Saturday, December 27, 2014

Why I embrace Christmas as an Atheist: Trying to avoid the package deal fallacy

Don't let the Christian marketers fool you: You don't have to buy everything in the Christmas basket.
You can take the gifts you want and leave back the ones that don't interest you.

Another year and once again a chance to enjoy Christmas. A day that has held a special place for me since I was five years old and rushed down to the tree in my pyjamas to unwrap those magical coloured packages that 'Santa' brought.

These days things are a bit different as an adult and an atheist. This is now my fifth Christmas as an atheist and every year I seem to get into some discussion with someone about why I still celebrate and perhaps more significantly why I continue to embrace the name 'Christmas' for the thing that I am celebrating.

The big question from some of my believer friends is "Why celebrate Christmas if you no longer believe in Christ, his birth for mankind and the truth of the Christian gospel?" The big question from some of my atheist friends is "Why celebrate Christmas if you no longer believe in Christ, his birth for mankind and the truth of the Christian gospel?"

That's right, this is one time of the year when the believer and non believer question can be the same. There is a view on both sides of the theistic divide that Christmas is for the Christians. This is not by any means the perspective of all, but it has significant sway it seems. These people believe that if there is any mass an atheist should be playing on the morning of the 25th,  it shouldn't be the one with Jesus' name.

I think this is unfortunate. I continue to celebrate Christmas and call it 'Christmas' and try to enjoy it to the fullest. I believe that we atheists that have come up in a culture where Christmas has had significance within the family and wider society should do the same. I'll explain why.

Anything to keep you in the 'club'

It is not difficult to understand why many Christians are unhappy to see atheists and secular people on the whole embrace what they see as being THEIR festival. For Christianity and indeed religions on the whole, the main goal is getting and keeping as many people in the 'club' as possible. The arguments for the belief in the doctrine collapse easily on their own logic so it is important that other types of social pressures or manipulations are there to keep you in their camp. One of the ways to keep you in the 'club' is to maximize the benefits from being in the group and withholding as many of the benefits as possible (or even dish out punishments) if you decide you prefer to stay outside. Yes, once you deny their saviour  they immediately want to place you on the naughty list.

It's the proverbial 'carrot and stick'  technique that is epitomized to a large extent by the creation of the various heavens and hells in different faiths. But it doesn't end there. There is an earthly aspect too.  Although they claim that becoming a Christian is giving up all the tempting attractive worldly goods, the truth is that leaving Christianity also means giving up the numerous attractions of being in faith.

Christmas with all that goes with it,  is seen by a section of believers as one of those in-house treats. The rich traditions of colours, lights, trees, mistletoe, gift giving, music, food and all manner of consumption of alcoholic beverages is fun for many people who believe nothing of miracles, Magis or mangers. The general good will,  joy and happiness that go along with the festivities makes it something that millions the world over are keen to latch on to.

So, of course one way to make atheists pay for going for the rational over the religious is to tell us we have to give up  all of the activities of the festival that bear their saviour's name. Of course, as people like Seth Andrews  The Thinking Atheist' have repeatedly pointed out, most aspects of Christmas have nothing at all to do with Christianity. Most of what people love about Christmas comes from much older practices of pagan origin. Even the date of December 25th was the birthdate of many 'gods' that came down to earth long before the Christ child.

All of this is undeniable, but the fact is that whatever you say, the celebration still carries the name of CHRISTmas and believers milk that for all that is worth. If atheists or church people who enjoy the season can be convinced that they need to stay in the Christian fold if they want to truly enjoy Christmas, the church benefits from increased club membership and club dues.

Keep Christ in Christmas but don't dare give church kids a 'Christ' gift on that day

That is why the "Keep Christ in Christmas", "Put Christ in your Christmas" and "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" campaigns are so important.  Christians that make such remarks and protest the over  commercialization of the day know full well that Christmas is not centred on the baby Jesus and will almost certainly never be. Neither would they want it that way. Show me the Christian parent who would dare forego buying a 'Star Wars' lego set to purchase a 'Jesus Christ Super Star' figurine for their eight year old son. You can  talk about keeping Christ in Christmas all you want, but put Christ in a Christmas present and you are history. Most Christian youngsters would rather get a lump of coal in their stocking than have it stuffed with something 'Christ filled'  and they'll let their parents know it. So, if Christian parents want to prevent a juvenile war on Christmas they know that they have to keep their Christ far away from the Christmas tree.

Yes, by and large, Christians are happy to keep Christmas the way it is. The Jesus part is just lip service, but it is important lip service.  The message is that if you don't at least claim a belief in the Jesus baby and the surrounding story you don't get to do all the other fun stuff.

The Package Deal Fallacy

It's the package deal fallacy. Marketers often indulge in this type of practice. If you have an item that people don't want and something that is very popular, you tell them in order to get popular item 'X' you need to buy this other superfluous item 'Y'. So they trap you into buying 'Y" when you don't need it and often don't even want it. But the result is that 'Y' flies off the shelves and gets into the hands of consumers. Then the makers of 'Y' can claim their product is a best seller. So they can make you buy the transistor radio with the smartphone you want just to make sure their old time radios don't go extinct.

