A Seasonal Reflection

December 16, 2016

As some readers know, I’m a longtime advocate of humanists, atheists, and other secular folks conspicuously sitting out that Christian observance of Jesus’s birthday that monopolizes the last six weeks of every year. I’m hardly the only one, but clearly “going Yule-free” is a minority stance among nonreligious Americans. From time to time, seculars who enjoy the holiday in whatever form – and who may resent my suggestions that by doing so, they might be harming our community – pose a question along the lines of, “But I like exchanging gifts with my loved ones. I like the decorations and the songs. Hell, I like eggnog. What evidence do you have that nonreligious people celebrating the holiday in some form is harmful?”


It’s a fair question, so here’s a fresh stab at an answer. Fair warning: my evidence is anecdotal, but that may be an unavoidable evil. Social scientists tend to avoid asking hard questions about what we do at Christmas-time – presumably getting known as a Grinch complicates the search for grants – so despite the scope and ubiquity of Christmas customs, phenomena from the Santa myth to the holiday’s impact on non-Christians have a way of being inadequately studied.


So here goes.


I’ve been an open atheist and humanist – and fielding Christians’ questions, from the curious to the hostile – for some 35 years now. The most popular questions, the ones that almost every Christian challenger throws at me, have changed remarkably little over those years. Here are the Big Three:


“If there’s no god, how did you/living things/the universe get here?”


“If there’s no hell, what keeps you from robbing/raping/killing to your heart’s content?”


“Without a supernatural order, isn’t your life drab and meaningless?”


It’s not uncommon for me to get asked those questions one after the other, most often in that order. If you’ve informally debated many Christians, I bet you’ve seen the same phenomenon. Then there’s a pesky fourth question, and I bet quite a few of you have experienced it as well. Question #4 comes out of nowhere, frequently after it dawns on my Christian challenger that he or she is facing a capable opponent. After I’ve scored some point I think is telling (or at least annoying), out comes the inevitable “gotcha” question:


“Oh, yeah? Well, what do you do on December 25th?”


The amazing thing is that over 35 years and a couple of hundred such conversations, those four questions have remained constant. They haven’t changed after the appearance of the New Atheists. They haven’t changed since pollsters reported that people with no religious preference made up twelve, then fifteen, then twenty-five percent of American adults. They seem to point to something abiding in the thinking of American Christians. Sooner or later, whenever my Christian challengers start feeling nervous, out will come “What do you do on Christmas?”


You should see their faces when I say, “I go to work.”


What follows usually unfolds as predictably as a kabuki performance:


Me: “I go to work.”


Christian: “No.”


Me: “Yes, really.”


Christian: “I don’t believe you.”


Me: “I’ve been Yule-free since 1984. I’ve gone to the office whenever Christmas fell on a workday ever since. Look, I published a book about it …”


When I finally convince my Christian challenger that yes, Virginia, I genuinely spurn the holiday – every scrap of it, from the hot buttered rum to the rum-pum-pum-pum – something amazing happens. Ninety-five times out of a hundred, the challenger who’s been lobbing attacks at me and trying to score debating points stops, takes a deep breath … and opens up, at least for a time, to genuine dialogue. Curiosity replaces hostility – again, at least for a few minutes. It’s not uncommon that I’ll hear some variant of “Wow, I’ve finally met a real atheist. Don’t get me wrong, I’m saved and all. But I have some questions I’ve always wanted to ask someone like you.”


It doesn’t always happen. Still, in my confrontations with Christians I’ve experienced more real breakthroughs by answering the Christmas question with “I go to work” than anything else. Considered as a stratagem, no other statement I can make seems to work so well to pierce an argumentative Christian’s bluster and create a real, if brief, human connection marked by curiosity and a bit of openness.


In the void’s name, why?


Keep in mind, it’s not because everybody knows I don’t do Christmas. I’m only known as “the anti-Claus” in portions of the atheist and humanist community. And look again at that sample dialogue above: Most times, when I tell people I work on Christmas they disbelieve it. Vigorously. I have to convince them. (My book’s Amazon page is always helpful here.) But when I finally do convince them, many let down their shields for a while.


