George Michelsen Foy

Shut Up and Listen!

Announcing a New Lobby: Atheists for Christmas

Why let the faithful have all the fun? There's much to value in Yule tradition

Posted Dec 24, 2015

 Fumiste Studios
Source: credit: Fumiste Studios

My brother and I were brought up Catholic, and Christmas meant a lot to us, both because of the presents and festivities, and because of that sweet creation-myth of a little white boy in a snowbound crêche in some northern forest (for so he was often represented)—a boy who one day would preach a gospel of forgiveness to the world, or to the Roman Empire at least.

But like many others, as we grew, we grew unable to stomach the logical contradiction inherent in an all-knowing, all-seeing God who countenanced slaughter, torture, and pain on the scale we have all become used to; who allows (at this writing) up to 40,000 children to die of starvation-related causes daily.

It seemed clear to us that one of two realities applied: either God was all-seeing and all-powerful, which meant that he was also some kind of clinical sociopath for running a world so full of pain and misery, in full knowledge of how everything and everybody would turn out. Or he wasn’t all-seeing, which meant that he was just another, bigger form of The Man: a higher level of hierarchy, another authoritarian structure, a bumbling despot who toyed with human playthings the way teens play “Call of Duty”—apparently rejoicing, since he went along with so much of it, in destruction and human pain.

The argument that we must suspend our supposedly God-given logical faculties to “believe” in such absurdity cut no ice with us. The idea that a trio of borderline schizophrenics should spend time in the desert, come back claiming that God had given them and only them the truth and that everyone should henceforth believe them or die or at least go to hell forever, was frankly insulting. So Louis and I became atheists—or technically, I suppose, agnostics with a strong atheistic bent.

And yet, we continued to decorate pine trees, exchange presents, attend carol services; we steadfastly refused to give up the celebration of Christmas, long after we’d got rid of all the rest of the hypocritical, sexist, mumbo jumbo associated with our childhood religion. And in so doing I think we were quite right, for two reasons.

First,  what we call Christmas isn’t, deep down, Christian at all. It’s a solstice myth based on animals (the crêche critters), trees (the TannenBaum), earth mothers (the “Virgin” Mary), and other archetypal symbols of rebirth, of death turning full circle back to life as the days grow longer again. (Incidentally, December 25th is not even near the actual birthday of Jesus.) The monotheisms that rule our planet sprang from a paganism that was quite clear about our deep and essential connection to the natural world. European Christianity (read Frazer’s The Golden Bough) drew much of its strength from pagan wood spirits, elves and angels, Islam was replete with djinni and afreets, even the Talmud had its dybbuks and mazikim, all of which, originally, were linked to specific springs, mountains, trees, oases, animals and other facets of the natural environment on which our ancestors’ survival depended.

The other reason my brother and I were right to keep celebrating Christmas, paradoxically, had to do with one facet of its doctrinal message. Jesus’s lessons of compassion and forgiveness, as symbolized by the innocence and hope of a newborn, was a message shared by mystical branches of the other “great” religions. It was a more abstract form of the nature worship espoused by an original paganism, in that its underlying theme was a unity among, if not all forms of life as Buddhism taught, at least all forms of human life. That message, taken on its own, constituted a rejection of the Abrahamic core of the three big monotheisms, a core built on infanticide (Isaac and Jesus), blood sacrifice; and exclusion, for those who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid, from a “heaven” that was in all cases one of the earlier, meaner forms of gated community. Such exclusion of course meant shunning, death, torture, and a hell whose worst elements were modeled on the suffering good Christians visited on those who did not see things their way.

{Remember the saying, “Kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out,” supposedly a Special Forces motto from the Vietnam era? In fact the original version was first uttered by Crusade boss Arnaud de Amalric when he took the city of Béziers, in southern France, from the Albigensians, whose Christian heresy was tied to the not irrational Gnostic theory that a demon had taken over the world. When asked by a lieutenant if his soldiers should spare women and children when taking back the city, Arnaud allegedly replied, “Tuez les tous, Dieu reconnaîtra les siens”—“Kill them all, God will recognize his own.”)

Contrary to religious agitprop, atheists do not believe in nothing. Not accepting an illogical dogma does not mean we have no idea of, or need to define, what is right: quite the contrary, in fact. The very lack of dogma forces us to keep thinking  and searching for moral ways to live, along the same rational lines that led us to reject dogma in the first place.

In this world torn apart by godlike authority structures, power-mad religions and rite-blinded-bigots; a world whose forests, springs and animals are being poisoned and destroyed by the consequences of misplaced faith and obedience to cynical hierarchies; to rejoice in the message of an essential unity with nature, and with all life, is to support the one way of thinking that might someday drive back bigotry, propagate understanding, and save the planet as well.

Therefore I humbly propose the founding of a new group—one without hierarchies, power structures, headquarters, website, dogma, officers, or any other possession or principle but the inclusion of everyone who wishes to celebrate the enduring values of the Christmas/solstice celebrations without having to subscribe to the sad, exclusionary dogmas of traditional belief.

“Atheists for Christmas”—it doesn’t sing, it’s not a very catchy title.

Fair enough. We’re not trying to start a religion here.

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