“Serious atheists” shouldn’t celebrate Christmas?

Tom Flynn is infamous for being anti-Christmas.  It’s not just that he doesn’t believe in the supernatural bits.  It’s not just that he has decided not to celebrate any flavor of winter festival himself.  He doesn’t want me to, either.  And he’s kind of insulting about it.  In his recent interview on Point of Inquiry, he literally said, “if you’re a serious atheist and you know, you no longer worship the babe, sooner or later you let go of the bathwater, and that’s what I did.”

He argues that we’re propping up Christianity because grade school kids from Hindu and Buddhist backgrounds identify even secular Xmas stuff like Frosty the Snowman as Christian.  I see what he’s saying in a way, but Christianity is very intertwined with Western culture, and I can’t see how I would expunge every characteristic about me that says “Christian” to people from other cultures.  Most of these features peg me as Christian all year long, not just in December.  My name for instance – that “C-H-R-I-S-T” right at the beginning is a dead giveaway.  Also my complexion and eye color, my language, and my place of residence.  I’d be willing to bet that an awful lot of the population of Earth would call me Christian, without inquiring into my actual religious beliefs.  So what?  I’m reminded of the joke about Northern Ireland: “Are you a Protestant or a Catholic atheist?”  When you come from a part of the world that was known for quite a while as “Christendom,” people will often assume you’re Christian whether you celebrate Christmas or not.

I don’t believe in Jesus, but Christmas is part of my family tradition, and it’s a great excuse to party, give and get gifts, eat and drink with abandon, and lounge around not doing work.  What’s not to like?  Also, I don’t have to be scared that The Great Dragon is consuming the sun to give a little cheer for longer days, returning warmth, and the sun moving upward in the sky, so it doesn’t stab me in the retinas when I drive to the Y in the morning.  (Though perhaps I shouldn’t go the YMCA, since it might be perceived as supporting the Christian social hegemony.)

I don’t really understand Flynn’s particular hate for Christmas either.  I also celebrate Thanksgiving, though its origins are decidedly Christian.  I love Halloween, which wouldn’t exist without All Saints’ Day.  Like most people, any celebrating I do during Mardi Gras is totally unrelated to getting in some last partying before Lent.  If I lived in Thailand, I’d probably participate in Loi Krathong celebrations; in India, Diwali, and so on.  Parties are fun.  No further justification required.

Flynn also objects that celebrating the winter solstice is somehow incompatible with a global society.  I’m totally puzzled by this argument.  He says non-believers shouldn’t try to build any alternate celebrations around the winter solstice, because it’s only relevant in the northern hemisphere (the southern then experiencing the summer solstice, while areas around the equator experience no significant differences in weather or daylight hours in any case).  This seems like a non-sequitur.  Why does any particular celebration have to apply to every person on the planet?  Should we also hesitate to call Memorial Day the beginning of summer, and refrain from hitting the beach because it’s winter in Australia?  Is it OK to celebrate the 4th of July, given it only applies to the United States?

I would understand most of his argument if it was an answer to someone saying he should celebrate Christmas.  It doesn’t speak to him, he has no particular reason to give it special meaning, and he chooses not to partake.  No problem.  But the implication that somehow I’m not a Real True Atheist because I do celebrate it definitely rubs me the wrong way.  I’d like to read his book, The Trouble with Christmas, but I’m not coughing up $80 for it, so for now I’ll just give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the best.  He was speaking extemporaneously, and describing his inner thought process, so maybe he just meant, “I thought to myself, ‘Hey, if you’re an atheist, why are you celebrating the birth of Christ?'” and meant only to refer to his internal debate, not to comment on the sincerity or thoughtfulness of other non-believers.

If so, it’s cool.  More fruitcake for me.

About Christine

I'm a full-time mother to two kids, an ex-lawyer, a breastfeeding counselor, a skeptic, and (to steal a phase from Penn & Teller) a "science cheerleader." You can reach me through my Facebook page.

Posted on December 20, 2011, in Religion and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. One possible correction, Halloween might still exist if it were not for All Saint’s Day as it stems from the Druid/pagan celebrations of Samhain.

    That said, I agree with about the Winter Solstice, a celebration doesn’t have to apply to the rest of the world for it to be meaningful to you. Otherwise, why would we bother celebrating birthdays?

    I’m sorry but his rant makes him sound less intelligent than he probably is and rather, well, scroogish. I wonder if there is any day in his book that is work celebrating.

  2. I don’t think Jesus was a god, but I celebrate his birthday… just as I celebrate Martin Luther King’s: to remember someone who made a difference in the world. Twinkly lights and candy canes are a nice part of that December celebration, and I wouldn’t object to decorating, singing or sweets for MLK Day either.

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