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. Mike

    I'm an atheist and love Christmas. Let's not lump everyone into category now.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:24 am |
  2. Jennifer

    When my fiancé of 11 months was diagnosed with leukemia and then died 11 months later at the age of 25, I faced the end of life with him. The Bible was the ONLY source of comfort and solace during that time of scary unknowns. Jesus revealed Himself as REAL and able to carry not only my fiancé over to the other side, but carry and give me grace and hope during that time. Jesus is real. The Word is real. Sharing Jesus with others is sharing the hope that only HE can provide through this life and the next. History proves Jesus' existence. No other religion even claims a risen Savior because they do not have one. When you stand at the gate of death (as I did, alongside my fiancé 7/20/83), you will find Jesus waiting. Get to know Him now. Only He provides TRUE peace and REALITY to this life and the next!!!

    December 22, 2013 at 7:16 am |
    • shamgar50

      Sounds more like an act of desperation to me. You couldn't face reality, so you turned to fantasy.

      December 22, 2013 at 7:35 am |
      • krg

        You need to ask yourself why would say such a hateful thing? Are you making the world a better place by attacking someone like this?

        December 22, 2013 at 7:44 am |
        • Noyb

          No. they're not. But that's not what they care about. Making the planet a better place is not a high priority for people that do not care about good or evil.

          December 22, 2013 at 8:18 am |
        • Chikkipop

          That was funny!

          December 22, 2013 at 9:47 pm |
      • joenezperce

        If you have a religious point of view that you are happy and secure with, why knock someone else's "religious" view (as the atheist banner above does). Is it because knocking someone's view you don't agree with is your "religion" and you have nothing good to say about yours. All the christmas things I see point to love, charity, happiness, etc. – the problem with many who proclaim to be atheists is that they see Christianity and react as if it is an attack on them. Christians are celebrating an important part of their beliefs in a happy and merry way. Many atheists are happy to look at the decorative christmas scenes and go on with their own lives – but sadly there are many who just can't be satisfied with the freedom to believe what they believe and allow others to do the same. Like it or not this country was founded upon Judeo-Christian belief systems. It has been the world leader for human rights (in spite of it not being perfect) and the world leader for opportunity (despite some not taking advantage of it). If you're proud of your atheist beliefs – more power to you, and I am happy for you, but don't build your house by knocking down someone else's. That only serves to intimate that you are not content with your beliefs and find it necessary to bring down someone who is happy (misery loves company so to speak). I do believe there are many atheists who are not part of the hate wing of their group, but as in many situations the squeaky wheel gets the most grease.
        God bless!

        December 22, 2013 at 8:17 am |
    • Realist

      Jennifer, you found strength wiyhin yourself!!!

      It's just silliness to think otherwise ... because ...


      Christianity is built upon a LIE ...

      ................ because ....................

      ..... http://www.GodIsImaginary.com ...

      ... and thank goodness because he ...

      ............. emanates from the .............

      ...................... http://www.EvilBible.com


      December 22, 2013 at 7:41 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      I feel compassion for your loss and I have no intention of robbing you of the solace you feel because of your faith.
      But everyone suffers loss and for someone like me the path you chose is empty of any real meaning.
      Over the course of 7 years I lost both my parents to cancer. In some ways having someone you love die from a terminal illness provides an opportunity not available to those whose loved ones die suddenly and unexpectedly. You get the chance to give comfort, say goodbye and let them know they are loved. When they finally passed my grief was as terrible as yours except without the fuzzy silver lining of expectation at ever seeing them again. They live on only in the memories and the legacy of impact they had on others.
      You said " History proves Jesus' existence."
      Actually history proves the existence of the "story" of Jesus, not his divinity or his claims about God. Jesus was preaching what he believed but the Bible in no way confirms his beliefs are real anymore than your belief does. Again, if your faith in Jesus helped you to deal with your grief then good for you. But I would suggest that you underestimated your own strength. Dealing with grief and the finality of death without appeals to the supernatural is possible. I know.

      December 22, 2013 at 8:06 am |
    • Chikkipop

      Sorry, but we all suffer losses at one time or another.

      Some of us don't need imaginary friends for solace, though. Facing reality, even at difficult times, is better than taking false comforts.

      It's what adults do.

      December 22, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
  3. floyd schrodinger

    When the christians stop shoving their beliefs down everyones throats, others will stop their "war" on christianity.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:14 am |
    • James P. Barber

      Sometimes Floyd the best way to keep thing from being shoved down your throat is to keep your mouth closed. I gave up on the church along time ago, especially when it became so intwined with politics.We have too many real important things to deal with to be bothered with billboard preaching. Hope you're not in the bad weather. Enjoy your family this holiday.

