My wife and I plan to celebrate Christmas this year, just as we have every year. Well, not quite like every year. For one thing, thanks to a bout with pneumonia and the press of getting some term papers written (which is also why it has been so long between blogs) I do not have our decorations out yet, but I soon will.
A more significant difference though will be the fact that this will be the first Christmas in which we do not have either one or the other daughter home for Christmas Eve and morning. They are both moved out with wonderful lives of their own. We will see them during the Christmas holidays, just not on Christmas Eve or day.
Kinda puts a crimp in our normal routine, namely the singing of Christmas Carols and the reading of the Grinch. With just me and my wife together for Christmas day we are going to have to come up with a new routine. But, we still plan to celebrate Christmas. Indeed, as I am writing this I have Christmas music playing on Pandora, and in the living room we often have Christmas music playing. Further, I plan on watching several of the old Christmas movies in the days leading up to Christmas – Miracle on 34th St, A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott version), It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, and others.
Of course, this brings up the question of why would an atheist couple celebrate Christmas, especially now that our children have flown the coop.
I have seen this question asked several times in different forums. When asked if other atheists celebrate Christmas I find it amazing the number of atheists who, like us, do celebrate Christmas. Given this, I thought I might take some time to explore why I still celebrate Christmas.
So, why do I, as an atheist, continue to celebrate Christmas?
First off, of course, is tradition. This is something that both my wife and I grew up with and enjoyed greatly. If we enjoy it, then why give it up? This even includes the traditional and religious Christmas Carols.
After all, just because the music is Christian and with Christian themes does not make it bad music. Music can and often is beautiful and fun regardless of its content. Just as you can enjoy a religiously themed painting even if not religious, so too with music. In fact, this is even more so with music, since you can sing the music and enjoy it. Not many are going to take the time to paint a copy of a painting.
However, there are also some deeper reasons why I continue to celebrate at least some version of Christmas, reasons which tie into religion.
Now, here I am not talking about organized religion for the most part. I am talking instead about why religion appeals to so many people and why it continues to have a major role in most people’s lives. Although organized religion may help (or hinder) here, this is something that is not dependent on organized religion. It is why so many still believe in some sort of spirituality even though they have left organized religion behind.
There is a reason that religion has been around for so long. Atheists, including myself, often point out the evils done by or in the name of religion; and they are numerous and horrible. However consider this; if religion did not also provide any off setting benefits it would have died out long ago.
Today I believe the off-setting benefits of organized religion have been taken up by the relatively newly evolved secular organizations of governments, hospitals, and education. Because of this you see the popularity and strength of organized religion decreasing – unevenly and intermittently, but nonetheless decreasing.
However, even though organized religion is decreasing and losing its power, most people still hold on to some aspect of it and still believe in some form of the supernatural. Often they refer to themselves as spiritual and believe that there is more to life, living, and the universe than what is revealed by science and naturalism.
The reason for this is also another reason why organized religion has been around so long. Religion and more specifically, religious beliefs fill some very human needs. Too often atheists focus just on the fears of death and dying and use that as the explanation for all religion. However while that does play a role, its part is only a part and not the whole; not nearly the whole.
Religions fills the need for companionship for the lonely, the need for justice for the oppressed, the need for comfort for the grieving and those in pain, the need for answers to those seeking and so much more. Religion also helps to provide a name for those all too rare moments when we feel the awe filling connection to the universe and to those around us.
Religion has also provided a means to express those needs and hopes and desires. Whether we believe these expressions to be literally true, as many of the religious do; or rather myths and stories, as the atheists (including myself) do, the reality of those human emotions do exist and I, being human, acknowledge them. I too have those same needs, hopes, and desires.
To help illustrate this a bit, lets first look at the traditional Christmas carols such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Silent Night, Joy to the World, etc. What they all have in common is the proclamation and praising of Jesus’ birth.
O Come All Ye Faithful
O Come All Ye Faithful
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him,
Born the King of Angels;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.
Now, too often, atheists just stop there and look no deeper. They see the superstition and supernatural here and overlook the humanity underlying the mythos here. This mythos can be understood by answering the question of why is Jesus so important for humanity?
The reason is that Jesus is the one who will inaugurate a perfect world in which there is no more suffering, in which justice for everyone prevails, in which all can be happy and live together in peace.
I do not know of many who would not be attracted to that ideal. I know that I am. A society, a place, a way to have no one hungry, no one suffering, no one ill; in which the evil receive their just due instead of so often coming out on top while the innocent suffer; in which people will recognize that all are related to each and that we should live in constant awareness of this bond of common humanity.
Yes, I do not believe in the religious and superstitious trappings and do feel that they have often gotten in the way of realizing those ideals in this world; in fact probably more often than they have helped. However this does not negate the fact that at its base this is an expression of human needs and desires, of a human hope that almost all feel a need to satisfy.
Interwoven within the myth of the birth of Jesus is the ideas of the sacrifice for others, the hope for a better life to come, the humble who will become great, and love for our fellow humans.
Now, as I said, underneath the superstition and the myth is something that is addressed to real human needs and hopes. This can also be seen in the traditional Christmas movies, but without quite as many of the trappings of at least organized religion.
For example, one of my favorite Christmas movies (both in book and movie), The Christmas Carol does so. This work does not have the overt trappings of Christianity attached to it. Scrooge is not redeemed by God and Jesus, but by the ghosts of Christmas.
However, despite this lack of overt Christianity it is considered a Christmas classic – both in book form and in movie format. That is because its message – Mankind is your business!
The pain and suffering of others is your business. The hunger of those in need is your business. The message is that all of humanity is related and the suffering of one is the suffering of all. Love and compassion for others is our business.
This message relates to the message many see in the birth and promise of Jesus, and is why this is considered a Christmas classic.
It is these ideas that I support and why I can continue to celebrate Christmas even as an atheist. The idea that we are all united in our humanity, that all are important no matter how humble, that we should reach out and help our brothers and sisters if they are in need, that we are family. That love and compassion is our business. That hope exists.
Yes, it is surrounded by too many myths and other baggage. But still….
“Peace on Earth, Good Will to Man.”