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. CueBallSTL

    American Atheists are to atheism what Westboro Baptist Church is to Christians.

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

      Fortunately they do not speak for all atheists. I laud the right for atheists not to believe and not be harassed for it.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • Monty P

      Exactly right.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • Skarphace

      Well, I wouldn't go that far. I don't see them protesting at funerals. However, ironically, "American Atheists" act more like a religious group than a group of true atheists. Anything for a buck I guess.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
  2. truebob

    So the Christian right is bent on criminalizing, marginalizing and stamping out anything that differs from their opinion of right and wrong, but the trampled masses should just shut up? Good Luck with that. I'm confident the point is to aggravate the Christians in general and the intolerant specifically. Maybe if they learned to MYOB they wouldn't make a target out of their beliefs.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:50 am |
  3. Monty P

    So I gather from this article that the author believes that if you don't agree with his Christian point of view, you shouldn't express your non-Christian point of view. Typical.

    For some reason this scene Monty Python and the Holy Grail popped into mind:

    Dennis: Come and see the violence inherent in the system. Help! Help! I'm being repressed!

    King Arthur: Bloody peasant!

    Dennis: Oh, what a giveaway! Did you hear that? Did you hear that, eh? That's what I'm on about! Did you see him repressing me? You saw him, Didn't you?

    December 21, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • Skarphace

      I didn't really get that. To me, he wasn't telling atheists to shut up. He was telling them that if they want Christians to be tolerant of them, then they need to be tolerant of religious people. It really does go both ways.

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

      Did you read the article? The author is an atheist.

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

      The author is an athiest.....

      December 21, 2013 at 11:55 am |
  4. massms

    Whatever happened to the country that believed in live and let live.?

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

      That country never existed. We had to commit genocide in order to take this land and we brought with us slaves from across the sea. "Live and let live" only applies to those in power.

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

      Sadly, those with opposing ideals and principles only what to let you live if you agree with them. They can't shut up otherwise.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:50 am |
    • Monty P

      It's right between Hogwarts and Hobbiton.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:52 am |
    • GAW

      We got spoiled! We have to have it 100% our way.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:52 am |
  5. Crosswinds

    1.John 3:20
    For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.

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

      Johann 3.1: the ratio of the circle circu.mference to diameter is Pi.


      December 21, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • Skarphace

      A person of a particular religion testifying that his religion is the only true religion is not a very reliable witness.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:47 am |
  6. Universe

    Quran says (Islamic Scripture)

    “The example of Jesus, as far as GOD is concerned, is the same as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him, "Be," and he was.” Quran [3:59]

    “It does not befit God that He begets a son, be He glorified. To have anything done, He simply says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.” [19:35]

    “No soul can carry the sins of another soul. If a soul that is loaded with sins implores another to bear part of its load, no other soul can carry any part of it, even if they were related. ... [35:18]

    “They even attribute to Him sons and daughters, without any knowledge. Be He glorified. He is the Most High, far above their claims.” Quran [6:100]

    “Recall that your Lord said to the angels, "I am placing a representative on Earth." They said, "Will You place therein one who will spread evil therein and shed blood, while we sing Your praises, glorify You, and uphold Your absolute authority?" He said, "I know what you do not know." [2:30]

    “They say , "We live only this life; we will not be resurrected. If you could only see them when they stand before their Lord! He would say, "Is this not the truth?" They would say, "Yes, by our Lord." He would say, "You have incurred the retribution by your disbelief." [6:30]

    “We have honored the children of Adam, and provided them with rides on land and in the sea. We provided for them good provisions, and we gave them greater advantages than many of our creatures.” Quran [17:70]

    “O children of Adam, when messengers come to you from among you, and recite My revelations to you, those who take heed and lead a righteous life, will have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve.” Quran [7:35]

    “O children of Adam, do not let the devil dupe you as he did when he caused the eviction of your parents from Paradise, and the removal of their garments to expose their bodies. He and his tribe see you, while you do not see them. We appoint the devils as companions of those who do not believe.” Quran [7:27]

    “Losers indeed are those who disbelieve in meeting God, until the Hour comes to them suddenly, then say, "We deeply regret wasting our lives in this world." They will carry loads of their sins on their backs; what a miserable load! [6:31]

    Thanks for taking time to read my post. Please take a moment to visit whyIslam org website.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • Crosswinds

      1 Timothy 2:5....
      For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.

      Acts 4:12....
      Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.

