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There Really Is a War on Christmas -- It's Being Fought by Brave Atheists in the Heartland

There is a growing contingent of atheists from the American heartland who live surrounded by the faithful.

Photo Credit: © Steve Collender/


The Times Square billboard is not shy about its war on Christmas: “Keep the merry, dump the myth,” it reads, juxtaposing an image of jolly St. Nick with one of Christ’s agony on the cross. Sponsored by Cranford, N.J.-based American Atheists, the sign is funded in significant part by small-town nonbelievers nationwide.

“In New Jersey and the New York area, you don’t have as much of a feeling of oppression. We have a very diverse population,” says American Atheists managing director Amanda Knief, explaining the group’s backing in rural and small-town America. She points out that their 2010 national convention in Newark, which included an Easter Sunday trip to the American Museum of Natural History, attracted few local participants. By contrast, the 2011 850-person Des Moines gathering drew more than half of its attendees from inside the state. “It was the first opportunity in Iowa for people who were non-religious to come together. And it was the first time where it was safe to do so.”

Forget Hollywood and the Upper West Side. The angriest atheists are from the American heartland, where they live surrounded by the faithful. A 2007 Pew Research Center study found that 50 percent of rural atheists and agnostics see a “natural conflict between being a non-religious person and living in a society where most people are religious.” That’s 10 points higher than among their urban counterparts. Maybe Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly has been looking for the War on Christmas and its “secular progressive” leaders in all the wrong places.

“Here’s the bottom line: Where religion is weak, atheism is weak” in its intensity, says Pitzer sociologist Phil Zuckerman. “Where religion is strong, atheism is strong.” Zuckerman has found that people in Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden, among the world’s most profoundly nonreligious, generally eschew the “atheist” label and even marry in Lutheran churches. He labels the dominant attitude “benign indifference.”

“In small-town USA, people are much more likely to be anti-religious because they have religion thrown in their face all the time — prayers at little league, prayers at city council meetings, Nativity scenes and Ten Commandments billboards, preachers on the radio and TV, etc. — and their lack of religion is often associated with being immoral.”

But take out the conservative Christian dominance, he says, and “the natural default position of secularity is a mere indifference to religion.”

Indeed, most American atheists and agnostics are not hostile to religion as such, according to Pew’s October study on the growing number of religiously non-affiliated Americans. Most do disagree with the idea that churches “protect and strengthen morality,” and think that religions are “too focused on rules” and “too involved in politics.” But an overwhelming 73 percent credit churches for strengthening community bonds, and 74 percent say they play an important role in helping the poor.

What’s more, most American nonbelievers are not even atheists: while a fast-growing one-fifth of American adults, including one-third of adults under 30, now say they belong to no religious denomination, full-fledged atheists and agnostics make up just over a quarter of that number. Americans are by and large dropping out of religion, not taking up arms against it.

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This certainly seems true in Pennsylvania, one of the country’s most politically and culturally divided states. Or, as James Carville apocryphally phrased it, “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.” While nonreligious Philadelphians casually opt for brunch over church on Sunday mornings, the state’s conservative Christian middle has witnessed fierce battles over Christmas — fought out between neighbors.

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