Chris Stedman has done a good job advocating for atheists recently, which made his opinion piece for CNN this Saturday all the more disappointing. What did he do with his opportunity to speak to a national media audience? He told Dave Silverman and American Atheists to stop waging their War on Christmas. Specifically, he objected to this ad, which ran in Times Square in New York City this month:
Stedman gives several reasons for his suggestion, and even aside from the fact that I oppose limiting our types of activism on principle, I disagree with them all. Let’s start with his basic statement of the “problem”.
In recent years, one organization, American Atheists, has claimed the mantle of prime atheist promoter of the tired “War on Christmas” narrative.
Not exactly. David Silverman said once, regarding the 2010 “You KNOW it’s a Myth” billboard campaign, ”
If they want a war on Christmas, we’re going to make sure they know what one looks like.” Comments elsewhere suggest that statement was limited to that campaign. Even after saying that, however, Silverman denied that his purpose was to attack Christmas.
The ones who are saying, “You can’t say ‘happy holidays’. You have to say ‘merry Christmas’, because this is our season – this is the Christmas season.” Well, it’s not the Christmas season, it’s the solstice season. And that’s why it’s not a war on Christmas. It’s a war on the solstice, and the Christians started it.
Otherwise, Silverman has been very consistent in describing the purpose of these billboards. In 2010, he said, “The intent here is not to convert Christians. The intent here is to get atheists going through the motions and pretending to be religious to stop, come out of the closet, and be honest with themselves.” This year:
We know that a large population of ‘Christians’ are actually atheists who feel trapped in their family’s religion. If you know god is a myth, you do not have to lie and call yourself ‘Christian’ in order to have a festive holiday season. You can be merry without the myth, and indeed, you should.
This idea has been in every speech I’ve seen Silverman give. He brought it up when I interviewed him for Atheists Talk. He said it again in the profile Stedman linked in the CNN piece. There are millions of non-believers in America who identify as anything but atheists. He wants them to identify as atheists.
This is nothing like promoting the War on Christmas, which is (these days) the idea that Christians aren’t allowed to say, “Merry Christmas”. This ad is saying that Christmas itself is secular, which appears to be true for a third or more of the people who celebrate it. I did a whole radio show about celebrating as atheists last year, asking people to tell me about their unholy holidays.
Stedman’s view on that sort of thing?
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.”
Nope. That would be a better billboard if the idea is to suggest that we atheists are alone in the dark this time of year. It would be a better billboard if someone wanted to send the message that you have a choice between religion and taking part in Christmas. Me? I celebrate Christmas. I have all my life, and I’ve never been a Christian. Saying that I’m an atheist is not the same thing as saying I don’t celebrate.
The beautiful thing about this billboard is how accurate it is. The Puritans were dead right to reject Christmas as a non-Christian holiday. Do people include Christ in their Christmas celebrations? Yes. Does Christ need to be part of those celebrations for those people? Only to the same extent that Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph, or Hermey and the Bumble are needed. That is, without those elements, Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas for some people, while others are perfectly content with different signifiers (not to mention those who feel no desire for any of it).
For me, it’s not “really” Christmas without Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and snow, both in four-part harmony and on the ground. Nonetheless, I had a good Christmas this year without ever quite finding the time for the movie. Maybe I’ll watch it this weekend. Maybe I won’t, and the family and friends and food and giving will be enough for the next year. After all, White Christmas may define my holiday, but when it comes down to it, there is so much more that makes it what it is. Nor am I alone in this.
“But”, I hear someone arguing, “those are characters from a movie.” Yes, they are. And Christ is a character from a book, or multiple characters from a book, depending on how you view contradictions between the gospels. And it is all right to say so. Despite what some people will tell you, voicing your opinions on the topic of Christmas is not an attack. Nobody has to order their holiday to their liking any more than you have to order yours to theirs.
This brings me to my strongest point of disagreement with Stedman.
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.
First of all, I don’t care what Bill O’Reilly thinks of me. I don’t grant him the status of someone whose opinion of me I should allow to affect my self-image. I’m not sure why any other atheist would, or why anyone would allow his opinion to affect their view of another atheist. It’s his job to dislike atheists. He is, quite literally, a pro at it. If it weren’t these billboards, he’d be making hay of solstice services or equal time for atheist and humanist displays at town halls and state capitols. Frankly, I’d rather have it be these billboards.
Why? Because Stedman’s view of how visible we atheists are is skewed. That’s not terribly surprising. Stedman put out a book about his beliefs this year. He’s tied to one of the largest humanist groups in the country, in an area dominated by nonbelievers and very liberal believers, at an institution that doesn’t get ignored. He has a column that’s distributed through a religion news service. He can talk about atheism for CNN if he so desires. Everywhere he looks, he has people helping him get his words out.
My perspective is a bit different. While I have a strong platform at Freethought Blogs and on Atheists Talk, both of those put me in regular contact with people working very hard to be heard. The atheist who turns down a radio appearance, even on a small show like ours, is rare. The number of atheist authors I talk to who haven’t come across common debates within organized atheism is large. We don’t even have the media penetration we need to effectively influence each other. We’ve made progress in getting our views out there, but to generalize from Stedman would be a big mistake.
