Context: Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and editor of its flagship magazine Free Inquiry, wrote an essay and a book a few years back, arguing that no atheist should celebrate Christmas ever ever ever — yes, he uses the words “should” and “shouldn’t,” repeatedly. He’s opined about this topic many times, including comments (on Facebook and elsewhere) that atheists who do celebrate Christmas aren’t “real atheists,” are “hypocrites,” and are giving “aid and comfort to the enemy.” He doesn’t even approve of secular Solstice celebrations. In the last couple of weeks, Beth Presswood, of the Godless Bitches podcast and the Atheist Community of Austin, has been ripping him a new one about it on Facebook.
My overall angle on this is that every atheist has to find their own ways of coping with religion’s intrusion into everyday life. Some of us push back on it with everything we’ve got. Some of us are fine with secularized versions of religious traditions — sincere or mocking or both. Some of us are fine going along with religious traditions. And many of us mix and match: pushing back against some religious incursions, accepting or creating secularized versions of others, going along with still others. I have zero problem with this. I’m finding my own way of handling Christmas, a balance of festivity, mockery, tradition, and resistance that works for me, and it does not trouble me in the slightest that other people are more traditional about it, while others are more oppositional, or are simply not interested.
I was thinking about this, and it occurred to me:
Oh. There’s a social justice angle to this.
Yes, different atheists have different ways of handling religion and its intrusions into everyday life. There are lots of reasons for that. But one of the big ones is: How much do they rely on a social support system that’s structured around religion? Are they in a culture or subculture or family that’s very religious? Would refusing to participate in traditions like Christmas — traditions that are religious, or semi-religious, or quasi-religious, or secularized religious — mean alienating people they can’t afford to alienate, for practical reasons or emotional ones? Would refusing to participate mean isolating themselves from the continuity that people get from traditions, the sense of connection to something larger?
And certain forms of marginalization can play into this.
African-Americans are more likely to have deeply religious families and communities, who they can’t afford to alienate or simply don’t want to. Poor people are more likely to have deeply religious families and communities, who they can’t afford to alienate or simply don’t want to. For women, the social costs of disconnecting from family traditions are often greater than they are for men, since the job of perpetuating these traditions is commonly seen as women’s work. Many LGBT people, who have been cut off from their families, find much-needed practical and emotional support in LGBT-friendly churches or other religions, and a much-needed sense of continuity and connection.
So insisting that no true atheist would celebrate Christmas is pretty damn insensitive to the different realities of different atheists — black atheists, poor atheists, women atheists, LGBT atheists, any atheists in other marginalized groups — who are more dependent on religious structures, or whose lives are just more intertwined with religious people.
Atheists with other forms of marginalization are often treated as traitors to their race, their gender, their culture. Why on earth would we want to pile onto that from the other side? Many black atheists already get a bellyful of, “You’re not really black.” It’s messed-up to pile onto that with, “You’re not really an atheist.”