Who Are Our Bedfellows?

December 24, 2008

You can get a pretty good pie fight going even among secular humanists by comparing attitudes on the holidays. Me, I’ve been Yule-free for 24 years now, and I’ve been emphatic in praising initiatives to tone down holiday symbolism in public places as America grows more diverse. I was the one you heard cheering when all the holiday finery was briefly removed from Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport two years ago. And I’ve been raising the same cheers for UNC-Chapel Hill, where the main libraries opted not to display their Christmas trees in deference to the campus’s growing non-Christian population. I’m all for this sort of reform, and I hope (and expect) to see lots more in future years. I recognize that’s a controversial position among humanists, quite a few of whom view stuff like this as political correctness run amok. “Why waste effort being concerned with non-Christians taking offense at Christmas?” they say. “The holiday’s so secular it hardly even serves as an emblem of Christianity anymore.”

I’m not so sure. In my book The Trouble with Christmas (full disclosure: it makes an excellent holiday gift!) I note the “paradox of Christmas”: Though very few of the things we do at Xmas time are uniquely Christian—hell, probably 95% of the modern holiday’s elements are either pre-Christian (pagan) or post-Christian (commercial)—nonetheless the little Christian sliver at the holiday’s core manages to throw a Christian aura around the whole festival. Call it guilt by association if you must. But in practice, it means that all the symbols of the holiday, even Santa, Rudolf, or Frosty, take on a Christian frisson just by being part of this cultural juggernaut that’s also, kinda sorta, about the birth of a mythical savior. Americans from Jewish or Christian backgrounds (which includes many atheists and humanists) know very well which symbols have secular roots and which don’t. So it’s easy for us to overlook how different everything can appear to immigrants, foreign students, and others who hail from non-Judaeo-Christian cultures. Their skills at playing our “sacred or secular” game may vary widely ... with the result that to many of them, a Christmas tree is just as effective as a nativity scene in providing an uncomfortable reminder of Christianity’s unjust dominance in this culture. I urge nonreligious Americans whatever their background to recognize this, and to press hard for turning down the voltage on all kinds of Yuletide displays in public.

The other reason to think twice about declaring that Xmas is already too secular to fret over is ... think who that places you alongside. Over the last couple of years I’ve lost count of how many conservative pundits have pounded the table over the “sad, sad” way Christmas has lost its Christian essence. Most times, they use this a platform for a “Keep Christ in Christmas” message. Other times, they argue that because the holiday’s Christian identity is already so muddled, nobody ought to get upset about a holiday display on the courthouse steps. Any time secular humanists find themselves making the same argument as theocon windbags, they might want to take a hard look at the argument they’re making.



#1 Teamonger on Wednesday December 24, 2008 at 11:49am

On one level I agree with Tom, but for different reasons.  I find many holiday displays overly garish and shallow, and wish they would be toned down. 

But campaigning for their removal on the basis of fearing that “little Christian sliver” does nothing good for the promotion of secularism; just makes us look like grinches who want to expunge every vestige of religion.  Patient education achieves far more in the long run.

#2 bill archer (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2008 at 2:05pm

Keep poking the vast balloon of human delusion Tom. Too many are invested in the culture of rituals to want to change anything. It’s that comfortable worn out slipper attitude that keeps science and religion warmly snuggled in place.

When a real and actually contentious issue arises, like human survival is at stake because it’s getting difficult to breath and all are feeling the physical symptoms, science will get into full gear in response to cries for help to solve the problem. Until then it’s silliness as usual.

#3 Westender (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2008 at 2:53pm

I disagree with you as well, Tom. It doesn’t make sense to change an entire country’s traditions to avoid the risk of making a few foreign students and visitors uncomfortable. Heck, who do they think they are? We can continue to enjoy the holiday as a secular tradition; they’ll get over it. Also, I disagree that ...“all the symbols of the holiday, even Santa, Rudolf, or Frosty, take on a Christian frisson…” I’ve never sensed that and suspect that few have. Finally, we shouldn’t take or avoid a position simply because it parallels one taken by our traditional opponents. Let’s make decisions based on the merits of the issue. Happy Holdays!

#4 Tom W. Flynn on Thursday December 25, 2008 at 5:35am

Westender’s post merits a quick 3-point reply.

“Heck, who do they [non-Judaeo-Christian visitors] think they are?” My guess? They think they’re people entitled to that fair treatment and inclusiveness toward all regardless of creed that Americans so frequently boast about but don’t always deliver.

“I disagree that ...‘all the symbols of the holiday, even Santa, Rudolf, or Frosty, take on a Christian frisson…’ I’ve never sensed that and suspect that few have.” If Westender has a lifelong familiarity with American concepts of what is sacred and what is secular, I imagine he never HAS sensed that. But that’s my point: it takes work to put yourself in the mindset of the “other” here and see how practices we understand and view as harmless can look quite different from another perspective.

“Finally, we shouldn’t take or avoid a position simply because it parallels one taken by our traditional opponents. Let’s make decisions based on the merits of the issue.” I couldn’t agree more. But ... if one has made an error in judging the merits of a given issue, one powerful way to recognize that is to notice that one stands on the barricades alongside people whose judgments one ordinarily distrusts. “Why am I standing alongside these jerks?” should never substitute for critical thinking, but it can sometimes be a useful goad toward critical RE-thinking.

Happy just another day, one and all!

#5 Westender (Guest) on Friday December 26, 2008 at 7:12am

All right, a rejoinder to the rejoinder… Because visitors to our shores think they’re entitled to something doesn’t mean that they are. If we, the host nation, have misled them (and I don’t concede that we have to the extent you believe, or that visitors take any national boast as seriously as you do), then the error is in the boast, not in the failure to live up to it. Second, I agree that it takes work to get in the mindset of the visitors. More important, though, is that visitors ought to work hard to get in the mindset of their hosts. When I lived in Germany, I was horrified one morning when I was surrounded by the women in the office who cut off my new tie. Apparently it was a day of tradition when women could off the tie of any man ignorant enough to wear one. Did I demand that the German nation cease this odd tradition so as not to insult visitors like me? Heck no. I learned quickly and the next year I wore an old tie and joined in the fun. Visitors to our shores should do no less in doing their part to blend in. On the final point, I think we’re in agreement. Critical rethinking never hurts. There should be no expectation that a course correction automatically follows, though. Logical analysis should prevail regardless of what the bloke next to us thinks. So, happy Boxing Day, Tom. To-day, I’m going to enjoy our left overs…

#6 Terry Price (Guest) on Monday December 29, 2008 at 1:20pm

Next year I am so giving out copies of “The Trouble With Christmas”.

#7 Gerry Dantone (Guest) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 at 9:08am

Congratulations to Tom Flynn on being named Exec. Director of the CSH!

#8 randee on Tuesday December 30, 2008 at 11:29am

We have a lovely tradition in our home. For each of the 12 nights of Christmas, we all cozy up by the fire while my husband reads another chapter of The Trouble With Christmas. It’s so heartwarming. My daughter says to her friends “Happy ChristmaHannuKwanzaaSolsticeNewton’sBirthday”. My husbands replies to his cronies “Happy just another day” or “season’s greetings” if he truly must.I watch the shopaholics and smile. But our nation is going to have a horrible christian bigot give the convocation soon. Why do we need a convocation? Why do the politicians end every speech with god bless? We’re watching Obama and hoping for the change, but I really don’t expect miracles.

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