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 editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.