Offended By "Merry Christmas?"

merry christmas
merry christmas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Austin Cline posted a question he received on his forums asking why some atheists seemed to be offended by someone saying "merry Christmas." At least for me, "offended" seems a bit strong. I'd prefer to use the term "annoyed" to describe how I feel upon hearing it. I only feel that way some of the time, depending on the circumstances. I do not take offense at hearing those words, and I haven't encountered an atheist who does.

What could be annoying about hearing someone wish me a merry Christmas? I sometimes find it annoying because it seems insensitive. The person making the statement is incorrectly assuming that I am Christian (a reflection of Christian privilege) or celebrate Christmas. I'm not, and I don't. They have not bothered to consider the potential impact of their words on persons with different beliefs. But since I encounter this sort of thing regularly here in Mississippi, I can't say I'm offended or surprised by it.

In these situations, I almost always assume good intentions on the part of the speaker. Instead of jumping to the conclusion that the speaker thinks everyone is Christian or that they don't care how their words might make me feel, I assume they are trying to be nice. Because of where I live, assuming that everyone is Christian means they will be right most of the time.

One of the many downsides of Christian privilege is that leads people to come across as insensitive much of the time. They don't consider how their statement may come across to someone who is Jewish, Muslim, atheist, etc. They assume everyone shares their beliefs and their enjoyment of their holiday. Their privilege facilitates this sort of ignorance, lack of empathy, or however else one might prefer to characterize it. In these situations, this could be an opportunity to help them learn to recognize that not everyone shares their beliefs.

In rare cases where the person saying "merry Christmas" knows I am an atheist who doesn't celebrate Christmas, my reaction will be less positive. This doesn't happen often, but I have experienced it. If it seems like they are using the phrase as a weapon or for political purposes, I'll be more annoyed by it. But even here, it is not what I'd consider offensive.

So like every other atheist I've encountered, I can't claim to be offended by hearing "merry Christmas." Most of the time, it is a positive expression and should be treated as such. When I find it annoying, that's because it reflects Christian privilege and a lack of sensitivity to others.