
    • Saraswati

      The problem is that Republicans know they can win a few votes by convincing the less educated that those atheist Democrats will ban Christmas. And really quite a few people are dumb enough to give up things like health care and a living wage when Fox News tells them the left wants to steal Christmas out from under them. Propaganda works.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:16 am |
  3. FrankinSD

    What I have trouble understanding is why any Christian should care what an atheist (or an agnostic, like me) says about Christmas. I enjoy the holiday more than any other, just because of its nostalgic value I suppose. But who cares what I think. If you believe in the supernatural, that's fine by me. I'll muddle along with reality and be just fine.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:09 am |
    • Lyansidde

      Agreed, I love Christmas and it's tradition without believing a word of the underlying religion. In fact, when thinking about it you should consider a few facts that most Christians ignore or do not know about the foundation of their religion.


      December 22, 2013 at 12:12 am |
      • Linus

        "It is sometimes said that the birth of Mithras was a virgin birth, like that of Jesus. But no ancient source gives such a birth myth for Mithras."
        It just doesn't add up. Look at your website you posted! Doesn't look trustworthy.

        December 22, 2013 at 12:20 am |
  4. ztarbod

    Freedom from religion is not wish in a country that champions 'freedom of religion'. The funny part of this is that atheists believe in God, just a God that only exists in the human mind.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:08 am |
    • Observer


      Wrong. Try again.

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

      ztarbod: You seem to be very confused. The definition of atheist is one who does not believe in any god. That's it. Our founding fathers separated church from state because they did not trust churches.

      You should have probably paid more attention in school.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:24 am |
  5. esmiranda

    I think Atheists know there is no shortage of people who don't believe in God. I find that people in general can be staunch in their faith, even if that faith is in the fact that there is no God. Personally, there is little evidence anyone thinks Christmas is really about Christ. People say it's not the Saturnalia aspect of gifting and over indulging in food, drink, and spending. But it really IS about those things. The only part of Christ left in Christmas is His name, and the brief time spent in church on that day. If people don't believe and wish they weren't there, than they shouldn't waste that yearly hour in church. It's amusing Atheists find that so threatening. It says in the book of Jeremiah that decorating a tree with baubles, silver, and gold is idolatry. But I guess it is somehow different if it is about Jesus, and not pagan customs. What I gather from this is Jesus must have loved tinsel, eggnog, yule logs, eating indulgent treats for weeks on end, family dysfunction, depression, suicide, and debt. Unfortunately, Christmas trees and other Christmas "traditions" are indeed pagan customs. Trying to convert pagans to Christianity, the early Christian church reworked pagan holidays to be Christian holidays, and called it good. Jesus was more likely born in October, meaning the anniversary of Christ's actual birthday is most likely BEFORE Halloween. Using Christs supposed birthday as a fake religious holiday that was created by retailers in the late 1800's to drum up sales at year's end is really the ultimate hypocrisy of people who consider themselves "religious." So, Christmas as we know it in our culture is a relatively new concept created by retailers so people would buy stuff. Turns out Christmas really is about the "stuff," and always has been. The rest is just sentimentality as well as any guilt about love and family used to manipulate you to spend money. Oh, the ridiculous irony.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:07 am |
    • say what?

      atheist don't find christmas or christians threatening so much as boring and amusing and overbearing. however we atheist would like not to be subjected to persecution by christians or other religions and the laws that they create in the name of their god that has nothing to do with the rest of us who live in a democracy we call America

      December 22, 2013 at 12:31 am |
  6. Firstname Lastname

    What I find amusing the most is Solstice is the actual event that happens this time of year and all of the hub bub has been adopted from Pagan traditions from northern Europe. Americans don't know world history at all.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:03 am |
  7. Vic

    For some reason, that billboard looks like a frozen pizza box.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:03 am |
  8. Sophie Meyer

    Christmas today has very little to do with Christ or Christianity – the atheists have it right. Today Christmas is nothing but a commercial campaign for the retail industry. Nothing says Christianity like crass consumerism.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:02 am |
  9. Zedd

    Ah, Christmas... Who can argue with thousands of years of pagan history hijacked and retranslated as a Christian holiday? Keep the Sol in Solstace.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
    • Um

      Sol? It would be a really nice argument if it were true! Christmas used to be somewhat different in date-relationship to Saturnalia and the solstice.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:59 pm |
      • doughnuts

        Look up "Sol Invictus."

        December 22, 2013 at 12:04 am |
      • Zedd

        People try to be far too literal with these things. Yes, the *exact* dates differ but the fact that these holidays all existed within days of the actual Solstice is quite true. Celebrating the birth of the Sun God during this time is common to various cultures throughout the world, going far beyond the advent of Christianity.

        December 22, 2013 at 12:07 am |
      • Saraswati

        Saturnalia was somewhat earlier than the sun god (Sol Invictus) rebirth which was celebrated the 25th. But no one really knows what happened historically.

