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. lol??

    The populace, bwainwashed by the fast talkin' psychos of the Frankfurt School, are now the slaves to debt. Billyboard wars are the entertainment, just like feeding Christians to the lions. It's an opiate, alright.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • Science Works

      lol?? is it the same right wing nuts that are fighting evolution ?

      Conservative groups spend up to $1bn a year to fight action on climate change

      • Author: 'I call it the climate-change counter movement'

      • Study focuses on groups opposing US political action


      December 22, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
      • lol??

        Hi science, nuked any fish in the oceans lately??

        December 22, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
        • Science Works


          Nukes no gods needed but the F – 35 fighter plane (jobs in Red state) at a billion dollars a piece and the same right wing is fighing climate science ?

          December 22, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • JJ

      Oh..English must not be your language and you are feeding your posts through a translator, right? Hate to break it to you but it's not working.

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

      You bring up things that haven't been relevant in this country for 70 years. Why?

      December 22, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
      • lol??

        Monday mornin' quarterbacking is easy. 'Sides, the professionals use it all the time to win.

        December 22, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
  2. cl500

    While I don't believe Jesus Christ was a god, most of his message was valid. Organized religions seem to do more harm than good for us in modern society. I will celebrate Christmas for its better messages, not because I believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or some old man in the sky.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
  3. TC

    Atheists and believers have gotten along for thousands of years – it's the followers of people like Silverman and churches like Westboro Baptist that are divisiive and won't accept or tolerate others.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • tallulah13

      To be perfectly honest, for most of those years atheists had to keep silent about their disbelief, lest they be punished or killed as heretics.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
      • max cady

        They forget that none believers were at one time burned at the stake, or condemned to some other form of punishment.
        They would do that still except now religions do not rule the world.

        December 22, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
      • lol??

        To be perfectly honest,.................."

        Is that tongue in cheek or ol' fashioned French kissin'??

        December 22, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
      • igaftr

        Much still goes on today.

        Would you feel comfortable going on a hunting trip on the bayou with a group of "christian" good ol back country boys, and telling them you are an atheist and why?

        December 22, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
        • lol??

          Why?? Why would she tell em?? Are you a warrior or do you just like the blood and gore of others??

          December 22, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
        • tallulah13

          I wouldn't be comfortable on a hunting trip with good old boys at any time. I grew up in redneck country and yeah, when I go back to visit family, I just nod and smile when they talk about Jesus.

          December 22, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
        • igaftr

          exactly....at my office, they had a holiday decoration party...decorate your office and cube for the holidays.

          Mine is completely undecorated, yet I signed up to be judged. when they came to see, I told them, this is how an atheist (at least this one) decorates for the holidays. Two of ones doing the judging were clearly offended, though by what exactly I'm not sure. The higher ranking one voting came back by my office later , closed the door, and said he also was an atheist, and he was glad I had the guts to stand by my beliefs....funny he didn't have the guts to say that in front of the christians...he knows the repurcussions that it can bring. I don't care...been tenured for a while.

          December 22, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
        • lol??

          Ye ol' egg nod noggin survival tactic works for bad doctrine, too at times.

          December 22, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
  4. JJ

    On my drive to the grocery store this morning I passed several churches with their marquees out front with their "clever" sayings and some coming right out with "Turn or BURN". I passed a few public schools where they all had Christian church services under way as they do every Sunday. The last 43 presidents were all Christian, an atheist can't hold public office in this country.

    When I got to the store I was told I had to wait until noon before I could buy beer – what!? Apparently buying beer before noon on Sunday makes baby Jesus cry. Some atheists puts up a billboard and all the sudden there's an all out war on Christians.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • CharlesP

      Yeah! Compared to the all out war on every other faith that Christians wage 24/365, this is just a minor itch in comparison.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • lol??

      The WCTU was loaded with socies. Those women didn't like their hubbies stoppin' at Joe's and winding down.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  5. TheSadTruth

    I think the hostility of atheists is often miss-directed anger at:
    A. Domineering parents who forced religion on their children, causing them to rebel by becoming atheists.
    B. People rebelling against conservative leadership, which has labeled itself the "religious party" but in reality acts most times counter to actual religious values of charity and brotherly love. Conservatives campaign against charity and the ready access of guns for all, leading to much sadness.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • Jake

      Have you considered, C: A history of being discriminated against and living in a country which allows laws based on religions that atheists believe to be insane.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      I think your first point is absolutely ridiculous.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • bostontola

      Just as much evidence for:
      C: Alien mind control.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
      • JJ

        Perhaps anal probes?

