Several responses to one of my recent Saturday A.I.s have me thinking again about something that seems to come up every year around this time: the debate over whether or not atheists and other non-christians should celebrate Christmas. Some within the community believe that it is wrong or hypocritical to participate in a celebration rooted in a belief system to which they do not ascribe.
Tom Flynn, of the Center for Inquiry, one of the leading voices on the anti- side of this discussion, has written a book on the topic. He also appeared on the Point of Inquiry podcast a while back to discuss his personal war on Christmas. It’s a few years old, but still relevant and worth a listen.
Flynn’s argument, which appears to be shared by some of our readers, is a highly idealistic one, based on the idea that by going along with the holiday as it is, or even by celebrating an alternative holiday (Festivus, Newtonmas, Kwanzaa, etc.) a person helps to perpetuate a society in which Christianity is seen as the norm, and fundamentalism is tolerated. He views his refusal to participate as an act of consciousness raising. He hopes that letting people know that he doesn’t celebrate will reduce the arrogance he perceives in society’s insistence that everyone take part.
While I can understand the logic of this position, I personally don’t see anything wrong with nonbelievers and non Christians celebrating Christmas. As much as a certain cable news network would like to disagree, Christmas really is a largely secular holiday. Yes, the story of the birth of Christ remains at the core for many people, but the traditions and culture surrounding the holiday is about much more than that. Many of the things we value during the winter season come from deep in our history; much farther back than the mythology of Christianity and the decision to co-opt this time of year as Jesus’ Birthday Party. I think, at least for those of us who live in places where midwinter days are very short and the weather cold and snowy, the holidays are a gleaming oasis of good food and togetherness with family and friends that helps get us through the winter. I think it would be a little bit silly to give all that up because I don’t believe the same things about it that most people do.
To the point of consciousness raising, well, this country is becoming very religiously diverse, and as more and more people meet and get to know others who do not share their beliefs, this is happening naturally. Yes, refusing to celebrate, and making your refusal known is going to turn heads, but most people’s reaction is much more likely to be
What a Scrooge!
Wow, I didn’t realize that not everyone was Christian like me. Maybe I should stop saying “Merry Christmas”.
In my opinion, you don’t win people to your cause by making yourself an alien. My philosophy is that people are more likely to respect your beliefs and listen to what you have to say if you show them that they can relate to you; that you are a regular person just like they are. Because of this, I think it is good to share in cultural holiday celebrations, especially ones like Christmas whose mainstream face is largely secular. Plus, how can an excuse to drink be a bad thing (if such a thing were really necessary)?
So no, I’m not fighting a war on Christmas. I choose to celebrate with my (very religious) family, show them that my life is full and happy without religion, and try not to pull punches in the inevitable discussions of such matters. In my opinion, the message these actions sends to my family is much more effective than simply erasing myself from their lives and the things they value. As far as the general public, well, as more and more people come out about their nonbelief, many families around the country are having similar consciousness raising experiences about the ubiquity of their particular belief system. Ever the pragmatist, I think this serves a much larger purpose in creating a more pluralistic and tolerant society, even if that society’s mainstream culture is still based in Christianity. Let’s face facts. Most people in this country are and will remain Christian. Christmas isn’t going anywhere, so why not raise a glass of eggnog and enjoy yourself?