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. Jor

    Funny how when Christians get attacked nobody says anything! But God forbid we stand on our principles and make our opinion public.. We get flammed by everyone!

    December 22, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • tony

      Go and build more tax exempt churches.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Stay positive. Maybe one day you'll get to live in a country that is 89% christian and with all christian presidents and almost all christian congress persons and such. oh.........wait......you already do.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  2. Patrick

    When Christmas stops making war on Halloween and Thanksgiving we shall declare a truce with this violent, aggressive holiday. its merciless hordes of tinsel toting thugs fill our stores and radio waves with Christmas spirit earlier every year. Not even ethnic holidays are safe, for now Santa comes in a rainbow array of ethnic and national hues. If the other Holidays do not band together with us to resist the BlitzKringle that is Christmas, then soon you too will be cheering for the sparkly Christmas tree lights and Rudolph's nose on the fourth of July. Or giving your sweetheart a romantic Fruitcake for Valentines Day. Or even worse, watching Santa's Jingle Balls drop for New Year's Eve. Until then, Happy Holidays!

    December 22, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  3. baal

    Christmas was NOT recognized as a National holiday in America until 1870.

    Just saying...

    December 22, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • lol??


      December 22, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • Vic

      However, the birth of Jesus Christ has been, all along.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
      • tony

        When exactly was the real date of that result of statuatory r+pe?

        December 22, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
        • Noyb

          People died of old age by the time they were thirty back then. Marriage and childbearing at a young age needs to be put in the proper context.

          December 22, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
        • tony

          So that's why the Bible says "3 score years and 10"?

          December 22, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
        • tallulah13

          So god had to impregnate a kid because he didn't allow people to live past what we now consider middle age. It sounds like your god just likes 'em young.

          December 22, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
        • NoybSpectraprism

          She wasn't considered a kid back then. Today there are state laws that allow marriage at fifteen. Put it in context of the history of that time and place.

          December 22, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
        • tallulah13

          The perspective is that god apparently didn't like old people so he made lifetimes short. Then he chose a girl in her early teens to impregnate. Yep. God is an ephebophile.

          December 22, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  4. jimbo

    Atheists will stop when Christians stop trying to impose their beliefs on the entire society. How do you not realize this?

    December 22, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
  5. allenwoll

    Theism and Atheism are the two sides of the coin of faith : Faith in a set of beliefs for which NEITHER can offer OBJECTIVE proof or confirmation in one way or the other. . OPINION just does NOT cut the issue AT ALL ! ! ! . (My opinion).

    December 22, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • igaftr

      Your opinion fails.

      Do you have faith that santa does not exist?
      Do you have faith the tooth fairy does not exist?

      NOT believing in deities does not involve faith.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      non-belief requires faith? lol.
      basically, according to that 'logic', EVERYONE has faith.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • lol??

      That's not the Christian definition of faith. Did you learn that in socie school??

      December 22, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  6. Free Holiday Nuts


    December 22, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  7. Peter Q Wolfe

    What does the commercial Christmas have to do with Jesus Christ anymore? All of you must be deluding yourselves to think that Jesus Christ was born in the winter season or something. Humans do have a problem of rewritting history to fit their own prefered aims by making themselves feel better about the horrible world that we find ourselves in. Ironically more usury is increased to distort economic forcasts by this holy season but for this grinch atheist that I paid 1/6th of my student loans than get further into debt over them!

    December 22, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • Orygunduck

      Romans had their own winter festivals. Drinking and gifts. Sound familiar. Christmas just seemed to fit right in. Found an interesting book on the topic on Amazon.

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

        The last book I got on Amazon was a book about Amazons.

        December 22, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • I AM

      What harm is there in all this ? Families get together and celebrate a birth, nothing wrong there, they have fun and eat a good meal, nothing wrong there. You can make the holidays what you want. You don’t have to buy into the commercialism of the season, it’s your choice.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  8. leadwreck

    Just in time for Christmas for all those who don't want to celebrate, are offended, or display anything representing the celebration, share in any activities based around the event, please feel free to go to work and carry on with normal activities, all government, state, county, and city governments that are afraid to have any mention of Christmas, by all means just go to the office and make sure to have a normal day at work and celebrate your joyless job.

    December 22, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      I'll take this opportunity to enjoy my friends and family, eat fabulously well, drink the reserve stuff we've been saving up for these holidays, and give presents that have been waiting for weeks or months to be given to the people who will enjoy them. That gives me joy. I do enjoy my work, though.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • igaftr

      first, I love my job, and second, I do go to work on christmas, because I can get a huge amount of work done.