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

        You know Timothy was a forgery under Paul's name, right? You just cited forged scripture. This is pretty well accepted.

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

          Wait... you think Christian's claim the book(s) of Timothy was written by a guy named Timothy? LOL... they were letters written by Paul TO Timothy... and as you pointed out, it's pretty well accepted. You're funny!

          December 21, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
        • Colin

          The Pauline Epistle to Timothy is one of the 3 Pastoral Epistles. The Pastoral Epistles are known fakes forged under the name of Saint Paul by an unknown Christian in the Second Century. Of the 13 Pauline Epistles, 3 others are questionable. Some believe they are forged, some think they are legitimate. The remaining 7 are widely regarded as genuine.

          December 21, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
      • Chikkipop

        And you, just like our friend Universe, quote an old book, which you know is true because it's the word of a god, which you know because it says so in the old book.


        December 22, 2013 at 8:59 pm |
    • Colin

      Thank you. I would love to visit your website, but, you see, I read all I need to know about Islam in the New York Times on September 12, 2001.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • Chikkipop

      That was pathetic, Universe.

      Hard to believe anyone could be so gullible.

      December 22, 2013 at 8:57 pm |
  7. Bob

    Atheists don't care about Christmas. It is Christians that have this fantasy that there is a war on Christmas.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:39 am |
  8. TheChucklah

    Christianity has been dying out in the West for some time. Sure a large amount of people 'identify as christian', but that's laughable. How many actually go to church more than once in a blue moon? Most young people could care less about that silly make believe stuff.

    In a few generations Christianity will be finished.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:39 am |
  9. Colin

    Serious historians deal in probabilities. They evaluate the likelihood that a particular event took place based on the material they have to support it. To take a simple example, it is known with, essentially, 100% certainty that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. It is less certain that Julius Caesar was. The further back in time one goes, the less surviving written material there is to support a version of history.

    Material either copied from earlier material, written decades or centuries after the event and/or written by people who weren’t even there is obviously of very limited historical worth.

    This is the core problem with the entire Jesus saga, including the stories about his birth. In the entire World, in any language, we have only two surviving accounts of his birth written within 100 years of its happening. Later accounts can obviously only be based on earlier accounts anyway, or fabricated.

    The two versions are those found in Matthew and Luke (nowhere else in the gospels, or indeed the entire Bible, is his birth recorded). They are both written about 80 years after the event by people who do not even claim to have been witnesses, or to have even ever met Jesus! Not only that, but they are hopelessly inconsistent with each other.

    But for the fact that they are considered “holy scripture” by so many, those who believe them as being historically accurate would be dismissed as being every bit as crazy as the 9-11 or Area 51 conspiracy nuts. They are simply that unreliable.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  10. Skarphace

    I am an atheist. However, this group, "American Atheists" does not speak for me. I do not wish to belong to any group of atheists. I do not mind going to church when it is important to my family. I respect their choices in religious preference just as they respect mine. I pray regularly, although for me it is more meditation then conversation.

    I really wish that groups like "American Atheists" would stop their attack on religion. Respect others and they will respect you. Disrespect others and they will disrespect you. This group is putting all atheists in a bad light and decreasing tolerance for atheists. Sometimes I think groups like this are closet believers who feel guilty. They do not act objective at all.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:37 am |
    • George

      Except for the fact the majority of Christians do not respect atheists or their right to disagree. When Christians stop playing the persecution card and forcing their beliefs on others, we can truly have an equal middle ground. Until that day comes, I agree with the tactics American Atheists have taken to get their point across. Can't please everyone. No matter what path you take, someone, somewhere will be upset and offended.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
  11. TheChucklah

    Great–sounds good. The atheists will stop pointing out how ridiculous the modern Christmas is if the christians stop their war on other religions by pushing hundreds of government policies. Sound fair?

    December 21, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  12. bostontola

    Christians are about 3/4 of the US population. The war on Christmas whine is laughable. Christians dominate US life, yet act like spoiled children. Wasaah, the mean 2% atheists are mean to us (tears rolling down cheeks). Why?