What does this tell us? It might be a sign that humanists and atheists who visibly celebrate the Solstice or, to whatever degree, Christmas itself are doing our community more harm than anyone – even I – anticipated.


To understand why, consider the way many, perhaps most, Christians are taught to think about atheism. A popular apologetic strategy to protect believers against unbelief is by depicting atheism as so arid, so bereft of elementary psychological comforts, that it’s actually not possible for human beings to embrace it in any genuine way. On this view, no normal person can truly accept a worldview in which the cosmos and human life are seen as unplanned accidents – and therefore, no normal person does. It follows from this that there actually are no atheists, or at least none who aren’t manifestly unhinged. From that it follows that if you’re a Christian and you encounter a decent-seeming person who claims to be an atheist, you can relax. That person is wrong, either misled or deluded. And from this follows a strategy: when you confront someone who claims to be an atheist, search for inconsistencies. Expect to find them, because any sane person who claims to be an atheist must be in error – well-balanced humans really cannot be atheists!


When I was a Catholic teenager, the nuns and priests fed me variants on this trope time after time. From years of conversation with former Protestants, it’s clear that trope is no less popular on that side of the ecclesiastical tracks. At root, it aims to inoculate the faithful against unbelief by conditioning them not to take the atheists and humanists they encounter seriously.


How does this bear on what secular folks do at Christmas? Consider how often Christian challengers seek to seize control of a debate by asking that “zinger” question, “What do you do on Christmas?” Then consider how world-rocking it so often is for a Christian challenger when I honestly answer, “I go to work.”


This leads me to a hypothesis: Many, many Christians may be deriving enormous reassurance from presuming that the atheists and humanists they encounter need not be taken seriously – precisely because those atheists and humanists observe the Christian year-end holidays in some manner. That defensive question “What do you do on Christmas?” suggests that Christian challengers expect most humanists and atheists to reply with some shamefaced response like “Oh, my family puts up a tree and exchanges gifts” or “We don’t celebrate Christmas but we observe the Solstice (or HumanLight, or whatever) at around the same time, and so we take the 25th off.” Thus is the Christian silently reinforced in his or her beliefs, having exposed one more person who pretends to be an atheist or humanist, but isn’t. No, they can conclude, an atheist or humanist who can’t show enough backbone to push away from Jesus’s birthday table is weak-willed at best, a hypocrite at worst. The erroneous but powerful conviction, inculcated by generations of Christian apologetics, that no sane person can really be an atheist receives validation once again.


On this view, it makes sense that when a Christian challenger meets an atheist or humanist who spurns Christmas thoroughly and completely, that’s a Big Deal. Accustomed to wielding the “What do you on Christmas” question as an inconsistency detector, the challenger is suddenly confronted with a self-described atheist whose behavior is consistent with the challenger’s expectations. The very rhetorical maneuver that has (in the challenger’s view) exposed past atheist or humanist interlocutors as inconsistent, as hypocrites, as persons not to be taken seriously, has unmasked this atheist or humanist interlocutor as being … consistent. Not a hypocrite. Ulp – by irresistible logic – as someone to be taken very seriously indeed.


Perhaps that’s why answering the “Christmas question” as I do has so often elicited reactions like “Wow, you’re the first real atheist I ever met” and “You know, I have some questions I’ve always wanted to ask.” Perhaps that’s why answering that I go to the office on Christmas day has startled more of my Christian challengers into openness than any other verbal stratagem I’ve ever tested.


If that’s true, the vast majority of atheists and humanists who visibly keep the holiday in some form may be shooting themselves – and the movement – in the foot without knowing it, and on an enormous scale. Indeed, the apparent hypocrisy – for so it looks in Christians’ eyes – of unbelievers “getting into the holiday spirit” may be one of the largest single generators of negative impressions of those unbelievers among Christians. This could be a whole new reason why secular people would be best advised to steer clear of the Christians’ holiday season, one that never occurred to me when I wrote my 1993 polemic The Trouble with Christmas or in my subsequent Yule-busting.


