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It’s that time of the year again where books need to be sold and the alleged atheists’ war on Christmas needs to be fought again at all cost.
Failed U.S. vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin is currently busily hawking her book on the topic, Fox ‘News’ has also started its annual War-on-Christmas campaign, lest we forget that Christmas is coming. For better or worse, being connected to that part of the world courtesy of the Internet and cable TV, even Canadians can’t quite escape the manufactured outrage by assorted business minded Christians like Ms Palin.
So, quick reality check: do us atheists fight a war on Christmas, and presumably elsewhere holy wars on Eid, Diwali and whatnot else that is celebrated by our religious brethren? Do we celebrate anything spiritual at all or is our life really one of eternal boredom stripped of anything deep and meaningful? Our kids, are they really robbed of Santa Claus when all the other kids dress for the occasion?
Well, brace yourselves, most atheists in the West are actually known to celebrate Christmas. It is true that we do not treat Christmas as a time of religious worship, but hey, that puts us in the same boat as the vast majority of Canadian Christians. The latter cannot quite be bothered to trek down to their local church and listen to a preacher’s sermon even during their supposedly most holy of religious events. Incidentally, in addition to Christians we have a hell of a lot of Canadians who worship competing invisible friends in the sky, so they also don’t do Christmas as the Christian churches want us to do. The odds are that the majority of Canadians do not actually treat Christmas as a time of worship but a time of public holidays, gift shopping and literally any number of other things that have zilch to do with the God-related activity that Christmas historically was all about. Most of us have kind of grown out of the religious appendage attached to Christmas. That doesn’t stop us from giving gifts to our kids and each other. It’s also that time of the year where many of us feel sufficiently guilty about not having donated a great deal of money to charitable causes, so it’s the cashing-in time of the year for charities. The spirit of giving isn’t quite dead yet, but it is by and large stripped of its religious meaning.
Atheists would do more or less the same thing in majority-Muslim countries around Eid, and in majority-Hindu countries around Diwali. There is even that peculiar Mexican Dia de Muertos, its Day of the Dead. It is probably fair to say that most Mexicans today will not subscribe to the ancient Aztec beliefs that gave rise to the Day of the Dead. One also can’t help but wonder how many the Muslims enjoying their Eid al-Adha celebrations would be willing to sacrifice their sons to their God, because Eid celebrations are actually celebrating a father’s willingness to sacrifice his son to demonstrate obedience to Allah – it goes without saying that the Bible offers similarly disconcerting stories of human sacrifice in the name of the Lord.
Typically atheists in those countries will simply join in the festivities and get on with their lives. We certainly don’t think it’s worth celebrating someone’s willingness to kill their children for the sake of making their respective God happy. It’s just not how we roll.
Richard Dawkins, one of the better known atheists these days, makes no secret out of his love for Christmas carols, and being an Englishman, the pulling of crackers, the smell of the Christmas tree and so on and so forth. Surely there’s nothing wrong with this. After all, the practice of gift giving around Dec. 25 turns out to be a practice pre-dating Christianity. It can easily be traced back to pagan celebrations of the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice.
What’s more difficult to accept, however, is that public holidays are inflicted upon us around Christmas time. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy holidays as much as the next guy, but there’s something inequitable about how we prioritize Christian religious events over similar events celebrated by other religions. This matters, to my mind, because, as I mentioned earlier, Christmas has been stripped of its religious significance for most of us. So, why should we continue to have public holidays around Christmas instead of Eid, or international human rights day, or whatever else? Why not add a number of holidays to our annual leave budget and leave it to us when we would like to take them.
This surely would not stop Christians – and anyone else wanting to join in their celebrations – from enjoying Christmas. Those of us subscribing to different religious views – or none – would then be free to continue going to the gym, going shopping, being at the office, instead of being shut down for a few days while Christianity is at its celebratory activities. As it stands we unfairly prioritize these traditions over other religious traditions, and the ‘nones’, like me. That is patently unfair.
The state surely would do well to remain neutral in religious affairs. Inflicting religious holidays on everyone isn’t quite what neutrality looks like.
You could call this a war on Christmas if you wish, but at best it’s a war against Christmas holidays. I call it a campaign for fairness toward the majority of Canadians to whom Christmas is merely a cultural event, an event stripped of religious meaning altogether. You could rightly point out that the majority of Canadians are still Christians. That is true, on paper anyway. I guess my case is based on the fact that the vast majority of Canadian Christians can’t even be bothered to visit their houses of worship during this most significant time in their calendar, because – like everyone else – they are too busy gift shopping, visiting friends, and whatnot else. So, an important cultural event it arguably is, a religious event demanding a public holiday, not really.
Udo Schuklenk teaches at Queen’s University, with Russell Blackford he is author of 50 Great Myths About Atheism (Wiley 2013), he tweets @schuklenk