    December 21, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • nev

      just as what I have posted,its because of the child in us,period

      December 21, 2013 at 11:44 am |
  13. stevie68a

    "Happy Holidays" is meant to be inclusive. Religion is divisive, which is why religious people don't like it. So couch of xmas
    is swiped from other traditions. Hanukah is a "festival of lights" that is earlier, for instance.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • ACSJ

      Anti-Christian bigots hate good and love evil

      December 21, 2013 at 11:42 am |
      • G to the T

        Convenient when you get to define "good" and "evil" by whether or not they believe the same as you...

        December 21, 2013 at 11:50 am |
  14. Free Holiday Nuts


    December 21, 2013 at 11:33 am |
    • Monty P

      It's a Christmas miracle that he has no grey hair!

      December 21, 2013 at 11:50 am |
  15. Lee Crowell

    I'm an atheist and wish the loudmouths of both sides would just shut up. You can't hear anything when your mouth is open.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  16. Tom

    Christians should quit their war on religious freedom.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  17. Christmas Baby

    I'm an atheist who was born on Christmas. I love that a number of you f0 0ls think that my birthday is a sign that I'm a gift from god. A number of you have told me this much. Bow at my feet and worship me m0 r0ns. If that mis0 gyn 1stic, hom0 ph0 bic
    bi g0t Francis gets your love then why shouldn't I.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • max cady

      Congrats finally a real person born on Dec 25

      December 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
  18. Robert

    Excellent Article. So fitting and true.

    December 21, 2013 at 11:32 am |
  19. sorry

    to the editor tnx for giving me a lesson

    December 21, 2013 at 11:32 am |
  20. Bob

    It's pretty funny to see the Christians whine here endlessly about Christ and the holiday that their cult actually 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 |
    • Robert

      Wow Bob. That is a horrible thing to say to somebody / anybody. This is exactly part of what the article is getting at. Atheists and Theists can co-exist. But not in an environment filled with hatred like you seem to perpetuate. You may call yourself an Atheist (I don't know since you don't come right out and say it) but maybe you are just mean? Which is it – care to say? You know, no Atheist is worse than a mean Atheist.

      December 21, 2013 at 11:36 am |
      • Bob

        Robert, show some guts and actually try to criticize what I said. Sometimes the truth hurts. Get over your whining already.

        December 21, 2013 at 11:39 am |
        • Robert

          Wow – so you are a hypocrite too? Because I believe it was you that started the whining. You just seem unhappy sir. And for this I wish you a Merry Christmas and pray that you may find peace. Oh, in case you did not know, praying is our way of letting you know that we really care even though we may not know you personally. It is not like we expect God to come down and fill you with a great bounty or anything. You see, it is just not that easy. We are not hurting anybody. We are not casting aspersions. We are just faithful and following our free-will just like your follow yours. Blessings.

          December 21, 2013 at 11:46 am |
      • Christmas Baby

        Kneel at my feet dog! I was born on christmas. I am your god.

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

          That is funny. Not in my lifetime though. Perhaps this is how you treat people in person?

          December 21, 2013 at 11:52 am |
        • Scott

          You do have Tim Minchin to compete with. Though I don't know about his birthday – then we have no specific clue of Jesus' birthday or the birthday of when he would come again.

          Sorry if that gets you bent out of shape Robert. Just because you don't find something funny, does not mean it is not funny. I bet you wouldn't like the image of Jesus fu#%in Christ either. Yes, that was on the mean side – well, not really, it would have been mean if I kept posting that image so that you kept seeing it unexpectedly and put yard signs with it in your yard.

          January 8, 2014 at 4:56 pm |
      • Teresa

        Would you say the same to a Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or some other religion? I am Christian and I read the article to get insight into the athiest movement and then read the comments to see how readers really feel. I don't degrade your personal beliefs so please don't degrade mine. Maybe you could get your point across without being so crude. I have friends of many religions and athiest friends. We occasionally have open conversations when we compare our beliefs without becoming upset. No one is trying to convert anyone, instead it's opening the doors of communication and understanding. I think that is what the author was trying to get at. Let's understand each other and not belittle. Show some respect.

