Celebrating Holidays as an Atheist

By Raysa Everett, December 16, 2012

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

I have a confession to make: I’m an atheist and I love the Christmas season. Atheists who celebrate holidays such as Christmas are frequently maligned as hypocrites, but I do not agree. My nonreligious celebration of a traditionally religious holiday is no different from Americans celebrating Cinco de Mayo or Christians celebrating Easter and Christmas with traditions that come from the pagan religious rites that form the foundation of these holidays. Neither does it mean that I agree with Christmas or other holidays associated with religions being supported by the government. Christians can celebrate these holidays, pagan traditions and all, without being hypocrites because the pagan mythology means nothing to them. I celebrate Christmas in a nonreligious way without being a hypocrite because the Christian mythology no longer means anything to me.

Like most nonreligious or marginally religious people who celebrate Christmas, I enjoy the opportunity to spend time with my family and friends rather than focusing on the contradictory, un-historical legends of the virgin birth of a supposed deity.

I also enjoy some of the wonderful values espoused at this time of year, such as peace, joy, charity, and love. Some of you might consider these values to be intrinsically religious, but I do not find that to be the case. The biblical account of Jesus does include an angel saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests” (Luke 2:14, NIV). The operative phrase here is the limitation that peace and goodwill should be shown only to those who merit God’s favor.

However, humanity has largely rejected that limitation in word if not always in deed. Most people prefer to show peace and goodwill to all, regardless of religion, sexual orientation, gender, or race. This is an important step forward for all societies, and one cannot help but wonder why people have been able to improve on the more limited, divine sentiment found in this story.

This example demonstrates a much larger trend throughout the centuries since the books of the Bible were compiled by the Council of Nicea at the command of the Emperor Constantine in 325 CE: human values and ideals have gradually progressed through the centuries to become more humane, inclusive, and tolerant, despite scriptures advocating the opposite. For many, sexism, slavery, racism, witch-burning, holy wars, inquisitions, stonings, homophobia, and authoritarianism are no longer considered praiseworthy qualities despite their strong historical ties to Christianity and scriptural foundation (depending on one’s interpretation, of course).

Religious values tend to be tribalistic and exclusive. This means that such positive values were meant to be shown to an in-group, such as one’s own tribe, culture, or fellow believers. Historically, this is not an unusual circumstance as Christianity is joined in this exclusive tendency by most religions in the world. Only more recently in the Modern Era have humanist ideals of inclusiveness softened the tribalistic tendencies of many religions.

Certainly I do not mean to say that these religions are, or were, entirely inwardly focused, since proselytizing has always been an integral component of Christianity. However, one must not confuse the desire to grow one’s in-group with the desire to include other out-groups in one’s circle of compassion, tolerance, and acceptance. We must distinguish between an isolationist exclusivity that does not permit outsiders to become insiders (not inclusive at all), and an expansionist exclusivity that welcomes outsiders once they prove their willingness to follow the rules of the in-group (a highly conditional, limited form of inclusivity). Christianity has historically belonged to the latter, including those who follow the rules and agree to specific doctrines and excluding those who do not, though some modern, liberal denominations have begun to adopt highly inclusive approaches.

However, one must ask whether these trends toward inclusiveness are the result of a return to the fundamental values of Christian scriptures, progress due to newer or “better” divine revelations, or progress due to the influence of a more progressive surrounding culture. Historically, the traditional interpretations of scripture have never lead to more inclusive, tolerant values; the Bible bears the marks of the troubled periods of history in which its disparate and conflictive accounts were written.

Remarkably, new realizations, interpretations, or divine revelations about faith systems seem to occur well after such improvements in values have happened in the surrounding culture. Advances in humanist values that become widely accepted in society have eventually forced religious groups to accept such advances in order to stay relevant. Explaining ethical advances as products of culture rather than religion certainly explains why religion frequently begins on the conservative, traditionalist side of such advances, as well as why religious people, despite having nearly identical beliefs, find themselves on both sides of many issues. They reach their conclusion on such issues not through scriptural study, but rather through cultural influences. These cultural influences can exert positive and negative pressures, as history has shown all too well.

This Christmas, don’t limit your ideals. Follow the trend toward inclusive, humanist values and show peace and goodwill to all, regardless of your differences or disagreements.

Raysa Everett is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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