As some readers know, I’m a longtime advocate of humanists, atheists, and other secular folks conspicuously sitting out that Christian observance of Jesus’s birthday that monopolizes the last six weeks of every year. I’m hardly the only one, but clearly “going Yule-free” is a minority stance among nonreligious Americans. From time to time, seculars who enjoy the holiday in whatever form – and who may resent my suggestions that by doing so, they might be harming our community – pose a question along the lines of, “But I like exchanging gifts with my loved ones. I like the decorations and the songs. Hell, I like eggnog. What evidence do you have that nonreligious people celebrating the holiday in some form is harmful?”
It’s a fair question, so here’s a fresh stab at an answer. Fair warning: my evidence is anecdotal, but that may be an unavoidable evil. Social scientists tend to avoid asking hard questions about what we do at Christmas-time – presumably getting known as a Grinch complicates the search for grants – so despite the scope and ubiquity of Christmas customs, phenomena from the Santa myth to the holiday’s impact on non-Christians have a way of being inadequately studied.
So here goes.
I’ve been an open atheist and humanist – and fielding Christians’ questions, from the curious to the hostile – for some 35 years now. The most popular questions, the ones that almost every Christian challenger throws at me, have changed remarkably little over those years. Here are the Big Three:
“If there’s no god, how did you/living things/the universe get here?”
“If there’s no hell, what keeps you from robbing/raping/killing to your heart’s content?”
“Without a supernatural order, isn’t your life drab and meaningless?”
It’s not uncommon for me to get asked those questions one after the other, most often in that order. If you’ve informally debated many Christians, I bet you’ve seen the same phenomenon. Then there’s a pesky fourth question, and I bet quite a few of you have experienced it as well. Question #4 comes out of nowhere, frequently after it dawns on my Christian challenger that he or she is facing a capable opponent. After I’ve scored some point I think is telling (or at least annoying), out comes the inevitable “gotcha” question:
“Oh, yeah? Well, what do you do on December 25th?”
The amazing thing is that over 35 years and a couple of hundred such conversations, those four questions have remained constant. They haven’t changed after the appearance of the New Atheists. They haven’t changed since pollsters reported that people with no religious preference made up twelve, then fifteen, then twenty-five percent of American adults. They seem to point to something abiding in the thinking of American Christians. Sooner or later, whenever my Christian challengers start feeling nervous, out will come “What do you do on Christmas?”
You should see their faces when I say, “I go to work.”
What follows usually unfolds as predictably as a kabuki performance:
Me: “I go to work.”
Christian: “I don’t believe you.”
Me: “I’ve been Yule-free since 1984. I’ve gone to the office whenever Christmas fell on a workday ever since. Look, I published a book about it …”
When I finally convince my Christian challenger that yes, Virginia, I genuinely spurn the holiday – every scrap of it, from the hot buttered rum to the rum-pum-pum-pum – something amazing happens. Ninety-five times out of a hundred, the challenger who’s been lobbing attacks at me and trying to score debating points stops, takes a deep breath … and opens up, at least for a time, to genuine dialogue. Curiosity replaces hostility – again, at least for a few minutes. It’s not uncommon that I’ll hear some variant of “Wow, I’ve finally met a real atheist. Don’t get me wrong, I’m saved and all. But I have some questions I’ve always wanted to ask someone like you.”
It doesn’t always happen. Still, in my confrontations with Christians I’ve experienced more real breakthroughs by answering the Christmas question with “I go to work” than anything else. Considered as a stratagem, no other statement I can make seems to work so well to pierce an argumentative Christian’s bluster and create a real, if brief, human connection marked by curiosity and a bit of openness.
In the void’s name, why?
Keep in mind, it’s not because everybody knows I don’t do Christmas. I’m only known as “the anti-Claus” in portions of the atheist and humanist community. And look again at that sample dialogue above: Most times, when I tell people I work on Christmas they disbelieve it. Vigorously. I have to convince them. (My book’s Amazon page is always helpful here.) But when I finally do convince them, many let down their shields for a while.
What does this tell us? It might be a sign that humanists and atheists who visibly celebrate the Solstice or, to whatever degree, Christmas itself are doing our community more harm than anyone – even I – anticipated.
To understand why, consider the way many, perhaps most, Christians are taught to think about atheism. A popular apologetic strategy to protect believers against unbelief is by depicting atheism as so arid, so bereft of elementary psychological comforts, that it’s actually not possible for human beings to embrace it in any genuine way. On this view, no normal person can truly accept a worldview in which the cosmos and human life are seen as unplanned accidents – and therefore, no normal person does. It follows from this that there actually are no atheists, or at least none who aren’t manifestly unhinged. From that it follows that if you’re a Christian and you encounter a decent-seeming person who claims to be an atheist, you can relax. That person is wrong, either misled or deluded. And from this follows a strategy: when you confront someone who claims to be an atheist, search for inconsistencies. Expect to find them, because any sane person who claims to be an atheist must be in error – well-balanced humans really cannot be atheists!
When I was a Catholic teenager, the nuns and priests fed me variants on this trope time after time. From years of conversation with former Protestants, it’s clear that trope is no less popular on that side of the ecclesiastical tracks. At root, it aims to inoculate the faithful against unbelief by conditioning them not to take the atheists and humanists they encounter seriously.
