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. ELH

    The commercialism of Christmas has become a necessary part of our economy. Many firms are able to remain profitable due solely to the sales they make durning the year-end shopping spree.

    Many of the non-religious (I am one) use the season to reenforce ties to family and friends thru the exchange of Christmas cards and gifts, which practices do not require belief in a Supreme Being.

    Both sides need to chill out and quit bashing the other. Believers will not renounce their beliefs and non-believers will not convert.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • conscious observer

      best idea would be a billboard calling for the elimination of the commercial part of the season… but then, commercialism enables the continuation of the inhumane economic structure. leave Christ alone and get rid of the "buy,buy,buy,buy" illusions that bury everyone in ego.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:55 am |
  2. cfd

    The only meaning of Christmas anymore is to the retailers, that's why it sucks

    December 22, 2013 at 11:47 am |
  3. stevetall

    There is no war on Christmas, you idiots. It's just another right-wing scam to try to put people into groups, sides against one another for a non-existent issue. A lame Sarah Palin attempt to stay in the lime light, and the morons at Fox News are happy to spew lies to the not-smarts who listen to them. Have a Happy Holiday and shut the hell up.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:46 am |
    • The Frog

      It sounds like you are the Idiot , it is clear that there is an attack on Christmas, you see it and hear every where....


      December 22, 2013 at 11:53 am |
      • tallulah13

        The only war is inside the heads of people like you. No one is taking your religion from you. You are not a martyr. You do seem to be a bit of a drama queen, though.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • Paul

      Not sure if you are commenting on the article or to other comments. If you are commenting on the other article, you didn't read it. The author of the article says there indeed is no "War on Christmas", but, charges American Atheists President Dave Silverman of playing into the "War on Christmas" narrative by being overly antagonistic, which works to help donations to American Atheists, but, also helps keep the "War on Christmas" narrative alive. (Note: I am not expressing this opinion, I am summarizing the opinion of the article for those that didn't read it or understand it.)

      December 22, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • conscious observer

      sort of lost the Spirit of the season with your angry rant.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:57 am |
  4. usxpatriate


    December 22, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  5. hello

    Went to the Wal-store in Cheyenne yesterday... there were rows and rows of christmas stuff that looked like they never been touched. Use to be.. there was very little left on the shelves.. this year... seems most was rejected.
    I usually look for items that I can use for Winter Solstice decorations. this year.. was not really looking for anything particular.
    But was amazed on the amount of merchandise still there.. Either its the economy.. or people are just not interested.
    Very little holiday decorations in restaurants and stores too. Seemed more like Bha humbug... season..

    December 22, 2013 at 11:44 am |
  6. omeany

    You mean the Christmas that has less to do with the birth of Jesus and more to do with Celtic traditions (We can thank the Celts for the Christmas tree, mistletoe, holly and wreath)

    Or maybe you mean that retail onslaught I see every year where people spend much more money than they can usually afford to buy things they believe they can't live without because a tv ad told them.

    If you really believe Jesus is your Lord, take some time and research further than the bible and you will see Jesus more than likely was born in the late spring or summer so the supposed "war on Christmas" is just one more thing the media uses to lure in the naive so they can hit them with whatever propaganda their particular media outlet is selling. Stop dancing for the media and start thinking for yourselves. Your free to believe whatever you think is right but make sure you can explain WHY you believe those things other than quoting the bible.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:42 am |
    • hello

      Before Tutus Flavious.. the son of Vespasian went to war with the Jews.. he led the campaign to destroy the Celtics .. Druids.

      The Druids had no written language..so removing their history was as simple as eliminating them.. which the did..
      The next task was to get rid of the Jews... in Jerusalem ..
      That was a lot more difficult task for the Romans... so they created the Christian myth from the Jewish one. with the help of Vespasian's adopted son Josephus.

      The Christian myth was to trick the jews into worshiping the Roman Caesar's as gods in their temples.. The pagans had not problem to that. because what was one more god to them.. but the monotheistic Jews refused.. They also had written texts that were very strict on what they could and could not do... So the Roman Family created the Christian myth rooted in the Jewish one... as a response to their prophecy that their savior.. Messiah had been born according to their myth..
      Joe Atwill has discovered this link and is sharing his discovery now..

      for more info.. visit Caesar's Messiah web site...

