The Christmas Season and the Challenges Atheists Face; Some Thoughts for Both Sides

How does an atheist deal with the Christmas holiday? When you don’t believe in God what do you do when God and religion is displayed publically? Likewise on the flipside if you’re a Christian what do you do when you have atheist or skeptics in your family during this time of year?  As the Holiday season kicks off Eagle has some ideas and hopes a middle ground can be forged.

“It’s surprising to me how many of my friends send Christmas cards, or Holiday cards, including my atheist and secular friends.”

Christopher Hitchens

Christmas it seems to me is a necessary festival; we require a season when we can regret all the flaws in our human relationships: it is the feast of failure, sad but consoling.”  

Graham Greene

An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Luke 2: 9-12 NIV

To launch this post I thought I’d let the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live start talking about Santa. This is a post that I had planned to do right after Thanksgiving, now that we are into the Holiday season. I want to pose the question; how do you handle the religious holidays if you don’t believe in God? It’s a hard and stressful time for many, but when you are part of the 4% of the population who doesn’t believe in God than this part of year can be even more stressful. On the flip side I would like to reflect on what do you do if you have a family member who is a skeptic. How do you engage them?

Having  made that introduction let me take you back to my faith crisis and the frame of mind that I had when I was deep with in it. Many Christians have no idea as to how religious this country is, and how religion shapes many aspects of our life. Atheists and skeptics have to deal with this often. Many Christians will be unable to admit how religious we are, yet others will not be able to see it. I did not think like this until I had my faith crisis and it taught me as to how religious our society is. How religious? Well I remember in my faith crisis pulling  coins  from  my pocket and seeing that phrase, “In God we Trust” and feeling deeply uncomfortable about the money I was using. Did I have a choice? Not really… But I remember when I lost my faith for a number of years and sometimes thinking to myself, “In God we Trust? Which God? The God of Joseph Smith? The God of Muhammad? The God of John Piper? Or the God of the Jews?” Unless you’ve walked that path you probably don’t understand how religious our society is today. Its part of the reason why it bothers me when evangelicals claim they are being persecuted. Even with society changing it still is deeply religious. This may sound extreme but I even privately wrestled with the way the work week was structured knowing that the seventh day was created for worship. During this time I finally came to view it as a day off from work since I disassociated from it in other means. But its hard to be an atheist, agnostic or skeptic in the United States. Let’s be honest…to be an Irish or Italian Catholic by ethnic association who pops up at mass twice a year are trusted more than a skeptic.  Also there are many closest skeptics who keep this situation to themselves, as they fear being rejected or having their spouse leave them. But the Holiday season can be even more challenging because religion is out there, and thrust in your face. You have to deal with it, whether you like it or not.

When I was in my faith crisis I dreaded going home for Christmas because I was fearful of having conversations about religion, church, or God. And that is what happened. I remember one time in December of 2010 or 2011 sitting at the dinner table and having my Mom stare at me from across the way. She beamed, and finally she said, “You’re not going to church anymore are you?” I was stunned that she deduced that, and wondered, how did she know that fact? I didn’t tell my Mom, I actually kept my entire faith crisis private and away from my family so that they would not know. After all I lived in the Washington, D.C. area, and they lived in California. But Mom being Mom, my Mom knew and had a sixth sense that something was going on with her son and she came out and asked me. It totally threw me off guard. So having remembered all that and having lived through it I wanted to pen a post and give some feedback for atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and humanists. I also wanted to give advice for Christians as well. So in this post I hope to straddle and address both crowds.


Atheists and Christmas Holidays

A few years ago there was an intriguing post on Richard Dawkins blog called “A very atheist Christmas.” I was honestly surprised to read it as it seemed very different and quite mellow This article was originally run in the Washington Post. Consider how R. Elisabeth Cornwell opens up the article.

When people find out I’m an atheist, the question often comes up about what I do during the Christmas holidays. There is an assumption that atheists don’t ‘do Christmas,’ so they are surprised when I say how much I love it.

