What’s Wrong with HumanLight / the Winter Solstice?

December 13, 2012

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, has posted a blog endorsing HumanLight, a Winter Solstice observance invented a bit more than a decade ago by a local humanist group in New Jersey then led by the late Joe Fox. Perhaps that's an appropriate action for Roy, whose organization has a history of being friendlier toward religious humanists than the Council for Secular Humanism. But I couldn't resist leaving a secular humanist rejoinder as a comment to Roy's post. Here it is, below:

Here's why I think truly secular humanists should steer clear of HumanLight, or any other observance tied to the winter solstice. First, celebrations of the winter solstice have deep roots in a spectrum of European pagan traditions. Atheists, humanists, and freethinkers aren't just not Christian, they respectfully reject all religions, living and dead. As I say in my book "The Trouble with Christmas," "If we are not Christians, we are not pagans either."

Secondly, it devalues our commitment to a clear-eyed, rational understanding of science when we attach quasi-mystical significance to what is actually a thoroughly mundane astronomical event. Yes, after the solstice the days will get longer. South of the equator, they'll get shorter. So what?

Third, the winter solstice is an inappropriate focus for celebration by a movement that presents itself as global, since the solstice's nature corresponds to its mythology only in the temperate zone of the northern hemisphere; in the tropics the solstice is meaningless, while in the south temperate zone it is a harbinger of the coming winter!

Fourth, keeping the solstice devalues the very real human achievement in using science and technology to build a civiization in which -- for many of us, at least -- winter's cold and bluster is an inconvenience, not an existential threat.

Fifth, nonreligious people make themselves disappear when they cling to a "me too" holiday so as not to be seen with nothing special to do towards the end of December. We'd further increase our visibility by ignoring the holiday and pressing our employers to leave the office open on December 25.

Sixth, as seen through our front windows from a passing car, a household keeping HumanLight is indistinguishable from one keeping Christmas. By keeping a "me-too" holiday we contribute to a toxic conviction among Christian conservatives that their faith still exerts unchallenged dominance over the culture at "holiday time."

Other than that I have no objection to it.

Tom Flynn, editor, FREE INQUIRY


#1 slowe on Thursday December 13, 2012 at 7:50am

Chances are, in the USA, that we will never get removed the official Federal Holiday of Christmas and all the hooopla that accompanies it.  So, might we not just hold our noses and have ourselves a party? Invite our religious friends and expressily avoid any angels, prayers, mangers, etc.

#2 John (Guest) on Thursday December 13, 2012 at 8:21am

Glad you posted this, the point is important and we should be careful about how and when we celebrate secular events.  I liked your bit about us not being Christians OR Pagans.  That said, some of us celebrate science by celebrating (not worshipping) natural events such as the solstice.  Your mundane astronomical event isn’t so mundane to all of us.  Like many I suffer through the dark days of northern hemispheric winter, fighting off the bleakness it induces in my thinking and moods.  Why not have a party to celebrate the days growing longer and the abatement of my seasonal disorder?  Thanks to science I know why my cognitive state shifts for a good part of the year.

Also, as slowe said we’re never going to lose Christmas as a federal holiday, and why not have a party to show the believers of he world that we’re not a bunch of antisocial bah humbugs?  When atheists are still fighting for basic acceptance in this country, why not try to build some bridges and have a good time?  Absent the mangers and druidic incantations of course.

#3 Dennis Griebenow (Guest) on Thursday December 13, 2012 at 8:30am

Thanks Tom for posting this.  You are so right We act like wanna-be’s and to all watching we don’t look any different than those who celebrate for religious reasons.  Thanks again.
Dennis Griebenow

#4 Santa (Guest) on Thursday December 13, 2012 at 11:03am

You better watch out, you better not cheer, you better not shout, because Scrooge is here. Tom Flynn says you should settle down. He’s making a list, and checking it twice, thinks your solstice jubilee’s not nice. Tom Flynn says you should settle down. He doesn’t like your dancing, he frowns at your lights, he scowls when you’re irrational, so none of that nonsense for secular sake! O! You better watch out, you better not cheer, you better not shout, because Scrooge is here. Tom Flynn says you should settle down. Tom Flynn says you should settle down.

#5 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Thursday December 13, 2012 at 11:53am

Tom, if you’re really effing dumb enough to suggest passing up a holiday day off just because it’s based on somebody else’s religion, you’re effing dumb indeed.

Second, given that in northern Europe/US/Canada, today, millions of people suffer from SAD, there’s good secular reason to celebrate the solstice, or near to it.

No wonder many people still laugh at too many atheists.

