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. M.E.

    Christmas is neither Christian nor secular, it's pagan. Therefore both sides are acting like idiots. Might I suggest all sides take a sip of their eggnog and shut up?

    December 21, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
  2. SuzetteC

    They should take out billboards that read "The winter solstice is the reason for the season."

    December 21, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
  3. rob richardson

    Maybe you could use your time more wisely and urge Christians to stop preaching hell and scaring kids and adults alike. Then maybe we'll take a look at these harmless billboards.

    December 21, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
  4. Free Holiday Nuts


    December 21, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
  5. robertboston12

    Merry Christmas to all people...whether gay, atheist, straight, muslim, jew, hindu, etc, etc. Jesus loves you all and died for you all, and rose from the grave for you all....Confess your sins and God will forgive you....he's awesome!

    December 21, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • tallulah13

      No thank you. If I've done something in my life that means I deserve to be tortured for eternity (and I don't recall doing anything that terrible) then I will take my punishment as an adult. I most certainly am not okay with letting an innocent man be tortured to death in my place. That's cowardly and immoral.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
    • Skarphace

      While I am thankful for your good intentions, they are somewhat mislplaced. As I am an atheist, you see my faith as a sin. I do not agree with your faith and yet I do not see it as a sin. Therefore, you do not respect my faith. How do you expect me to respect yours? Remember the golden rule.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
    • Perhapsif

      Jesus is awesome. Too bad he didn't have that cool hammer that Thor has! Also, Ra the sun god is great! Zeus is really cool too! So is Vishnu. Allah would be okay if he would control those crazy suicide bombers. And don't get me started on Buddha!

      December 21, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  6. robertboston12


    December 21, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
  7. lici

    This kinda things give athiests a bad name. I'm an athiest and love christmas. I believe you can interpret christmas how ever you want, as long as your are respectful to the others around you. Christmas is a time of loving and caring, being with family and friends. Its not a time to make others feel uncomfortable with what you do or do not believe.

    December 21, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
    • Skarphace

      As an atheist myself, I agree completely.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
      • Casey C.

        As an atheist, I completely agree. Christmas can be a good time for everyone, no matter your religious affiliation (or non-affiliation.)

        And with that, I proudly say Merry Christmas!

        December 21, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • sadlyperturbed

      If you need to have an event like Christmas to be loving and caring you really are missing something in your life. Being loving and caring requires no special day or season. Just the right mindset. Atheist or not, that doesn't matter.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • Suzi

      Amen! And as an atheist I'm not afraid of saying that either. I have a lot of Christian friends who tease me about my joy at Christmas time. I love the smells, the twinkling lights, the goodwill (and despite the random incidents of grinches, most people do try to be friendlier this time of year), the music and the presents-I like to give more than receive. As long as people are using their faith for good, as many do, I don't have a problem with it. As a non believer, I take it like I do Santa Clause, I don't believe he exists, but if he makes people happy and gets kids to behave 🙂 and the thought of him brings joy, I'm all for celebrating!

      December 21, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
  8. robertboston12

    John 14:6
    New International Version (NIV)
    6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

    December 21, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • Skarphace

      Your point?

      December 21, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • Michael

      And the question was: 5 "Where the hell is your loser dad? That table set he built for me fell apart while we were eating breakfast and I want my money back!"

      December 21, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
  9. Vic

    Jesus Christ is the reason for Christmas;

    Keep Jesus Christ in Christmas;

    Merry Christmas.

    December 21, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • Kenneth

      Do you have any evidence Jesus even existed?

      December 21, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
      • Vic

        I believe in my heart and confess with my mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord.

        December 21, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
        • tallulah13

          So in other words, no.

          December 21, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
        • Steve

          Thats amazing evidence you have there., it warms my heart.

          December 21, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
        • Vic


          The Kingdom Of God is in the heart of the believer.

          God bless.

          December 21, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
      • travis

        Does it matter? Technically he is right. The whole reason Christmas even exists is to celebrate the birth of Jesus whether you believe it or not. Nothing wrong with enjoying the holidays even as a non believer. The point of origin still won't change.

        December 21, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
        • Vic

          I have all the respect for you.

          Merry Christmas.