Lest we forget, though their numbers are finally declining, Christians still compose a substantial majority of Americans. That doesn’t mean that we should hide our light of reason under a basket. Far from it, we have every reason to be who we are and be proud about it. But it does mean that we’re strategically foolish if we pretend that the opinions held among the Christian majority don’t matter.


At the end of this rather lengthy reflection, I’d suggest some tentative conclusions.


1) If you think Christmas is – or is becoming – so secular that its Christian roots no longer matter, think again. Whether you like it or not, most Americans are Christians and view the holiday very much as theirs. That’s not a historically valid position, since most of the things Americans do at Christmas is actually rooted in either pre-Christian paganism or post-Christian commercialism. Be that as it may, Christianity has managed to stack the cultural deck in such a way that every affirmation of the season, from the Yule log to Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, builds social credit for Christmas as a Christian festival. It may be our society’s largest “stolen valor” phenomenon. Today, as the numbers of churchgoers are dwindling, Christianity benefits more than ever from the accidental support it enjoys just because Christmas is so darned ubiquitous. We do not aid our own cause by contributing to that.


2) If you cherry-pick only the trappings you most enjoy for your holiday celebration, whatever you call it, and think that you’re thereby distancing your observance from the Christian one, recognize that most people who observe you will just see you as one more hanger-on upon Jesus’s birthday bandwagon. Despite your best intentions, your celebration will still contribute to the undeserved social credit Christianity accumulates each time it’s seen dominating the closing six weeks of yet another calendar year.


3) Finally, please recognize that if you identify yourself as an atheist or humanist who keeps Christmas in almost any form, you will be seen by many, many, many Christians as not really an atheist or humanist. You’ll be counted as one more datum proving that real human beings can’t be atheists or humanists, and that therefore Christians need not take the challenge represented by atheism and humanism seriously.


Even if unfairly, you’ll be dismissed by vast numbers of people as a hypocrite.


There are other reasons why traditional Christians have antipathy toward unbelievers, of course. The first three common questions I listed above touch on them. (Of course, the absurd calumny that nonreligious people are incapable of virtue leads the list.) But if I’m right, independently of all those other grounds for distrusting unbelievers, it may well be that we are encouraging Christians to think vastly less of us – in the language of marketing, generating tens or hundreds of millions of fresh negative impressions each year – by taking part in a year-end birthday festival that genuinely does belong to Christians more than it does to anyone else.


It’s a curious phenomenon: secular people go on “getting no respect” in American society despite the strong growth in our numbers, despite gradual declines in churchgoing, despite repeated scandals rocking the religion sector. Why? Imagine the irony if it turns out to be true that we atheists and humanists have been busy strewing obstacles across our own path, convincing our Christian counterparts over and over again that we are not to be taken seriously and not to be trusted – just because of how we conduct ourselves at other people’s holiday time.


#1 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Friday December 16, 2016 at 11:34am

I’ve never encountered this phenomenon, no one else I know has, and I just don’t even believe you.
If atheism dies by us doing Christmas, it deserves to die.
You have mistaken the hate and desire for Christians to punish you (which you’re doing to yourself) as them seeing you as a “real atheist”

#2 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Friday December 16, 2016 at 12:36pm

Beth, I have trouble believing that you were able to query every single person you know whether each one has encountered a phenomenon you just read about minutes ago. After all, this is the first place I’ve written about it. But I digress,

#3 Jim MacIver (Guest) on Friday December 16, 2016 at 1:18pm

It wouldn’t be Christmas without Beth coming here to defend her indefensible position. Hi Beth!

#4 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Friday December 16, 2016 at 1:41pm

OMG so 3 or 4 asshole dudes treated Tom different, that totally justifies Tom using fallacies and telling other atheists to suffer for this magical anecdotal benefit

#5 Mario (Guest) on Saturday December 17, 2016 at 2:57pm

“Social scientists tend to avoid asking hard questions about what we do at Christmas-time – presumably getting known as a Grinch complicates the search for grants…”

Right, because the academic world is famously pro-middle class, hence it reveres Christmas.  Social scientists, especially, respect common values and don’t spend most or all of their time trying to invalidate every popular perception they can get their hands on.  (Men and women, different?  Absurd!  Variations in IQ among humans?  Blasphemy!)

