Which Should Kirk Cameron Fear More?

December 24, 2014

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.


#1 David Koepsell (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 9:26am

Tom, don’t you mean “whom”?

In any case, frightening an 80s sitcom has-been would be a weird competitive sport. I’ll posit you would definitely scare him more, but perhaps for different reasons than you suppose. In any case, your scenario for the future, while admirable, is highly unlikely. Mine is the path of least resistance and more likelihood of success. Now, off to Christmas Eve dinner for us. Enjoy work tomorroe Peace

#2 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 9:27am

So your solution to people thinking that Christmas is more Christian than it is is not EDUCATION, not visibility,  but telling all these potential atheists that they’re going to have to give up ONE more thing.  So not only stigma, losing family, but now you have to give up FUN because some ignorant people think it’s theirs. That’s a WINNING strategy, right there!!!

#3 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 9:44am

David, it depends. “Whom” would be right in the context of whom Cameron would fear more, you or me. “Which” applies in the contest of which future scenario Cameron would fear more, yours or mine. I was focusing more on the scenarios.

Beth, to the degree you associate the holidays with “fun,” it may be that you’ve already been co-opted. Here’s what I’m driving at: What did you do for Ramadan last year? I’m willing to guess you didn’t do anything for Ramadan because it’s not your tradition. And I’ll bet you don’t feel regretful about any fun you might have missed out on by skipping Ramadan (or Diwali, or an Eid, or whatever), for the same reason. As a non-Christian, I feel just as alienated from Christmas as I always did from Ramadan etc. It’s not my tradition any more, it’s not something I expect in my life. And whatever fun I associated with the holiday when I was Christian, now that I’m not, that’s fun that I don’t *expect* to have any more. With all due respect (honest), your focus on holiday fun suggests to me that you haven’t broken with Christianity as cleanly as you might think.

#4 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 9:48am

Ramadan is not an AMERICAN cultural holiday. Christmas is. I would co-opt any holiday I like for fun.

And how DARE you call my atheist cred into question.

#5 David Koepsell (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 9:51am

Perhaps that is the key difference between you and me, Tom. I was NEVER a Christian. In fact, half my family were secular Jews (many of whom also celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, by the way), so embracing the holiday as a family occasion is all it has ever been, and one I look forward to without a hint of Christian or other spirituality. People like me and my family are becoming more abundant, growing up without religious belief or church, and yet perfectly comfortable with secular celebrations of all sorts. We don’t feel “alienated” at all, because we were never part of a religion nor had any supernatural beliefs. I think that scenario is actually more threatening to religion in general, because it is more plausible, it is in fact occurring, and as belief dies, some traditions will likely continue absent the part they deem is most important. In any event, we shall see.

#6 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 9:59am

Tom, you worry about your “witness” like a Christian does. You accept a Christian definition of atheism. Who’s more Christian in thought,  you or me, when I don’t let Christian stupidity define and confine me? I will have my cake and eat it too.

#7 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 10:05am

Beth, I disagree that Christmas is primarily an American holiday. It’s principally a Christian holiday, just as Ramadan is Muslim. A whole lot of Anglo-American filigree got piled on top of Christmas(Dickens, for one, was no Yankee), but the holiday’s still inescapably Christian. (See my passage about the “paradox of Christmas” in my original post.) I know your atheist cred is sound. But you might worry a bit about how other observers regard it, when you so enthusiastically and publicly embrace a, yes, Christian holiday.

#8 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 10:10am

I escape the Christianity in it all the time! It does not have to be Christian,  it can evolve.

I deal with stupid Christians by EDUCATING them , not by denying myself.

