A Humanist Reflects on the Meaning of the Holiday Season (Published in Globe and Mail Jan 2008)

December 22, 2009

Originally published in the Globe and Mail Online January 4, 2008

This was part of an online panel that includes jewish, muslim, and christian reps.  To reach each panelist's remarks as well as public comment and Q & A, go here

Humanists hold an ambivalence regarding this season.  Like mostly everyone, we value generosity, altruism and fellowship, and emphasize the need to celebrate in a secular sense with friends and family, with good food and drinks, with songs and even decoration.

We see nothing wrong with adapting religious holidays to secular festivities, considering that Christmas is almost entirely a loose adaptation of various formerly pagan rituals. We also appreciate the sense of reinvigoration when we crack open brand-new calendars and behold the unwritten future.  But humanists see no intrinsic value to the holiday season apart from any we humans put in it, and worry that if we over-emphasize specific days and rituals, we fail to put the holiday in its proper historical, political and sociological context.

We must realize how differently the season is celebrated by the human family depending on where and when you are.  This not only provides us a valuable lesson in diversity but reminds us that while celebrating with our local family, there is a global family that needs our support, one to which we are related through the bonds of evolution.

Through a deep understanding of common descent and common humanity, humanist groups — like our friends in religious institutions — host many social and community support programs both locally and internationally, including food drives and blood clinics.
Humanists value self-reflection but are concerned if it is only taken seriously once a year.  Since most of us are atheists, an afterlife is out, so we must make the most of every day or at least pause for self-reflection following significant life events, rather than on arbitrary calendar dates.

Speaking personally now, my reflections revolve around the powerful symbols and metaphors afforded by the New Year.  As the Earth completes another revolution around the Sun, it is an ideal time to reflect on our place in the cosmos in a physical and philosophical sense.  It is an opportunity to reflect on how our knowledge of those big questions has advanced over the last year, thanks to scientific and critical inquiry.

The metaphor of a single year is often used to communicate vast time in science.  The astronomer Carl Sagan famously used a Cosmic Calendar in which 15 billion years of cosmic evolution was scaled down to a single year. Here, events can be put in context. The Big Bang takes place on New Year's Day. Our solar system is not born until Rosh Hashanah in mid September. Modern humans do not evolve until six minutes before the next New Year's Eve countdown.  Scaling down the evolution of life on Earth to a single year, we find single-celled organisms dominating the planet until Thanksgiving and dinosaurs not leaving until Christmas Day.  This is worth pondering.

Humanists see all beliefs as tentative and open to revision in the light of new information — a view we wish was more commonly embraced. Humanists value self-reflection over self-deception.  As our knowledge expands through discoveries made by other humans, it is an opportunity to think of what we discovered being wrong about this year. The Edge Annual question for 2008, part of the Third Culture, a forum for creating a culture of science, was "How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?" asked of the world's leading scientists and thinkers.

It is interesting — given the attributes of hubris and arrogance often attributed to scientists, and in particular atheists — to see people like the New Atheists Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett freely and even enthusiastically admitting to an important area of their own thinking in which they were fundamentally mistaken. 

I think we could all benefit from such an activity, no less than once a year.  The emphasis on New Year and end-of-year holidays stems from the remarkable discovery made by the ancients that there is regularity to the cycle of seasons and to life and the universe.  This crucial understanding of orderliness made through human faculties and now honed by scientific inquiry perhaps makes these holidays the perfect celebration of human reason.