“Christianity benefits more than ever from the accidental support it enjoys just because Christmas is so darned ubiquitous.”

Our chief festival becomes a gigantic hit around the planet, and this fact has nothing to do with its Christian origins and character?  I see.  And, yes, it’s “ours” in the historical sense.  That’s the consensus among holiday scholars.  If you’d rather I go with axe-grinding bloggers and ignore the conclusions of the specialists, then you’re asking me to violate the first rule of skepticism.

Erring on the side of the best qualified, most expert conclusions is to err on the side of probability.  From page one, “Skepticism for Dummies.”

“Despite your best intentions, your celebration will still contribute to the undeserved social credit Christianity accumulates each time it’s seen dominating the closing six weeks of yet another calendar year.”

My best guess is that “each time it’s seen” means “each time it’s perceived to be.”  Am I correct? 

“Fair warning: my evidence is anecdotal…”

Yes, in the classic CFI sense, wherein only the least tolerant and most conservative Christian views are entertained.  You guys have elevated selectivity to an art form.

To describe such Christians, you use the word “traditional,” which of course can mean anything we want it to.  Tradition changes, you realize.  Example: Evangelical Protestants of the late 19th and early 20th century had progressive values not unlike those of today’s Democratic party, whereas modern evangelicals lean right, to say the least.  Which group would you dub traditional? 

Not once did this Christian ask, “If there’s no god…”  I do, however, believe in Hell.  Trump’s in the White House, no?

#6 Thomas Mankiewicz (Guest) on Sunday December 18, 2016 at 10:14am

All of this assumes that there aren’t any better answers to the question about what atheists do on Christmas? Not that my answer is for sure a better answer, but I’ve always used the question as a way to give a history lesson that shows how holidays come about and change over the years to the point of them no longer being about what they were originally intended for. Since history is on our side with regards to the Pagan origins of many Christmas traditions, it’s much easier and I think socially and interpersonally healthy for atheists to continue the tradition of groups taking existing holidays and changing them for their own purposes than it is for us to try and entirely separate ourselves from such widely recognized and celebrated holidays. Ultimately, if atheism continues to grow to the point of atheists ever being in the majority, the strategy of reappropriating valued religious traditions would serve us and the religious folks better if only due to it being something we can all share.

#7 Rebecca Forté (Guest) on Monday December 19, 2016 at 7:10am

In 25 years of open atheism, I’ve never heard a Christian ask me about Christmas or what I do with it. I’ve been asked the first 3, to the point of drudgery, but never the Christmas thing.

#8 JSmith on Wednesday December 21, 2016 at 6:57am

Ok, hope I’m not too far beyond blog publication date of this piece to have an audience impact.
Overall, this piece has merit and is in a positive direction for the atheist community. Here is how to turn it on full steam for the atheist community and a secular world mindset. In one phrase: atheist community building.
Social scientist, of whom I am nearly one with a PhD is human systems and MA in Human development don’t have to study Christmas in particular because Christmas, like any social gathering central to belief, is an already known phenomenon we scientists (yes…cause-effect-predictable results with living humans), call interaction ritual. A group of any people who look at a Christmas tree together (or virtually together) and feel the same emotion…then look at each other and realize the other feels that emotion too…become bonded…often to the point of willingness to die for one another and the “cause”.
That is a pillar of support to the embedded of any faith and many families too. This supports the Christian community and their feelings, neither of which are fantasies. These are real though gog is not. The object of affection does not matter much though, if tested, the more unreal the central aspect of the ritual, the more emotional the bond…and the more the average IQ of the more adult converts will be…or the more uneducated to real world they will be.

This is a great advantage to religion just as a living wage right is to the SJWs.

Atheists have no community celebrations to speak of and will remain invisible and weak until there is a viable social presence and one that aligns thought, reality as an object of high central value, and some shared emotion based on shared value with one another.

Atheists seem to have nothing but a conference or two and political action committees and a defensive attitude unfit for creating any sense of group resonance that is respectful of humanity’s highest potentials and literature and art. Atheists do have art and literature…just not of the atheist lifestyles.