#9 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 10:15am

For all your Christian hate, you sure don’t realize how many Christians are HATEFUL LIARS. They can’t say “keep Christ in Christmas” in one breath and then question atheist Christmas in another. They are being bigots and their “confusion” is not genuine. They understand cultural Christmas,  they just want atheists to have to give something up, much like you do

#10 Jim MacIver (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 10:56am

I think a major ignored point in the thinking of Atheists and Humanists who celebrate Christmas, one I don’t even recall mentioned in Tom’s book, is for most children the first contact they have with Christianity and religion in general, is Christmas. Christmas is a fun family holiday that is remembered with fondness, by most, into adulthood.
No one wants to give it up. That apparently includes most of us as well. We have to give it up. So long as Christmas exists, it will be used to lure children into the van with the tear soaked mattress. We all know how religions, particularly Christians, go after kids. They have pizza parties and giveaways. I suggest to you Christmas is the biggest giveaway of all and they don’t have to do anything because the parents do it for them.
You may not realize it, but your kids could come home someday and tell you they have joined a church. After all, Christmas was always so much fun…

#11 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 10:59am

Oh that is such BULLSHIT. None of the fun parts of Christmas take place at church. Anyone who thinks people are going to run to boring church because of a tree and presents at home doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

#12 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 11:17am

Beth, that’s very perceptive about my worrying about my “witness” and thinking like a Christian—that’s all true, but it’s not because I can’t escape my past. (Actually I grew up Catholic; “witness” is more an evangelical Protestant thing.) It’s because I know marketing. A basic principle of marketing is “If you want to sell, think like your buyer. If you want to persuade, think like your audience.” If we’re serious about working to change the larger culture—to have an impact outside of the humanist/atheist movement—we’ve got to think about how we will be viewed and interpreted by mainstream Americans. And today the American mainstream is still strongly influenced by Christianity, especially by evangelical Protestantism. So you bet I’m worried about my “witness,” because I know that’s the lens through which many, many people outside of our movement will interpret whatever they hear about my activism—and yours.

Speaking as someone who’s been a believer and an atheist, I gotta tell you, among most American believers “atheist who celebrates Christmas” is one of the most self-defeating memes imaginable. Many of them genuinely don’t get the cultural Christmas thing you referred to. They see atheists celebrating Christmas and just think “What a bunch of hypocrites, I’m glad that now I don’t have to take seriously anything they say the other 11 months of the year.” Trust me, this is happening today and I very much fear that it’s greatly damaging our movement’s credibility. Not because of what we think, but because of what THEY think. But if we want to change minds, what THEY think is what we need to focus on.

As a former believer, I’ve sacrificed a lot in the cause of truth as I understand it. There’s family members who won’t talk to me, and a 7-figure will I got cut out of (yes, really), and a lot of social opprobrium (fortunately less so today than, say, 20 years ago). And let’s not forget the emotional toll of giving up the comfort of things I used to believe in like universal justice and eternal life. That’s not to say that my atheist cred is better than anyone else’s, just that like many atheists, I’ve already given up a lot. And as a (now) non-Christian, I don’t feel Christmas is my holiday, and so I think the season is actually a small thing to give up—yes—in order not to mess up my “witness.”

#13 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 11:23am

I think you’re just wrong to accept what these Christians say. They say “keep Christmas in Christmas” and bemoan secularization,  which SHOWS they understand cultural Christmas. They don’t question normal non-believers,  just public atheists. I don’t believe them. And I don’t believe our credibility hinges on Christmas.

YOU think Christmas is a small thing to give up, YOU aren’t everyone. I think it’s extremely damaging to the atheist movement to tell people they have to give things up.

#14 Jim MacIver (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 11:37am

Hi Beth, I’m a little confused. Why is keeping Christmas so important?

#15 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 11:39am

The question should be why is fighting Christmas so important to Tom and a few others?

I LOVE Christmas and for someone to tell me what to do is bullshit if there is no good reason.

#16 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 11:46am

Beth, I mean this question in utter seriousness. You wrote, “I think it’s extremely damaging to the atheist movement to tell people they have to give things up.”

But if someone is a traditional Christian believer who is contemplating atheism, as I once was, it seems to me there’s not much getting around the fact that that believer is going to have to give up believing in life after death, thinking that all injustices will be set right in the afterlife, etc. To those who believe in them those things are hugely comforting, but it seems inescapable to me that atheism means giving them up.

#17 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 11:49am

Yes if you don’t believe in Christianity, you give things up, no matter what you call yourself.

But people will not call themselves “atheists” and be part of the atheist movement if they perceive that they will have to become scrooges, grinches, and give other practices up.