      Why would you deny someone who does not believe, some of the traditions. Many of the traditions around christmas have nothing to do with Jesus.
      Also, since the majority are christian, most people could not get much work done with 75% of the staff or more gone.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • Roger that

      I love my job, and I have to work on Christmas. I hope you are off and get to spend it with your family. Have a Merry Christmas.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  9. Orygunduck

    One typical atheist response is to just compare belief in God with the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus or whatever else we might have believed in as kids. Yet it seems to be their own version of a smug delusion. Is science always right? Is ethics reduced to a mathematical formula? Is you questioning itself merely a biochemical interaction in your brain? These are bigger questions worth asking while atheists want to discuss the Easter bunny.

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

      belief in any of the gods IS the same as belief in the tooth fairy until someone can show verifiable corroborated evidence of any of the thousands of deities. The analogy is correct.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • baal

      Dehumanizing an entire group of people by comparing how they love to beastiality is FAR from ethics. In fact its probably the furthest thing from having any ethics as one can get....

      December 22, 2013 at 1:32 pm |

    A Snooki Palin Guns Over People tea potty delusional rant. Nothing to see here.

    December 22, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • lol??

      Wait! Are you sayin' Palin is Italian??

      December 22, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
  11. ShawnDH

    Christians will apparently never give up their tired, sad, desperate victimhood complex. Your imaginary "War on Christmas" is just a symptom of your perpetual martyrdom, based in the fact that you can't force everybody to believe ancient Middle Eastern fairy tales are real.

    December 22, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • NorCalMojo

      Merry Christmas

      December 22, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
      • baal

        Happy Saturania

        December 22, 2013 at 1:33 pm |

      Perhaps they are recalling the days when the Romans used to feed them to the lions. However, most of that was made up to make the Christians seem like they'd do anything to show their support for God. I am sure a few were lion food but not in the numbers reported.
      My mother and I drove by the local hospital where there is a line of Christians objecting to abortions. As long as they follow the rules it is legal where I live. I suggested to my mother that I should get a lion costume and sign that said, "Christians Christians, Yum Yum Yum." Never did it as I really did not want to upset people who thought they were doing the right thing. However, it still makes me smile just thinking about it.

      December 22, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  12. NorCalMojo

    Born and raised an atheist and I love Christmas, baby Jesus and all.

    It's a great holiday full of colorful heritage and tradtions.

    Everyone's is nicer to each other, and the kids love it. People who don't love Christmas have hearts that are 2 sizes too small.

    December 22, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • Vic

      Spread the love.

      Merry Christmas

      December 22, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • bostontola

      There's only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people's cultures and the Dutch.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:27 pm |

        I spit my coffee all over the keyboard.

        December 22, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
    • caralee2010

      Thank you for that! I sincerely hope your holidays are happy, and full of joy and laughter. And, I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see TRUE tolerance in action. My faith is central to my celebration, but it doesn't have to be to yours. We may have just discovered the secret to world peace. No kidding!

      December 22, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • igaftr

      "People who don't love Christmas have hearts that are 2 sizes too small."

      Or they have a VALID reason for not loving the season.

      I know two people that commited suicide very close to christmas. The families of the individuals now have that as a reminder every year.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • george brown

      Well then.....MERRY CHRISTMAS!

      December 22, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • Dandintac

      Atheist here also. Raised Christian, but an atheist now. I also love the holiday, and our family makes a big deal out of it. I even have a Nativity Set, and listen to Holiday music and watch Christmas specials on DVD–even the Little Drummer Boy. We can all enjoy the Holiday cheer, the closeness of families, the traditions and love, and still understand that these are myths and traditions, not objective reality.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:04 pm |
  13. Roger that

    Have a lovely Festivus Eve.

    'Twas the night before Festivus and all through Queens,
    Not a Costanza was yelling...as strange as it seems.
    The family was sleeping, just waiting for light.
    Saving their strength for the upcoming fight.

    At the crack of dawn on December twenty-three,
    Frank put up the pole... instead of a tree.
    Estelle prepared the meal that would start the rite,
    Not a laugh or a smile was anywhere in sight.

    George dreaded this hour that came every year,
    The airing of grievances would soon be here.
    Frank stood at the table and bellowed out loud,
    "So who's got a complaint amongst this crowd?"

