further than atheism - moving beyond rejection to find solid ground of our own Welcome to the latest installment of Further Than Atheism, a weekly column that explores the vast territory that lies beyond the mere disavowal of religion. As atheists, we share little but our disbelief. We often devote so much effort to defending this disbelief that we don't take the time to articulate what we do believe in. Further Than Atheism explores some of the many possibilities for positive belief that remain when gods are pushed out of the picture.

I once wanted to become an atheist, but I gave up. They have no holidays.
-- Henny Youngman

The holiday harangue

Every year about this time, atheists are faced with a frustrating dilemma. Religious folk get so pumped up for their holidays that they expect everyone else to participate along with them. With the sort of reasoning exhibited in A Christmas Carol and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, the religious are not content to live and let live, but insist that those who refuse to participate are selfish, wicked and ought to be ashamed of themselves. Christian holidays in particular get pushed onto everyone else, even in public schools, where children from all backgrounds are instructed in the observance of Christmas and Easter.

Atheists often react by abstaining. These atheists reject the concept holidays of completely, refusing to participate at all. Others choose to push back, denigrating the idea of holidays and pointing out the hypocrisy the self-righteous posing of religious celebrants. Still other atheists climb back in the religious closet during holidays, pretending that they're like everyone else to avoid making other people uncomfortable.

What is a holiday?

Many atheists feel that they must by definition be alienated from all holidays. After all, they reason, holidays are holy days and holiness is by its nature religious.

Well, it ain't necessarily so. The word "holy" can be used to refer to religion, but it has other meanings as well. One definition of "holy" is simply "worthy of adoration or veneration". To adore can mean to regard as divine, but it also can mean to express fervent admiration for. To venerate means merely to hold in high esteem. So, by its strict definition, although the word "holy" can include religious ideas, in itself it refers to an attitude that is larger than religion: respect.

Given that the doctrines and practices of the Christian holidays trivialize and insult people of outside the Christian tradition, it can be argued that these holidays are in fact unholy -- disrespectful. In reaction to Christian unholiness, atheists can join in the fray by engaging in acts of unholy disrespect for Christians and other religions. Alternatively, they can respond to unholiness with holiness, building their own holidays which emphasize respect.

Should atheists celebrate holidays?

The best approach to holiday harassment should probably be dictated by the immediate context. Where religionists are harsh atheists may be required to respond with harshness, critiquing the religious holidays. Confrontation about bigoted messages and religious efforts to limit the civil liberties of others can be especially effective during religious holidays, when the religious try to pretend that they are morally superior to others. Look back to last year's South Park Christmas Special and you'll see what I mean. Sure, there was plenty of scatological humor, but the emptiness and delusion of holiday specials was revealed in hilarious detail.

Whenever possible, I'd like to see atheists take the high ground. Atheists can work to resubvert the holidays, taking them back from the monotheistic fanatics who long ago stole them from the more ancient traditions. Holidays, as they were celebrated before being degraded by the simple-minded, had a purpose: to enable participants to reflect on the deep meaning that they find in different aspects of life. Seasonal holidays at harvest, winter solstice, spring equinox and summer solstice were particularly poignant. Atheists should be perfectly able to celebrate their own holidays in line with these cyclical events or on other significant days of their choosing.

As they celebrate life in their own ways, atheists will weaken the dominating hold of religious holidays in general society. Christian fundamentalists can't stand it when holidays other than their own gain widespread attention. They are disgusted with Kwanzaa. They can't stand generic greetings like "happy holidays". They absolutely hate Halloween.

There's good reason for religious extremists' intolerance of holidays other than their own. For every group that announces its own form of celebration, the idea that the holidays of one religion should be followed by all looks more and more ridiculous. As cultural minorities such as atheists call attention to their own holiday practices, the Christian holidays which dominated in the past will lose their special status. As time goes on, it will become clear that Christians are just like everyone else, one of many groups with its own peculiar ideas about the way that things ought to be. By celebrating holidays in our own way, atheists encourage society at large to become a more holy place, with respect for the rights of believers and non-believers alike.


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