#6 PatNJ on Thursday December 13, 2012 at 12:03pm

Tom:  I read your column opposing the HumanLight holiday with great interest.  There’s only one major problem with it. You apparently do not understand at all what HumanLight is.  This is rather surprising to me.  I have been deeply involved in developing and promoting the holiday for 12 years, and I can tell you it most definitely is NOT a Solstice celebration.  Also, it is entirely non-theistic and secular.  It does your readers a great disservice to have HumanLight “denounced” in such a completely baseless way.  I would encourage people to check the website humanlight.org and the “HumanLight” Facebook group to learn about what the holiday really is. It is not a religious or solstice holiday.

#7 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Thursday December 13, 2012 at 12:11pm


What’s dumb about passing up a holiday because it’s based on somebody else’s religion? When was the last time you took Rosh Hashanah off (assuming you’re not Jewish)? When’s the last time you took off the last day of Ramadan (assuming you’re not Muslim)? People work through other folks’ religious holidays on a regular basis. I just wish more humanists/atheists would ignore the Christians’ birthday festival.

FWIW, if passing up someone else’s religious holiday is effing dumb, I must be really effing stupid, because I’ve been coming to work on December 25 when it falls during the work week since, um, 1984.

As regards SAD sufferers, the solstice does offer the promise of relief to millions ... in the north temperate zone and higher latitudes. But as I noted in my original post, humanism holds itself out as a global commitment. The same winter solstice that heralds the end of feelings of depression for SAD sufferers north of the equator heralds the beginning of a fresh round of anguish for those living south of the tropics. If human welfare is the index of our celebrating, then the solstice is, at best, a wash ... unless we’re willing to identify ourselves as a bunch of northern chauvinists, that is!

—Tom Flynn

#8 Jason Loxton (Guest) on Thursday December 13, 2012 at 12:18pm


I completely agree that HumanLight is not a worthwhile project, but for very different reasons: 1) it is pretentious (like ‘Bright’), and 2) we’ve already got a perfectly good winter holiday for atheists and humanists: Christmas.

I know your views are long-standing and unlikely to change, but they still baffle me. I grew up celebrating Christmas as almost everyone in North America does: as an essentially non-religious holiday about celebrating family. I still celebrate it exactly like that, and so do all of my friends and family (the vast majority of who are atheists). I live in a town full of beautiful lights, I have just been to several lovely Christmas parties (where we ate seasonal foods and danced to fiddle next to a very pretty tree), and tonight I am going to watch my friends (gay and straight, religious and not) sing in a choir. Next week I am driving home to visit family, and we’ll spend Christmas Eve observing the event with my partner’s Polish grandparents, according to Polish tradition, and on Christmas I will make a big turkey and we’ll all open presents, watch specials, and listen to Frosty the Snowman.

I simply don’t understand how I or anyone I know would be better of if we didn’t have the holiday and didn’t do these things?

This seems to have little to do with reason, and a lot to do with bah humbug! : )

#9 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Thursday December 13, 2012 at 12:18pm


Hi, long time no see! HumanLight is not explicitly religious (except as it traffics in solstice imagery with deep pagan roots, see below), and I’m familiar with the claims that it is not strictly speaking a solstice observance. I simply find those claims unconvincing. A holiday that’s scheduled on or near the shortest day of the year and that builds most of its symbolic vocabulary on light (and much of its decorative vocabulary on candles) is hard to accept as anything other than a solstice celebration, with all the pre-Christian religious and mythological baggage that implies. Judging from some of the commenters who’ve remarked on the holiday’s significance to SAD sufferers, I’m not the only one who finds HumanLight’s roots in the Solstice impossible to ignore.


#10 PatNJ on Thursday December 13, 2012 at 12:19pm

addendum to my comments above:
Dr. Paul Kurtz, (the great humanist leader and founder of CFI, CSH), attended and spoke at the very first HumanLight celebration in 2001 in NJ. And he returned again in 2010 to celebrate in NJ as the guest speaker at another HumanLight party.  I just thought CFI readers might like to know that Paul Kurtz apparently had a different view than Tom Flynn on this issue.

#11 Jason Loxton (Guest) on Thursday December 13, 2012 at 12:25pm

A quick clarification: I think HumanLight isn’t a worthwhile project in terms to shifting celebration away from Christmas, but sure bet it is a lot of fun for all those, like PatNJ, who dig it. All the power to ‘em!

