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. Jim Jimson

    There is a very sound reason we have separation of Church and State. I think a better separation would be between Church and Intelligence

    December 21, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  2. Reality # 2

    Why atheists should NOT quit the 'War on Christmas’:

    Christmas, the embellished story of the birth of a simple, preacher man named Jesus.

    As per most contemporary NT exegetes, his parents were Mary and Joseph although some say Jesus was a m-amzer, the result of a pre-marital relationship between Mary and a Roman soldier.

    http:// http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html

    Jesus was not born in Bethlehem at least the one we are familiar with and there were no pretty wingie thingies singing from on high, no slaughter of the innocents by Herod, no visiting wise men and no escape to Egypt.

    Conclusion: the holyday of Christmas is historically a non-event. . Ditto for the Feast of the Magi and the solemnity of Mary aka New Years day.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • Reality # 2

      So what are a few of the conclusions of some of the top contemporary NT scholars?

      Matt 1:18-25: From Professor Gerd Ludemann in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 123-124, "The fathering of Jesus from the Holy Spirit and his birth from the virgin Mary are unhistorical". Ludemann gives a very detailed analysis to support his conclusions. One part being the lack of attestations to these events and the late time strata of said story.

      "Lüdemann [Jesus], (pp. 261-63) discounts Luke's account as a legend deriving from Jewish Hellenistic circles that were concerned to hold together the procreation of the Spirit, the authentic sonship of the Messiah and the virginal conception. "

      Professor Bruce Chilton

      "In [Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography] (2000), Chilton develops the idea of Jesus as a m-amzer; someone whose irregular birth circu-mstances result in their exclusion from full participation in the life of the community. He argues for the natural pa-ternity of Joseph and finds no need for a miraculous conception. In his subsequent reconstruction of Jesus' life, Chilton suggests that this sustained personal experience of exclusion played a major role in Jesus' self-ident-ity, his concept of God and his spiritual quest.

      Professor John Dominic Crossan –

      "In [Historical Jesus] (p. 371) Crossan treats this cluster, like 007 Of Davids Lineage, as an example of the interplay of prophecy and history in the development of the Jesus traditions.

      "In [Birth of Christianity] (pp. 26-29) Crossan uses Luke's account of Jesus' conception and birth to explore ethical issues concerning the public interpretation of the past. He notes the tendency of Christian scholars to disregard "pagan" birth legends while investing great effort in the defence of biblical birth narratives. He concludes:

      I do not accept the divine conception of either Jesus or Augustus as factual history, but I believe that God is incarnate in the Jewish peasant poverty of Jesus and not in the Roman imperial power of Augustus. "

      "The following ancient parallels to Jesus' miraculous conception should be noted:

      Birth of Moses (Exod 2:1-10)

      Birth of Plato (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 3.45) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 507]

      Birth of Alexander the Great (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, 2.1-3.5) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 502f]

      Birth of Apollonius (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, I.4) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 505]"

      And some final words from Thomas Jefferson, not a contemporary NT scholar, but indeed a very learned man:

      "And the day will come,
      when the mystical generation of Jesus,
      by the Supreme Being as His Father,
      in the womb of a virgin,
      will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva
      in the brain of Jupiter.

      - Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
      Letter to John Adams, from Monticello, April 11, 1823.

      December 21, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  3. Jack Parker

    Interesting that many of my posts are being removed. NONE of them have been hateful. They've all been on topic. And they've all been factual. Even polite and friendly posts I've had with atheists (who have returned the kind conversation) have been removed. I guess they're getting flagged by atheists who can't handle it. That's the problem with some people. They flag posts they can't handle. Good luck with that in life.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Removed or not posted at all? You do know about the word fragment filter, don't you?

      December 21, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Interesting how you seem perfectly justified in your assumption of other's motives. Plenty of my posts have been removed, for seemingly no other reason than that enough people did not like the facts and opinions within them. I've never complained. You can't be as mature as me....a little old atheist? Hmmmm.

      December 21, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • Perry the Post-Theist

      @Jack Parker: "Atheism should be considered a hate group and, thus, criminals, and thus… prosecuted"

      That's hate speech Jack, pure bigotry, plain and simple.

      December 21, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • Pete

      You might be surprised at what actually comes off as being hateful. May Christians are.

      December 21, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • Mopery

      You're too busy using Oldspeak, dumb it down with Newspeak and you should be just fine.

      December 21, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • Charm Quark

      Psst. Jack
      Your persecution complex is showing. You have to be pleased that all those evil atheist groups are not dragging you off to a Inquisition to be burned at the stake or drawn and quartered, that was a Christian gig.

      December 21, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  4. Charm Quark

    More good news in my 'hood, another church closing and being torn down to make room for affordable rental housing. The corporations that want this festival/holiday to keep running are the retailers of gifts for adults and children. Happy we are making a profit season.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  5. Mopery

    The reason for the season? The profit, of course.

    If you think Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Christ then you're wrong on many levels. Christ has played second fiddle to consumerism for decades.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  6. Skarphace

    The members of this group, "American Atheists" are not really atheists at all in my opinion. A true atheist will not have an ideology. A true atheist will not be bothered by anybody else's choice of faith.