Most atheists grew up in religious households, and most of us grew up with celebrating religious holidays. We have childhood memories of Christmas or Hanukkah, family meals, holiday cheer and the quirkiness of our relatives. While we might make noise when religion attempts to break through the wall of the separation of church and state, we are not in the habit of kicking Santa in the shins, tearing down creches, or, like the Grinch, stealing the Christmas stockings from the mantle. I admit I have known atheists who grow quite surly and Scrooge-like at any suggestion of Christmas merriment. But historically most of that sort of opposition to Christmas and its symbols has come not from atheists at all, but from rival religions. Most of the the atheists I know revel in the season as a way of celebrating family and friends, which really is the modern meaning of Christmas.

I can honestly see that as many people of all races need holidays, and need something to celebrate. Mankind, or the human race needs holidays to function. Every race, culture, civilization, has always had holidays which are of high importance. Plus we all need a break from the never ending routine we are in, regardless of what civilization we have lived in. Maybe if atheists can see Christmas through that lens it might allow for more understanding, and take off some of the pressure. Quick question if anyone can let me know…do atheists have their own holiday? If they don’t maybe they should look into developing their own. For example maybe they could celebrate Charles Darwin’s birthday or Robert Ingersol’s birthday. Anyhow, in the article Elisabeth Cornwell continues and speaks about the reasons why holidays are important and talks about how society needs them. During the article her understanding of anthropology really shines, and comes through. I’m not going to get into what she says too deep. I want to highlight this one paragraph where she states the following about common values in culture.

Feasts have been part of human culture since long before we worshipped a monotheistic god. It is a deep-seated part of our social nature, and humans are arguably the most social animals on the planet. Eating together, breaking bread whilst telling stories about ancestors, about hunting, battles, and travels, were part of everyday life for successful tribes throughout human history.

There are common values in cultures regardless. Feasting and eating are one of them…I’ve heard of friends that feasted and had interesting experiences out in India, Africa and elsewhere where they have experienced this part of culture. Its crossed religious and generational boundaries. It’s a basic component of human culture. Humans are not created to be alone and feasting and eating is one of the ways that this happens. It should also be noted that is what makes this time of year so special. Again  Elisabeth Cornwell continues in her article.

Families and friends are what create the celebration of the season, and especially in the US where we come from every corner of the world, where cultures freely mix, and traditions ebb and flow. We can see how celebration is truly a human phenomenon, independent of religion. I feel no sense of hypocrisy because I enjoy the many threads of my familial past. Nor do I shy aware from singing the familiar and much loved Christmas songs that I sang for years in choir or at home. Silent Night still can bring a tear to my eye because it recalls memories of childhood. And my sister, niece and I will suddenly start singing ‘I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas’ to set sail in a sea of laughter. Why should religious indignation take that from me? Celebration, despite their protests, does not belong solely to the pious.

What does make this time of year special is seeing friends and family that you may only see once a year. Plus you also having aging family and distant relatives and this may be their last Christmas or Holiday season before they pass away. That is another thing to keep in mind that this time of year brings people together and allows you to reconnect and re-kindle old relationships or friendships. Again I would encourage you to read the entire article and chew on it. Now if that article is kind of mellow for you I did find another article that you can read. This one is by Darrel Ray who wrote the God Virus. Or if you want to read what the late Christopher Hitchens thought of Christmas and the Holiday season you can read this interview here.


Christians and Atheist Relatives

So after reading article from Elisabeth Cornwell, on the flip side what do you do if you have family members who are not Christian? So you live in Seattle and your brother or sister from Miami is traveling to spend the Holidays with you. You know they do not believe in God…how do you relate? This section is geared toward those who are evangelical and beyond and is to help find some common ground and also find ways to respect each other in the end. First thing I would consider is finding ways to relate in other ways…you can do through sports, gaming, running, or a whole host of other activities. There are so many ways to relate to people, and it doesn’t have to be through religion. I know some people will have problems with this, but there are so many ways to do this, and if it can be done many evangelical Christians will be more rounded and balanced.   Plus I think you would be amazed if you found other common ground in the end, you would discover and learn a lot about yourself in the process.