        December 21, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
        • crodrig

          When your religion has scientific arguments that support it being false as well as substantial similarities between the Bible and other ancient mythical allegories, which everyone denounces, in the region at the time of the Bible's conception it indicates that your beliefs are ignorant, as in they ignore physical, scientific evidence and possibilities of plausibly being false in lieu of "Oh God did it". Atheists, and christians, don't know with absolute certainty, whether God exists or not. All the observable evidence, however, points in a direction that the Earth, the universe operates without regards to anything gods, people, beliefs. God has never been physically (five senses) witnessed by anyone in recent history, but all christians say they feel his "presence" on an emotional level, which is completely subjective. The same logic used to prove the existence of any other object/principle isn't applied to explain God. But conveniently he exists outside of time/space/physical world so can't be defined by man's intellect and scientific processes. Sounds reasonable to me.

          December 21, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
      • David

        so, Bob, is mean because he points out the borrowed fiction of Christianity? sure, people may coexist but tell that to the religious meanies who have killed in the name of God throughout history. or, was that righteousness?

        December 21, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
      • Matthew Grant

        I do not see what was so hateful that he said. He just stated his opinion on the matter and his thoughts. Now if you consider someone opinion hateful just because he said something that you did not agree with well that is your problem. Ah and I noticed you told someone else that you will pray for them. Do you know how that sounds to an atheist? It is a jester that holds no meaning and frankly is offensive to me.

        December 22, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • JustAScientist


      Instead of spewing hate, you should try to understand the other side's perspectives and beliefs. It isn't that God couldn't have chosen anyway he wanted to. He chose the way he did. If he's omnipotent, then that's his ability and right. He can choose to save the world in whatever way he deems correct. He also could have chosen to create a world with no possibility of sin, but didn't. And God didn't just "create" Jesus to send him to earth to save the world. Christians believe that Jesus was fully God and fully man. He had every sinful inclination that man does but was, at the same time, 100% God. Not, 100% a God, but 100% God. But, Jesus, as a man, went through every temptation of man and didn't give in. He was pure and blameless...the spotless lamb. Now, I'm not saying you have to believe that, but if you're going to criticize, you should at least try to understand.

      And as far as the whole why won't God heal amputees...well, that whole site is utterly ridiculous. And there have actually been double-blind peer-reviewed scientific studies that show that prayer can help. God doesn't promise to grant every "wish" a person asks...which is how you are treating it. And God doesn't promise to answer in the ways that we want. Jesus asked to not have to die, but God didn't grant it. That wasn't the plan God had. But there are a number of problems with the site beyond that. First, it starts with a case that can never be proven that the girl was healed thanks to prayer. Can't be proven so if you start with a case that may not be true as your justification, then the rest of your argument fails.

      December 21, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
      • UncleBenny

        There have been some double-blind prayer studies that have shown a small but statistically significant positive difference in outcomes for certain groups of people who were prayed over. There have been at least as many that have resulted in no difference, and a few in which there were worse outcomes. In other words, the overall result has been inconclusive.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:41 am |
        • IWABS

          There has never been a single, peer-reviewed, double-blind study that has shown any significant benefit from prayer. If you know of any, give me the link. No reference, no study.

          December 22, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
    • Jaimie

      Why do you have so much hatred? People of whatever faith would not try to belittle your thoughts and ideas the way you do to them............

      December 21, 2013 at 8:02 pm |
    • Tony

      God Bless you Bob...

      December 21, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
    • scubaratt

      Why can't an omnipotent God just magically make everything namby pamby instead of making us work hard, suffer, strive for the impossible? Maybe we can't understand God, because we're not God. Your question is similar to statements like "you can't prove God exists". But similarly, no one can prove God doesn't exist – look at the complexity of the single cell, the origin of the Big Bang, the computer code of DNA etc. Why can't God eliminate suffering? You're right – Christians can't directly answer your line of questioning, but neither can you prove that the "Jesus-bulldo" story is fake when there are actual historical records of Biblical events. But then again, why do you as an atheist bother about anything at all? You can be a serial killer or a Mother Theresa – you can live until 90 or slit your throat right now, and it won't matter one bit, since you believe we came from nothing, live for nothing, and perish into nothingness.

      December 22, 2013 at 6:55 am |
      • Chikkipop

        Please tell me you're an atheist doing a parody of an ignorant theist.

        December 22, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
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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.