      December 22, 2013 at 7:31 am |
    • Carl

      When you atheist stop shoving your belief that there is no God in our throats, others will stop their "war" on atheist.

      December 22, 2013 at 7:32 am |
      • truthprevails1

        So reality hurts? There is no war on a belief system that bases all it claims off of a 2000+ year old book and yet tries to dictate how others act using that book as a tool and reasoning. Grow up, christians are not persecuted...they're just being corrected.

        December 22, 2013 at 7:40 am |
      • UncleM

        Atheists do not *believe* there is no god. There is no evidence for the existence of any gods. The burden of proof is on those making the extraordinary claim.

        December 22, 2013 at 7:42 am |
  4. tbreeden

    It's not a war on Christmas. It's a war on Christian privilege.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:12 am |
    • Bob

      What privileges do Christians have that you and I do not ?

      December 22, 2013 at 7:20 am |
      • UncleM

        Tax free churches. Undue political influence.

        December 22, 2013 at 7:40 am |
        • sameeker

          So true. Let them pay taxes on their elaborate churches. The cost of building and maintaining those elaborate buildings could help thousands of the needy.

          December 22, 2013 at 7:45 am |
        • The government's end

          Keep kissing it, maybe it'll turn around and thank you one day, maybe.

          December 22, 2013 at 8:20 am |
        • Elliott Carlin

          I'd say there are certain other groups at 2 and 13 % who also have quite an influence. Don't be scared about it–it is the arena of ideas. You need to be more progressive in your thinking, especially towards Christians.

          December 22, 2013 at 8:34 am |
      • shamgar50

        Wear a t-shirt that says "I'm an Atheist", and you'll find out. If people think you're an atheist, it can even affect your job.

        December 22, 2013 at 7:42 am |
        • Elliott Carlin

          That's because if you did wear such a t-shirt, most people would know your mind has been infected. Get a grip.

          December 22, 2013 at 8:32 am |
    • bullmastiffdog

      I was just thinking blah, blah, blah as i read most of the comments. then i cam to yours. You nailed it. It is a war on christian privilege.

      December 22, 2013 at 7:44 am |
  5. Greg

    At the end of this day, we the chosen, will see tomorrow.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:11 am |
  6. Rick

    If atheists need to quit their supposed war on Xmas, then Christians should quit pushing their beliefs on others as well. Deal? No? Didn't think so.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:00 am |
  7. jla1125

    What religious people don't seem to grasp is the First Amendment gives everyone the right to opine on religion regardless of what opinion is being expressed. Atheists have just as much of a right to convince people that there is no God as Christians have the right to convert others to Christianity. If you don't like the fact that some atheists are trying to convince others that there is no God, then come up with some arguments to support your opinion instead of just whining about it..

    December 22, 2013 at 6:58 am |
    • Science Works

      Evolution is true – the BIG cry babies (creationists) were in Texas- but they LOST the text book battle.

      December 22, 2013 at 7:01 am |
  8. Whoville

    Happy year end retail buying season that p** everyone off. Yay!

    December 22, 2013 at 6:57 am |
  9. sweenbass

    In the matter of books that some consider "Holy" (Bible, Koran, Gita...etc)

    All of those books have some interesting stories in them.

    All of those books have some philosophies that one can use to help better your life & the lives of others.

    When it comes to the spiritual things that these books attept to answer (The presence of a diety, a life force, existance before natural birth or after natural death...),the best that these books can do is speculate.

    That is because they were written by people.

    Some wish to hang their spiritual hat on those speculations. That is their choice. I choose not to.

    Is there a spiritual component to the universe? I do not know & I do not claim to know

    That is why i refer to myself as an agnostic.

    December 22, 2013 at 6:53 am |
  10. Saraswati

    Keep the Odin in Wednesday this Christmas! To leave Woden (Odin) out would just be illogical. On Boxing Day and every Thursday paise Thor! We can't possibly forget any god that effects naming in our calendar. Sacrifice to the goddess on Easter.. Praise Mars through March!

    December 22, 2013 at 6:43 am |
    • Reading along

      Clever post!

      December 22, 2013 at 6:52 am |
  11. There is no Christ in SANTA CLAUS

    the WAR ON XMAS!

    If you stupid Christians haven't figured it out yet – just like YOU stole the winter holiday from pagans – us atheists have stolen Christmas from you. We just didn't change the name, but we can celebrate the Season of Giving without having to invite Jeebus into it at all.

    Santa, Rudolph, Frosty – they're all there – just like the Easter Bunny. Yep – we stole that, too. Guess you have to start whining about the War on Easter, now, too!!!!!

    BWA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!

