December 23, 2012

Secular Alternatives to Christmas

CandleOne of the things I find most tiring about this time of year is the shock, dismay, and even condemnation I face every time someone assumes that I celebrate Christmas and I have to explain that I do not. Given the large numbers of Christians I encounter online insisting that atheists should not be allowed to celebrate Christmas, one might think that at least they would be thrilled when I inform them that I do not celebrate it in any way. Even if this information might appease a few, it seems to upset many more. Worse still are the reactions of some atheists to hearing that one of their own does not celebrate Christmas. I've addressed how defensive some atheists seem to be about their desire to celebrate Christmas previously and do not need to repeat that here. Instead, I'd like to address the suggestion I've heard that atheists should create alternatives to Christmas.

Atheist Christmas

I'll start with a brief summary of my thoughts on Christmas and the subject of atheists celebrating Christmas. First, despite its origins and the manner in which it has been secularized, I consider Christmas to be a religious (i.e., Christian) holiday in the U.S. For most people living in the U.S., Christmas is a religious holiday, and I see no reason to challenge this. Of course, this does not mean that atheists cannot celebrate Christmas without any religious components. After all, this is exactly what most atheists who celebrate Christmas seem to do. I see no problem with this whatsoever.

Second, the fact that I consider Christmas to be a religious holiday has no bearing on my lack of interest in celebrating it. That is, I do not skip Christmas because of its religious connotations. I skip it because it has no meaning for me, and I derive no pleasure from it other than that which is associated from a day off work.

Third, I have no opinion on whether other atheists should celebrate or observe Christmas. I recognize that many atheists enjoy Christmas, and I think that's great. If they enjoy it, they should feel free to celebrate it non-defensively. I also suspect that there are at least a few atheists like me out there who treat it as if it were any other day. That's great too.

Finally, I have to admit that I find the creation of secular alternatives to Christmas a bit silly. This does not mean that I oppose them or think that you shouldn't enjoy them; it only means I have no interest in participating in them. I find them no more or less appealing than Christmas.

HumanLight

Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, wrote a post promoting something called HumanLight, a secular holiday I've never heard of that he'd like us to celebrate each year on December 23. This certainly was not the first alternative to Christmas that has been proposed, and it will not be the last.

Speckhardt suggests that the manner in which an atheist arrived at atheism predicts how he or she approaches the holiday season.
Unfortunately, most of these holidays also have deep religious connections. And depending on how nontheists came to exclude an intervening god from their worldview, some would rather forget those religious connections, and others even find them to be unpalatable.
He goes on to describe various pathways to atheism and then suggests that those who became atheists suddenly as a result of being harmed by religion may have "…an animosity toward religion that makes participating in religious rituals unpleasant…" He might be right. There are also those of us who became atheists gradually and simply do not have any interest in such holidays, but we do not seem to be on Speckhardt's radar.

Where Speckhardt loses me is his suggestion that we need some sort of atheist alternative to Christmas "that avoids unnecessary dogma and rigid rituals." Isn't this how most atheists who celebrate Christmas do so? Of those of you who do celebrate Christmas, how many of you do it with a whole lot of dogma and religious rituals? My guess is that almost none of you do this. So why would you need an alternative holiday? Why not just keep celebrating Christmas free from religion like you are now?

Speckhardt seems to think that we need some sort of excuse to celebrate something in late December, and I have to disagree with him here. I do not need an occasion or an excuse to reflect on anything or to "strengthen the connections we share with other human beings." I do not need a holiday to remember to be civil to others. I'd prefer to celebrate meaningful achievements over random dates. And for those who want a holiday to celebrate, they already have one.

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