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. a slozomby

    so far Christmas has conquered Thanksgiving and is threatening Halloween. its Christmas's aggressive policies that started this whole mess.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:14 am |
    • JJ

      It's all about the dollar.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Our Nativity scene this year has Santa delivering the Christ child from a large pumpkin as Mary, Joseph and three turkeys look on in adoration.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:35 am |
      • tallulah13

        That's kinda beautiful.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:52 am |
  2. Aunt Rosy

    the pendulum has swung to the other side

    December 22, 2013 at 11:14 am |
  3. Realist

    If it weren't for Santa, there wouldn't be christmas.

    May Santa bless you all.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:12 am |
  4. Jesus Christ Son of God

    But wait, I was born on X-Mas day, as was the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, well, they weren't born on my birthday, but they are as real as I am. Pink elephants too.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  5. Mel Stricker

    Both sides, the over the top Christians (at least the ones that believe they are Christians but really do NOT follow Christianity because of their intolerance) and the over the top atheists who believe everyone who believes in a God are stupid, unenlightened or some other derogatory adjective they apply to believers.
    All these people are wrong because a BELIEF is only an opinion and like an opinion, it is neither right nor wrong and to argue the point is the real stupidity.
    The only thing that matters is how people treat other and in this case both sides are guilty of treating people badly (although the 'Christians have a slight edge in the intolerance category).
    The Atheists, the pseudo-Christians and the media need to stop this discussion that only, and ultimately, leads to alienation of everyone concerned.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • Bonnie

      Mel: There are No True Scotsmen. The only true Scotsman...

      You grok?

      December 22, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  6. Juls1314

    It's kind of hard to take the "War on Christmas" seriously when I see Christmas items on store shelves in October. Christmas is the only Holiday that gets 3 months, yet it's 1 day.

    And I'm Catholic.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • igaftr

      Similar to the days of talk leading up to the 3 hour superbowl.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:08 am |
  7. Ralph_in_FL

    The whole exercise seems rather pointless. It is a secular holiday for a lot of people already, and I am sure that even the people who go to church on Christmas Eve know that no one is forcing them to go.

    December 22, 2013 at 10:57 am |
  8. Seattle Sue

    If you believe, then believe. If you don't believe, then don't believe. But leave people alone with their believes or their disbelieves. Both sides quit hating.

    December 22, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      What if I believe beliefs matter and have actual real world consequences?

      December 22, 2013 at 10:58 am |
      • Remy

        Sounds like you would have a personal problem. If you believe then you know that YOU will be judged on how YOU lived your life and the decisions YOU made. It has nothing to do with how your neighbors lived their lives.

        In fact, doesn't the bible specifically tell you to worship in private and beware those that worship in public?

        “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.

        But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

        Matthew 6:5 and 6:6

        December 22, 2013 at 11:09 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          I don't see what your reply has to do with Cheesmaker's???

          December 22, 2013 at 11:13 am |
        • Blessed are the Cheesemakers


          My point was more along the lines of when people pray over their sick child instread taking them to the doctor and the child dies.

          Your response is ridiculous..

          December 22, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • igaftr

      My issue is more with people using the word hate FAR TOO often, when it really doesn't apply.
      Disagreement does not mean hate.

      December 22, 2013 at 10:59 am |
      • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

        One of my favorite new found quotes.

        "Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted."
        - Ralph Waldo Emerson

        December 22, 2013 at 11:01 am |
  9. LookANDSEE

    Christ was never in Christms. The 1st celebration on Dec 25 was PAGAN.It had to do with the sun not the SON!

    What Atheist should be concerened about it the MAS part of Christmas. Know it or not believe it or not, your making yourself_ Catholic. You say "I don,t want Christ". Neither do they, they have the Mas, which replaces Christ.

    December 22, 2013 at 10:55 am |
  10. darth cheney

    The War on Christmas is a completely manufactured conflict erected by the hard right to create imaginary enemies and fill their own ranks with venomous hatred and fear.

    December 22, 2013 at 10:54 am |
  11. Emil

    Atheists are such a tender lot. Seeing someone praying hurts atheists; they just feel awful. Imaging someone praying for the atheist sends atheists into depression. Christians, in contrast, seem much tougher. Does society have an obligation to protect atheists from such harm?