    "You two are crazy and have wrecked my life!"
    Cried George at his parents who mocked him for spite.
    "A Lloyd Braun you'll never be " was Estelle's refrain,
    "Why should I try,ma?... the guy's insane!"

    "Enough with the grievances," Frank said with some glee,
    "Now which one of you two is wrestling me?"
    "So feats of strength you want? Let them begin here,
    "It's your turn to fight him, mom... he beat me last year."

    The battle was started, the screaming was lyrical,
    The fact no one got hurt was .... ANOTHER FESTIVUS MIRACLE!!!!

    December 22, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • COTestDummy

      Thanks for the laugh!

      December 22, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  14. lol??

    Another birthday celebration of note gone bad:1913-2013 Happy Birthday FED!! Thanks for the dollars makin' me rich!! Just my 2 cents worth.

    December 22, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
  15. Richard

    I really don't care what you believe or not, just don't try to push your beliefs on me... My beliefs are what they are and nothing you say will change them.

    December 22, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  16. acalmvoice

    Isn't freedom of belief without persecution a beautiful thing???

    December 22, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  17. bostontola

    Hint: humans had already created thousands of Gods before Jesus was born.

    December 22, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • Really ???

      Those thousands of Gods did not walk on this earth and amongst the people. Jesus did.....

      December 22, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
      • HotAirAce

        Prove it. . .

        December 22, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
        • Really ???

          There is nothing to prove. Jesus Christ existed . His life is a historical fact.

          December 22, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
        • HotAirAce

          But was he a god? No proof of that yet.

          December 22, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
      • bostontola

        Actually, many of them did according to their stories.

        Thousands of human created Gods. We are very good at creating Gods.

        December 22, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
        • Tom, Tom, the Other One

          People should take responsibility for their Gods. Restrain them, at least.

          December 22, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
      • tallulah13

        Oh for Pete's sake! How many mortal women did Zeus knock up? Norse gods had children with mortal women. One interpretation claims that Isis was a mortal woman before being elevated to the status of god. Gods interacted with humans all the time in the ancient world.

        December 22, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
      • igaftr

        count the number of volcano gods, add it to the gods of the sea, the sky, the earth...then add in all of the gods that represent nature, then all of the gods that are in animal form...you end up with MANY gods that share the earth with us, walk with us...so many in fact that there shouldn't be any room for us.

        December 22, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
      • Dandintac

        Sorry–Jesus is NOT an historical fact. Just because he's a character in a set of ancient books does not prove his existence. Even if there was a Jewish Rabbi with a similar name who was executed by the Romans, this in no way proves he rose from the dead, or is divine, or the Son of God, or "died for our sins", or that God is real. I hate to say this, but you have a whopping amount of evidence to provide, and after 2000 years, every apologist has been unable to do so with anything approaching hard, verifiable evidence.

        December 22, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
    • NorCalMojo

      Do all of them make you uncomfortable? Or is that just baby Jesus?

      December 22, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
      • bostontola

        None of them do, they are all from the imagination of man. Now Hella, that bothers me.

        December 22, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  18. Aaron

    It's all media nonsense. There's no actual war on Christmas. Not unless you want there to be. Not unless you are one those people who needs something to get worked up about. And, granted, the media is full of those type of people, but for the most part, The War on Christmas is just a slogan that sells airtime for those who like to poke sticks at you and watch you dance.

    December 22, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • acalmvoice

      The American people unwittingly dance to their song everyday!!!

      December 22, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
  19. Ctrygrl

    Anything that gives the likes of Sarah Palin and Bill O'riely any kind of forum lessens intellectual discussion and cheapens anything they touch. Celebrate or don't celebrate for whatever reasons you have or no reason at all. I have a hunch the vast majority of people in this country don't really care what everyone else does. Most people enjoy the kindness the smiles and the happy children, I know I do Bravo for Christmas.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • lol??

      The children won't be so happy upon the awarding of the inheritance.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  20. max cady

    Just another WAAAA WAAA letter, by a poor poor persecuted, self righteous Christian.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • lol??

      Christians don't get righteousness from "self".

      December 22, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
      • Syd

        Oh, yes. Yes, they do.

        December 22, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • COTestDummy

      Comprehension is a HUGE part of being able to read, otherwise why learn at all?

      "Many atheists, myself included, suspect that there are more effective approaches to tackling these important issues."

      December 22, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • Skip Franklin

      An athiest wrote this. It was in the words that were contained in the article.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
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