Christmas and Atheism

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 20, 2008 in General Atheism

Apparently there is a War on Christmas going on. Atheists and other non-Christians want to “take Christ out of Christmas.” The media are under pressure to say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Xmas” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

The reasoning seems to be the same as that which motivated most historians to use CE and BCE (Common Era and Before Common Era) for historical dates instead of BC and AD (Before Christ and Anno Domini, “in the year of our Lord”).

The intent is to allow everyone to appreciate and participate in Christmas – and historical dating – without forcing them to acknowledge the Christian origins of Christmas or the Gregorian calender.

But strangely, the people who wage the War on Christmas use terms like “Thursday” (Thor’s Day) and “cereal” (for Ceres, Roman god of agriculture) without complaint. I don’t see any need to stop using words with mythical origins, and neither does anyone elseexcept when it comes to their isolated “pet peeve” about the word Christmas. Likewise, we still use the words atom and malaria even though their original meanings are no longer relevant (an atom is not indivisible and malaria isn’t caused by bad air).

So if you’re an atheist who wants to take the term Christ out of Christmas, please stop – unless you are willing to make a consistent argument that we should remove religous terms from our language entirely.

That leaves open the question: What should the atheist response to Christmas be?

In a way, this is a silly question. One would never ask, “How should those who don’t believe in unicorns respond to Christmas?” Similarly, an atheist is anyone who doesn’t believe in gods. An atheist can be a Buddhist, an infant in a Christian family, a schizophrenic, a non-violent Jain, a serial killer, a secular Jew, a scientist, a vegan zealot, an environmentalist, or a corporate CEO. Does it make sense to expect all these people to have a unified response to anything?

So instead, I’ll ask: What should be the human response to Christmas?

Two years ago I swore off the obligatory gift exchange. I told my family and friends not to get me anything, and that I wouldn’t get them anything either.1

This has a long list of advantages. It saves everybody money, shopping time, and frustration. It relieves the pressure of acting excited when you don’t like the gift, of trying to match in advance the monetary value of what you give with what you receive, of trying to please some people you only see once a year. It reduces waste. It opposes the culture of blind consumerism. It helps people see that they need not do something just because it’s tradition. It increases the impact of real gifts, which are given with no expectation of return. And while it may hurt the economy in the short term, it will help increase the savings rate, which will help the economy in the long run.

That’s one good idea, I think.

Another is to use Christmas for self-growth. You are probably going to spend time with people you rarely see, or don’t even like. This is a good opportunity to practice active listening. Don’t listen in order to come up with a clever line or a related story that makes you look good. Listen to what the speaker’s needs and desires are, and then make some comment that uplifts him or her. Try to leave a “net positive” impact on the people you see during the holiday.

Being an outspoken atheist – and the only non-Christian among my long-term friends and family “back home” in Minnesota, I could have lots of fun debates about religion. But maybe it’s better to avoid such confrontations. That’s not what most people want for Christmas. Of course, if people ask me about my atheism, I’ll be happy to have a private conversation about it.

I’m sure you can think of other good things to do for Christmas. Take some of your time off to volunteer at a soup kitchen or write thank-you letters to people who have blessed you this year.

But please don’t wage a War on Christmas.

  1. The year before, my “gift” to my grandparents was the donation of a goat to an African family. []

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Zeb May 30, 2011 at 11:08 am

Wow, two and half years with zero comments? Well, since I miss the old CSA, the old Luke, and especially the old commenters, I’m going through the archives from the beginning, at a leisurely pace, and commenting as if these were current posts. Anyone who is subscribed to the comment RSS will see this and maybe join in.

I tried opting out of gift giving and receiving for all the same reasons about 13 years ago, when I was 19. It lasted about 3 years I think, and no one stopped giving gifts except me. I didn’t have the heart to reject gifts when they were presented even though I had explicitly requested not to receive any. That became too awkward and troublesome, so I gave in and resumed the obligatory token exchange. Now I think it has value as just that, a ritualistic expression of relationship. I’ve really reduced the monetary threshold of these tokens, and everyone in the family has pretty much followed suit now that we’re all adults and there are grandchildren around who actually really want presents for more than just the ritual.


Luke Muehlhauser May 30, 2011 at 12:50 pm


I appreciate that! You should also check out my posts at Less Wrong. They aren’t religion-focused, but they are generally more carefully written than much of CSA.


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