    December 22, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • bostontola

      Lets see, Christians (75% of the population) are panicking about a war by 2% (atheists) against Christmas and it's atheists that are fragile? Hahahahaha.

      December 22, 2013 at 10:52 am |
    • igaftr

      What you say may be your opinion, but it is not true for all atheists...for instance...babies are atheists (they haven't been "taught" about god, so they don't believe in any god.
      The Dalai Lama is also technically an atheist.

      Now if you are a christian, you just violated your commandment on bearing false witness, since what you said is false.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • Remy

      I have no problem seeing people pray. The bible says you shouldn't be doing it in public but that's the amusing thing about the bible and christians. They pick and choose which part they follow and which part they pay no mind.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:14 am |
      • tom LI

        Great point...but Xtianity has been displaying its "faith" for centuries now, its a Tradition of Faith..and there appears to be no end in sight as Social media only feeds the need to display ourselves...

        December 22, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • tom LI

      Thats funny, and incorrect. Pray all you wish...no skin off my back...in fact pray more, and get back to me when anything you actually for comes true...and I mean exactly as you asked! Not the usual excuse of we dont always get what we ask for...

      December 22, 2013 at 11:29 am |
  12. mrs. smith

    Yes, all the world's problems can be solved via CNN chat boards. Historians will look back on these post article debates and marvel at the problem solving that occurred here. As always, thanks for the entertainment folks.
    It's ok to go outside now and then too. Just sayin'

    December 22, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • tom LI

      Uh...you're "inside" posting too! ironic huh? Are you the type to eat the free-donuts and tell everyone they shouldn't because they're fattening ?

      December 22, 2013 at 10:44 am |
      • Hamlet

        Where are the free donuts?

        December 22, 2013 at 10:55 am |
  13. Bassmaster22

    Churches should stop the war on taxes. No church should be tax exempt. Ironic for a group of people who are so big on god and country to not contribute to country.
    When the rules apply equally to everyone, the "war" is over. Until then, atheists are the ones who have to deal with stupid sunday laws based in religion, forced days off based on religion, healthcare regulations based in religion. See a trend here? Yeah, you believers got it real rough. No go be good little capitalists and raid wal mart for cheap gifts to celebrate the wrong date of your maker's birth. Never fails to entertain.

    December 22, 2013 at 10:36 am |
    • tom LI

      Lol...a day off from work has never been FORCED on me in my life! are you really angry for a day off each year? LOL!

      December 22, 2013 at 10:42 am |
  14. tom LI

    I agree and disagree with Stedman. As an atheist I don't need these billboards/messages to support me.I certainly dont go to church because its the thing to do! How silly of any non-believer who is a legal adult. I find them funny for sure, and I would focus this one on the NEED part – as in Christ wont help the truly needy during this season of excess and hyper consumerism – which are both not true Jesus-like reactions to the alleged Holy Day – ONLY each of us can help the NEEDY. Or something like that...make the attention on the crass consumerism and toss it back in the Xtians faces that their Holy Season is not so Devotional! Its a few weeks of everything Jesus taught against!

    But I disagree with the "Dont Do it this way" POV of Stedman. Any group can pretty much say what they want in this great Nation of relatively free-speech. Sure these signs create enmity, and they really get under the skin of many Believers (lets not call most of American Xtians Theists as that denotes academic knowledge IMO) and they dont speak for me, nor a great many Atheists. But they do speak to the NEED for non-believers, etc to push back harder at the marginalizing factions that continue to...well marginalize Atheists, skeptics, rationalists, Secularists, Humanists, etc...

    The real issue is that the push back only seems to get real attention during this particular season. Which is truly now Everyones Season. Its hardly a season of Xtian devotion – what with nothing but non-religious decorations, themes everywhere. Its a Secular Season – with an actual Religious Holy Day marking a later point in the seasons run thru New Years. The Xtians can have their Christ Day, or two – as thats only for them to focus on as its their obligation of faith – the rest of us have the Season, from Thanksgiving thru New Years! Its a Secular Season that anyone can join in – a season of partying and mischief and happiness, excess consumerism, disappointment, and most certainly unhappiness for many others who find the whole thing simply depressing. And many of them are Believers! Many believers find the entirety of the season a mixed bag of faux religious devotion and secular mayhem.