          December 21, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Actually, Mithras is the reason for the season. But I do think the sign is silly.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
  10. Humanist999

    Yes, let’s end this Christmas debate once and for all: End the Federal Christmas holiday that favors Christian based religions. Let’s have a national 3 day “Winter Holiday” on the third weekend each December and allow everyone to celebrate as they see fit. Let’s also end all other religious based holidays. I say this not to be cruel, but because these holidays have lost their true meaning.

    Holidays, when sanctioned by the federal government, make them secular by definition – they lose their true significance. Big businesses are preying on consumers to make money on these otherwise holy days. Want to put some meaning back into Christmas? Get it off the federal holiday list! Make it the holiday it should be – not the consumer nightmare it’s become.

    December 21, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
    • Public Reproval

      a-fricken-men. how about just a federal holiday for the solstice. something that is scientifically proven.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • Skarphace

      I am an atheist, but have absolutely no problem with religious celebrations. Participating in religious celebrations as an atheist will not change who you are. Instead, it changes those around you. The more you are tolerant of other people's faith and respectful of their choices, the more they will be tolerant of your faith and respectful of your choices.

      Do not fear becoming involved with religious celebrations. See them as a way to bond with friends and family.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
      • travis

        Why can't more atheists be like you?

        December 21, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
      • Casey C.

        A most excellent point, Skarphace. A most excellent point, indeed. Atheists have the distinct opportunity not to stir the pot of intolerance and to quit letting petty squabbles make their way to the top.

        The bible says, from the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks - and that's a fact. It's our job to be make sure our own hearts are full of love and tolerance. That way love and tolerance will be on our lips, not hatred and contention.

        December 21, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
        • Casey C.

          (This may be surprising, since I quoted the bible, but I also am an Atheist. Glad to share a commonality. We don't have to 'throw the baby out with the bathwater' as they say.)

          December 21, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
  11. Public Reproval

    Happy Solstice everyone.

    December 21, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
    • Humanist999

      Happy Solstice! Eat, Laugh, Love!

      December 21, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
  12. jimmy24

    The guy makes a good point. When you see those billboards, having grown up with annual Christmas celebrations tied closely with happy memories of family, friends, and warm times, it just kind of takes the air out of the sails. Total grinch move, regardless of whether you believe in Jesus or not. This writers suggestion of a different, friendly approach to tackling the difficult internal struggle for athiests at christmas time would be much more successful in reaching people for the athiest cause. These signs just make me think of scrooge... and who wants to join scrooge for the *Holidays?

    December 21, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • JIm1073

      This sign does nothing to take the joy out of Christmas, it just takes Christ out of the mass. Christmas is commercial so unless we said take the large corporations out of Christmas we aren't actually ruining Christmas in any way.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
    • Wendy

      I agree. It's the word "Nobody" that generalizes Atheist feeling in a way that is inappropriate. These billboards are not respectful statement of Atheism. These billboards are mocking the beliefs of others.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
  13. JIm1073

    The meaning of god and religion has been lost and replaced with the effort of men to control other men. Its been replaced with greed in the form of your absolutely ridiculous mega churches and your wealth gathering by avoiding taxes which in this day and age is almost criminal. If you believe in god, then your relationship is between you and them not between you and your church. gathering at churches is just another form of control and wealth gathering and even more criminal is that like most charities, only about 5% of the money you give to churches actually goes to help others, the rest goes to making the church wealthier. jesus, through his teachings, would have been disgusted at what religion has become.

    December 21, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • RobertTT

      Actually pretty much the whole point of religion throughout history and even today in large parts of the world is for men to control other men.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
  14. Kenneth

    Atheists should allow us Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus, son of the Middle-Eastern, Bronze-Age, genocidal, Jewish deity named Yahweh.



    December 21, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • JIm1073

      Although I sense your message is actually saying something else, I would just add that Jesus, if he existed, was not actually born anytime near December.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • RadioDude

      Jesus wasn't born on December 25th. Read the Bible. He was born in Autumn, not Winter.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
      • Hic

        "Jesus was born in Autumn.."

        Yeah, everyone knows that "God" got very drunk on holy spirits on New Year's Eve, boinked Mary and said, "Jesus Christ!" - and nine months later...