How does this bear on what secular folks do at Christmas? Consider how often Christian challengers seek to seize control of a debate by asking that “zinger” question, “What do you do on Christmas?” Then consider how world-rocking it so often is for a Christian challenger when I honestly answer, “I go to work.”
This leads me to a hypothesis: Many, many Chri
stians may be deriving enormous reassurance from presuming that the atheists and humanists they encounter need not be taken seriously – precisely because those atheists and humanists observe the Christian year-end holidays in some manner. That defensive question “What do you do on Christmas?” suggests that Christian challengers expect most humanists and atheists to reply with some shamefaced response like “Oh, my family puts up a tree and exchanges gifts” or “We don’t celebrate Christmas but we observe the Solstice (or HumanLight, or whatever) at around the same time, and so we take the 25th off.” Thus is the Christian silently reinforced in his or her beliefs, having exposed one more person who pretends to be an atheist or humanist, but isn’t. No, they can conclude, an atheist or humanist who can’t show enough backbone to push away from Jesus’s birthday table is weak-willed at best, a hypocrite at worst. The erroneous but powerful conviction, inculcated by generations of Christian apologetics, that no sane person can really be an atheist receives validation once again.
On this view, it makes sense that when a Christian challenger meets an atheist or humanist who spurns Christmas thoroughly and completely, that’s a Big Deal. Accustomed to wielding the “What do you on Christmas” question as an inconsistency detector, the challenger is suddenly confronted with a self-described atheist whose behavior is consistent with the challenger’s expectations. The very rhetorical maneuver that has (in the challenger’s view) exposed past atheist or humanist interlocutors as inconsistent, as hypocrites, as persons not to be taken seriously, has unmasked this atheist or humanist interlocutor as being … consistent. Not a hypocrite. Ulp – by irresistible logic – as someone to be taken very seriously indeed.
Perhaps that’s why answering the “Christmas question” as I do has so often elicited reactions like “Wow, you’re the first real atheist I ever met” and “You know, I have some questions I’ve always wanted to ask.” Perhaps that’s why answering that I go to the office on Christmas day has startled more of my Christian challengers into openness than any other verbal stratagem I’ve ever tested.
If that’s true, the vast majority of atheists and humanists who visibly keep the holiday in some form may be shooting themselves – and the movement – in the foot without knowing it, and on an enormous scale. Indeed, the apparent hypocrisy – for so it looks in Christians’ eyes – of unbelievers “getting into the holiday spirit” may be one of the largest single generators of negative impressions of those unbelievers among Christians. This could be a whole new reason why secular people would be best advised to steer clear of the Christians’ holiday season, one that never occurred to me when I wrote my 1993 polemic The Trouble with Christmas or in my subsequent Yule-busting.
Lest we forget, though their numbers are finally declining, Christians still compose a substantial majority of Americans. That doesn’t mean that we should hide our light of reason under a basket. Far from it, we have every reason to be who we are and be proud about it. But it does mean that we’re strategically foolish if we pretend that the opinions held among the Christian majority don’t matter.
At the end of this rather lengthy reflection, I’d suggest some tentative conclusions.
1) If you think Christmas is – or is becoming – so secular that its Christian roots no longer matter, think again. Whether you like it or not, most Americans are Christians and view the holiday very much as theirs. That’s not a historically valid position, since most of the things Americans do at Christmas is actually rooted in either pre-Christian paganism or post-Christian commercialism. Be that as it may, Christianity has managed to stack the cultural deck in such a way that every affirmation of the season, from the Yule log to Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, builds social credit for Christmas as a Christian festival. It may be our society’s largest “stolen valor” phenomenon. Today, as the numbers of churchgoers are dwindling, Christianity benefits more than ever from the accidental support it enjoys just because Christmas is so darned ubiquitous. We do not aid our own cause by contributing to that.
2) If you cherry-pick only the trappings you most enjoy for your holiday celebration, whatever you call it, and think that you’re thereby distancing your observance from the Christian one, recognize that most people who observe you will just see you as one more hanger-on upon Jesus’s birthday bandwagon. Despite your best intentions, your celebration will still contribute to the undeserved social credit Christianity accumulates each time it’s seen dominating the closing six weeks of yet another calendar year.
3) Finally, please recognize that if you identify yourself as an atheist or humanist who keeps Christmas in almost any form, you will be seen by many, many, many Christians as not really an atheist or humanist. You’ll be counted as one more datum proving that real human beings can’t be atheists or humanists, and that therefore Christians need not take the challenge represented by atheism and humanism seriously.
Even if unfairly, you’ll be dismissed by vast numbers of people as a hypocrite.
There are other reasons why traditional Christians have antipathy toward unbelievers, of course. The first three common questions I listed above touch on them. (Of course, the absurd calumny that nonreligious people are incapable of virtue leads the list.) But if I’m right, independently of all those other grounds for distrusting unbelievers, it may well be that we are encouraging Christians to think vastly less of us – in the language of marketing, generating tens or hundreds of millions of fresh negative impressions each year – by taking part in a year-end birthday festival that genuinely does belong to Christians more than it does to anyone else.
It’s a curious phenomenon: secular people go on “getting no respect” in American society despite the strong growth in our numbers, despite gradual declines in churchgoing, despite repeated scandals rocking the religion sector. Why? Imagine the irony if it turns out to be true that we atheists and humanists have been busy strewing obstacles across our own path, convincing our Christian counterparts over and over again that we are not to be taken seriously and not to be trusted – just because of how we conduct ourselves at other people’s holiday time.