    So sure, these Billboards anger some and draw both positive and negative attention on the inequity in the US – but I would never call for them to end. Free speech is a double-edged sword, it can cut on either edge, and usually does!

    December 22, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • bostontola

      I wouldn't be surprised if this point of view was largely embraced by most atheists.

      December 22, 2013 at 10:41 am |
    • Debra

      Good post and I agree. Also the author of this article stated: "A better billboard for American Atheists’s stated aim might read: “Don’t celebrate Christmas? You’re not alone.” I don't think he understands. Why wouldn't an atheist celebrate Christmas? I love Christmas. For my family, it's an "end of the year celebration". We work hard all year, don't spend crazily and December is such a cold dark month. It's time TO HAVE FUN. It's a whole month of buying extra things (gifts), eating whatever you want (no diets), going to parties, watching specials on tv, enjoying the decorations. We are on vacation and there is no schedule or alarm clocks. Then it's back to business on January 2nd.

      December 22, 2013 at 10:53 am |
  15. Blessed are the Cheesemakers


    December 22, 2013 at 10:32 am |
  16. Hibbity

    The article should read: Atheists already won the war on Christmas. Or more accurately, the capitalists already won. If they wanted a true Christian Holiday to celebrate his birthday, it would be in the spring and would not involve presents (the current date and the gift giving was an effort to incorporate Roman celebrations).

    December 22, 2013 at 10:28 am |
    • Jeff

      You're just as bad as this atheist group. So many want to claim Christmas as their own, to the exclusion of all others. The only ones who see a "war" on Christmas are those who choose to use it as a weapon. Christmas is a holiday of pagan and Jewish origins, whose traditions still feature prominently in Christmas decorations and activities. It is a holiday to cheer up an otherwise cold, dark, dreary time of year. Christians adopted it and enhanced the giving and "love thy neighbor" aspects of it, which is a good thing. American nationalism turned Christmas into a more family-centric celebration, and American commercialism turned giving into a significant way to churn the economy...all good things, too. So there's something for everyone to like and celebrate in Christmas. It should be the most inclusive holiday of them all. So stop using it to force your personal agenda and just enjoy it, and help others enjoy it.

      December 22, 2013 at 10:45 am |
      • Jeff

        Actually, Hibbity, I just re-read your comment. Maybe we're saying this same thing. Taking my own advice, Merry Christmas!

        December 22, 2013 at 10:48 am |
  17. TG

    Many have become atheists because of religion and its Christmas message. British historian and theologian Alister McGrath said that “what propels people toward atheism is above all a sense of revulsion against the excesses and failures of organized religion.” Religion is often seen as a factor behind wars and violence.

    Atheist Michel Onfray muses on how it is possible that the same religious book, the Bible, could inspire two types of men, one “aspiring to saintliness,” the other “carrying out an act of inhuman cruelty”—terrorism. Not surprisingly, then, many people view religion as an obstacle to human progress and peace.

    And, for many, they can see through the commercialism and false pretenses that Christmas presents, knowing full well that Santa Claus and his reindeer has nothing to do with Jesus birth, but is an addition placed there to embellish it for monetary gain. Coca Cola took a slim Santa and fattened him up with rosy cheeks in 1931 and Montgomery Wards added Rudolph the red nose reindeer in 1939.

    However, there is more here than "meets the eye". Was Jesus even born on December 25 ? Those who put aside bias, can look into the Bible and determine that Jesus was not born on December 25. How ? In the Bible, at Luke 2, it says that "region shepherds (were) living out of doors and keeping watch in the night over their flocks" when Jesus was born.(Luke 2:8)

    Hence, the weather was comfortably warm with the shepherds being with their flocks at nighttime. What would this indicate ? That Jesus was born around the 1st of October, for by the middle of October, the shepherds were already beginning to take their flocks inside from the upcoming cold rainy season of December.

    And also, the Bible establishes the day of Jesus death as Nisan 14 (postexilic name for Abib 14 on the Jewish sacred calendar, from mid March to mid April), but nowhere does it mention when he was born.(see Ex 12:1-6; 13:3, 4) Jesus told his loyal disciples to observe only the day of his death as representative of him being the passover lamb.(Luke 22:19, 20)

    December 22, 2013 at 10:26 am |

    To start, atheists can build positive relationships with believers to humanize our communities and educate one another about our differences......YOU SAY.

