Thursday, December 27, 2012

It's Christmas Time, So What's An Atheists To Do?

Every year around this time I write something about what the Christmas holiday means to an atheist like me.

When I was a kid I remember the joy of waking up on Christmas morning and opening my presents under the Christmas tree. I loved getting new toys as any kid would. Today as a grown up atheist, I see nothing necessarily wrong with gift giving, or spending time with family during Christmas. Although I don't really celebrate Christmas, an atheist can take part in these social traditions without any violation of their naturalistic beliefs.

One of the bad images atheists have is that we are trying to destroy Christmas and take the fun away for millions of its celebrants. I can fully appreciate this concern. I too am concerned that atheism can be an annoyance for anyone wishing to keep a relatively benign tradition. So I think as atheists we should conduct our preservation of the separation clause carefully. What groups like the American Atheists are doing is trying to prevent any government money and institution from funding or displaying a religious based holiday. So that means, among other things, there should be no nativity scenes on public property. When it comes to Christmas trees, wreaths and holiday lights, it gets a little more fuzzy. Some say that the lights and decorations do not necessarily have a religious meaning to them, and that the Christmas tree itself was a pagan tradition that can be secularized into a "holiday tree". So the question I ask is, do we as atheists really want to eradicate any and all visual displays of holidays, whether they are associated with a currently practiced religion or not, from all public buildings and property?

I'm actually not sure. Imagine a public building displaying Halloween decorations or Thanksgiving day decorations. None of those holidays are associated with a practiced religion today, indeed Thanksgiving was never ever a religious holiday. Would this be OK according to the American Atheists? Just how far should the "wall of separation" between church and state go? If Christmas is a pagan tradition adopted by Christianity as I and many others see it, than can we say that every aspect of Christmas  -  lights, wreaths, trees, candy canes and other visual displays, are all religious in their very nature? Might we allow a city to display on public property, (and paid for with public money) a snowman, some wreaths and a light display without any violation of the first amendment as we might also with a display of a jack o'lantern and scarecrow?

Although I have reserves about the consumerism surrounding Christmas today, I think atheists should trend carefully in the so called "war on Christmas". Officially, groups like the American Atheists are not trying to prevent anyone from celebrating Christmas, they are only trying to make sure that government does not fund or display what they see as religiously based holidays. I pretty much agree with this but I have reserves when it comes some of the holiday decorations commonly associated with Christmas. I do not see a snowman display or wreaths as religious.

Furthermore, just like how Halloween started out as a pagan tradition that was incorporated into Christianity, no one today dons masks and costumes because they actually believe it will scare spirits. The tradition of Halloween remains after the supernatural aspect disappears. Modern Christmas celebration can detach itself from the Christian mythology that it was fused together with, along with the pagan spiritual elements, so that Christmas becomes a holiday solely focusing on family, friends and gift giving. The Christmas mythology need not be suppressed, but rather it should be regarded in the proper domain myths belong to, where they are not in any way based in reality.

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