Should Atheists Celebrate Christmas? The Social Justice Angle

Reprinting this from last year. I think it may become a holiday tradition.

why-believe-in-a-god-santa-bus-ad
I’ve been thinking about the question of atheists and Christmas, or other religious holidays that get secularized and folded into cultures and subcultures. And I’ve been realizing that there’s a social justice angle.

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. He’s not alone: lots of atheists are very vocal, not only about the fact that they personally don’t celebrate Christmas, but about their disapproval of any other atheist who does. Every year around this time of year, Beth Presswood, of the Godless Bitches podcast and the Atheist Community of Austin, rips these folks a new one about it on Facebook.

My overall angle on this question is that every atheist has to find their own ways of coping with religion’s intrusion into everyday life. This is true for every other marginalized group, who has to find ways of dealing with the dominant culture, and it’s true for us. 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. (Side note: If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, and you think you’d enjoy a festively blasphemous atheist holiday party, come to the Godless Perverts Holiday Fun Time at Borderlands Cafe on Dec. 12!)

So I was thinking about all this, and it occurred to me:

Oh. There’s a social justice angle.

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 seriously messed-up to pile onto that with, “You’re not really an atheist.”

Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPG
Coming Out Atheist
Bending
why are you atheists so angry
Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

{advertisement}
Should Atheists Celebrate Christmas? The Social Justice Angle
{advertisement}
The Orbit is (STILL!) a defendant in a SLAPP suit! Help defend freedom of speech, click here to find out more and donate!

12 thoughts on “Should Atheists Celebrate Christmas? The Social Justice Angle

  1. 1

    I am an atheist, I am not marginalized in any way and I celebrate xmas. I don’t ever think of the religious connotations … it is just a time to relax.

    Besides, I have TONS of xmas lights and beautiful German glass ornaments .. when am I supposed to enjoy these? My favourite is a translucent hummingbird that catches the light in the most remarkable way. Should I crush it under my boot heel to make Tom Flynn happy?

    Look, if you like xmas, celebrate it and ignore douchey trolls like Tom Flynn.

  2. 3

    I don’t do Xmas.
    Largely because when growing up I noticed it was mainly “woman’s work”.

    I do understand your point about not wanting to cut off financial/social/emotional support/connections.

  3. 4

    I don’t agree with pushing around other people, atheists or not, about whether they celebrate Christmas, or whatever other near winter solstice holiday. And I think Tom Flynn’s implication, that theists would stop accusing atheists of hypocrisy, or whatever, if only atheists stopped celebrating Christmas, is absurd. I don’t believe most theists actually care about hypocrisy as a principle. It’s only important to them when they can portray their enemies as violating it, accurately or not. And I don’t agree that an atheist celebrating Christmas is necessarily hypocrisy.

    However – if I’m not actually living with family or friends, I avoid celebrating Christmas. I don’t care for socially pressured gift giving. And I really dislike the fact that most people of above average income use Christmas gift giving as an opportunity to shame everyone less well off than them.

  4. 5

    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 seriously messed-up to pile onto that with, “You’re not really an atheist.”

    That pretty much exactly sums up my feelings whenever anyone uses the term “dictionary athiest” as a pejorative.

  5. 6

    Yes, Christmas in my family has always been a time of getting those big purchases for family that someone really needs but can’t afford on their own. For someone in the family. We would need to replace it somehow if we stopped celebrating Christmas.

  6. 7

    I see Christmas as a completely secular, cultural set of customs: seriously, where is the religion in how the vast majority of Americans observe it? When it is cold, dark and sloppy wet outside, I’m happy for the excuse to have hot cider and good food with friends and family.

    And ain’t it funny, how Tom Flynn sounds EXACTLY like the Puritans who outlawed all Christmas celebrations in New England for almost two centuries.

  7. 8

    We can hold events on Thursday or Friday without being Odinists. There is SOME point in acknowledging how the religious aspect of Xmas gets to tag along with the generic winter holiday. But Flynn just sounds persnickety about it.

    Secular Jews with ‘Hanukkah bushes’ in the living room may be better secularists than Flynn. NOT being constrained or controlled by bogus traditions is sort of the idea, isn’t it?

  8. 9

    I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and I’m not Irish. I celebrate Valentine’s Day whether I’m partnered or not (because yay candy!). I celebrate Halloween with zero regard for its relationship to All Souls Day. Honestly, most of the stuff that I like best about Christmas has nothing to do with religion and instead dates back to its pagan roots. I think secularized holidays are a lovely tradition and I’m going to do my best to keep them alive. Especially if it makes Flynn unhappy 😀

  9. 10

    Maybe Flynn’s still in his ‘angry asshole atheist’ stage.

    I remember being one and finding Christmas to be ridiculous and silly and ew and I’ll never celebrate it again, thanks. Nowadays, I’m more like “I don’t celebrate any winter holiday, BUT I SWEAR I’M NOT AN ASSHOLE ABOUT IT. DO WHATEVER YOU WANT, NAME IT WHATEVER YOU WANT, GOOD FOR YOU, PLEASE DON’T HATE ME.”

    I don’t know, I’m black and I remember those big celebrations and church visits (and Christmas speeches), but I’m fairly neutral about this particular holiday. I don’t hate it, I don’t love it, so I just don’t really bother with it.

    It really makes getting along with other atheists much easier. Flynn should try it.

  10. 11

    I love christmas. I celebrate the heck out of it. And yes, I love all the “women’s work” associated with christmas: baking cookies, crafting gifts and ornaments, cooking a big dinner.
    I’m from an atheist family and christmas was never a religious holiday for us anyway. Last year, my oldest daughter became aware that we’Re not “like other people” because we’re not christian and she asked why we still celebrate christmas.
    “Because we like it” was more than safisfying as an answer for her.
    And if you’Re desperately trying to take away something others find great enjoyment in that doesn’t really cause any harm just tomake a point, you’re an asshole.

  11. 12

    […] “Should Atheists Celebrate Christmas? The Social Justice Angle“–“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?” […]

Comments are closed.