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. gstlab3

    what if I told you I saw and felt the presence of something., an all consuming light and it was loud beyond anything on this Earth and it commanded me to live free and to stand up for good and to fight evil everywhere I find it?

    Do'nt get caught doing evil on my watch.,
    That's all I'm saying.,
    Christian soldiers marching on., and on..,

    December 22, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
    • Free Holiday Nuts

      Then I would send you to a doctor to have a look at that Austintatiousness.

      December 22, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
      • Billy

        The generic term is Topheritis

        December 22, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
    • aldewacs2

      I would carefully step back a few paces, and make sure there wasn't some weapon in your deluded hands.

      December 22, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
    • Dr. Freud

      Did you want a clinical diagnosis?

      December 22, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Little green men?

      December 22, 2013 at 8:33 pm |
    • JJ

      I would plead with you to ignore the voices that are telling you to go shoot up a school and go seek professional help.

      December 22, 2013 at 8:34 pm |
    • Alcoholic amnesia

      i get that sensation after some christmas spirit

      December 22, 2013 at 8:34 pm |
    • AE

      Did you ask it if you had to steal bread to feed your starving family would that be evil?

      December 22, 2013 at 8:35 pm |
      • Tom, Tom, the Other One

        Of course it would be evil. There is evil in the world, AE. You may be called upon to do evil. You're still not used to it?

        December 23, 2013 at 12:13 am |
  2. Free Holiday Nuts

    The comments for this article are getting sour. Time to get in the holiday spirit!


    December 22, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
  3. gstlab3

    The church has grown and it has matured how about we put it that way?

    I personally can see just in here quite a few people have not.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
    • Free Holiday Nuts

      you said that before. what church? shall I outline some of the differences between them – shall we go that route?

      December 22, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
  4. The King

    I'd be more interested in seeing the right wing evangelicals stop pretending to be Christians. They're more like an evil cult that worships at the altar of mammon.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
  5. gstlab3

    Mr Sharp must have survived death to be so sure about this being 'it'

    wow man.
    you are pretty high and mighty ridding in on your hobby horse and in your Earthly home are'nt you?

    December 22, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
    • John Sharp

      High and Mighty because I don't believe in fairy tales.


      December 22, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
  6. Advent


    December 22, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
    • Free Holiday Nuts


      December 22, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
  7. Grumpster

    Chris...are you insane? This whole thing is made up by the media to bash atheists and keep the farcical faith going on as long as it can. Fox News declared war on sense and is dragging your little pea brain down with them.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
  8. Dufus Dingleberry

    Don't like it? Don't celebrate it. Just leave the rest of us alone.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
  9. Noyb

    What a bunch of whiners. I know, let's get all upset because we also want to celebrate a holiday with spiritual roots though we arent spiritual, and we also don't want anyone calling it by a spiritual name! Really? You Clearly don't have enough to be offended about.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
    • Jake

      There's plenty to be offended about. You're right, the fact that no one considers Christmas to have much to do with Christianity is not a big deal. What is a big deal is the fact that we have laws in our country that discriminate just because the Christian majority have some questionable religious views. That is seriously offensive considering our country was founded by mostly atheists.

      December 22, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
      • Noyb

        No. The country was not founded by a bunch of atheists. It was founded by a bunch of puritans who by the way were too religious to want to stay in England. And no, actually the founding fathers were all believers. You need to seriously study your American history.

        December 22, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
        • Jake

          Yes, our country was founded by many atheists. Jefferson was a prime example.

          December 22, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
        • Noyb

          No, Jefferson was not an atheist. In fact there's a show on the smithsonian channel about Jefferson's bible that he made himself. Jefferson was a believer. You need to study American history.

          December 23, 2013 at 9:07 am |
        • Jake

          Do some research. I've got to run, so here's just one quote about Jefferson's thoughts on belief in a god:

          "Ignorance is preferable to error, and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing than he who believes what is wrong."

          December 23, 2013 at 9:16 am |
        • Noyb

          Dude you are seriously wrong .youvneed to look it up. Jefferson was a theist. They all were. They were anti established religion, but they were believers nonetheless.

          December 23, 2013 at 9:21 am |
        • Jake

          Dude, did you not just see the quote from Jefferson making it clear that he did not believe? There are plenty of others like that one.