        December 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • JJ

      All atheists I know are atheist because of a lack of evidence that a deity exists, not to rebel against their parents. You need to get out more often and stop believing everything your pastor tells you.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      D. not misdirected anger but proper questioning of centuries old myths, and religious cult member's mental capacity and behavior.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
    • Brian Macker

      E) TheSadTruth is an anonymous ignorant bigot.

      The correct answer is E.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I'm an atheist because there is no proof that any gods exist. I'm only "hostile" when believers use their religion to try to legislate their beliefs or use their religion as an excuse to teach misinformation or to harm others.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
      • Richard

        So you are saying a person with religious beliefs should not be able to vote because they don't believe like you do?

        December 22, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
        • igaftr

          Voting is not legislating.
          Legistlating belief is trying to pass laws that are based in religios dogma...such as the lie on out money, or when they had forced prayer in schools.
          Voting is just the end of the process, and unless in the case of referendums, you vote for the legisaltor, and that representative votes for you.

          December 22, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
  6. Eric Leslie

    Well atheists if u don't believe in JESUS CHRIST. Then you should not be celebrating CHRISTmas. Simple as that. And people go to a building, people don't go to church they are the church. A LOT OF THE CHRISTIANITY NOW A DAYS is messed up. And people forget what true CHRISTianity Is all about. True CHRISTianity is about ur belief that jesus was born the SON OF GOD AND THAT HE DIED FOR OUR SINS AND ROSE AGAIN ON THE THIRD DAY. ITS ABOUT ACCEPTING HIM INTO YOUR LIFE AND HEART. Its about about having a tolerance and respect for others beliefs and ways of life and not judging people. Its all about Gods love for his people

    December 22, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Your random capitalization is awe-inspiring.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • AtheistSteve

      You start with "Well atheists if u don't believe in JESUS CHRIST. Then you should not be celebrating CHRISTmas."

      And end with " Its about about having a tolerance and respect for others beliefs and ways of life and not judging people."
      Do you not see the contradiction here?
      The rest of your rant is about Easter, not Christmas. Time for you to go back to Sunday school and brush up methinks..

      December 22, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • Jake

      You celebrate Christmas however you want and I'll do the same. It has nothing to do with Jesus Christ anyway, it has to do with the solstice. They just borrowed the existing holiday to make it easier for pagans to transition to the new religion they invented called Christianity. These are the facts.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • AtheistSteve

      Also do you practice weekly rituals to pay homage to the moon on Monday, Thor on Thursday, Saturn on Saturday or worship the sun on Sunday? No? Then not including Christ in Christmas is the same for me.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • igaftr

      I do not celebrate Christmas. Others do...the tradition can change from one of religious significance to one without, just the meaning of the word christmas changes. As an atheist, I do not celebrate christmas, but so many do, that I attend the parties, etc and follow some of the traditions. To me it is the same as Halloween, which has taken on a VERY different meaning from when it was first celebrated, or easter, another pagan celebration the christians tried to hijack (the proof...bunnies, chicks, eggs...have nothing to do with Jesus...they do have something to do with the ancient celebration of fertility)

      December 22, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  7. Marti

    Why is this even an issue? If you don't like Christmas, don't celebrate it. Stay away from the mall. Get your own holiday. Winter Solstice for example...what a big steaming bag of joy that sounds like. I don't trust any poll after taking a statistics class. 1,056 called on their cell phones, leaving out any responses of the 30-59 demographic group and from that number you can infer that 50% of all Catholics prefer the phrase Happy Holidays? I don't think so. Classic Bloomberg tactics, only its not for the mayoral election. L-O-freakin L

    December 22, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  8. Bec215

    I find it hugely ironic that militant atheists base their criticism of religion on the basis that their truth is the only real valid truth – which is no different from evangelicals who believe THEIR truth is the only real valid truth... I know that Christmas was set in December in order to co-opt the Winter Solstice celebration – complete with the Christmas Tree, which as an 'ever-green' tree, conveniently fits the symbolism both of Christianity and nature-based religions... I mean, the lamb in the manger? And yet – just because I know of all these contradictions, doesn't mean that I do not believe. My own experiences leads me to believe. Being a 'questioning believer' – whether your belief is Atheism or a religion – is what we are obligated to do as sentient beings. Absolute belief in any system is ill-advised, as the annals of history attest.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • igaftr

      Most athesists are actually atheist AND agnostic...meaning that they do not believe in any of the gods men have created, and doubt that there are any, but are open to the possibility.
      Every atheist I know will change their opinion if any valid evidence is found.