    December 22, 2013 at 6:38 am |
    • Stupidwest

      Let me explain something, you atheist brainwashed by Hollywood. Less than 3 % of Christians worldwide live in the US.. ..Santa, Rudolph, Frosty – and the Easter Bunny- are all U.S made fictional characters that have nothing to do with religion. Like Christmas in the U.S, its all about commercialization. Christians outside the U.S have never heard about these stupid stories. Go and learn christianity and christmas outside the U.S from its origin.. Do not attribute the teaching of a religion on what people do, because people do a lot of wrong things..If you want to learn chinease and their culture ..maybe you should go to china and not to your stupid west movies and stories.

      December 22, 2013 at 6:52 am |
      • Saraswati

        The US represents about 10% of the world's Christians, not 3%, and the Easter bunny is a part of all Anglo countries' and most Germanic countries' celebrations. Certainly the traditions vary by region, and you might want to read people's comments in context as referring to 'North American' or 'Germanic' Christmas depending on context.

        December 22, 2013 at 7:44 am |
    • Reading along

      Absurd post.

      December 22, 2013 at 6:53 am |
  12. Reality # 2

    The War on Christianity and religion in general is not new:

    "The Two Universal Sects

    They all err—Moslems, Jews,
    Christians, and Zoroastrians:

    Humanity follows two world-wide sects:
    One, man intelligent without religion,
    The second, religious without intellect. "

    , born AD 973 /, died AD 1058 / .

    Al-Ma’arri was a blind Arab philosopher, poet and writer.[1][2] He was a controversial rationalist of his time, attacking the dogmas of religion and rejecting the claim that Islam possessed any monopoly on truth."

    Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/resalat-al-ghufran#ixzz1lI6DuZmZ and http://www.humanistictexts.org/al_ma'arri.htm

    December 22, 2013 at 6:36 am |
    • Isn't it heartening that throughout time there have been RATIONALISTS?

      Don't you wish we had more of them in this country right now?

      December 22, 2013 at 6:40 am |
  13. Happy Holidays!

    War? You haven't seen a war.

    Want to? Keep it up.

    December 22, 2013 at 6:34 am |
    • Season's greetings

      How cheerful and festive!

      December 22, 2013 at 6:43 am |
  14. DestroyerKahn

    Everyone just needs to take a deep breath and let everyone else just believe what they want. Why do so many people have to belittle or criticize others for their beliefs? It's all about being comfortable with your own humanity, and if it ain't broke, don't fix it!

    December 22, 2013 at 6:33 am |
    • Because INSANE people need to be told they're insane

      and then they need to be quarantined lest their delusions infect others.

      December 22, 2013 at 6:35 am |
  15. Natch

    Most Atheists aren't ticked off about that fact that others believe in God, so much as they're ticked off that others DON'T believe that THEY are God, like they do!! Bunch of prima donnas, for the most part.

    December 22, 2013 at 6:30 am |
    • Chikkipop

      Care to back that up with a little evidence?

      Not that you have the slightest idea what evidence is.

      December 22, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
  16. jeremiah dawson

    Christians can not even begin to talk about being "picked on". From a religion founded on blood and political power and mens greed being forced down Non-Christians throats. Like your 500yr holy war. That was really a misuse of men's faith promising a get out of jail free card if you kill a infidels, Your sins will be forgotten. As though Men could dictate what deeds will give you passage to heaven. Overall it was the European Royals plundering the gold and richs of the middle east using faith as a rally card for common men to a fight to fuel Europe's Elite's greed. I personally dont care if we say Merry Christmas or happy holidays. But when Christians start complaining about being picked on. Guess what... Your people have been doing it for well over 1000yrs+ so enjoy a taste of your own medicine. You've earned it

    December 22, 2013 at 6:28 am |
    • Stupidwest

      Let me guess, you watch and BELEIVE a lot of Hollywood movies. What can I say.. atheist

      December 22, 2013 at 6:36 am |
      • Charles

        I believe you need to buy a dictionary and use it, Einstein.

        December 22, 2013 at 7:20 am |
  17. Stupidwest

    Why would you spend thousands of Dollars per hour (It costs between $1.1 million and $4 million a year if you want to buy one of those flashy lights) to put up a sign in the middle of the most famous square in the US. Let me think..... because I am a stupid atheist and I do not believe in anything.... Atheists, believe it or not, there is CHRIST in CHRSITmas... stupid morons. You make me laugh. Pathetic and hopeless. LOL

    December 22, 2013 at 6:12 am |
    • S-3B Viking

      Jesus couldn't have said it better! Bravo!

      December 22, 2013 at 6:14 am |
      • Stupidwest

        Another hopeless one. Why do you live? What do you hope for? A new Ipad or Iphone? Just do it, go a head and do it and end your misery..

        December 22, 2013 at 6:26 am |
    • Saraswati

      Does that mean north american anglo and germanic Christians are going to put the goddess Easter back in Easter and that they are stipid, pathetic and hopeless for not having done so before?