    It seems that this group is a political action committee masquerading as atheists in order to make atheism seem like a religion. It is not. Atheism is the lack of religion, the lack of dogma. To say that atheists want to convert people to their faith is to say that they are not atheists at all but a religious group. This is a contradiction and is hypocritical.

    Just as the Westboro Church and that Florida preacher that burns Qurans, the American Atheists give atheists a bad name. Sometimes it seems like that is the plan.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • tallulah13

      It does make you wonder. Perhaps these people are on some church payroll, getting paid to make atheists look bad...

      December 21, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
      • Perry the Post-Theist

        I too wonder if it isn't about Silverman's ego and making money. They don't represent me.

        December 21, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
      • Pete

        Maybe, like the article touches upon, they're actually linked with Fox News? The resident "atheists" they have had in house all seem to be straw men, so why not construct this entire organization to serve that purpose?

        December 21, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • Ben

      Not "true atheists"?

      Who are you, Oprah?

      December 21, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
      • Skarphace

        By "true atheist", I mean those who do not believe in the spiritial world at all, in any form. Why would it harm me to go to church and participate in religious celebrations if there really is no overseeing force that will judge me for what I do?

        December 21, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  7. kyzaadrao

    Some good bits of truth here. The simplicity of it is that it doesn't need intervention. Christians understand that not everyone wants to consider it a religious holiday and atheists understand that religious based holidays have roots in our culture and that religion is protected as a freedom like all other freedoms we enjoy in this country.

    The problem is "non profits" that for profit cash in and amplify the rhetoric as they pretend to represent people. Generally the people that they "represent" are only the more extremist in their views.

    In short, we just don't need the activism or activists on issues of personal choice. Secular non profits should be reserved for causes that affect everyone like hunger, medical issues, etc.

    Activists that serve only to profit and intrude on peoples personal life don't need to exist. They don't represent, they don't improve and offer little of meat to society.

    People generally get along just fine without their intervention.

    We need some reforms on non profits and checks and balances on groups that exist solely to combat the views of other groups.

    Let the activists go out an earn an honest living representing themselves.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
  8. Crystal

    This is just asinine. Both sides of it.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
  9. Jeff

    FFS people, live and let live. The nastiness from extremes in all social issues is a major problem in today's society. Someone being Christian has no inherent effect on you being atheist, and vice versa. Truth be told, atheists have a far bigger problem with my agnosticism than any Christian, and try to "convert" me on a far more regular basis. It is annoying. Live your life how you will, and let others do the same.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Jim Jimson

      Completely wrong. Atheists have a problem being told they should believe in a sky fairy, in our children being brainwashed into thinking they carry some original sin in themselves, that they have no real free will, that atheists can have no morals, that they are wicked etc. Need I go on?
      But the biggest issue is that it is truly pathetic for an otherwise intelligent person to have to rely on a sky fairy to explain his meaning and his life. What a travesty!

      December 21, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  10. igaftr

    War on christmas?

    The christians declared war on anything not christian years ago. You can't blame atheists for trying to set things right.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Skarphace

      I am an atheist and I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. "Set things right"? Huh?

      December 21, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
      • igaftr

        Yes....the christians stole the solstice celebrstion, they hijacked the Pledge of allegience and the national motto, passed blue laws and laws restricting atheists.

        So yes....setting things right.

        December 21, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  11. Norm

    Please stop the war on non-believers. What have we ever done to you? Why do you teach your children that we are so evil we will burn for all eternity? Why do you think we shouldn't hold office? Why would you get upset if your daughter married one? Why are Christians allowed to display millions of billboards, crosses, crèches and other symbols of their faith - but non-believers should just shut up and hide?

    December 21, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  12. Dave

    I don't believe in Jesus Christ. On the other hand I do believe in the act of giving, caring for one's family, sharing your kindness and turkey dinners. So what's wrong with having Christmas and not bothering to go to Church or agree with the bible stories. I mean, lets face it, Santa isn't in the bible either, so why does it have to be one way or the other. Just enjoy Christmas and the happiness that it brings other people.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • Perry the Post-theist

      That's what I do with all holidays. I don't rename it, just do a secular version. I imagine that's what most people do. Let's face it, most people who don't like unions celebrate Labor Day the same way.

      December 21, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  13. Colin

    Imagine if you lived in the Dark Ages when most people believed in witches. A good deal of daily life was spent engaged in rituals to fend off withes and every Sunday morning, most of the town gathered together in a ceremony related to witchcraft. Further, all diseases were believed to be caused by witches and their spells, storms and other natural events were attributed to witches and mental illness was explained by possession by witches.

    "In Wizards We Trust" was printed on your money, community leaders made regular allusions to witches in their speeches and belief in witches was widely seen as a prerequisite for having an acceptable moral outlook in your community. Once a year, the entire community became very excited about the ancient birth of the “Great Wizard” who gave his life to save us from witches. The town square had a display of the Great Wizard in it and a public holiday was declared so people could go to church and reflect on the greatness of the wizard.