      It is mainly the religious who do not allow themselves to say that they might be (and probably are ) wrong.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
      • Desert_Rose

        In my opinion, as soon as you say "open to the possibility", that makes a person only agnostic. I had this same discussion with someone I know. He doesn't think any of our current religions get it right, but he is open to the possibility the universe was created by someone or some higher power we have not properly defined yet. To me that's not atheism. Atheism to me means a person does not even entertain the possibility of any higher power existing. Using your logic, I'm both Christian and Muslim, for example, because if someone proves Mohammed wrote the truth, I'd change my mind. Or not follow. Which is another thing some people mistake for atheism. I know an "atheist" who just doesn't feel he needs to follow God to be fulfilled. I pointed out that is a very different statement then not believing there is a God. All in all, I think atheism in its truest form is rare. I do believe agnostic is probably the more correct term for alot of those claiming to be atheists, but I personally believe you can't be both.

        December 22, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
        • tallulah13

          I call myself an atheist because there is no evidence whatsoever that any god exists. If indisputable evidence for the existence of a god should surface, I would believe. If anyone claims to have proof, I will look into that claim. But I am not actively contemplating the existence of anything supernatural. I can see no need for anything supernatural. Until evidence appears, I am very much an atheist.

          December 22, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
        • igaftr

          Not exactly. As an atheist, I do not believe in ANY gods. To me the definition of what a god is, is likely the part that is most off.
          I do know that there is something that we have not yet discovered that is the energy of life, and whle I believe there is something more behind that...the fact that a group of chemicals and electricity can remember or, pass instincts though just one cell...is in itself incredible, but I see no sentience behind that energy, thereby making me an atheist agnostic.

          December 22, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
        • Dandintac

          Desert–you have it totally, completely wrong. Atheism shouldn't even be a word. "Atheism" is nothing more than a label we use for the lack of belief in a god or gods–that is it! Period. Why on Earth would you expect that "atheist" MUST mean that you are close-minded?

          If you do not believe any other claim–say for example, belief in other gods, or belief in Bigfoot–is that accompanied by a demand that you must be absolutely close-minded to any and all evidence? If you don't believe in UFOs, does this mean that you are close-minded and are not allowed to change your mind if presented with new evidence?

          Why the double-standard for atheists? Why sneak that little snippet into your personal definition of atheism, unless you're willing to apply it to any and all non-beliefs? I have yet to run across a single, self-described atheist anywhere, at any time, who has declared they are absolutely closed to any and all evidence.

          This is utterly ridiculous, inaccurate, and frankly insulting. You really need to change your thinking.

          December 22, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
    • AtheistSteve

      This type of comment always puzzles me. Truth isn't subjective. Something is demonstrably true or it's not. Beliefs don't determine truth. If theists claim that the existence of God is true then it should be possible to demonstrate that reality. But they can't and for that reason alone an atheist will dismiss their belief as unfounded. It doesn't follow that a universe completely devoid of a god must be true, only that the evidence doesn't indicate one. Anyone familiar with logic knows this as the null hypothesis. Belief in anything should be withheld until such time as there is sufficient reason to accept it as true.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  9. Satan

    This is far less of a war on Christmas than it is a war on stupidity. The world would be a much, much better place without organized religion. Critical thinking, anyone?

    December 22, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
  10. Why Bother

    Don't believe in god, but believe in love and family. I celebrate accordingly, no mention of Jesus or prayer needed. Christmas is time of the year to celebrate being thankful for life and love.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
    • lol??

      The real God doesn't accept phony offerings or bribes anywhooooo. The offering must be perfect.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
      • truthprevails1

        Which god and haven't the nurses been around with your meds yet?

        December 22, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
      • bostontola

        Man has created thousands of Gods, some of them love offerings.

        December 22, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  11. lol??