This was driven home once again this past Sunday. I was interviewing Sarah Morehead of Recovering from Religion about some of the difficulties atheists face over the holidays. She said two things that made me think about this article. The first was predictable: Atheists and others questioning their faith need the most help this time of year. That’s true for most people. The combination of high expectations and family conflict are not easy to deal with. People leaving the religion of their parents, then spending time with them when religion is considered to be highly relevant, simply adds one more stressor.
It was what she told me when we were talking about the kind of calls Recovering from Religion receives, though, that was heartbreaking. Do you know what the most common thing they hear is? “I thought I was the only one. I thought I was alone.” Still. Now. A decade into this atheism boom, despite the vastness of atheist internet, people still think they’re the only atheist out there.
Some of that is our tendency to associate atheism with being smart and educated, with white collars and universities and science. Our “spokespeople” don’t look a lot like the bulk of atheists, so it’s easy for blue collar or rural or less educated atheists to think they’re on their own.
A big part of it, however, is that there are broad swaths of religious people in the U.S. who restrict their worlds in order to hang onto their political and religious beliefs. Anti-anti-theists like to point out that plenty of religious people in the U.S. are not fundamentalists. This is true. However, it is also true that plenty still are. The current Pew data shows evangelical Protestants at 26% of our population. They’re not all fundamentalists or isolationists, but a large chunk of them are, and they’re very hard for most of us to reach.
They are also the major audience for Fox News. This makes the relationship between American Atheists and Fox News not just “mutually beneficial” as Stedman notes (leaving out that Fox would not have invited Stedman onto the network if they thought it was bad for them), but also beneficial for atheists and people questioning their faiths in repressive, authoritarian families and religions. Putting atheists on Fox News regularly is a service to those atheists who have it hardest in our society.
That is particularly true for an atheist like David Silverman. If I had it in my power, I’d resurrect Christopher Hitchens in order to stick him on Fox every month or two, but since I can’t, I can’t think of anyone better suited to the role than Silverman.
That probably seems counter-intuitive, but it’s still true. If people, particularly children, in authoritarian traditions are going to be exposed to just one atheist, I want it to be someone confrontational enough, someone staking out strong-enough positions that I want to quibble with them. (And yes, I have quibbles with the American Atheists’ press release on these billboards.) I want people to see someone arguing with Bill O’Reilly and the rest in strong terms–contradicting them, outraging them, shocking and angering them.
Then I want them to see that same person invited back again. And again. I want them to come across pictures of everyone smiling together once the cameras are off. I want them to sense that there’s a relationship there that includes grudging respect alongside all the disagreement.
I want all that because that is what gives people permission to disagree with others in their family or community of faith. It gives them permission to say what they believe, when everything and everyone around them tells them they must not. I want them to know that, even though people around them may say that an atheist like Silverman is doing the devil’s work, he’s respectable enough to keep hanging out with people they’re told are respectable.
The message that Silverman carries is one of the more extreme in movement atheism. It also reaches places a more liberal, friendlier, more accommodating, more soothing message about atheism can’t go–because it is more extreme. It carries a stronger lesson about the ability to survive disagreement–because it is more extreme. That makes it an effective message for reaching atheists who don’t identify as atheists, particularly those otherwise underserved by our organizations.
So count me a fan of this strategy.
Stedman is not a fan because this strategy doesn’t suit his goals.
But does this relationship benefit atheists more broadly? Does it accurately represent the sentiments of nontheists in this country?
Maybe it doesn’t serve the majority of atheists. I’m okay with that if it meets the needs of a constituency that is otherwise left to fend on its own, as I’ve argued that it does. Not everybody has to be a crowd-pleaser when they’re doing good work.
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.?
I am not willing to improve atheist-theist relations at the cost of leaving other atheists trapped. I am not willing to suggest that atheists must spend all their time and attention and communications dealing with stigma and distrust that is not at all their fault.
Does it invite Christians to think critically about religious privilege?
I’m trying to remember the last billboard I saw that had the encouragement of critical thinking as a primary goal. This one, however, being animated, has more time and space for its message, and I think it uses it well. The simple reminder that there are many common elements to Christmas that are not religious provides at least an opportunity to think.
I’ll also note that this post of Stedman’s did nothing to invite Christians to think critically about religious privilege. Again, this is not something atheists have to spend all their time and attention and communications on.
Many atheists, myself included, suspect that there are more effective approaches to tackling these important issues.
No, that’s not sarcasm. I am genuinely happy that there are atheists who are interested in and motivated by these problems and solutions. Because I’m fundamentally a dilettante, I spend some of my energy on these things too.
However, I work hard to recognize as I do that I can spend time on these things because I’m fundamentally privileged, even as an atheist. My biggest problem as an atheist in the last year was (what I’m pretty sure was) a passive-aggressive “Merry Christmas” from an evangelical family connection. I smiled, returned the favor, and walked away. Then it was done. That pales in comparison to the treatment I’ve received as a feminist.
But that’s just me. Not every atheist is in my situation, and people working for atheists who don’t have it as easy as I do are doing important work. The last thing I want them to do is stop because it makes it harder for me to make my cushy atheism cushier.
Atheists didn’t start the War on Christmas. But as long as theocratic evangelicals and Catholics continue to insist that the last two months of the year belong to them and no one else, as long as they have the political and cultural sway to put those views across as the only acceptable views to a large portion of this country, as long as the only casualties are people whose television sets aren’t the soothing bigotry they wanted–I want to see us fight it. Otherwise, we’re giving too many people up for lost.