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. Harry Cline

    The Atheist are out to corrupt everything and ruin it for the kids. If children cannot be allowed to have imagination and fantasy then what good is it being a child.
    We notice how every year especially in places like New York city they parade the drunk Santa's around like it was a badge of honor.

    Running it for the kids. They are no better then a pedophile.
    Afraid of what they can't see or touch. And yet most Atheists are even out of touch with reality.
    Have no comprehension of it all. Which helps explain as well why most grow up to be very bitter adults always on the defensive.

    Most never really had the chance to be a kid themselves.

    December 22, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
    • Observer

      Harry Cline,

      lol. Good one. So atheists are ruining Santa Claus. Where was Santa in the Bible?

      December 22, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Oh brother. Did you bother to read the article or were you just so upset by the headline that you had to cast blind aspersions?

      This is what you didn't bother to read: "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.” "

      That's it. No ruining Christmas for children. No destruction of imagination. Sorry. Your blindly hateful accusations have no basis in reality.

      December 22, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
      • lol??

        Who made Silvie the judge of who goes or doesn't go to church?? My advice is to stay away from the fully leavened gubmint churches who are gonna be the target of the Beastie's next meal. Take it or leave it to Beaver.

        December 22, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
    • Kevin Quail

      Kids can have fantasy by being brainwashed into believing in a supreme being. Hopefully they grow out of it.

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

      Is English you second language or something? That was quite a mess.

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

      "If children cannot be allowed to have imagination and fantasy then what good is it being a child."

      Haha...the problem is that for many of them, the brain-washing is so effective that they continue to live in a fantasy world as adults.

      December 22, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
    • Rick

      There's a world of difference between not believing in God and being a pedophile. That's like saying if I was a Yankees fan that I was a conspirator in the Boston Marathon bombing.

      And, for the record, atheists aren't afraid of what they can't see or can't touch because what they can't see or can't touch doesn't exist. They don't fear God because they don't believe in him. Christians, however, believe in God, and mixed in with the love, they definitely fear him.

      December 22, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
      • lol??

        Mobs and mob rule aren't known for critical thinking skills.

        December 22, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • Syd

      What an ass. Now atheists are being likened to pedophiles. Sorry to burst you ignorant bubble, but that seems to be that bailiwick of the religious.

      December 22, 2013 at 2:33 pm |

      Atheists are no better than pedophiles? Funny...when I think of pedophiles I can't help but to think of the Catholic church...

      December 22, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  2. JW

    Quick facts:

    The early Baptist and Congregationalist churches also found no Scriptural grounds for celebrating Christ’s birth. One source notes that it was not until December 25, 1772, that the Baptist Church of Newport [Rhode Island] observed Christmas for the first time. This was approximately 130 years after the founding of the first Baptist church in New England.

    December 22, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  3. JW

    What is the best way to honor Jesus?

    On the last night of his human life, Jesus said: “You are my friends if you do what I am commanding you.” (John 15:14) He also said: “If you love me, you will observe my commandments.” (John 14:15) Clearly, there is no better way to honor Jesus Christ than to learn and follow his teachings.

    December 22, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
    • tony

      Most of his moral teachings are great. We usually call that Liberalism.

      It's his religious beliefs that don't make any sense.

      December 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
      • JW

        For many people it doesn't make sense. But its an opinion. Like many feel that evolution, Buddhism, islam...etc doesn't make any sense as well.

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

          Not believing in evolution doesn't stop it working. Not believing in religion does.

          December 22, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
        • Joey

          Not believing in evolution only makes you look stupid.

          December 23, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
    • Confronting Ray Comfort: Debunking "Evolution VS God"

      This might help JW but I doubt IT !


      December 22, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
  4. LogiK

    There is no god. Use that time, money, and energy to make the world a better place. Not to line the coffers of the church so they can expand and pay for lawyers.

    December 22, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
  5. Cascade

    The American Atheists organization is worse than some extreme "Christian" cults.

    Regardless how hard they kick and scream, Christmas will always remain a Christian holiday, even if calendars were changed and dates modified throughout history.

    They love Christmas so much but can't stand the fact that it is and always will be a Christian holiday.

    December 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • Observer


      lol. Tell us how much better Westboro or David Koresh are.

      December 22, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
      • lol??

        Koresh got bullied mercilessly while in the socie schools. No wonder he wanted to be left alone.

        December 22, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
    • tallulah13

      A christian holiday that has it's roots in pagan holidays. So happy Saturnalia to you.

      December 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  6. Observer

    For Christian children, Santa Claus is a much bigger deal than the Easter bunny.

    December 22, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • Yup

      It has to do with quantity of loot the get.

      December 22, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
  7. Vic


    December 22, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
  8. JW

    Why is Christmas on December 25?

