Is There Really a ‘Christmas Schism’ in the Atheist Movement?

CNN’s Dan Merica has a story on the atheist divide over Christmas and how we ought to respond to it:

Some atheist activists are trying to seize the holidays as a time to build bridges with faith groups, while other active unbelievers increasingly see Christmas as a central front in the war on religious faith. With the dramatic growth of the nonreligious in the last few decades, more atheist leaders are emerging as spokespeople for atheism, but the Christmas rift speaks to growing disagreement over how atheists should treat religion.

Specifically, he focuses on two people and their approaches: Dave Silverman and Greg Epstein:

Dave Silverman gets in the holiday spirit

On the religion-bashing side, there’s David Silverman, president of the group American Atheists, which raised one of its provocative trademark billboards in New York’s Times Square last week. “Keep the MERRY!” it says. “Dump the MYTH!”

The sign features a picture of a jolly Santa Clause and another of Jesus dying on the cross — a not-so-subtle attack on Christianity.

Despite Silverman’s knack for making headlines, however, other prominent atheists are putting a softer face on the movement, including during Christmastime.

“I just think the whole war on Christmas story is bizarre” said Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, who has emerged as another spokesman for the burgeoning atheist movement. “I think that any atheist or humanist that is participating in that story needs to find better things to do with their time.”

At the chaplaincy, Epstein has reached out to local religious groups, packaging holiday meals and breaking bread with believers to discuss their similarities and differences.

So we’re back to the usual argument over accommodation versus aggression. For what it’s worth, I support what both guys are doing. One focuses on exposing the inherent problems with religion (and does a great job of getting that message out there). The other focuses on showing people that you can be good without God (and gets a ton of grief for his efforts). Those are not mutually exclusive ideas. I’m a firm supporter of both and I’ve done both things depending on the situation. (Which all of you who have questioned my “friendliness” know already.)

So is this just another example of the media pretending there’s a schism when there really isn’t? Do Epstein and Silverman really agree with each other about the whole “Christmas” thing while focusing on different aspects of the “War,” or are they actually opposed to what the other is doing?

I asked them for an answer to those questions.

Turns out, when it comes right down to it, they really do oppose what the other is doing. But, both said, that’s ok.

Here’s Dave Silverman (emphasis mine):

While we differ strongly in method, our end goals are the same — atheist normalcy and full acceptance in society. I don’t think [Epstein is] doing the right thing because he is going out of his way to be tolerant to that with which we should all be intolerant — lies and organized corruption. But he is doing what he thinks is best, and if that includes getting atheists to stay in the movement by playing nice with religion’s victims, well, there are worse things he could be doing.

I certainly believe he is benefiting from AA.

Here’s Greg Epstein:

… I don’t seek to be disagreeable with Dave or anyone at American Atheists. I respect how hard they work to promote visibility for atheists. But when asked a direct question — whether by you, by CNN, or by whomever — about their self-consciously controversial media strategy, I have to be honest. I disagree with the notion that their “Keep the MERRY, Dump the MYTH” advertising is constructive. I oppose it in the sense that, in my opinion, the atheist community would be better off without it.

Not sure where the responses leave those of us who like both approaches but who don’t think they land in the middle of the “approach spectrum.”

Epstein added some parting thoughts as well:

… I want to acknowledge a few things: first, some members of my own community disagree with me on this one, and that’s fine. I respect the view that Humanist community building and this sort of ad campaign can successfully go hand in hand. I disagree with it in this case, but I’m happy to build community alongside some of the very smart and committed people who see things differently.

Also: I hope attention to this story doesn’t just come down to me, or Dave — or even Jesse Galef for that matter, who, as usual, has very worthwhile and well-put things to say. This is about the fact that thousands and thousands of people are working hard to build the Humanist and atheist community these days, and we’re going to disagree at times about how to go about doing so, and that is wonderful. We can show the world what Humanism really means if we are willing to disagree with one another respectfully and vigorously while working together on other projects constructively.