Remember that the Holidays are short lived and keep this time of year in perspective. If you see someone for a week or a few days, do you want to have tension and conflict over that brief amount of time? When does personal conflict and disagreement ever achieve anything significant or help in such a situation? I believe it is crucial to respect that other person. How about this can a person be respected out of the sense that we both come from the same species?  I would hope you would also realize that it is not easy for someone to go through the holiday season and not believe in God. The person you love is in the minority, if I remember correctly its something like 4 to 6% and that may be too generous. So why not love them and treat them the way you would want to be treated? Show interest, care, and love them because you do, with no strings attached. It is not your responsibility to bring someone to God, and pressure will not do it. If it happens it will happen due to love and time. But any kind of pressure will backfire and create problems, increase tension, and complicate things in the long run. Its the last thing you want to do. My suggestion to you is to back off the evangelism and love the person. Arguments don’t help, they hinder, and in the course of time they can fracture a relationship. So please, if you read this…don’t think that you can argue someone into the faith. Just love them for who they are, and have no strings attached. Love them so that they email, text you and want to keep in contact with you. Love them so that they smile when they think of your name. That is going to be my challenge to you. I would love to hear any personal stories in the course of time if you would like to share.


Concluding Thoughts

This time of year is unique in many ways and I encourage you to relish and enjoy it. In your work place environments you will have office parities, Holiday parties, and so much more. Enjoy them and take them in. I also ask that you consider and look out for those around you, after all suicide rates rise this time of year. Pay close attention to your loved ones and those in your midst. Also thank someone in the military if you are close to someone who serves. Thank them for their service or if you know someone who is serving make sure you send them a care package so they know they are loved and cared for. Also if you know of someone who is by themselves or lonely this time of year reach out to them and include them. It shouldn’t matter what you are religiously, remember we are all part of the human race. In wrapping this up I hope I presented and addressed both sides in a way that is helpful. Again if you are a Christian, don’t press or push something on someone as that goes no where. And if you’re an atheist or skeptic there are other ways to think of this time of year. Finally if someone puts you on the spot and asks you to say grace, well you can always do what Aunt Betheny did in Christmas Vacation. Word of advice…use the 1923 to 1953 version. I hope both sides can maybe have some good take aways here. As always I love you guys!

12 thoughts on “The Christmas Season and the Challenges Atheists Face; Some Thoughts for Both Sides

  1. So you live in Seattle and your brother or sister from Miami is traveling to spend the Holidays with you. You know they do not believe in God…how do you relate?

    I assume that stocking up on Romans Road, Four Spiritual Laws, and Jack Chick tracts is not recommended.


  2. Where I grew up, the village was split 50/50 between Catholics and Protestants. The Catholic side were fairly religious, the Protestant side not so much. My generation (growing up in the 90’s) were not very religious at all, like I would imagine most white British aren’t.. Many of the Catholics went to church because their parents did. So at Christmas, religion played very little in the holidays, it was more about families… and still is.

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  3. For me the holiday season is both Christmas and Solstice. I love Christmas. Love the music, the family stuff, the traditions, etc… Sometimes some family religious stuff may occasionally spark, but that’s become less and less as a detente seems to arise between the theists and atheists in my family as more and more of us freethinkers have been more openly secular.

    Sharing Christmas music, I was raised on Michael Card and I’ve always loved his Christmas stuff. You might enjoy this one.

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  4. Feasts have been part of human culture since long before we worshipped a monotheistic god. It is a deep-seated part of our social nature, and humans are arguably the most social animals on the planet. Eating together, breaking bread whilst telling stories about ancestors, about hunting, battles, and travels, were part of everyday life for successful tribes throughout human history.

    …which is probably why the Puritan project of eliminating all (or most) church holidays as “idolatry” ultimately failed. This isn’t completely off topic either. It was, after all, Cromwell and company that banned Christmas in England, and the New England Puritans banned it here too.

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