        December 22, 2013 at 12:07 am |
      • Linus

        So the coincidence in time equals shared origins? How so?

        December 22, 2013 at 12:24 am |
    • Saraswati

      Don't forget this Christmas morning to also keep the Odin (Woden) in Wednesday!

      December 22, 2013 at 12:02 am |
    • doughnuts

      How about keeping an "I" in "solstice" instead? 😉

      December 22, 2013 at 12:03 am |
    • Linus

      Do you really feel comfortable telling a billion and a half Christians that they’re ACTUALLY celebrating a Pagan holiday and just haven’t noticed? Or do you think it’s remotely possible that EVEN IF any of your assertions had been remotely based in fact and Christmas WERE a Pagan-derived holiday, that those billion and a half Christians were actually managing to celebrate a holy event of their faith, regardless of date?

      December 22, 2013 at 12:04 am |
      • doughnuts

        Yes, I do. And anyone who used your screen-name should know that the time of year described in the Gospel of Luke was late Spring or Summer.

        December 22, 2013 at 12:08 am |
        • Linus

          The December 25th date was the result of bad math, not an attempt to hijack pagan religions.

          " Thus, December 25th as the date of the Christ’s birth appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the Church during or after Constantine’s time. It is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ’s birth, but it arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death.

          And the pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian insttuted on that date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians. The Christians, in turn, could at a later date re-appropriate the pagan “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” to refer, on the occasion of the birth of Christ, to the rising of the “Sun of Salvation” or the “Sun of Justice."


          December 22, 2013 at 12:13 am |
      • Vic

        "2.1 billion"

        December 22, 2013 at 12:09 am |
      • Saraswati

        I think people know the Christians are celebrating Christianity even on "Easter" but some need to be reminded of what was borrowed when they criticize non-Christians for celebrating a secular Christmas. We all have the same rights to these traditions to celebrate our own way.

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

          They are NORTHERN EUROPEAN Christmas customs. Christianity has always engaged in what’s called “inculturation” in theological jargon – the acceptance of aspects of local culture into church customs. For example, in Hawai’i, hula is used in church celebrations because of its importance in local culture.

          December 22, 2013 at 12:15 am |
  10. IJE

    Please stop using the term "atheists" to talk about this particular group, which does not represent all people who are not religious. That is sort of like saying "Christians should stop picketing funerals" when referring to the members of the Westboro Baptist Church. I'm an atheist, as are many people I know, and I'm not familiar with this organization nor do I know anyone waging a war on Christmas, Hannukah, or anything else. These people sound more "anti-religious" than "non-religious", certainly they aren't very tolerant of the beliefs of others, which doesn't sound very "American" to me.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
    • lol??

      Haaaaaaaaaavaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad men. You know the type. They spout off about clinging to Bibles and gasp, guns.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:00 am |
    • Saraswati

      Yeah, it's annoying. It's like telling Christians to stop holding anti-gay protests at military funerals.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:11 am |
    • b

      agreed...I am a Christian, not particularly a regular church attendee, however, I do have Atheist friends who have no problems with me as I of them..we just believe what we believe (or don't believe). I think any vocal group like PETA, American Atheists, La Raza, NAACP, etc think they speak for all of us and they don't. Just like politics, it seems that people are always trying to tear eachother down instead of just leaving eachother alone.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:34 am |
  11. Mr My Way

    Stop with this nonsense of the war on Christmas. Maybe if christians stopped trying to shove their religion down everyone's throat the rest of us might just ignore them. But no, these freaks have to find insult with everyone. Tell you what, make a bargain with these zealots. They get Sunday to do and say anything they want but the rest of the week they have to shut up!

    December 21, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
    • lol??

      Even God isn't that much of a controller. You married?? Work on the wife.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
  12. Bill E. Bob


    December 21, 2013 at 11:43 pm |
    • Cool

      In Sweden they celebrate Christmas different than in the United States.
      They do present exchange on the 24th. And the celebration goes to January 13th.
      I love reading how others celebrate.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
    • lol??

      When are those Vikings gonna repay Europe?? They are a major cause of the Crusades when they finally lost. All those unemployed first responders!!

      December 21, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
      • doughnuts

        You are as ignorant of history as you are of the religion you claim to follow.

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

      Christmas was set near the date of Yule before Christians were evangelizing northern Europeans or, according to extant evidence, had any meaningful contact with that culture.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
  13. InkyGuy

    They put the ad in Times Square? That's certainly an example of "preaching to the choir," which is more than a little ironic.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:40 pm |
    • Perry the Post-Theist

      When was the last time you were in Times Square? It's been nothing but a tourist trap for decades. It's not like it was when William S. Buroughs and the Beats hung out there.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:48 pm |
  14. Nacho Verde

    Wow. What a bunch of jeekdwabs.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:40 pm |
  15. brianbaum

    Well; the word "Christmas" would need it. It's like saying "what for" when all you need to say is "Why". "Who needs Christ" is good enough.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
  16. War On Christmas Headquarters

    It is time to tell the world the truth about our operations. We atheists have indeed been running a war on Christmas for a long time now. Satan told us to do it. Here are some of our nefarious tactics.