      December 22, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  7. spark

    Talk about missing the point of the message. Even if you did not believe that Christ is the son of God, the message and change of thinking from "eye for an eye" in historical society to one of compassion and forgiveness is a positive one, especially for how violent the times were.. Some other religions who do not believe he was the son of God see him as a prophet. I am not saying all, but many more than not. Some even want to argue that he did not even exist at all even as just a man. You cannot ignore the fact that even if Jesus was just a "man', he has changed this world like no other.

    Unfortunately, radicals (whether Christian, Muslim or sometimes other religions have historically used religion as a means to persecute others). That is of man's inherent flaws. People who have done this (including the Catholic Church, Islamist and other have misinterpreted and tried to apply words from a specific time in history to modern times and just plain miss the message). That is exactly why you cannot take every word the Bible literally and frame the words with a historical perspective.

    It is very true that media and corporation have used Christmas and turned it into nothing more than another marketing tool.

    Everyone has the right to believe what they like without being persecuted.. I have wonderful friends who are atheist, but it certainly does not mean we do not or cannot get along.

    But at the end of the Day, sorry, you cannot take the Christ out of Christmas.
    I think we should celebrate "Mas" which means "more" which describes our greedy society we live in the US. That is why the sign looks pretty silly. Maybe a little "more" Christ or least the message is exactly what we need....

    I am sure that is really pleasant to live in societies that did not allow religion like communist China, the communist Soviet Union or even North Korea. Man even screwed the idea of social equality in those societies simply due to our faults and human nature.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:40 am |
  8. Josh

    I am agnostic – a hair's breath away from Atheism – needless to say I have no religion. Christmas to me is not a religious holiday at all. Never was. It's a cultural holiday. One that has some religious symbology but I still didn't think of it as a religious holiday. Given a couple more generations, America will see religion fade as the youth refuse to be brainwashed as their parents were.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • hello

      the riddle of the christian myth has been solved..

      visit Caesar's Messiah... web site..

      Red Ice Radio on the net.. enter Caesar's Messiah on their search tab.. to hear more.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  9. rjrock

    Not sure why we have so much faux conflict over this topic. It seems the war on christmas only takes place in the media. In my neighborhood, Christmas is a time of celebration, tolerance, and inclusiveness. My neighbors are a pair of married doctors that are both Catholic and Jewish and they love the holiday. In our house, my wife is a born-again Christian and I'm a lapsed Catholic and we take great pride in how we celebrate the tradition. In fact, we open our home at Christmas to all our friends and family...including some of our great Muslim friends. In short, there is no war on Christmas that I an see. Only a faux controversy that doesn't reflect our experience of the holiday.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  10. hello

    Happy Winter Solstice

    December 22, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • Buy Nothing

      And to you. Cheers.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:34 am |
      • hello

        visit... Caesar's Messiah web site..

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

      kunli(-) wuh'rak irak-wak!

      December 22, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  11. max cady

    Its not Atheists who have a war on Christmas.
    The real war on Christmas is done by Christians who go crazy spending billions of dollars for gifts, to celebrate the birth of a person (real or not) who taught that greed was evil.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • Rik

      Why does anyone with an opinion different than mine tell me what I should or should not believe. Mine your own business and I'll mind mine.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • hello

      many atheists like myself.. celebrate.. Winter Solstice.. the original winter holiday

      December 22, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
  12. Wootings

    The actual problem isn't athiests waging war on anything...it's religion raging against reality.

    As soon as the religious stop lying to themselves, and everyone around them, the world will become an infinitely better place.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • hello

      visit... Caesar's Messiah web site..

      Red Ice Radio... and enter... Caesar's Messiah in their search tab.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:38 am |
    • Roman

      You first.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:43 am |


    December 22, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • JJ

      I agree.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • AtheistSteve


      All these endless, tedious discussions bore me to tears. To each his own

      That's one way to approach things. Some would argue that discussions of difference of opinion is useful. Not many will be swayed by anything they read here but fence-sitters are getting the opportunity to view both sides of the argument and that has value.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:37 am |
      • hello

        the debate on the validity of the christian myth is about to come to an end..