We can't let the Christian marketers get away with that type of thing. As consumers of Christmas we can buy what we want and leave back the things we don't care for. Many of us have bought a lot of it but have opted to leave that weird looking baby Jesus on the shelf. Belief in a claim should be based solely on whether the evidence for that claim is reasonable.  If the answer to that is 'NO' it means you can and should reject that premise, but this should have absolutely no bearing on whether you choose to continue to practice any traditions that may be associated with the belief. As I have said in one of my earliest blogposts, tradition does not equal truth.They may often be sold together but they don't have to be bought together. We have to resist the package deal fallacy and we do that by explaining to Christians that we are free to continue to hold to their traditions while rejecting the beliefs. Throw out the baby and keep the bathwater.

Bathwater yes! Baby no!

There are quite a few people that find a lot of value in the bathwater after the baby is gone.  They can find some degree of nourishment in the traces of the babies dead skin in the water even as the blood and the body are rejected. We should not be afraid to continue to enjoy the music, sing the hymns admire the art and poetry if we still get some enjoyment and fulfilment from them. We have to remind believers that being an atheist simply means we don't believe the god they believe in exists. It REALLY is nothing more than that. It's not hypocrisy to continue to do some stuff associated with religion when we don't believe in the central doctrine. Hypocrisy would be pretending to believe in the doctrine when we don't. To not believe but explain we practice something because we identify with aspects of the culture is not only fair enough but something that should be encouraged. What we need to do is find a place to practice these outside of a church service context because staying in the church keeps us in their club and helps swell their numbers which is not in our best interest. But concerts featuring the church music are certainly great as far as I am concerned.

Enjoying Messiah Myth Music

So it was for me this year. I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful performance of Handel's Messiah with the Calgary Symphony Orchestra. The concert was every bit as moving as it was when I listened to  similar performances as a young Anglican in Barbados. As a side note,  I have to say that I got a totally different meaning out of the piece 'All We Like Sheep'.  I smiled all the way through that one. I couldn't help but feel that Handel highlighted  the entire problem with Christianity today in that single title and opening line. I wondered for a moment if Handel in a cheeky way was giving his own satirical take on the gospel. If only Christians would listen to the words coming forth from their own bibles and their own mouths. We can only live in hope.

But I digress, the point I am making here is that Handel's music is for me an essential part of Christmas and the fact that it surrounds a myth doesn't diminish the beauty in any way. We as atheists shouldn't have to apologize to other non believers for going back to enjoy something from the faith museum that we grew up visiting week after week or year after year. Neither should we have to deal with Christians trying to pick from our love of the tenor line in "And The Glory of the Lord" that our hearts are secretly yearning to join them back in God's kingdom.

No atheist should be pressured into taking part in an aspect of religious ritual or celebration they no longer feel comfortable engaging in but by the same token, no atheist should be pressured to give up an aspect of religious culture that they feel happy to keep doing. Indeed,  whenever atheists engage in something from a religious tradition, it gives us an opportunity to emphasize that you don't need to give up other things when you admit that you don't believe. This is important because many atheists, including myself, for years identified ourselves as Christian because we liked and appreciated the culture, especially the music. We bought into the package deal fallacy by assuming that our love of choral arrangements and organ improvisations was all part of our love for God and belief in his inspired word. It's only when we recognized we could look at our beliefs solely on their own logic with no additional trappings of culture and social expectations that we were able to break free of our indoctrination. So emphasizing the importance of analyzing religious beliefs ONLY on their logic and evidence to those still in the faith gives them the chance to take that same approach that many of us eventually took. Maybe one day they will reach the same conclusion we have. That's how we will end up with more non believers and have a chance of strengthening our secular movement adding to those of us who champion reason, logic and evidence.

So when we who are atheists seek to encourage atheists to not celebrate Christmas and opt instead for  going with Winter Solstice, Newtonmass, Festivus or push to popularize a more generic "Happy Holidays" we may not be doing ourselves a favour. I am not saying that these other celebrations don't have their place, because they definitely do. But if we over emphasize  these we can play right into the Christian 'package deal' argument that says Christmas is only for the Christ followers.

Keep the name but broaden the nature of the traditions

Each year Christmas embraces more traditions and becomes potentially an umbrella that more and more people can exist under. That to me is a benefit not a drawback. Christmas does not and should not mean the same thing to everybody. The more we can get Christmas to embrace new traditions the more people will be able to feel that they actually belong. In a world where we have divisions over race, religion, gender, nationality and political ideologies the potential of a festival that unifies us across our common humanity is exciting and attractive.

At the moment the celebration most likely to do that is Christmas, notwithstanding the identification of one single religion in its name. But lets not fixate too much on this nomenclature. Already many don't associated Christmas with Christ's mass. It's just a name connoting  no more feelings of a religion that when we talk to Christine, Christopher or Christian.

