December 16, 2017

The Secularization of Christmas Marches On

christmas tree 2004In many ways, Christians have to be credited with contributing to the secularization of Christmas. The more they have pushed to have their religious symbols adorn government buildings, the more they have opened the door to having to share the space with other religions (and with those of us who are not religious). The more they have insisted on "Merry Christmas," the more they have highlighted the problems associated with Christian privilege and led many to prefer "happy holidays." And of course, many Christians have fully embraced the sort of consumer culture that has effectively stripped Christmas of whatever religious significance it might have once held.

Cathy Lynn Grossman wrote a post at Religion News Service in which she reports on some recent evidence that the secularization of Christmas is continuing in the U.S. According to Grossman, a recent study by the Pew Research Center shows that Christmas remains popular, with 9 in 10 adults celebrating it. No real surprise there. What's interesting about the Pew study is that it suggests that there has been a shift away from Christmas as centering around the Jesus story.

According to Grossman,
Just three years ago, 51 percent of U.S. adults said Christmas for them is more a religious holiday than a cultural one. But that has slipped to 46 percent...
It isn't a big change, but it is interesting to see that a majority of U.S. adults now regard Christmas as more of a cultural holiday than a religious one. That is not something I would have predicted. Even more surprising is that Grossman notes that only 32% of those surveyed by Pew indicated that they had any problem with this secularization.
President Trump’s demand that Americans all say “Merry Christmas,” which drew cheers at his rallies, now draws shrugs from most U.S. adults: 52 percent say it doesn’t matter how they are greeted in stores and businesses, and 32 percent say they prefer to hear “Merry Christmas.”
So much for the "war on Christmas" being anything more than a lucrative fundraiser for conservatives.

The most fascinating part of Grossman's post involved some digging into the results of the Pew survey to highlight some of the changes in the number of U.S. adults who report believing central aspects of the Nativity story. Comparing data from 2014 to 2017, she notes that there was a decline in the percentage surveyed who reported believing the story. Overall, 65% reported believing all four key components of the story in 2014 compared with 57% in 2017. While it is disappointing to read that more than 65% of U.S. adults continue to believe things like "Jesus was born to a virgin" or "An angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds," I suppose we can still view this as evidence of progress because the percentage of adults believing each of these things is less in 2017 than it was in 2014.

Before we atheists begin over-interpreting the Pew findings, it is important to highlight what Grossman says about the U.S. adults with no religious identification (i.e., the "nones").
And the narrative doesn’t fly with most “nones” – people who claim no religious identification: 53 percent reject all four elements, up from 42 percent in 2014.
Again and again, I see atheists making the mistake of assuming that the "nones" are atheists. If I understand what Grossman is saying here, it sounds like only 53% of these "nones" reject the Nativity story. That would mean that as many as 47% of them believe it. So clearly, many "nones" are probably not atheists.

The good news here is that the number of U.S. adults who believe the biblical Nativity story is declining. It is not declining as quickly as most of us would like, but it is declining. The not-so-good news is that lack of religious identification cannot be equated with atheism, skepticism, or anything else that might lead one to abandon false beliefs in exchange for reason. And the really bad news is that many evangelical fundamentalist Christians see reports like this as an invitation to proselytize to all you heathens.