          I'm glad you at least admit they generally were against oranized religion.

          December 23, 2013 at 10:03 am |
        • Noyb

          This one quote not even mentioning religion does not an atheist make. You are twisting Jefferson's life for your own agenda and you are very, very wrong. Quit spreading lies.

          December 24, 2013 at 7:47 am |
      • Noyb

        I hate to break it you, but no, you are not discriminated against because you don't believe. It's illegal to ask about your religion for employment, or housing, and I have never, ever been asked about my beliefs, ever. on any resume. Save it.

        December 22, 2013 at 8:16 pm |
        • Jake

          Um, thanks for somehow knowing that I haven't been discriminated against for my views. Your magical ability to know what I've experienced is similar to your belief in the supernatural.

          December 22, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
        • Noyb

          Chances are you experienced no more doscrimination in your life than any other group had. I'd bet on that.

          December 23, 2013 at 9:08 am |
        • Jake

          Well then for your sake, I hope you're not a betting man because you'd lose that bet. Pretty arrogant of you to continue to claim you know more about what I've experienced than I do.

          December 23, 2013 at 9:19 am |
        • Noyb

          My guess you're a white American man. I doubt you've really experienced the rampant discrimination you want to claim. Nobody gives a crap what religion you are basically, and you certainly haven't gotten it from job hunting or housing.

          December 23, 2013 at 9:24 am |
        • Noyb

          I know people that are actually Wiccan amd have not experienced any problem being so. Excuse me then of not crying large tears over your atheist plight of wanting to celebratie a spiritual holiday that you don't beleive in , and additionally being upset that Christians actually call it by a religious name.

          December 23, 2013 at 9:31 am |
        • Jake

          The more times you claim to know what someone you've never met has experienced, the dumber you look.

          December 23, 2013 at 10:04 am |
        • Jake

          I'll just give you one example, and there are plenty. At one large public company I worked at, over the years, those who got promoted to the most senior positions all coincidentally were members of the same Catholic church. It became so obvious that they had to stop, but it happened nevertheless. If you think that kind of thing doesn't happen, you're dillusional. Or I should say, you're dillusional on that subject as well.

          December 23, 2013 at 10:07 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          The sort of thing Jake is saying is absolutely correct. In some areas, it is very common to be asked where you go to church (not "if"), and your answer can have a lot to do with your advancement, stagnation, or eventual extermination.

          December 23, 2013 at 10:18 am |
        • Noyb

          Them quite being a hand wringing baby about it amd sue. It's illegal to discriminate in emplpayment based on religion and if you think you have a case then do something about it. But nowhere I have ever worked has ever asked about my religion. Ever. Nor anyone else I've ever talked to. Amd if oure good at your job nobody truly cares. Honestly.

          December 24, 2013 at 7:44 am |
        • Noyb

          If your atheistic mortality consists of beating innocent people to get your way, yeah, that's a problem for you. Otherwise if your beliefs are benign and non hurtful to anyone else, no reputable place can outrightly discriminate.

          December 24, 2013 at 8:18 am |
  10. Maleficent

    Atheism doesn't have spelling requirements.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
  11. gstlab3

    all white people must be white trailer trash or hood wearing politicians and bankers.,
    "The man.,"
    All scary and usfull idiots in there own time and place.,
    The new clans are false and run by corporations and media empires and the new disenfranchised are slowly again unionizing and will cause some change as allways but they will remain slaves to the owners of the machines of commerce and the real property once held by all kinds of people.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
    • Ed

      Was that an attempt to quote someone?

      December 22, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
  12. Brian

    I am an athiest. I am totally ashamed of other athiests attempting to organize and form a club with preset beliefs forced upon other people. My reason for choosing my life style is that i believe everybody should have the right to choose. Most religions take away the right to choose and it seems now some self proclaimed athiests want to do the same. Shame on them.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
    • doobzz

      If you were really an atheist, you would know how to spell atheist.

      December 22, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
    • Ed

      Atheists wanting to take away the right to choose? Where, Brian?

      December 22, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
    • Shara

      Still a good point, spelling aside. I can understand not believing in any gods but I don't want to become anti-Christian any more than I want to become an anti-Semite

      December 22, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
    • Roger that

      Every time a male does something you disagree with, are you ashamed of being male?