#18 Jim MacIver (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 12:07pm

Funny, I have never considered myself a Scrooge. I give money to charity and presents to my friends on their birthdays. If anything, I tend to go overboard on birthdays because I don’t give Christmas presents.
I’m just someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas. I live in the Northeast so it is perhaps easier here. When I lived in the South, not celebrating made you a pariah. Still, I did it. Everyone knew I was an Atheist. There was no confusion.
I sympathize you might be feeling societal pressure or have lingering feelings for Christmas from your childhood. Thats the danger. Its like trying to hold onto a ghost. You know its not really there but you want to keep it with you. Christmas represents memories of good times and loved ones who have passed. You can still keep those memories, but Christmas has got to go.

#19 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 12:09pm

Don’t you DARE tell me that Christmas has got to go. Christmas is my most cherished thing RIGHT NOW, it us not a memory and there us NO pressure.

#20 Jim MacIver (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 12:21pm

Seems to me there is something more going on here. I won’t press you on it. However, don’t knock us because we think it would be better for our movement if we didn’t engage in the practices of the cult.

#21 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 12:23pm

1. Don’t psychoanalyze me

2. I WILL knock you for telling people what to do with no basis.

3. The Cultural Christmas that has evolved is NOT the “practice of the cult.”

#22 Jim MacIver (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 12:43pm

1. I was not trying to psychoanalyze you. However, you are giving the impression this is far more important to you than it needs to be.
2. Maybe I am telling people what to do, but I’m not doing it with a gun to their heads.
3. So called “Cultural Christmas” is still the practices of the Christian cult.
You’re not going to change my mind and I can see I’m not going to change yours so why continue to argue about it? If you’re hoping to have the last word, forget it. I can go forever.

#23 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 12:49pm

1. You don’t get to say how important it “needs” to be.

2. Fine and I don’t have a gun either, I’m just disgusted by you telling people this. Tom used a no true Scotsman fallacy about it last year on his Facebook. I won’t be told I’m not a real atheist and I won’t accept blame for things in the movement that have no basis.

3. NO they aren’t,  they are evolved cultural practices.

I’m riding from Missouri to Tennessee tomorrow.  I can go forever too.

#24 Jim MacIver (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 1:10pm

1. I didn’t. I simply commented on the impression you gave me.
2. Are you saying I cannot espouse my opinion because it does not agree with yours? When did I say you are not a real Atheist? Blame for what things?
3. It doesn’t matter what you call it, Christmas is Christian. It is what it is.

#25 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 1:17pm

You can have whatever opinion you want, and mine is that yours is wrong.

You’re simply wrong by any reasonable definition. Non-Christians celebrate it. There is an entire holiday and culture that has been stripped of Jesus. It makes NO SENSE to insist on some essential core of Christian-ness that is somehow there in spite of the evidence.

#26 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 1:24pm

Hi Beth, “stripped of Jesus”? I know that lots of non-Christians and nominal Christians—as well as too many atheists and humanists (and that’s *my* opinion) celebrate Christmas. But I guarantee you, if you drag a cross section of them in front of a creche and ask “What is the name of the baby?” no one is going to be stumped. They’ll all know it’s Jesus. I suppose that’s one piece of evidence, small though it is, for the “essential core of Christian-ness” in the holiday. At the very least I’d hope we can agree that Christianity gains social cred and prestige that it’s no longer really entitled to because Christmas is so popular and ubiquitous—meaning that many people, if not most, DO associate it with Christianity!

#27 Jim MacIver (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 1:28pm

It is you that is wrong. The entire culture is contaminated with Christmas. Ask anyone what kind of holiday Christmas is of any random person and they will tell you it is Christian. The average person makes no distinction between “religious” and “secular” Christmas.

#28 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 1:28pm

That’s your evidence??? The fact that people aren’t ignorant of Christian beliefs despite not putting them in their own Christmas?

No I don’t agree that Christianity gains much from the popularity of cultural Christmas. We can EDUCATE people about the origins of the traditions if they don’t know.

#29 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 1:31pm

I guarantee you the average person knows that the fun parts aren’t reasonably connected to Christianity. And if they aren’t,  freaking EDUCATE them!

Actually quite a few people answered on a Pew or Gallup poll that Christmas is more cultural,  I can’t link it on my phone.

