How do you say Merry Christmas to an atheist?

Recently President Trump triumphantly announced that Americans “can say Merry Christmas” again! Apparently, he or his devotees thought they couldn’t. (Seems a little silly to me, but every little bit of education helps.) However, his permission did set me to thinking about how uptight we get over allowing each other some room. That said, here are a few disclosures, but skipping the usual warning that I don’t and can’t speak for more atheists than one (me).

If you wish to greet me with Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, or any other of the Winter Solstice salutations tied to one faith or another, please do so! I will smile in the comfort of being recognized no matter what your faith and the words that symbolize it. In fact, though I’m inclined in December to think more of earth’s axial tilt than mangers, I may slip in a Merry Christmas myself from time to time. And I won’t even stop to apologize. Just to be sure you know, though, if that occurs it’ll not be due to losing faith in my non-faith, but to the childhood I spent in the bells, whistles, Yuletide songs, and virgin pregnancy of Christianity.

Still, communicating well-intended messages across lines that too-often divide us can get dicey. When I had an illness once, a kind acquaintance asked if I’d be offended if she prayed for my recovery. To me that made no sense until I recognized how close I came to treating her expression of good will as a joke, for I at first thought she was kidding. Turned out she genuinely thought that praying for an atheist would be perceived as offensive instead of supportive. I was horrified that I came so close to being such an ass, clearly I would have been the offensive one, not she.

So what did reversing my ignorant close call teach me? Just this. With or without religion, we human beings wish many times to say words of comfort, peace, and acceptance . . . well, not just to say the words, but to have the intentions of those words felt by someone. If everyone’s values and practices are the same, that isn’t too difficult (though even then it can be tricky). Religious English speakers are accustomed to phrases like “sorry for your loss,” “God bless you,” “you must be so proud,” “she’s in heaven now,” and, of course, “Merry Christmas.” But in a world where huge language and cultural differences exist, we can unintentionally send messages not at all like what we meant. Some of us don’t even try rather than take the chance of annoying someone. More grievous and happily less frequent, some expressions meant benignly can be perceived by others as actual blasphemy.

Distinctions we choose to make among greetings, special words, and creeds are distinctions not everyone accepts, nor are the words and symbols used to express them. But as different as beliefs and greetings are, what is flowing within us is pain, sadness, joy, and good will—feelings of value too great to sacrifice to squabbles over petty disagreements about the words chosen to express them.

Merry Christmas!*

*Or any expressions or even gestures that communicate kind wishes, human camaraderie, affection, or just plain good will.




About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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3 Responses to How do you say Merry Christmas to an atheist?

  1. I posted an essay on April 20, 2014 titled “Political correctness.” In that post I sought to give the oft-used term a more reasoned definition than is normally the case. I believe it had implications for the damage you’ve pointed out with respect to those “heartfelt expressions.” I fully agree with you, by the way, that such restriction imposes a cost on our humanity. Given the number of subjects I expect to cover in this blog, I can’t promise that this topic will come up again. What I can do here, though, in addition to thanking you for such a thoughtful comment, is to restate the summary I wrote in the 2014 post:
    “In real-world usage, we ascribe a position or action to “political correctness” only when we don’t like it and wish to charge that it is slavishly founded on group approval rather than on personal thoughtfulness. Calling a position politically correct, then, is void of meaning about that position. It conveys no intelligence that the proposition is unsupportable or that arriving at it has been improperly or inadequately reasoned. Use of the term as a retort tells us the speaker’s attitude toward the proposition, but tells us nothing useful about the proposition per se.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I hoped you would opine on how political correctness has restricted even the most “benign” and heartfelt expressions of those emotions you enumerated. Maybe in a future post?

  3. Ron Nickle says:

    Good thoughts JC. I like what you said and the thinking behind it. So. . .merry Christmas my friend.

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