Yes, I—an enthusiastic and secular humanist atheist—often wish someone a Merry Christmas, and I respond happily to others when they use the term. I react the same way to Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah, and other expressions of seasonal benevolence. Choosing to see the cheer and warmth in terms based on beliefs I don’t share in no way masks doubt about my irreligious core. I’ve not a shred of faith that there’s a god, life after death, religious miracles, salvation, or heaven-defined sin.
What I have faith in—besides reason—is that human beings experience a better, more satisfying life if we treat each other with openness, compassion, and joy. Just being nice goes a long way, farther than some religions do. And one doesn’t need fairy tales, made-up stories of angels, and sex-free procreation to wish pleasure, merriment, and enjoyment for all. Such supportive humanism is not only worthy of our attention year-round, but needs no creator-in-the-sky to command or even validate it.
Jesus is not the “reason for the season” as demonstrated by Christians’ time in commercial, feasting, and merrymaking activities on and around Christmas. Of Americans who celebrate Christmas (according to a PEW Research study) only about half treat it as a religious holiday. And lest we forget, not everyone is Christian to begin with. Americans are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Bha’i, Hindu, atheist, and more, as well as persons who claim Christianity but seldom darken the church door. The actual reason for the season, as jested by Dan Barker (co-president of American Atheists, Inc.), the actual reason for the season is earth’s axial tilt.
At any rate, even Christians don’t do much on Christmas that is specifically Christian. It was a borrowed (or stolen) holiday to begin with, appropriated from pagans who saw something noteworthy in geo-solar phenomena. Besides, pretty well everybody knows the ostensible Jesus of Nazareth was not born near December 25 despite our stories for children. Perhaps we continue with such delightful myths in adulthood because they grab our attention, slow us down momentarily from busy lives, and spread a bit of conviviality. That’s not all bad.
So why would a self-respecting atheist like me not be offended when the Christmas greeting is used by others? First, I just don’t get offended that easily anyway. Second, it’s difficult to avoid language that arises from philosophies neither you nor I adhere to. Third, I have an investment in using language a listener can understand. Every week I speak of Thursday with no need to proclaim each time that atheism dismisses Thor quite as quickly as Jehovah. These left-over terms are in the English language, and like you, I have more meaningful battles to fight.
One of those battles is relevant to the topic of this post. As much as I like Christmas trees, enjoy the December holidays, and welcome the charitable spirit of Yuletide, I abhor all observance of and support for religion by government. I am adamant that the government and all its representatives—like school teachers, police, and elected officials—diligently refrain from commenting on or supporting any religion or lack of it, whether about its dogma, its symbols, its celebrations, its theocratic complexities, or its holy books. (In large part, they do not refrain now.) However, as persons apart from their government employment, they have Constitutionally protected rights of belief and expression just as you and I. As public servants, they do not, for in those roles they are representatives of the state. (For further reasoning about these matters, I encourage you to take a look at previous posts found under the categories of Church & State and Politics on the right side of this screen, particular the posts listed below.)
My reaction to religious expressions, then, runs hot and cold. I am unyieldingly intolerant of government engagement in religion, but light-hearted and indulgent with respect to individuals’ words of kindness, even if cloaked in a religious expression.
So whatever season you acknowledge, celebrate, or just endure, I wish you a Merry Christmas or whatever greeting best fits your intentions for warmth, happiness, joy, and goodwill.
Previous posts particularly relevant to this post: “Freedom of religion requires freedom from religion,” October 8, 2014; “Our national day of prayer,” May 1, 2014; “Public education: Using the bully(ing) pulpit,” July 19, 2013; “Theocracy’s poster boy, Alabama’s Roy Moore,” December 7, 2017; “God-given rights,” December 9, 2013; “God-given rights—2,” December 9, 2016; “Perverting the meaning of freedom of religion,” April 16, 2014; “Atheists in public office,” November 25, 2013.