      December 22, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
    • Perry the Post-Theist

      I don't care for the signs either. I think they are counterproductive. I too say that group does not speak for me.

      Numerous other atheists here have said the same thing.

      We celebrate Christmas here and call it that, though of course it is purely a family day with presents and good food and generousity, pretty much like everyone else. I can do what I like with my holiday, and I don't have to rename and reconfigure it to please one side or make it about something I don't believe in to appease the other, neither Jesus or Saturn or any other myth that was once attached to the day. Just a nice family holiday, and I do not at all insist that anyone else do theirs in any other way than they choose. I suspect there are quite a few other atheists who do the same.

      December 22, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
    • JJ

      You give yourself away that you are not an atheist. You're just another liar for Jesus. Enjoy hell.

      December 22, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
    • Dandintac

      Please tell me–what atheist or atheist group is trying to "force [their beliefs] upon other people." How are they trying to do this? And is this really "force", or persuasion?

      Also–how are these atheist groups trying to "take away the right to choose"? Does speaking out take away someone's right to choose, or does it enhance their choice by making them aware that there ARE choices, and giving them a safe space to make that choice?

      How is this "force" happening? Please do tell.

      December 23, 2013 at 1:34 am |
  13. gstlab3

    some of the old time stone age bible stuff is out of date you know and the church has grown up but whatever I think the whole thing is out of date and putting all people of one faith, color or creed into the same criminal profile or calling them all a wretched social periah is wrong.,
    dumb is dumb and mean is mean.

    are you a slave to the capitalists and ologarchs?

    I say that you are.,
    you are the sheep;e and the dumbed down.
    good little parrots and usefull idiots and slaves to the owners of the machines.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:45 pm |
    • Observer


      "I say that you are., you are the sheep"

      Like in "the lord is my SHEPHERD"? Oooops!

      December 22, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
    • Free Holiday Nuts

      "and the church has grown up"

      interesting... I wonder what church and where...

      December 22, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
  14. Dennis Lurvey

    all true. I've tried to advise FFRF that they can get more traction by making ppl think, not making them mad. They make ppl mad with their banners and signs, they are flippant, rude, and off putting. But they wont listen to me or anyone. I have a custom bumper sticker that says "atheists are all around you". I've had ppl pull me over to say how much they like it.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
  15. gstlab3

    getting into heaven or hell here or in an after life takes effort and choices.,
    what will you take to your grave when you die?
    regrets or stupid or dumb?
    being mean hate filled and criminal are one thing.,
    being peacefull loving and hard working and educated about right and wrong is quite another.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
  16. gstlab3

    people that are looking for a fight the usually get one.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
    • Observer


      People who are wrong, usually refuse to respond to questions that refute them.

      December 22, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
      • John Sharp

        Yea, that is it.

        They probably found your post unworthy of a reply.

        December 22, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
  17. gstlab3

    let my people go" remember all that stuff about the jewish people and egypt and the pharo?

    December 22, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
    • doobzz

      You mean those stories that have nothing to back them up from a historical or archeological standpoint? Those stories about the Jews in Egypt?

      December 22, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
  18. gstlab3

    I hope you all know one of the first things a guilty person will do is to point fingers and make a fuss over somebody else before ever looking themselves in a mirror.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
    • Observer


      Yes. Look at all the Christians participating in adultery by divorce and remarriage and yet they pick on the FAR FAR FEWER number of gays.

      December 22, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
  19. gstlab3

    The first thing the devil or communist tries to do is convince you that god is not real and that the here and now is the only thing that matters.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:29 pm |
    • Observer


      And the Bible tells people that slavery is okay and it's good to beat helpless children.

      What is your point?

      December 22, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
      • Burt

        Everything changed after Jesus came. Jesus had no slaves. He harmed no one. He even healed a wounded soldier who had come to arrest Him. Christians are followers of Jesus Christ. We are to model ourselves after the example of Jesus.

        December 22, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
        • Observer


          No problem. Just quote where Jesus said God's commands were WRONG about slavery.

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

          While is a moral code and nothin g to do with religion.

          December 22, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
  20. 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 7:26 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55
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.