    Rudolph is a commie socie pig. He taught Santa the ways of corruption. Now all the kiddies have to leave a bribe of cookies and milk for Santa. The fix is in.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • Realist

      yeah,, 'cause christians love to leave $$$ for their wealthy organizations

      December 22, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • psych ward staff

      I'm terribly sorry everyone. I tried to get the keyboard away from him again this morning, but he almost bit me again. Just know that you are not alone – he has already scared most of the other residents today yelling at each of the ornaments on the Christmas tree calling it a "socie".

      December 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  12. tony

    Trader Joe's toothpaste has Myrr in it. . . .

    December 22, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • tony

      If the past middle eastern marriage pratices were much the same as the present, Xmas may actually be a celebration of an earlier statutory r*pe.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
  13. Jesus Christ Son of God

    My birthday is soon. What do I want? I need a claw hammer to pull these nails out. And then I'll use that hammer to beat in the heads of the people who nailed me to that cross. I'll spread holiday cheer.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
  14. tony

    As an atheist, I don't see a need for atheists.org. Sounds more like a "make a fast buck" opportunist.

    Just gives the preachers an excuse to say that there is an atheist "church".

    December 22, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
    • Tyler Durden

      Agreed Tony. As an atheist, I'm sickened by the recent surge in opportunists trying to turn atheism into a religion. I think the people heading these groups are as broken inside as any dethroned televangelist.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        That's why the answer is not atheism but critical thinking. Atheists can be just as religious and ridiculous as theists. But I don't know how, as a whole, atheism could be made into a religion.

        December 22, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
  15. lol??

    When the Socies put their red guy out front of Santa's sleigh his leadership did Santa in. The bag o' toys developed a big hole in it that they conveniently ignored. Santa was just fine with dog sleds until the girly socie men chose prissy little reindeer because they liked their skinny looks. Hell, the capitalist Santas to this day are havin' sled dog races. No kweirdo little deer for them!!!

    December 22, 2013 at 11:59 am |
    • tony

      You're a troll I don't believe in

      December 22, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • lol??

      Bitter catches just need slow cookin' in the pit, Scandinavian style.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
  16. cel

    without Christ in Christmas, the economy in this country would TANK. Retailers can't make it without a huge amount of Christmas spending they surely need Christ to get all the religious people out into the stores and buying big. Please, Atheists, stop this before it gets out of control and Macy's and Target and Walmart go under..................

    December 22, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • tallulah13

      Nah. Even christian children would still want that new X-Box and their mountains of toys, and the parents would still want their jewelry or new cars or whatever. Christ has already left the building. They should just call it Greed-mas.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
  17. Al

    There is no such thing as bad publicity, right? I hate these manipulative tactics, but part of me sympathizes. The goal is bigger than New York City, and they are just trying to remind the rest of America that there are atheists among them. Still, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth too. I would prefer a less aggressive signs saying, "Don't want Christ in your Christmas? You're not alone." But it wouldn't get the kind of attention that this one does.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:52 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      I agree with you, I think it a shock value message and could be better. But it does get the conversation started.

      My daughter was told at school if she doesn't believe in Jesus she won't get presents, so she and I went over the best parts of Christmas (Family, friends, presents, cookies, time off from school, helping others in need, ect.) and after I went over them I pointed out we didn't mention Jesus once. So this message is helpful to her.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  18. ArthurP

    The Puritan's, who christian fundamentalists and the peoples on who's principles this country was created, were the first people to make the celebrating of Christmas illegal in the Americas.

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

      * who were

      December 22, 2013 at 11:52 am |
    • Pete

      They were the only ones to ever outlaw Christmas. The rest are just reminders of the first amendment.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
  19. The Frog

    LEt them the more you try to Taboo something the stronger and more popular it becomes...

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

      They aren't trying to make anything taboo. You are not a martyr.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:53 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      And Merry Christmas and may Thor crush your enemies!

      JK I don't believe Thor is real either....but I do wish you a Merry Christmas!

      December 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • CharlesP

      That's how atheism got to be so wide spread. Make doubt into such a taboo idea and this is what you get.

      December 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  20. nemo0037

    What is the matter with you bloody people? If you want to find people who are trying to destroy the spirit of Christmas, I would urge you to look all around you and ask whether the bigger threat comes from commercializers, or from people that try to keep government neutral regarding religion? And so WHAT if some atheists put up messages expressing their views of this season in public? Does that really rain on your parade THAT much?? Seriously, get a grip.

    December 22, 2013 at 11:50 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.