    We wait until you are asleep and sneak into you house and dry out the tree with hair dryers so that the needles keep falling out. Then we put little Bobby's gift label on the present with his sister Suzy's undies in it, which very often converts him to being gay.

    We put burned-out bulbs in your lights outside in the worst places so you have trouble fixing them.

    We invented Black Friday. Satan came up with that one himself, and it's a real beauty.

    We infiltrate smelly drunks to play Santa at the mall, and we tell them they are supposed to cop a feel on your children.

    We got every freaking store in the western hemisphere to play those wretched Christmas carols endlessly, and to coordinate them so that you hear the same one in every store you walk into. Oh, we got them to start playing them earlier and earlier each year. Next year they start after the Fourth of July.

    Then we send door-to-door carrollers with the same freaking songs right to your house and make you stand there and smile and pretend you are charmed when you just want to go watch Duck Dynasty and eat pork rinds.

    We invented fruit cake. Satan came up with that one too. Also helps make gays of your children.

    We infiltrate as many people as we can to stand in front of you in line at store and go as slow as possible. Some are given credit cards and debit cards that don't work so that it takes even longer. We have special agents who come from the other side just when you get there to complain that the checker overcharged them.

    The checkers are our agents too, with instructions to be in a bad mood and go slowly as well. They are also instructed to say "Happy Holidays" if they suspect you are a devout Christian, and "I'm not allowed to say 'Merry Christmas'" if you comment on that. That's a good one too.

    We fill mall parking lots with junked cars so you can't park within a half mile of the store you want.

    And we actually run FOX News so that you stay in a perpetual state of rage about what you are experiencing.

    We will win. We have the tools, and we have the talent.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:37 pm |
    • G8rPants

      This is absolute gold.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:48 pm |
    • Saraswati

      "And we actually run FOX News so that you stay in a perpetual state of rage about what you are experiencing."

      I love that line. Studies indicate fear is a defining characteristic of conservatism, but rage seems to be in there too.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:48 pm |
    • Vic

      Hmmm...that explains why stores keep running out of stock when I try to get good deals...hmmm...

      Also, is that why there is CNN in airports?!

      BTW, I love pork rinds. I also take them with hot dogs instead of chips...good stuff.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
    • sam

      Listen – that fruit cake was the last straw. That was the first shot of true war, and no way will the christians ever forgive that.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:53 pm |
    • Not real bright are you?

      If you believe in Satan then you believe in God, therefore, you my friend are a believer, not an atheist.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:00 am |
      • Observer

        Not real bright are you?,

        There are atheistic Satanists.

        Not real bright are you?

        December 22, 2013 at 12:06 am |
      • War On Christmas Headquarters

        Satan? You actually think I believe in Satan? Really? Really? That's, uh, yeah, okay.


        December 22, 2013 at 12:53 am |
  17. Felix Sinclair

    How about an end of the war against reason and critical thinking by hypocrites hiding behind mythology?

    December 21, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
  18. lol??

    My return greetings to inane acknowledgements of my existence usually run along the lines of, "Same to you, fella." For a real funny good time and this can't be a work day, is to have a YES day. Answer all questions that day with a yes until you can't hardly stop laughing and an explanation is due.
    Soup or salad, sir??..........YES

    December 21, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
  19. sandvichmancer

    Atheists are no better, or worse, than the religious.

    As you recall a few years back Catholics and atheists spent thousands of dollars on opposite sides of a tunnel on billboards against each other.

    Both sides point to the other as an indicator of how terrible the other one was. All I saw was money and effort that could have gone towards something constructive going instead to a childish dispute between people arguing about whether it's better to believe in something, or to believe that there is nothing, when in the end they're both just beliefs (shot in the dark beliefs might I add) that, in the long run, mean nothing in this world one way or the other.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
    • Saraswati

      The Catholic church kept the US from contributing funding of condoms to fight AIDS for years. Beliefs have a very real impact on the world and on matters of life and death.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
  20. Kevin

    So because one small group of people, out of an even smaller group of people, chose to adopt this ridiculous notion as their own, that means all Atheists are in their camp? Alright then, all people who believe in God are in Al Qaeda. Sound logic, right?

    December 21, 2013 at 11:27 pm |
    • Maddy


      December 21, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Exactly. I wondered earlier how Christians would feel about a story ti.tled "Why Christians should stop their war on blood transfusions". Equally stupid. This is an intentional misrepresentation of who most atheists are.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:53 pm |
    • sam


      December 21, 2013 at 11:55 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.