    BUT.....believers in Jesus are not grounded in reality...how does one carry on a conversation with people that ARBITRARY BELIEVE SOMETHING?

    People who believe in the bible and Jesus are all over the map when discussing this because the bible is ambiguous and can mean anything you want to argue.

    The truth about Christmas is that this was a ROMAN HOLIDAY FOR THE GOD SATURN WHERE THEY WOULD EXCHANGE GIFTS.....the bishop of Rome just moved in and put this fictional Jesus on the 25th and declared it a day for giving gifts to show Jesus is giving and so you should be also..

    December 22, 2013 at 10:23 am |
    • Flyer

      Well said. Not to mention Christians vehemently refuse to work with atheist groups for charitable events, and openly atheist groups are often refused entry when they try to do good. Atheists are so openly discriminated against at every level that it is ridiculous that Christians could possibly feel threatened in any way.

      December 22, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  19. dzerres

    I don't recall EVER where an atheist has knocked on my door to try to convert me. Or how about all of those street preachers in almost every major city in America, holding their Bibles and yelling at passers about going to Hell? Ever see an atheist do that? Nope. So there is a quiet billboard which you can chose to read or ignore. I'd rather have that than one more idiot approaching me at work or on the street to ask if "I know Jesus Christ?".

    December 22, 2013 at 10:21 am |

      I think the religious are fearful of us atheist because we seem to enjoy our lives without that curse of doom they live under thinking that if they do something wrong GOD IS GOING TO MAKE THEM PAY......Atheist have freedom from shame, guilt, hate, blind fear and so many other THREATS the religious live under.....

      December 22, 2013 at 10:29 am |
      • tom LI

        The reality is Most American Xtians only think that doom is directed at everyone else....certainly not them. Once they perform their rituals of Salvation, they're golden! Everyone else is gonna burn, not them! Its a Faith revolving around their revenge fantasies...

        December 22, 2013 at 10:40 am |
      • Klarissa

        The minute they put a .org behind the word atheist is the minute it became another religion, with its own priests, high priests and official dogma and doctrine. I don't need a man to tell me what to believe either for or against the concept of God. Atheists have become "preachers" on public forums and aggressively proselytize the weak minded and uneducated with promises of the opposite, should they convert. I have no fundamental reason to believe in God, but I don't spend my life aggrandising my particular point of view.

        In short, if you don't believe in God, set an example for the right wingers out there and keep your beliefs in check. Be a model a citizen and set an example instead of following the Christian one to the letter...

        December 22, 2013 at 11:05 am |
      • Responding to the Pride

        You say here "I think the religious are fearful of us atheist because we seem to enjoy our lives", but below, you say: "I NEVER celebrate religious holidays.... or thanksgiving....and rarely go out on weekends....I dine out during the weekdays when fewer people get in my way." Wow–you're nuts!!!!!

        December 22, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
    • djasp

      atheists are doing more than "knocking on your door" when they erect a huge billboard like this.. how can you not see that.. jeesh

      December 22, 2013 at 10:56 am |
      • AtheistSteve

        As opposed to the veritable tidal wave of religious billboards. A little perspective please. Your side takes the cake when it comes to self-promotion.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:15 am |
  20. Gorsh

    I don't mind atheists, as long as they don't try to force their beliefs on me, or push laws based on their atheism.

    Oh, wait. Pot, meet kettle.

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

      Atheists are about 2% of the US population, they can't pass any laws that are atheist based. Christians are 75% of the US population, they frequently try at all levels, from the school board on up. Atheists' only defense is in Consti.tutional court.

      December 22, 2013 at 10:17 am |
    • JJ

      Why can't I buy beer before noon on Sunday?

      December 22, 2013 at 10:22 am |
      • TAK

        DING DING DING. We have a winner. Best argument against christianity yet!

        December 22, 2013 at 10:38 am |
      • Klarissa

        Ask your Doctor how good day long alcohol consumption is for your health. If you still want to do it, buy it ahead of time and store it in a new modern device called a fridge.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:08 am |
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