For me December the 25th is Christmas, has always been Christmas  and will also be Christmas.  It's being dressed in my cassock and rough singing treble as a 12 year old in the St. Michael Cathedral Choir Nine Lessons and Carols. It's playing Christmas carols with the Christ the King Church ensemble outside Super Centre.  It's using every ounce of energy from my lungs to make my clarinet be heard above the blast of the pipe organ at Christ the King Church in 'O Come all ye Faithful' at midnight mass.  It's  playing and singing with the Cavite Chorale back in university days in Barbados. It's appearing with the gospel  band 'Promise' in the park on Christmas morning. It's  treasure hunts for Christmas presents in the house as a kid in Rock Dundo Barbados. All these things I did in the name of Christmas and I won't and can't  delete such memories from my December holiday hard drive. There's an emotional connection I get with Christmas that I can't get from a vague wish of 'Happy Holidays' or ' Have a fine Winter Solstice'.

If  you are an atheist and you never had such traditions and memories with Christmas, by all means celebrate something else or don't celebrate at all. I certainly would never judge you negatively for it.
But if you are an atheist like me who has had Christmas written all throughout your heart and history, give it a chance. Let's play our part in further  secularizing this pagan festival. Let the Christian's keep the name. Let them have their moment to bask in some glory.even as we know that all they have is the Word. The Word that they think is key to salvation while we see a symbol of a relic long past.

 A Christmas 'tree'  that carries their name at the root, paganism in the overlapping rings of the trunk and our secular traditions in the modern branches makes the resulting 'evergreen' something that both those that believe and those that don't can justly identify with. That's what I think makes Christmas special. If we do it right, Christmas may one day be something that all the world can truly share.

Because having a holiday  season where believers celebrate one holiday and non believers celebrate another one is not ideal. The holidays should be about families, communities and the world coming together, breaking down the barriers that tend to divide us. It should not be a time where we seek to separate ourselves based on our differences in philosophies about origins of the universe. More and more families are now going to have a mix of believers and non believers and having that divide over holiday celebrations will only add to the tension.

So let's see what we can do with Christmas, keep Christ in it but let's keep adding more things, take it in all the other directions it can go to make more human beings culturally feel a part. Those who grew up with traditions in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism will be wondering why this western religion has to be the chosen world celebration ahead of the ones embedded in other peoples in the world. I take that point, but hopefully in time their traditions will be included in Christmas too and the origin of the name will fade in importance. Then the role of Christ in Christmas will actually become as relevant as the role of Thor in Thursday.

Who knows? One day historians may be arguing among themselves about whether the popular December festival's name hearkens back to an ancient religion that came from a Jewish tribe or finds it's genesis  from the name of a famous champion of anti religion, who came to wake us all from our intellectual slumber by giving humanity a 'hitchslap' of salvation.


  1. Christmas Tradition: It's not just about the food!
    As a youngster, my parents focused on Christmas and stories of the bible to depart wisdom about being charitable, kind, patient, and loving among other important lessons we learned together as a family facing our own unique brand of challenges. Whether our attention was heightened to learning the lessons, due to the "carrot dangling in the form of gifts under the tree, or the threat of being the naughty list, etc, one thing is for certain, "our attention was held as I am sure they were held for our parents from the grandparents, passed on as learning traditions are.
    My families particular traditions, getting together Christmas eve to laugh and share drinks and celebrate together. Christmas morning sharing breakfast and then sitting by the tree to give and receive gifts, followed by a litany of family stories, and more food. Sitting by a beautifully lit tree, recalling and retelling stories about each family member, sharing laughter, more food and past Christmas recollections as well as shaping and creating new ones, taking pictures, sharing stories about our lives over the past year and sharing hopes for the coming year (which can be put to words in prayer and giving thanks) all add up to the carefully crafted and interwoven tapestry of what I call our family Christmas.
    It may come as no surprise that this shared history, what happens in our family at Christmas time and a heightened attentiveness to the events of Christmas have acted to shape our family's identity over the years. These traditions have provided a strong sense of belonging and our families uniqueness. From childhood into adulthood Christmas time has acted to strengthen our family bond, and at times, has acted to 'spring-board' a renewed sense of togetherness, love and commitment to our family as interdependent parts of the whole. Christmas has created within me, a strong sense of belonging. It has become a benchmark time for my renewed faith in our family/togetherness and love I hold for each family member.
    Although for some, Christmas may not hold such fondness or a special place in a person's heart. Perhaps the reasons for 'not believing' out-way the perceived benefits? I could hazard a guess and state that perhaps the verb-age of CRHISTmas may hold as much negative connotations as "TheRapist' or "HIStory." I certainly understand the importance of challenging the language we use to support equity and humanitarian principles while discouraging negative stereotypes. I am a believer, so I may not fully understand or appreciate the cost outweighing the benefits dilemma.
    My take is that if you are lucky enough to muckel onto something that recharges, renews your sense of connectedness to something 'good, bigger, better,' that allows for a WIN/WIN and has a positive charge, then Go For It!
    Whatever tradition we find for ourselves, whatever lasting memories we create, share and pass down to those we love, let them propel us all to a greater sense of purpose to make the world a better place, let it renew our integrity and drive us towards unity within our relationships, our family(s), and our community(s).

  2. Well said Hugers! I think we should embrace whatever celebrations have the potential to bring us together as families or communities, Just think that opening up Christmas as much as we can could be a benefit to wider society in the long run.