#9 JSmith on Wednesday December 21, 2016 at 7:00am

I meant the lower the average IQ not the more

#10 Mario (Guest) on Wednesday December 21, 2016 at 6:44pm

“... the more unreal the central aspect of the ritual, the more emotional the bond…and the (lower) the average IQ of the more adult converts will be…or the more uneducated to real world they will be.”

I’m sure there’s a massive amount of scientific evidence for this.  Repeatable, controlled experiments, all fully documented.  All peer reviewed.  That sort of thing.  You know, science.

#11 JSmith on Wednesday December 21, 2016 at 8:04pm

To be as certain as you seem to be about massive amount of evidience of exactly the sort or interaction ritual relating the strength of the emotional bond to:
1. a function of low IQ or scientific educdation and irrationality of the central ritual
is a wild assumption.

Only a literature review could yeild such information.
Have you done literature reviews on scholarly research? 
A research library is the place for such a work.
Good luck.
Let me know what you find if you pursue this work.

#12 Mario (Guest) on Wednesday December 21, 2016 at 9:12pm

Apparently, “we scientists” was humor on your part—clearly, you’re not one.  That was my entire point, and you made it beautifully for me.

#13 JSmith on Thursday December 22, 2016 at 5:31am

As you talk in a criptic format with no clear clues as to how your point was made, you make no point to anyone could understand. You have no specific referents and thus no logical argument…but according to your word you made your point. Perhaps you could make an argument by referring to some facts in the posts I’ve made and that you’ve made already. After an argument comes the “point”. Neither of which are you near yet.

#14 JSmith on Thursday December 22, 2016 at 5:38am

Perhaps, Mario, some practice making arguments could help. The CFI board, to which you are a guest, is a good place to see the good bad and ugly of newbies making arguments, mocking people, posting links as “evidence” and engaging many different logical fallacies and opinions stated as fact backed up by positional authority. There is no cost, no political commitment to join the forum at the links usually found above. You may even find some of the persons do get your points.

#15 Mario (Guest) on Friday December 23, 2016 at 12:54pm

I asked for evidence for your “lower the average IQ” assertion, and you provided none—hence, I assume you don’t have any.  There is no need for me to offer a counterargument to a (rather vague) claim you either can’t or won’t support.  And please be aware that “points” are things made in support of an assertion/proposition/claim.  They’re don’t follow an argument—they’re an essential part thereof.

I’ll practice if you promise to do the same.

#16 JSmith on Friday December 23, 2016 at 9:34pm

Your quote of me is eggregiously wrong headed. It left out the central qualification…“if tested…” Leaving this out is an egregious oversight. In addition to this egregious oversight, you state the following opinion:
“I’m sure there’s a massive amount of scientific evidence for this.  Repeatable, controlled experiments, all fully documented.  All peer reviewed.  That sort of thing.  You know, science.”

Now I refer you to my follow up statement #11 referring to your egregious error. I suggest you research your statement with a literature review if you are so certain such research exists.

Instead, you leave the subject and claim you “know” about my scientific credentials. You clearly don’t.

It is easy, Mario, to make unsubstantiated claims about anything on any board. It is easy to make claims to knowing things which one has no knowledge and makes only a pretense of such. What is most manifest about your work is stated above:
1. You left out a critical clarifier “if tested” Why? People like to be “right”. I understand that. Emotions cause terrible errors and it takes time to learn to really engage other humans who disagree or have other agendas. I hope you improve if I’m right about your overall set of statements being “misguided at best”, “ideologically dogmatically inspired” at worse.
2. The suggestions I made for a literature research on your part, if you were sure such testing was done, would be best for you to make.

Leaving out a critical clarifier is like saying “Jim smith says, “life is on Venus” when in fact, (real fact obvious to any reader), Jim smith said, “There is no…life on Venus.” This seems to really incriminate your posts as wrong headed. No personal judgement. Just fact, you left out “if tested”.
You left out “if tested”
You left out “if tested”
I repeat, not to insult but to impress upon you the gravity of this omission.

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