    Since there is no evidence that the birth of Jesus Christ occurred on December 25, why is Christmas celebrated on this date? The Encyclopædia Britannica says that church leaders probably chose it “to coincide with the pagan Roman festival marking the ‘birthday of the unconquered sun,’” at the time of the winter solstice. According to The Encyclopedia Americana, many scholars believe that this was done “in order to make Christianity more meaningful to pagan converts.”

    December 22, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • tony

      That sounds right. So theft was high on the list of the church leaders "spreading the word" doctrine.

      December 22, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • Syd

      That's well known. So?

      December 22, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
  9. CBP

    Can we all take a step back and let people believe as they wish. Christmas is a religious holiday. Unfortunately what we see now is a great big celebration with outrageous purchases of gifts. Just look at the advertising sections that start appearing right before Thanksgiving and all the sales in the stores. The amount of money spent and the high expectations for just the right presents do not promote the real meaning of the day.

    Let people celebrate holidays as they will and let's not pretend that everyone celebrates the same holidays. Let's go back to holidays with the family.

    December 22, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • Jake

      Christmas is a national holiday. Being Christian has nothing to do with whether we get the holiday off or not. For some people it has religious meaning, for some it does not. It's no more complicated than that.

      December 22, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
  10. Free Holiday Nuts


    December 22, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • Sun-God

      Catholics, Protestans, Evangelicals...all like to celebrate my day! Just dont call me baby jesus!

      December 22, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
  11. howudothat

    I want to steal Christmas.

    I want to make it a liberal holiday.

    I want to make it Christmas everyday.

    December 22, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
    • tony

      Bah Humbug!

      December 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
  12. holly

    I don't get all of the fuss. I have atheist friends whom I dearly love, and they love Christian/spiritualist me. We don't need billboards or organizations to "support" us in what is an individual, personal aspect of ourselves. Of course, we're not into our beliefs or non-beliefs for the sake of money or politics. We just live and love, and that's agenda enough. Merry Christmas, everyone.

    December 22, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Where I live, almost everyone is christian. It's really odd to find someone that isn't. Plenty of jobs opportunities are based on the an understanding of what church one attends. I get along fine with them, and they're fine with my beliefs, but still, the religion itself is one of judgment and division. That's the climax. The point of the story is heaven and hell-which is extremely insulting, I think.

      December 22, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
      • no

        It's not just jobs either. I once had to lie about being Christian just so I could rent a house!

        December 23, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • Perry the Post-Theist

      I enjoy Christmas as well, and a number of the atheists here have posted that we dislike the billboards and that whatever group that is, they don't speak for us. However, we dislike Christian billboards too, and there are a lot of them. Some are very offensive not only us but other religions. And a like of the Christian comments here are pretty ugly. So I hope you realize both sides could do better.

      But anyway, have a Merry Christmas.

      December 22, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
  13. Mary Kaye

    I'm an atheist, those people don't speak for me. I love Christmas time.

    December 22, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • tony

      Even the raucus looping carols in the supermarkets???

      December 22, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
      • lol??

        The antichrist "God Bless America" song is annoying, too. The Boy Scouts however, received some money out of it.

        December 22, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
  14. Gene

    Hhaaa at Dave Silverman advising people that they don't have to go to church!, that's quite a chuckle. Whew!, and here I thought I'd be struck down by lightening if I didn't show up,, roflmbo

    December 22, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
  15. Free Holiday Nuts


    December 22, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • LOL

      Loved the Crying section...It was a good section for Lil Wayne to start rapping!

      December 22, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
  16. lol??

    The writin' is on the pumpkin. The A&A's aren't gonna be happy until they get a "minority slot" with AA given by Santa in the White House. It's a socie wurld.

    December 22, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • psych ward staff

      I'm terribly sorry to the people who are reading this lunatic's drivel. I would try to get the keyboard away from him, but I'm afraid he'll try to bite me again. Just know that you are not alone. He's already scared most of the other residents today when he yelled at each one of the tree ornaments and called it a "socie".

      December 22, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
      • tony


        December 22, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  17. Dave Green

    I have no desire, as an atheist, to wage war on anyone's beliefs, but it does strike me as hypocritical for Christians to complain about anti-christian billboards in the wake of billboards all over the place with such memorable messages as "What part of though shalt not, don't you understand – God" It seems to me you just don't like to get a taste of your own medicine.

    December 22, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • Noyb

      And how is that offensive to you? Do you see boards that have the word atheist crossed out?

      December 22, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
      • Mary Kaye

        I wouldn't care if I did.

        December 22, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
        • Noyb

          Sure you wouldn't... You can't even see the word Christmas in a holiday you consciously choose to participate in without whining. I bet you wouldn't care.

          December 22, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
        • Noyb

          Maybe not you, I see you actually said the word Christmas. But many atheists seem very offended by the idea that the name of the holiday they choose to celebrate is actually called Christmas By Christians.

          December 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
      • Observer


        Why don't Christian billboards quote God's support for slavery?