        Visit Caesar's Messiah... web site.

        December 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm |

        That was very well expressed, AS.I believe I was a having a bout of fatigue when I wrote that. I am always drawn to these/those threads and I read many of them. As long as I remember not to take personal things personally, it is always eye-opening.

        December 31, 2013 at 5:49 pm |

        That was very well expressed, AS.I believe I was a having a bout of fatigue when I wrote that. I am always drawn to these/those threads and I read many of them. As long as I remember not to take personal things personally, it is always eye-opening.

        December 31, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
  14. US Citizen

    Merry Christmas everyone!

    December 22, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • carlin123

      Merry Christmas to you too.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:24 am |
  15. carlin123

    I always like Christmas, because I NEVER associated it with religion.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • JJ

      Most people don't, including most moderate non-Evangelical Christians I know.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:25 am |
      • snowboarder

        most of the religious I know are religious by tradition.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  16. bostontola

    The following exchange took place between Robert I. Sherman of American Atheist Press and George H. W. Bush, on August 27 1987.
    "What will you do to win the votes of Americans who are atheists?"
    "I guess I'm pretty weak in the atheist community. Faith in God is important to me."
    "Surely you recognize the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists?"
    "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."
    "Do you support as a sound consti.tutional principle the separation of state and church?"
    "Yes, I support the separation of church and state. I'm just not very high on atheists."

    December 22, 2013 at 11:19 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      I wonder if any god believers think he would have said that if the numbers were reversed, and atheists were 90% of the population?

      December 22, 2013 at 11:27 am |
      • snowboarder

        atheists were still fearful of the religious majority at that time and had not yet found their voice. he had probably never put serious thought to the subject.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:28 am |
      • bostontola

        The amazing thing to me is not the politics, its the total lack of logic and understanding of our system of government that a person that became president had. Read Bush'last 2 statements. Atheists are not citizens, but he believes in the separation of church and state. The suspension of logic is symptomatic of the god delusion.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • tallulah13

      So the President of the United States openly spoke of his desire to discriminate against atheists only 26 years ago. Yet some christians think there is a war against them and their stolen holiday because of a sign. What a bunch of babies.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:40 am |
      • bostontola

        Scary who we elect.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:48 am |
  17. snowboarder

    we celebrate a secular christmas.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  18. Realist

    Santa works in mysterious ways. Santa heals the sick.

    May Santa be with you.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  19. Ronald D Cooper

    Without religion! Without the promise of everlasting life! Your existence on earth is all for nothing. You have lived through your given life span. Had a laugh here, or a cry there – and then you die! Nothing you did during your short life span means anything. The memory of your life gradually fades over time and given enough time, fades off into oblivion. A life without meaning or purpose. Without religion, your morality can be whatever you choose it to be. Without belief in a higher power your life is empty and lost. You have nothing to look forward to but the final destruction. Without religion, you can treat your fellow man any way you want since your moral compass is based on what you consider to be moral. You as an atheist do not need God because you are the God in control of your own destiny. Your destiny is death and destruction at the hands of a God that doesn't have a clue. Since you don't have to answer to a higher power, you can do whatever you want. Morality is yours to command. Do not be short sighted and just think of your life in the here and now. Look beyond your life and think of the glories of things to come. Think of it as an investment in your future. If you do not, then your life is all for nothing and has truly been wasted.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:15 am |
    • snowboarder

      I never understand why people think they must have religion for their life to have meaning.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:20 am |
      • carlin123

        Just follow that line of sheep to church, they will tell you.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:24 am |
      • hello

        because they have been programed that way...
        Caesar's Messiah web site to see how it all got started and my whom.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Post by 'Ronald D Cooper' contains instances of the Strawman Fallacy, the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, and a form of the flawed argument known as Pascal's Wager.