#12 Gretchen Kurtz (Guest) on Thursday December 13, 2012 at 1:06pm

It is people like Tom Flynn who make secular humanists look bad. This is absurd but not shocking coming from such a negative and mean-spirited person. Paul’s many followers, will carry on his mission and legacy of taking a positive approach to celebrating the solstice and other celebrations with grace and dignity. It was his vision that began CFI organizations that unworthy people like you have taken over without having any real world vision or intellect. Paul’s willingness to only see the best in others was a great quality, except for allowing people like you holding any powerful roles. Without Paul, you certainly would not be where you are today.

#13 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Thursday December 13, 2012 at 3:00pm

One can celebrate the spirit of science, humanism and the solistice all at once. I’m working on a “Person X is the Reason for the Season” post at my blog, in fact. Hit Socratic Gadfly on Dec. 21.

And, I’ve got it, on the “get bosses to keep us at work on Dec. 25.” We need an extra day of making money for Ron Lindsay’s would be rich donors.

#14 Randy (Guest) on Thursday December 13, 2012 at 3:16pm

To your points:
1. I don’t care what the roots are.  Science has some roots in religion.

2. “So what?”  Even at roughly 45°N, the dark days can be depressing.  It’s good to have a celebration on or about the darkest one.

3. This is an interesting point.  Still, I think the few thousand inhabitants and visitors of Arctic communities like Alert, Resolute, Dikson, Longyearbyen, Nord, and Qaanaaq, are likely to enjoy the celebration perhaps even more so if it may be in the middle of a civil or even nautical polar night.  As for the southern hemisphere, all the more reason to celebrate the summer solstice.  And we in the north need not be left out.  In North America, it would kick off two weeks of celebrations (which already happen) including many cities’ Pride Day, and culminating in Canada Day and Independence Day.

4. It’s a party, dude.  If having a few beers “devalues the very real human achievement”, then I say down with humans.

5. I see your point.  But consider that when pretty much everyone is “me too”-ing already, and having a blast doing it, we need not be party poopers.  I think if we want to stand out more, we can always celebrate something else in a noticeably different time of the year, like Darwin Day (not prescribing this for anyone, just an example).  Non-Christian religious groups do this all the time, and are respected for it, even as they also celebrate our common winter holiday.  As for working on Dec. 25, I think it would be resented, not for religious reasons, but because for the kinds of work where that is an option, there wouldn’t be any work.  People you depend on wouldn’t be there.  Customers wouldn’t be there.

6. This is 5 restated.

I’ll be celebrating Festivus, because a holiday based on a TV show is about as good as any other idea, and it’s easier to set up the decoration.  I imagine you’d approve of my lack of lights.

#15 F. Bacon (Guest) on Friday December 14, 2012 at 5:54am

As a freethinker, I reject the dogma that tells me I should not celebrate solstice. I got rid of all the angels and creches and holy night songs. Only slightly similar to Russians who give gifts near that time of year, I continue that tradition.

#16 PatNJ on Friday December 14, 2012 at 9:52am

in response To Tom FLynn’s comment #9 above, this will be my last comment in reply:

I urge readers to please find out for yourself what HumanLight is all about and what it means. go to the humanlight.org website and/or the ‘HumanLight’ Facebook group and read about it. Mr. Flynn’s column/comments are a gross misunderstanding of the Humanlight holiday.  I am speaking as one with very deep and long term knowledge of this holiday and its founders. I can assure you all it is NOT a solstice celebration. It’s a non-theistic, humanist-oriented celebration and expression of the positive, secular human values or reason, compassion, humanity and hope for a better future.
Flynn’s claims that he knows what HumanLight is REALLY all about is absurd and has no basis in reality, I’m sorry to say.  HumanLight is a holiday based on secular human values, meaning and hopes and aspirations. 
Or, as it was once described on CNN, in a slightly trite but funny way: “It’s the atheist’s alternative to Christmas and Hannukah”. 

Trying to tag HumanLight as a solstice holiday is in fact quite ironic, since many humanist and freethought groups and individuals have already been celebrating the solstice (in a non-pagan way) for many years/decades before HumanLight was created in 2001. HumanLight is actually an authentically meaningful, humanity-based, alternative to such solstice celebrations, as well as the other religious holidays.

#17 Kelly (Guest) on Friday December 14, 2012 at 9:52am

I think successful visibility in any movement requires people across the spectrum of belief within the movement doing their thing within the groups they’re comfortable. We should encourage rational reflection of reasons for observing celebrations while respecting that each person in the movement has a good rationale for their participation or non-participation in a given event.

We should also encourage people to be as open as possible with others at such events about their secular beliefs, the importance of rational inquiry, etc. Yet, we need to respect that everyone is on a different path developmentally with regard to their beliefs, and everyone experiences a different degree of safety in expressing their beliefs.