My biggest hope at this season — especially this year — is that our movement can focus on building communities that serve those in need. That means the poor, the hungry, the isolated, the enslaved — and it also means all of us. Any of us can, at any point, become the victim of a tragedy like the one at Sandy Hook. We need to look out for one another and love one another. Usually it is religion that does so. But if we work very hard and invest time and money in it, the coming generation can bring real, meaningful secular communities all across the country where people can be the light and the gift to one another.

I don’t mean to speak for Dave Silverman here, but I don’t think he’d disagree with that. American Atheists has done plenty of things to serve those in need, including (most recently) raising money for Hurricane Sandy victims. But it doesn’t mean they’re going to stop being critical of the negative aspects of religious faith. The problem is that the media generally only pays attention when AA goes on the attack.

The media wants us to choose sides, but there’s no need to. You can be both aggressive (when it’s warranted) and gentle (when we share common goals with religious people) and those two things often overlap. What bothers me is this notion that you are either one or the other and never the twain shall meet.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

    I assume this double negative is a typo. “Those aren’t not mutually exclusive ideas.”

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Fixed. Thanks!

      • renanevada

        Reading these comments makes me want to invent another group….I moved away from my religious upbringing in my teens because it all seemed too dogmatic and now as an atheist, the more I listen to other atheists, the more I feel pulled into dogmatism once again with sides wanting to convert me to their point of view. Is atheism turning into a religious faith????

  • C Peterson

    The flaw in all of this is that there is no “atheist movement”. For secularists, Christmas represents an appropriate time to make challenges, since it is one of the most obvious times that governments illegally entangle themselves in religion. And while there are a handful of anti-theists on the fringe who perhaps go after Christmas (e.g. the nutcase who complained about buses with “Merry Christmas” signs), that’s very atypical. The anti-theist community goes after religion everywhere, and all year. There is little special about Christmas. And most atheists probably don’t much care about the matter at all.

    Bottom line: no movement, no schism, no case.

    • Sinjari

      There is a “movement” in the sense that more and more atheists are becoming increasingly outspoken. You didn’t see such gusto in the secular community twenty years ago.

      *edit*
      Never mind the picture. Haha… glitchy Android.

      • C Peterson

        Agreed, our social position has changed enough that many atheists can now be outspoken, and many more simply out of the closet. But I don’t equate that to any “movement”. In fact, there are several movements: there are secularists, there are skeptics and freethinkers, there are anti-theists (sometimes given the misnomer “New Atheism”), and there are atheist organizations that are essentially civil rights proponents, fighting discrimination against atheists. The confusion comes in trying to conflate all these things with “atheism”, when that connection is weak or non-existent. The false appearance of some “schism” is largely the result of failing to recognize that these are different groups with different agendas. There was never any total unity to begin with, so it isn’t possible to have a split.

      • Marco Conti

        That’s one startled spider!

      • memeandalwaysme

        Don’t you mean increasingly desperate?

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      There’s a movement, but coordinated primarily by common environment; a breeze from a weather system, not from fans blowing.

  • http://knottiesniche.com Angelia Phillips

    Santa CLAUS… A Clause is a legal term!

    • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

      And a grammatical term.

    • Carys Birch

      THANK you! Damn Tim Allen and his silly movie, popularizing an embarrassing misspelling!

  • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

    The thing is, there is no war on Christmas. No one is demanding churches remove nativity displays, trying to ban Christmas carolers, demanding private businesses stop having Santa Claus in, writing to television stations asking them to remove holiday-themed broadcasts like It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story.

    What atheists object to is the use of PUBLIC funds to support a particular religion in the public space. I don’t see the Times Square ad as an exhortation to Christians to reject their teachings, but as a call to atheists to celebrate the joy of the season.