      December 22, 2013 at 11:20 am |
      • snowboarder

        why would anyone wish to go to a heaven with such sanctimonious dolts?

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

        Thanks 101, as our latest resident amateur "philosopher" R Cooper gets stapled up in the stupidity gallery. Click click.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:24 am |
      • Free Holiday Nuts

        Theists are experts in saving up and using lots of straw. They still don't no how many stables to outfit for Solomon.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • snowboarder

      @ron, I have never seen so many fallacies in a single post.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:21 am |
      • no

        You have to read like a christian to understand their posts. Just randomly skip through the words and look for emotional words that can be boosted, look for words that have double meanings, etc, and take all of these and just make something up in your head. So now you're using similar words and you think you're making a point, but you're not, lol.

        December 23, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • AGuest9

      There is no "beyond" biological death. That is the "destiny" that each of us has, nothing more. Some of us don't have a problem with the concept. It is a reminder to do everything you can in the short time you have left.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:22 am |
    • Duzinkiewicz

      We simply do not know and honesty is preferable to desperate self-deception.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:29 am |
      • snowboarder

        @duz, we may not know, but the absurdities that are the major religious doctrines of our time certainly don't help their cause.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:30 am |
      • hello

        it is now known... who the creators of the christian myth were.. and why it was done..

        Caesar's Messiah web site..
        Red Ice Radio.... enter Caesar's Messiah on their SEARCH page... to hear more..

        December 22, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
      • no

        Not knowing is not a good reason to just make things up.

        December 23, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • max cady

      If things are so good in the after life why are you here?
      If things are so good in the after life why are Christians so afraid of death.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:33 am |
      • hello

        because they can't take their material stuff with them.... or in the case of the myth masters... what they have fleeced from the flock.

        December 22, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • iRex

      This idea, that its OK if this life sucks, because the next one will be better is just a way to bend the poor and the weak to the will of the rich and the strong. So what you can barely feed yourself, just suck it up and then God will reward you in the next life!

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

        Religion is the ultimate con.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:51 am |
    • tallulah13

      If I were an illiterate peasant living in unending squalor, the prospect of heaven would probably be very appealing. However, I'm an educated, lower middle-class citizen of a wealthy nation. Eternity has no appeal. This life is more than enough. There have been good times and bad times and never quite enough financial security, but I don't need anything more. No thank you, Ronald. I don't want your heaven.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:48 am |
    • Lu

      It's people like you that live a life less full and enriching because you put all your cards on some fairy tale notion of an afterlife. To think that a person focuses all their attention on what's to come and spends not a single ounce of energy making the most of what's here and now. That's a sad life. Knowing that after death- I'm gone and there is nothing else- gives me more of a reason to live every day to the fullest. And I don't care if, even after a short period of time, the memory of me fades away- knowing that I've actually lived and hopefully enriched even just one life, that's enough for me. I will go full of love and peace. Not emptiness. I will die and be at one with the fact that I will be consumed with nothingness- cause after so many years on this earth facing people like you- it will bring joy to my mind to finally be at rest. Who wants to live forever. I certainly don't.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:54 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      "Nothing you did during your short life span means anything."

      All the people whose lives were affected would argue otherwise. People don't exist in a vacuum.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      "Since you don't have to answer to a higher power, you can do whatever you want.'

      Behaving in a way that you think some supreme being wants is not practicing moralty, it is practicing obedience. If you can't bring yourself to treat other people properly you lack empathy, not religion.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • igaftr

      Ron Cooper

      You are a christian supremasict.

      As an atheist, I live a loving, caring and charitable life, since I have more than I need and others do not.

      I don't need a book that clearly has many things in it that are false to tell me right from wrong. How sad you do.

      December 23, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • Chikkipop

      Nice try, fellow atheist!

      But no believer is that naive.

      December 24, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
  20. ME

    Nobody cares what a bunch of disgruntled atheists think.

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

      Get rid of your hate, Santa loves.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      I'm with the gruntled atheists. Are we ok in your book?

      December 22, 2013 at 11:19 am |
      • Buy Nothing

        Captain, if CNN had a Like button here I'd click it.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:33 am |
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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.