#30 Jim MacIver (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 1:38pm

By the way folks, despite all evidence to the contrary, we’re taken over Christmas. Forget all that stuff about a religion starting it. It is now a cultural celebration because we said so.
You can’t be serious.

#31 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 1:42pm

81% of non-Christian Americans celebrate Christmas, 87% of the nones. (Citation is a 2013 pew poll) The popular aspects of Christmas are not the religious parts, but the fun parts. Christians frequently bitch about the secularization of it.

If we haven’t won, we’re well on the way!!!

#32 Jim MacIver (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 1:54pm

All that says is most are thinking incorrectly, selling out to Christmas. Most likely this is because of reasons I already cited. All this means is we have work to do,

#33 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 1:56pm

Selling out to Christmas??? Thinking incorrectly??

Seriously? You have “work to do” because people are throwing Jesus out and having fun?

#34 Jim MacIver (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 2:05pm

By preserving this holiday, it allows the cult to regain it’s strength. You might not want to believe it but Christianity was fairly beaten before by Robert Ingersoll in the late 19th Century but because we didn’t finish the job it was able to come back.

#35 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 2:08pm

You have NO BASIS for thinking that’s the hill to die on. If that’s what causes us not to “win” then we deserve to lose because we are weak.

#36 Jim MacIver (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 2:16pm

Yeah, I do. We are only weak when we cannot give up this childish holiday. Eventually, this holiday will go by the wayside. Its happening already.

#37 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 2:19pm

So now I’m weak and childish because I’m not like you? Because I’m not an ascetic atheist?

Next, you’ll be calling me a Christian…

You have NO evidence that Christmas is going away. You are full of it.

#38 Jim MacIver (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 2:28pm

Since more and more businesses are remaining open on Christmas, I’d say thats a good start.
I didn’t want to say this, but it sounds, from the way you are going on about this, you’re not very happy as an Atheist. Maybe you should reconsider your philosophical stance.

#39 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 2:30pm

I don’t know what your citation for that is.

I’m a VERY happy atheist. I’m a damn MERRY, JOLLY atheist.

#40 Andrew Stringer (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 4:21pm

For me it’s very simple. We have strong evidence that Christian practices and celebrations have assimilated older pagan festivals and rituals and then claimed them as their own. The ongoing secularization of Christmas is the same process now happening in reverse. It’s forcing Christmas to adapt to the wants, needs and values that we hold dear today. The fact that there might be a minority of Christians in the UK (where I live) who carry on believing it’s still a purely religious festival doesn’t change the fact that, for most people in the UK, it’s not.

#41 Ken L (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 4:22pm

My only problem with Christmas is the name.  I love the decorations, parties, dinners family… ... ... I don’t have to be a Scrooge, I just call my Winter celebration something else… The solstice in my case.  We all know that celebrating winter predates Christianity. I can keep the merry and leave the Christ.

#42 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 4:25pm

Tom Flynn doesn’t care what you call it. He hates it if you do anything in December other than stare at the wall.

#43 Jim MacIver (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 5:02pm

Back from dinner. It doesn’t matter. We must separate ourselves from such celebrations. It makes us look like hypocrites. I would rather stare at the wall than be a hypocrite.

#44 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 5:27pm

I am NOT going to separate myself from celebration. You go be an ascetic freak if you want. It does NOT make us look like hypocrites, those are bigoted lies Christians tell you.

#45 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 5:39pm

Seriously, you act like the damn sky is going to fall in because of people putting up decorations and having fun. It’s absolutely ridiculous.

#46 Jim MacIver (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 6:57pm

Beth, you are indeed a hypocrite. Lie to yourself as much as you want. At the end of the day, if you celebrate the enemy’s holiday, you are a collaborator.

#47 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 7:04pm

Enemy? Collaborator? Wow, I try not to think of fellow humans that way.

#48 Jim MacIver (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 7:53pm

I do. I have no choice. I’m a hard ass and proud of it.

#49 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 7:55pm

No you’re just a dude who has crappy arguments and a terrible attitude.

#50 Jim MacIver (Guest) on Wednesday December 24, 2014 at 7:58pm

No, I’m a dude that hasn’t sold out to the enemy. don’t you have a tree to trim or some other cult activity now?

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