December 19, 2014

Coping Tips for Atheists at Christmas

Christmas lights on Aleksanterinkatu
Christmas lights on Aleksanterinkatu. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
With travel, winter weather, crowds, and crass commercialism, the holiday season can be a stressful time for anyone. Many atheists face additional pressures this time of year related to being members of an often despised minority group living in religious countries. Christian privilege is almost impossible to miss this time of year, and church-state violations are plentiful. We may feel bombarded by superstition everywhere we go, and we may be pushed to participate in religious rituals. Christians who know we are atheists are fond of telling us that we have no business celebrating their holidays or using the occasions as opportunities to proselytize. As we gather with friends and family, we often find ourselves coming in contact with people who are unaware that we are atheists and/or relish the opportunity to express some bigotry toward atheists.

The nature of the challenges atheists face depend on many things, including one's age, how open one has been about identifying oneself as an atheist, one's comfort explaining atheism to others, the willingness of one's family to use coercive tactics to gain compliance, and the degree of religiosity present in one's family. The most difficult years for me were those close to the point in time when I first realized that I was an atheist. I was still living in my parents' home, compelled to attend church against my will, and guilted into concealing my atheism from extended family. At the time, it felt like I was being compelled to betray my values in some fairly important ways. To say that this ruined much of the time around Christmas for me would be accurate. And while it has not always been easy since, it has certainly been easier as I have grown older and gained control over which traditions I observe and which I do not.

The primary piece of advice I would give to an atheist bracing for holiday pressures today, especially for younger atheists who are still facing some coercion, would be to be patient. I know it sucks right now, but you have many years in front of you and only one family-of-origin (some of you will have your own families to look forward to down the road). Let your family have their holiday traditions, even though they may strike you as absurd. This probably isn't the time to try to change them. Enjoy the parts you can enjoy and realize that you will be able to do things differently soon enough. This is a temporary inconvenience, and it will pass.

If you feel, as I did, that you are being put in a position of betraying your values through compulsory church attendance, prayer, and the like, I suggest that you try to adopt the role of an observer. They cannot read your mind, and you do not need to feel guilty for what you are thinking. Utilize your imagination and ability to dissociate to mentally step outside the experience. Look at your surroundings as an anthropologist might study a less developed society. Observe what you can about the superstitious rituals taking place around you, withholding comment for another time. You aren't there to intervene; you are collecting data and learning what you can.

I suspect that there are some things about the winter holidays that most of us enjoy. Growing up, I always looked forward to seeing the out-of-town friends and relatives, even if some did wear out their welcome quickly. I loved the cold weather and the remote possibility of snow. I fondly remember the smells coming from the kitchen even though I wasn't a fan of much of the food itself. And even though you'll find no decorations of any kind at my house today, I do sometimes enjoy seeing the tacky Christmas lights of my neighbors. Find the few small things you enjoy and try to appreciate them. You do not have to let the religious ruin any of these things for you. You have an equal claim to them all.

Finally, if you reach the point where you really need a break from the relatives, get on Twitter and connect with other atheists. Share what you are going through and seek support. There are many other atheists who will be able to relate to what you describe and who may have some useful suggestions for how to handle some of it. Above all, remember that you are not alone.
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