There is strength in diversity, and we need to celebrate the diversity within the movement—especially in difficult times of year like this.

#18 Thaumas Themelios (Guest) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 9:52pm

Tom, seeing some of the comments against your post prompted me to make this comment in response.

I thoroughly enjoyed your post. It put the uneasy and somewhat disappointed feelings I’ve had about recent promotions of HumanLight into words I hadn’t been able to come up with myself.

Each point you made had me thinking, “Yes, exactly!” and I literally ‘laughed out loud’ upon reading, “Other than that I have no objection to it.” Yes! That is exactly right. I bear no ill will towards anyone who wants to celebrate HumanLight. I just have no interest in doing so myself, and I think it is misguided and/or superfluous, so I also have no interest in supporting it or promoting it myself. But for those who like it, I have no real objection to that. They’re free to spend their time however they like.

I think you make a good point that the connection to Christmas/solstice is unavoidable, and in that respect it reminds me of the problem with the term ‘the brights’, which—if you read the original intentions of Mynga and Futrell—is a genuinely well-intentioned idea ... if you can avoid the obvious implication that those who aren’t ‘brights’ are ‘dims’ ... which you can’t. Unfortunately. But you can’t, not really. No matter how well-intentioned you genuinely are.

I think most of the negative response you got (and will likely continue to get) was/will be from the genuinely well-intentioned. On the other hand, at least one in this thread was—and some in the future may possibly be—just plain old trolling. Nevertheless, there will be many folks on the sidelines in agreement, even if we don’t always pop in to say so.

Anyways, thanks for the post. Cheers!

#19 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Thursday December 20, 2012 at 2:21pm

Related, and also purely rhetorical ...

Tom, will you refuse to eat kosher food, simply because it’s been killed in a certain style for religious reasons?

Do you refuse to say Gesundheit because it derives from superstition? Etc., etc.

#20 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Friday December 21, 2012 at 7:33am

Hi SocraticGadfly,

Purely rhetorical, but also good questions. Yes, I do try to avoid kosher, halal, and other foods specially prepared in accord with religious rituals. If I’m in the grocery store and I have a choice between two food products, one marked kosher and one not, I’ll go for the “secular” one. OTOH I like bagels and deli, so I’m sure I’ve eaten my share of kosher incidentally and unknowingly. (I guess that’s where the “rhetorical” comes in.) And yes, I do avoid saying “Gesundheit”—and certainly “God bless you!”—when someone sneezes. On the rare occasions when my silence after someone else’s sneeze draws a hurt stare, I smile and say “May the void shower warm happenstance on you.”

#21 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Friday December 21, 2012 at 8:34am

Geez, Tom ... I’ll bet you’re self-denying enough to not listen to Messiah or Mozart’s Requiem, either. Sounds kind of narrow or shallow. (Though it does give me material for another blog post.)

Speaking of, Laplace is “the reason for the season,” and a good reason for secularists to celebrate: socraticgadfly DOT blogspot DOT com/2012/12/laplace-is-reason-for-season DOT html

#22 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Friday December 21, 2012 at 11:00am

OK, getting more facetious, but perhaps not. Rather than days of the week named after Norse gods, and months named in part after members of the Roman pantheon, Tom, do you use the Reign of Terror’s calendar?

#23 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Friday December 21, 2012 at 11:23am

As I’ve written elsewhere, I got kind of psyched for the French Republican calendar when Madalyn O’Hair tried to bring it back in American Atheist magazine some years ago. (Happy first of Ventose, by the way.) But it would be seriously deficient for adoption today. For one thing, it has the same problem as a calendar that the Winter Solstice has as a holiday: it’s not applicable to today’s global society. The month names are tied to the climate in the northern temperate zones. For example, the current month, Ventose, means “snowy.” One of the summer months is Fructidor, which means “fruitful.” Good luck getting the folks in Rio to embrace that!

So the Republican calendar is a nonstarter today. But yes, I’d look favorably on a similar wholly secular, rationalizing reform of the calendar undertaken today, in conformance with such contemporary requirements as being equally applicable anywhere on the globe.

Of course, that leaves aside the issue of getting any new calendar widely adopted!

#24 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Friday December 21, 2012 at 11:42am

CORRECTION! I meant Nivose, not Ventose. This is (by most reckoning) the first of Ventose.

#25 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Monday December 24, 2012 at 5:28pm

Actually, per Wiki, “Ventose” means windy and “Nivose” means snowy ... which, per the correction, assuming you meant to say “first of Ventose,” makes sense.

Beyond that, the Soviet Union’s calendar still kept Xn names for days of the week: en DOT wikipedia DOT org/wiki/Soviet_calendar

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