        December 21, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
  15. Shemp Kennedy

    I believe that there is really eternal life, given to me by invisible people, with magical superpowers, who read my thoughts, and judge me. They care about what I eat, and who I sleep with. And there being no real evidence that this is true (because they're invisible and all), the invisible people love me all that much more that I take it all on faith. Other people in the world who live elsewhere, and believe in different invisible people, also with magical superpowers, who will also give them eternal life, they are silly. My invisible people or the one true invisible people. I am so sure of this I will spend my life studying the good parts about what my invisible people wrote in a book 2000 years ago. I will ignore the bad parts though as my invisible people could not possibly endorse owning other human beings as personal property. I mean really, that's just stupid.

    December 21, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
  16. Public Reproval

    WWJB would be an appropriate billboard. What Would Jesus Buy? I'm atheist from Jewish background and I love Christmas lights during this time of cold and darkness. Although it wastes electricity on some level, it does bring some cheeriness to this brrrrrrrr time. What I detest is the constant Christmas music played everywhere from Thanksgiving to New Year. This makes me want to scream. To me, Xmas music is "nails on a chalkboard." The plastic element of the holiday is exceptionally disturbing. Plastic toys in plastic wrapping that ends up in landfills. There is no such thing as a virgin birth, so truly, what are these people celebrating anyway? Shop. Shop. Shop.

    December 21, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
  17. John

    I cannot take seriously a man who has the need to have a big tribal rings inside her ears and a nose ring.

    December 21, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
  18. Fred Bar

    “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.”

    December 21, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • Snowdog

      I do not understand why you have to tell grown adults they do not have to go to Church. I think they can make that choice themselves. I do not believe people look at that sign and say, Oh really, I do not have to go to Church? I give the human race more credit than that. The real purpose of that sign is to get under the skin of Christians. As a Christian that sign does not bother me at all as it will not change any ones mind, Christian or Atheist. It is freedom of speech. I will never stop believing in Jesus Christ and his saving power no matter what.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  19. Kenneth

    JESUS was born on December 25th in a manger surrounded by farm animals.

    In fact, they liked living a barn so much, they were still there 12 days later waiting for the Magi to show up.



    December 21, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
    • Observer


      Most historians agree that Jesus wasn't born on December 25th.

      Please do some research so you'll know better.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
      • Kenneth

        Is there any evidence Jesus existed?

        The most contemporary account of him was written over 35 years after his "death", no?

        It would be like a person writing about Jim Morrison, without meeting him.

        December 21, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • DC

      Prove it? Because YOU were there and KNOW it happened that way, right? LOL!!!

      December 21, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
    • SirBobowe

      Actually the date of December 25 is not the birthday of Jesus...it is a date set aside by the Roman Rulers at the time....actually if memory serves me correct Jesus was actually born in August....but not sure of the exact date. I believe December 25th was used to combine celebration days of two issues of the time and was actually a political decision to calm the population.

      December 21, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
  20. vdanker

    Interesting that if you take away the rituals, the costumes, the ceremonies, and other trappings of religions, the basic message of all of them can be relevant for anyone, believer or non believer. Love your neighbor as yourself. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Help those in need. Be kind. Be good. It's interesting to me that some religions require a particular kind of clothing, or doing things in a certain way at a certain place at a certain time of day. None of that is relevant to basic, decent human behavior.

    December 21, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
    • SmallPaul15

      "Interesting that if you take away the rituals, the costumes, the ceremonies, and other trappings of religions, the basic message of all of them can be relevant for anyone, believer or non believer. Love your neighbor as yourself. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Help those in need. Be kind. Be good."

      And if this was true, there shouldn't be anger against religion. However, when you have people out there saying gays are going to hell. They are saying that they are wicked, ruthless people. They say we should bomb the entire Middle East to get rid of the Muslims. I've talked to some in these comments who are pleased to see Syrians poisoning each other. Then, they turn around and say that they love their neighbor as themselves. They don't use religion to change their perspective, they use religion like a spray paint to mask the true color of their soul.

      Of course, when I mention these comments, we all know that I'm talking about the few radicals that make headline news. Most people that are religious don't believe these things. But what makes me upset is this: where are all the religious people that denounce this hatred? Your silence is guilt. Christians tend to back each other up simply because the other believes in the same God. Stop doing that! They are not like you! Don't let these frauds use god as a tool to justify their opinions. I'm tired of Christians not fighting for what they believe in...

      December 21, 2013 at 12:55 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.