  • http://atheistlutheran.blogspot.com/ MargueriteF

    I was going to make the same comment as Tycha. Much of what is presented as “the war on Christmas” is actually atheists, and secularists in general, trying to raise consciousness about the unconstitutionality of religious displays on public land. That’s the big issue here. No one really cares if every Christian in America puts up a dozen nativity scenes in their yard (I admit I’d be against this merely on aesthetic grounds, but alas, there is no amendment prohibiting tackiness:-). The problem is simply that too many Christians think their town has a right to erect religious symbols of the season in parks or on school grounds, and see it as an “attack” when secularists point out that this is wrong. Admittedly some atheists use Christmas as an opportunity to “expose the inherent problems with religion,” but this is really only a minor side issue, IMHO.

  • http://twitter.com/RB6K Sheep Dog

    I’m celebrating nogfest this year instead! Christmas is just a side story to the futures biggest international holiday! #nogfest

  • Jason Robertson

    I would like to know how we are to understand “I think that any atheist or humanist that is participating in that story needs to find better things to do with their time.” I hope this is not a criticism of those doing good separation of church and state work.

  • jflcroft

    I enjoyed this piece of reporting – great that you contacted Greg and Dave to see where they stand.

  • psittacus

    As an atheist, at present I don’t have a problem celebrating Christmas, and Winter Solstice, and Festivus. I don’t have a problem with Merry Christmas. But, I will say that when the government erects Christmas trees or puts up Christmas messages, they should not just describe the Christian view of things. The post-Christian Enlightenment-embracing view should be there as well. Axial tilt is the reason for the season after all. A true new year celebration with days starting to get longer on solstice. Getting together inside because it’s cold outside. That’s all good.

    The people who take xmas too seriously though, do require fighting – for example people who think there’s a “war on Christmas.” There’s a war on Christmas the same way there’s a war against lies, deception, & group think by reason & telling the truth. There’s a war on hangovers when you drink coffee and decide you have to go to work. There’s a war on sleep when the sun rises in the morning.

    Liberal religionists & atheists often have no concept of what it’s like to be in a real religion. So their preference is to have “good strategy” when responding to what middle & conservative religions do & claim. People who have spent time in real religions (eg: Mormonism, Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, evangelical Christianity, and Islam) realize though that it’s more important to be honest than it is to be strategic. And they also realize that yes, people can be convinced by the truth, even if they pretend like they aren’t. The truth builds up in a person’s brain, and eventually there’s a breaking point. So, speak the truth & be honest.

    Merry Christmas. Happy Solstice. Have a fun Festivus. Whatever. Go love your friends, family, and lovers inside out of the cold. We can all agree on that.

  • Gus Snarp

    There’s nothing new about this, and it has precious little to do with Christmas. Epstein and Silverman at odds about how to deal with religion? Not new at all. It’s not a Christmas schism, it’s the same split that’s been going on in the atheist community for some time.

    And I like how Merica doesn’t even try to pretend he hasn’t picked a side:

    On the religion-bashing side, there’s David Silverman, president of the group American Atheists, which raised one of its provocative trademark billboards in New York’s Times Square last week. “Keep the MERRY!” it says. “Dump the MYTH!”

    The sign features a picture of a jolly Santa Clause and another of Jesus dying on the cross — a not-so-subtle attack on Christianity.[emphasis added]

    No, really Dan, drop the journalistic neutrality and tell us how you really feel about American Atheists.

    • Beth

      Actually, I find it accurate to call it an attack on Christianity. Santa Claus too. In fact, I dislike the ad because I feel it is evangelizing. I don’t have a problem with most atheist ads, but the AA does seem to be attacking Christianity during Christmas the last few years.

      Incidentally, I’m fond of the myth and don’t plan to dump Santa.

  • baal

    I’m sort of just happy that atheists got air time. I suspect I’ll be happy with that low bar for a number of years to come but welcome the day where we have so much coverage that I can get grumpy about it.

