In a post from yesterday, my esteemed colleague David Koepsell, one of my predecessors as executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, suggests that he is doing more than I am to give Kirk Cameron nightmares. (Actually, I try to contemplate Kirk Cameron’s sleeping problems as little as possible.) David good-naturedly suggests that by keeping a more-or-less traditional Christmas with zero religious or supernatural content, he and his thoroughly secular family are doing more to undermine Christianity’s role in the culture than I am when I urge atheists, humanists, and freethinkers to spurn the Christians’ birthday festival altogether. I respectfully disagree. Equally respectfully, I hope, I would warn David that his chosen path carries a very real risk of being co-opted, and of inadvertently helping Christianity to achieve the best future it can hope for in a world that’s secularizing out from under it.
Where I think David and I would agree is that we live at a moment of unprecedented possibility. Across the world – even in the relatively benighted United States – younger people are turning their backs on religion at astonishing rates. It’s becoming possible, perhaps as never before, to dream of an eventual cultural defeat of Christianity by the forces of reason.
Not that I expect this any time terribly soon, but if it occurred, what might we expect victory over Christianity to look like? At the least, I think we could expect the following:
1) Most people would not assent to Christian dogmas, and in fact would no longer consider them worthy of serious attention.
2) Most people would no longer attend Christian churches.
3) Most people would not observe Christian customs and traditions.
It’s worth noting that across much of the developed world outside of the United States, Goals 1) and 2) are already being achieved. Goal 3) is more questionable, in part because of honest disagreements among freethinkers about what achieving that goal might mean.
Activists from David Koepsell to Matt Dillahunty (and that’s covering a lot of ground) have suggested that the best path is to keep on observing the trappings of traditional Christmas, but to do so in conspicuously non-religious ways until the holiday’s trappings no longer seem Christian in the eyes of the larger culture. In other words, keep on observing the traditions but reframe them as non-Christian. I’m not sure that’s possible. In my 1993 book The Trouble with Christmas I wrote of “the paradox of Christmas”: though very little of what people do at Christmas time, even in church, is uniquely or authentically Christian, the whole crazy-quilt fabric of the holiday gets invested with a Christian aura. So powerful is this effect that even manifestly non-Christian elements, from the Yule log to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, wind up functioning as emblems of Christianity’s hegemony over the closing weeks of each calendar year. (Devout but non-Christian newcomers to the U. S. – adults and children, from a variety of religious backgrounds – consistently identify pagan and post-Christian holiday symbols with Christianity and see them as a threat to their own religious identities.) I’m just skeptical that we can continue observing these traditions while repurposing them away from Christianity – at least, with any confidence that the rest of the culture will understand accurately what we’re up to.
To me, the more effective course is to reject Christianity root and branch, to be highly visible rejecting its holidays just as clearly as we reject its supernatural doctrines.
If I were doing high strategy for Christianity, and if I were looking out at the unprecedented degree of secularization that genuinely seems to be sweeping the world, I might start thinking about a cynical “Plan B” in which I conceded that my church would lose its believers and their souls (if they had such), but in the worst scenario could still hang on to the appearance that it remained more influential in the culture than it was. If I were thinking along those lines, I would start searching for ways to entice seculars into doing … um … just what well-meaning folks from Koepsell to Dillahunty are doing now – rejecting the doctrines and the churches, but working like mad to shore up the dying faith’s traditions.
I’m no fan of conspiracy theories. I don’t think someone at the Vatican or wherever has explicitly articulated such a Plan B. I think most of the many atheists and humanists selecting the “keep the traditions, drop the faith” strategy are doing so spontaneously and mean well in doing it. But at the end of the day, being co-opted is being co-opted, whether your adversary schemed to bring it about or you accidentally did it to yourself.
By choosing to maintain the pleasant traditions of a religion they no longer believe in, many atheists, freethinkers, and “nones” may inadvertently grant to Christianity the only victory it can truly hope for in the long term: the right to continue claiming that it controls large portions of the cultural agenda. A culture where few believe in God and few go to church – but most people still keep Christmas – is a culture that retains an important place, if a shallow one, for Christianity. One day, we in the community of reason may have the opportunity to deny Christianity even that hollow victory. But to do that, we shall need to muster the fortitude to turn away from the piñata, the tannenbaum, the solstice, the wassail bowl, the midnight Mass, and the holiday table. Our agenda should be to press toward a future where most people no more practice Christian traditions than they assent to Christian theology.
That’s the future that, I submit, would do more than any other to wreck Kirk Cameron’s sleep.