      December 22, 2013 at 6:28 am |
    • There is no Christ in SANTA CLAUS

      If you stupid Christians haven't figured it out yet – just like YOU stole the winter holiday from pagans – us atheists have stolen Christmas from you. We just didn't change the name, but we can celebrate the Season of Giving without having to invite Jeebus into it at all.

      Santa, Rudolph, Frosty – they're all there – just like the Easter Bunny. Yep – we stole that, too. Guess you have to start whining about the War on Easter, now, too!!!!!

      BWA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!

      December 22, 2013 at 6:37 am |
      • Rose

        Not all Christians celebrate Christmas, especially using the child-like false idols of Santa Claus, Rudolph, Elf on a Shelf, etc. It is not polite to assume EVERY Christian is the same, just as I don't assume EVERY atheist is the same. If I went around calling an entire group by what a minority does, then I could say ALL atheists despise children and the idea of procreation, are arrogant men who do not believe in marriage, and they find joy in watching others cringe at their use of misappropriated foul language. I know for a fact that is not true as I have atheist friends who do have children, are in loving relationships, and don't use foul language. Just like there are good Christians who aren't hypocrites who enjoy shoving Bibles and religion down peoples throats or posting their "perfect" lives on online media to show they are better because they have beliefs. I just wish for once people would not judge an entire group based on the actions of a minority.

        December 22, 2013 at 7:03 am |
    • UncleM

      Nice post. Lacks any cogent argument for the existence of god though, but I suspect that deep down the poster knows atheists are right.

      December 22, 2013 at 7:46 am |
  18. Couldn't resist

    Who needs Hal in Halloween? Nobody.

    December 22, 2013 at 5:59 am |
    • S-3B Viking

      How dare you! We have been worshipping HAL9000 in Silicon Valley for decades...the 21st Century is founded on his family values...he died so that we might compute.

      I'm calling Bill O'Reilly this morning, da.mn you.

      December 22, 2013 at 6:03 am |
      • Rett

        OK, as a non-tech person what is a HAL9000?

        December 22, 2013 at 6:13 am |
        • S-3B Viking

          2001: A Space Odyssey...Great movie, for some. Just google HAL9000...

          December 22, 2013 at 6:16 am |
  19. Big Red

    Tolerance works both ways. If you want your views seen and heard then why do you need to put up a billboard saying Christ doesn't need to be in Christmas? Whether you believe in God or not, respect each other's beliefs. That's not hard, and respect goes a long way. However, if you're going to put up billboards such as that, then you indeed have created a "war on Christmas" and should expect the backlash because you aren't practicing the tolerance you preach. If you want someone to hear you, you get further by a soft word and kindness than disrespectful attack. Last but not least, if the Athiests who put up this billboard are so upset by Christ in Christmas, then don't celebrate it. Don't take the days off, don't buy gifts, don't cook or have a family gathering because that would be hypocritical. Just go to work and treat it as any other day. Why does Christmas frighten you so much that you have to fight it that hard?

    December 22, 2013 at 5:34 am |
    • DestroyerKahn

      Nicely Said, I agree with all you said. I am "atheist", but I totally respect others' rights to practice their religion if they choose. And I celebrate Christmas as a time for gift-giving and family gathering. It's The Most Joyous Time of the Year!

      December 22, 2013 at 6:25 am |
      • Chikkipop

        "I am “atheist”, but I totally respect others’ rights to practice their religion if they choose."

        Forehead slap.

        Just goes to show you there are some pretty boneheaded atheists out there.

        But then, it doesn't really take a lotta smarts to get that god beliefs are not very wise.

        December 22, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
  20. Hooligan

    I am an atheist and I was not even aware there WAS a war.

    I in all honesty don't care and enjoy this time of year.

    It's festive, friendly and I get to spend time with people I love.

    Maybe the writer should stop thinking all atheists want to destroy your silly faith.

    December 22, 2013 at 5:26 am |
    • Bob

      The writer is an atheist. He is talking about a group of atheists' actual behavior and actions.

      December 22, 2013 at 5:28 am |
    • lol??

      Ignorance is no excuse, Hooligan. You must register when you turn 18. You COULD go to canada if yer too chicken to fight other americans.

      December 22, 2013 at 5:40 am |
      • S-3B Viking

        lol?? You're late, where the hell have you been?

        December 22, 2013 at 5:43 am |
        • David York

          You mean Xmas isn't all about the Jan sales??

          December 22, 2013 at 6:34 am |
      • Charles

        What article did you read?

        December 22, 2013 at 7:23 am |
    • Rob

      The "war" is being deftly waged by retailers and the media who are enslaved by them. Christmas is very seldom about Christ anymore. It is about "what did you get?"

      December 22, 2013 at 6:05 am |
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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.