  • ortcutt

    I do think it’s pretty remarkable how an innocuous billboard from AA has raised so much ire. Nobody at AA said that someone is evil or going to hell. They just said some part of the story of Christianity is a myth. That shouldn’t be controversial at all, but open expressions of disagreement with religious claims is still considered socially inappropriate. If we lived in another country, I could even see someone saying this was blasphemy. We need to keep expressing disagreement with religious claims until people accept that we aren’t going away. This isn’t a passing fad and religious people can no longer assume that their claims will never be challenged. Epstein might decide to use his time differently, but I think this struggle for free expression is incredibly important.

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    Though I think Epstein is doing a lot of good and I do respect him for that, I see him not as a moderate but as a radical in the atheist “movement”. He has, in the past, denounced criticism of religion itself in almost exact words. I have no problem with spending less time criticizing religion and more doing good deeds as any humanist should, but the balance should not be switched around.

  • Stonyground

    Stonyground says:
    In the UK we are not that bothered about the government endorsing religion, they do it a little bit and everyone ignores them. We still call it Christmas, but our Christmas is pretty much free of religion. Jesus is still mentioned in some of the Christmas songs, but really, nobody cares. Of course, the lack of a war on Christmas meant that our media had to invent one. For about ten years our papers were full of made up stories about how various left wing local councils were attempting to re-brand Christmas as Winterval.

  • AtheistNavyVet

    …………………….Comparing American Atheist leadership to a Harvard Chaplain who mutes his Atheism and is a promoter of Humanism is not useful. ……………………There is no “schism” between secular advocates to any significant degree. ………………..There are some Atheists acting out against something called “Atheism + ” which apparently our Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta might support. ……………………. I side with Feminists working hard to defeat the patriarchy & misogyny which afflicts male Atheists and harms Atheist women. ………………………. And for Atheism to be a movement, there needs to be a bit more discipline PRIDE & WELL STATED GOALS,,..,… Pride in Atheists will become evident as soon as Atheists can refer to themselves as proper noun Atheists instead of the Websterian xian “atheist.” We should give up the mistake of capitalizing the gibberish sound/word god gawd or gott. …………….. It is always a burden upon believers in the alleged deities by any names Jehovah Allah Krishna whatever to demonstrate where &
    what alleged gods may be and end the bigotry their alleged god is the only god claimed to be extant nor in bigoted fashion against other believers claim the title god for a Name. 843-926-1750 Larry_Carter_Center@yahoo.com @AtheistVet @Greens926_1750

    • Bubba Tarandfeathered

      I’m thinking we are a fringe group of Two. A simple but logically sound definition of Atheist would do wonders for us but sadly there is too much ambiguity behind the meaning. I think it will be some time before the editors of the world dictionaries will know how to define Atheism without connecting that definition to religion.
      On the other hand you and I stand together, but apart from others, in our belief that the titles given to the mythical deities have significant meaning and that their names should be capitalized to emphasize that meaning. I don’t capitalize the “c” in the word cup thus why should I capitalize the “g” in the word gawd. It’s a word not a name. To me, as an Atheist, that word is entirely meaningless.
      I consider my personal philosophy as Theist Deconstructionist. Defined as such: There were no deities until man conceptualized them and I acknowledge the reasoning behind those concepts and the purposes they served. I understand how and why those concepts serve no purpose in the modern world. I believe that there is enough historical evidence showing that those concepts are inefficient, and serve only to quell human innovation, personal rights and freedoms. I fully understand, that when myths become relics of history, likewise the monicker “Atheist” will serve no function.

  • Forrest Horn

    as a believer it’s refreshing to see that we aren’t alone in our ability to divide over the trivial. Christianity offers a plethora of examples on how to play the role of schismatic…. just, please don’t start burning one another at the stake. that isn’t good for anybody.