    Now imagine if you were part of a small group (about 10%) of the population that did not believe in witches. Instead, you believed that disease was caused by an unknown, but entirely natural cause and that the rituals performed every day or week by your community did not have any effect to alter natural events (such as bringing the rains or preventing violent storms) nor did they ward off witches.

    Finally, imagine if, when you looked at the story of the birth of the Great Wizard it really made no sense to you. It was based on nothing more than ancient stories and required you to believe that an invisible being impregnated a Greco-Roman virgin with himself so he could give birth to himself, then sacrifice himself to himself to “forgive” the original sin of a mythological couple. You, however, felt considerable pressure to keep this doubt about witches and wizards to yourself, because you would likely be viewed with a jaundiced eye by your friends and colleagues for having the temerity to question witchcraft.

    Well, my Christian friends, welcome to being an atheist in the 21st Century USA.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • Cred Tuz

      Amen...err....heck yeah! 🙂

      December 21, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  14. hearties

    Christmas is basically everyone thinking about Jesus, when he was born and going to mass to celibrate Jesus.

    I would prefer it was Christmax, maximum Jesus all the time, everywhere, every day.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  15. Jim Jimson

    As long as we have the outrage of our President worshipping the chief sky fairy, atheists have to act. we cannot have this dangerous nonsense anymore. The Middle Ages ended a long time ago

    December 21, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  16. Cliff

    So basically, they should stop because it hurts your feelings and you don't like it. I hate to tell you, but the world doesn't belong to you. No one "should quit" stating their opinions just because you don't want to hear it.
    The truth of the matter is, Christmas, to most, is a time when kids go to bed early and expect some non-existent fat man in a red suit and flying reindeer to come down their chimneys with gifts, and then everyone eats a lot for dinner. There is nothing Christ-related in any of that. Yes, to some Christians, it is a time to gather around, pray, and appreciate the glory of the Lord, but I would go as far as to say that most to not spend Christmas this way anymore. Does that mean you should stop celebrating? No. The winter holidays are a wonderful time if spent right; there's just no reason to name it after a religious figure when it has little to do with religion anymore.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  17. mckinney_man

    The atheist are wrong, they are alone even if there are a trillion of them. They are without God all of the year and will pay for it at the end of time.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • Cliff

      Atheists and other non-religious people make up almost 12% of the world population. They're hardly alone.
      They won't pay for it "in the end". Everyone dies, not just athiests.

      December 21, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I'm sorry that your only friend is a god for which there isn't a single shred of evidence. You must be very lonely.

      December 21, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • igaftr

      "the atheists are wrong"....

      Another christian supremacist.

      December 21, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • Doug

      sorry but no...you are the only person paying for anything by wasting your entire life believing in fairy tales...good for you

      December 21, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  18. Perry the Post-theist

    While I am not really a fan of the billboards or Silverman, I am not impressed by a "humanist chaplain" either. His logic is the equivalent of "blacks can build positive relationships with racists." He needs to go down to the Bible Belt and start trying his theory, see how he gets treated. Certainly a number of religious people can deal with coexistence, but a heck of a lot of them actually think we are the minions of Satan. So yeah, building positive relationships is pretty silly in the face of that.

    We live in a land where many states have laws against atheists holding pubic office and where polls have show atheists to be the least trusted and most hated group, despite studies that show we tend to be smarter and more peaceful than religious people.

    It's really like telling Martin Luther King to just build positive relationships and stop that protest thing. It just doesn't work. Though Silverman is no King. He may as well tell gays to do the same thing.

    There is no way to build positive relationships in any real manner with a group that openly hates you.

    It's really safe to be an atheist up in your Ivy League home, Chris. They don't tell you that you are a satan worshipe who is going to burn in hell up there. And they don't sneak your daughter to youth Bible studies and give her Bibles with instructions to not tell her parents like has happened to mine repeatedly (and I am very quiet about my beliefs).

    It just won't work, buddy.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • Mike L

      Christians will claim this is the fringe and not the norm, when we all have varying stories of intolerance by a group who outwardly claims to be the most tolerant.

      December 21, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  19. Marty

    I urge the author of this piece to think long and hard before going up (down) to the next gauge in his ear lobes. Do you really want to have big nasty hanging labia lobes for the rest of your life because of some ridiculous fad at the present?

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

      No kidding, when I see people with that crap in their ears there's no way I can take them seriously.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
  20. Mike

    CNN fanning the flames of a war that doesn't exist (we've got real wars going on people). Go home, nothin to see here.

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

      They don't even have an investigative reporting unit anymore, it's all the 24/7 speculation and sensationalism you can bear to watch. Today's news outlets are nothing more than corporate propaganda, keeping the ever-consuming populous in a perpetual state of patriotic fear. It's all smoke and mirrors, prestidigitation, the illusion of importance. Soviet-era Pravda would be busy taking notes if they could see the wool the current media has pulled over our eyes.

      December 21, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • Skarphace

      If you don't care about this subject, then why are you here? You don't see me posting comments on a blog about hockey.

      December 21, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
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