        December 22, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
        • Noyb

          Yeah don't go there. You're holding man made religion and books as if they are what god literally said. No. Anyone can justify anything using the bible .

          December 22, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
        • Cascade

          Noyb said it very we'll.

          December 22, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
      • Dave Green

        No, none of those billboards offend me. I consider the source. However, The "thou shalt not," billboard is sending a clear message..."There is a god and there are things it doesn't want you to do...what part of that aren't you getting?" As if anyone who disagreed has some mental disconnect or is ignorant. It's not meant as a bright cheery message.

        This atheist billboard seems to be saying you don't need the religious aspects of this holiday to enjoy it or project the positive feelings it tries to project. I actually agree. You don't, but I would also say that it sends that message in an equally strong manner as the christian billboard, inferring that anyone who DOES need or want that religious aspect has some problem.

        Half a dozen of one 6 of another. The only difference being which one we happen to agree with. I find both examples to be unnecessary and in poor taste.

        December 22, 2013 at 5:11 pm |
    • tony

      Church Billboards are a national epidemic of insults to intelligence.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
      • Noyb

        Yeah Im not mich into them either but seeing cars on them doesn't offend me. How does this directly offend you.

        December 22, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
        • Noyb

          Christians become upset when atheists want to celebrate a Christian holiday and then want to whine like two year olds for christians calling it a Christian name. If you don't like it, then call it something else. Otherwise shut up you hypocritical whiners.

          December 22, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
      • tony

        I am a flash reader and an alert observant driver. When I drive by, (which I have to do to work), I can't help but pick up the messages.

        December 22, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
        • Noyb

          Ok.isee cars on billboards while driving by too. I'm asking how you are offended by a biblical saying that someone paid privately to post up there.

          December 22, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
        • Noyb

          Which also makes no mention of atheists or atheism whatsoever.

          December 22, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
        • tony

          How about "I need to be in School – God".

          December 22, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
        • Noyb

          Ok, and that offends you exactly how....?

          December 22, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
        • Noyb

          You mean the church state thing? Ok. Again. It's someone's privately paid opinion. I don't like it either but I'm not sure i see it as being directly offensive to atheists. They're not calling you out.

          December 22, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
        • Bertha

          Christians come unglued when they see an atheist billboard. That is the point. Atheists have the same right to freedom of speech that the religious do.

          December 22, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
        • tony

          Highway101 CA, South of Gilroy. It's more than offensive. It's a direct threat to the wellfare of my children and my personal freedom

          If you can't see that, your more of a angerous person that I realized. Compares to anti-judaic propaganda in Nazi Germany.

          December 22, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
        • Noyb

          Yeah not really, and of all the things to worry about in this country the threats to atheists are pretty low . And I'm a liberal. Sounds like to me you want something new to sound off about.

          December 22, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
  18. bdby

    There should be MAS for atheists in the name of CHRIST !!!!

    God forgive them for they have lost their way.

    December 22, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • tony

      Actually we just don't follow YOUR way.

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

      "Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence, it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines."
      Bertrand Russell

      December 22, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
      • Noyb

        Yeah he's wrong. Science in no way disproves a god. In fact it's not even hostile to one. They actually fit quite nicely together.

        December 22, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
  19. Noyb

    The only reason you celebrate a winter holiday in the present, at all, is because Christians have kept it going for over two thousand years. And if it wasn't them, you'd still be celebrating a holiday today that instead worshipped nature spirits and roman gods. Yeah. Not that much different really.

    December 22, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • tony

      Yule was just as much fun and didn't require all that shopping.

      December 22, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • Noyb

      In other words, you're still celebrating a holiday that had spiritual roots. Even if not Christian.

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

        worship of the Sun is of an actual physical object. You can see it most every day.

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

          Do you think it has a consciousness that controls the planet to its will? If you do then i hate to tell you but you're not an atheist.

          December 22, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
        • Jake

          Noyb, no one thinks the sun has consciousness. It certainly would be much more logical to worship the sun than an imaginary god though. The sun actually exists and provides the energy essential for us to survive.

          December 22, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
        • JAMES OLIVER

          Yes, and if something goes askew with the sun, we will go to hell and quickly.

          December 22, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
      • Jake

        When Christianity created Christmas it was for political reasons, nothing to do with anything spiritual.

        Regardless, many of us enjoy family traditions even if sometimes include silly concepts like the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus or God. Not believing in those things doesn't mean you can't still enjoy traditions which, for me, are about celebrating with family and friends.

        December 22, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
    • Perry the Post-Theist

      Christmas did not start at all until about 300 CE, and was a minor holiday that was not widely celebrated until the 1800s. Many groups, such as the Pilgrims and Puritans, refused to do it as it was not Biblical.

      So it barely dribbled along until relatively recently, and then quickly became an increasingly commercial holiday.

      December 22, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
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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.