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    What’s funny to me is the whole notion of an “atheist divide over Christmas.” I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of atheists in the United States not only are completely unaware of these signs and billboards, they’ve never heard of Dave Silverman or Greg Epstein, either.

  • BenZ

    I agree with Hemant in that I like what both guys are doing. I don’t think there’s a schism here. It seems to me that virtually all atheists can agree that the Christmas myth is silly, but that there should be some recognition or celebration of this time of year. The rest is just style, which doesn’t come down bilaterally to accommodation v. aggression, but forms a multi-dimensional continuum. Because of the casual and secular nature of how most Christians practice Christmas, it’s exceptionally easy for Christians and atheist to find common ground.

  • Bob

    I find Silverman’s approach much too confrontational. I think ultimately we all have to get along with each other on this planet. I don’t want atheism and humanism to become just another ‘side’ in the endless wars of religion. There is a worrying trend, among some atheists, to de-personalise religious people, to make them into ‘others’ so that it becomes ‘us vs them’. Calling the religious ‘victims’, as Silverman does in his quote, doesn’t seem helpful to me. Religious people don’t see themselves as victims. They see themselves as people who have followed the evidence where it lead them. Many of them are happy in their religions.

    Silverman claims his banners are persuasive. I’d like to see some stats, some polls, to see if they work on religious people, or undecided people. They might work on atheists, but that’s just pandering to tribalism. There’s enough tribes in the world already. I don’t want to fight a war, I want a better world, for everyone.

    I think Epstein’s approach will be more effective in the end. I’ve read studies that said the most effective way of breaking down prejudice is for people to have a positive interaction with the group they’re prejudiced against. That’s exactly what Epstein seems to be providing.

    The price of Silverman’s banner could feed a lot of starving people or buy a lot of malaria nets and surely the PR for atheist would be better. Not to mention it would make the world in general better.

  • Octoberfurst

    Look, we need BOTH the “in your face” tactics of Silverman and the soft “can’t we all be friends” approach that Epstein takes. Silverman’s tactics are needed to confront aggressive loonies on the Religious Right and to let people know we aren’t going to sit quietly while they ram their religion down our throats. The bad part of his method is that he alienates people on the fence. Epstein is the warm, fuzzy face of atheism and he does well in getting religious liberals and moderates on our side. The flipside is that the hard-core fundies don’t take him seriously and just ignore his calls for fairness. So, depending on the situation, both approaches are needed to move atheism forward. That’s my 2 cents worth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004571885806 John Jones

    Many Christians go around saying that we should keep
    “Christ” in Christmas yet fail to see that the word Christmas means
    Christ´s Mass as it is a Roman Catholic expression. Yet, strangely, they never
    ask to have the “mas” removed. Supposedly Christ was born in a
    tropical country where it was not cold and they have no pine trees. The tree,
    mistletoe, wreath, holly, and lights are all pagan customs. Why are they
    against these traditions too? This whole war was invented by Fox for ratings
    while on their own building they wish every a Happy Holiday. Such hypocrisy!

  • http://www.facebook.com/navinkumar Navin Kumar

    Why do christians celebrate a pagan holiday and tell others who talk about it’s pagan origins as hijackers.

  • Jeb

    Very interesting that, as best I can tell, the atheist debates and divides are EERILY similar to the Christian debates and divides over the past 30 years. (I realize Christians have been debating/dividing longer, just referring to the recent ones)

  • sacredblasphemies

    It’s Santa CLAUS, not CLAUSE.

  • Robert Gonzalez

    “The best aspect of Christmas,” Ayn Rand once observed, is “that Christmas has been commercialized.” The gift buying “stimulates an enormous outpouring of ingenuity in the creation of products devoted to a single purpose: to give men pleasure. And the street decorations put up by departments stores and other institutions—the Christmas trees, the winking lights, the glittering colors—provide the city with a spectacular display, which only ‘commercial greed’ could afford to give us. One would have to be terribly depressed to resist the wonderful gaiety of that spectacle.”