Rules on How to Be an Atheist? Really?

The other day, I ran across a poll on whether Christmas should be a government holiday, and one of the commenters said this:

No matter how you slice it, xmas has roots in religion. Atheists celebrating xmas is not merely inane, but shows weak conviction.

Atheists should celebrate real, important events, like the date of publication of “Origin of Species” or the date of Watson and Crick’s discovery. Such celebration would show far more logic than coopting the smarmy, maudlin commercialism of xmas. Show some spine, atheists.

It is as incongruous for an atheist to celebrate Christmas as it would be to celebrate Ramadan or Seder or Passover. One must have courage in one’s convictions. Society must break with religion to rid itself of religion… Atheists who celebrate Christmas are cognitive dissonance cop-outs.

I couldn’t disagree more. Why in the world should we atheists make silly rules for one another about who is and is not a “real atheist”? I thought I left all that behind when I left religion. One of the nice things about atheism is the vast diversity among its members. We’re united more by what we don’t believe than what we do, and that broadens the base considerably — all that’s required to be an atheist is a lack of belief in a god. No other creeds or doctrines are necessary.

I am an atheist, but I’m also a product of my Western-Christian upbringing. I still love Christmas even though I don’t celebrate it religiously, and I don’t feel like I’m “letting down the atheist community” just because I observe the secular aspects of the holiday. To me, it seems reactionary to throw out one’s culture just because he’s shed religion. The US is not a Christian nation legally; we have a separation between church and state. But it is true that our country was founded by people who were predominantly Christian. And demographically, we are still predominantly Christian. I see no reason to pretend otherwise.

I’m curious to see what the rest of you think. Is Christmas inextricably tied to Christianity?

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25 comments

  1. Ahem, the ONLY thing about western celebrations of Christmas that is about Christ is the manger scene and going to church that extra time. ALL of the other traditions are rooted in secular/pagan celebrations of the solstice… seriously. Google them. Christmas is NOT a Christian holiday – the church coopted it to calm down Saturnalia celebrants.

  2. Why in the world should we atheists make silly rules for one another about who is and is not a “real atheist”? I thought I left all that behind when I left religion.

    Very well said. That’s exactly how I feel about it. And it is why I prefer to say that I am “non-religious” (rather than “atheist”).

  3. I agree that it seems silly for atheists to start making rules for other atheists. We didn’t reject religion with all of its attempts to control our minds and actions to turn around and have some other group tell us what we need to think and how we need to behave in order to belong.

    Regardless of the historical roots of Christmas (whether Christian or pagan) or even how our current society chooses to see it, I still love having a chance at this dark time of year to have some fun and find a reason to celebrate and get together with friends and family. Our family just kind of ignores the Christian part of it and we enjoy it as a fun holiday.

  4. As has already been stated Christmas’ real roots are in winter solstice celebrations that Christians coopted. Certainly everybody knows Jesus most likely wasn’t born on December 25 of any year.

    It seems to me that some atheists are as militant and fundamentalist/extremist as any religious group out there. I’m more of a live and let live kind of atheist. To each his/her own. That’s the beauty of the freedom I’ve been given in relinquishing religion. I no longer think it’s my job to tell someone else what to believe. :)

  5. Well said Nate! There are a lot of things to enjoy in the culture and celebration of holidays, and belief in the dogma of these holidays is not required. I enjoy the time with family, nostalgic and fun traditions, joy of giving gifts, and the awesome food during holidays. My wife’s family is from a Buddhist background and they celebrate Christmas because it is simply a fun cultural thing to do. My wife and kids and I enjoy Hanukkah and Christmas as well as many other holidays. Halloween is another great example – you think I care where it came from, the way it is practiced today it is simply a fun holiday for the kids (and me too!).

  6. I, too, was brought up a Catholic and firmly brainwashed into liking Christmas. I mean, skiing, cookies, presents, etc. – how could a kid not like that? So I like the general Christmas feeling (the smell of Cookies, snow, nicely decorated shops and streets, etc.), but of course I don’t “celebrate” the birth of some guy with it, just enjoy the show. I could also enjoy, let’s say, the feeling of Chinese New Year – without being Chinese or knowing anything about the mythological background.
    Simple put: I don’t “celebrate” Christmas, I just enjoy the season when other people celebrate it :-)

  7. Rules to be an atheist? Ummm… No.

    That comment sounds more like a religious person harping on atheists for not being religious. I doubt that they are an atheist. If they are, they don’t think too far past their own ears.

  8. Nate, this just goes to show that ‘legalism’ is a part of human nature and not confined to Christians. Everyone has ‘rules of right and wrong’ they think people should live by (even Atheists). Besides, every ‘ism’ could be called a religion of sorts. Consider these definitions of religion I found:

    From Dictionary.com:
    re·li·gion
    noun
    1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

    From Wikipedia:
    Religion is a collection of belief systems, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values.

    Basically, whatever your world view is, it can be called a religion, and that doesn’t mean it has anything to do with a belief in a god. Every religion has rules because every person has rules. What’s funny is when you find so many people who consider themselves part of one group but all their rules are different! Maybe that’s why I’ve come to understand that Jesus’ way makes sense. He boiled it all down to 2 ‘rules': 1. Love God, and 2. Love your neighbor. I know you don’t believe in God, but I also think you seek to follow the second part about loving your neighbor. In a very real sense, you are following Jesus even though you do not believe in Him! :)

    Grace and Peace to you. Oh, and Merry Christmas!!

  9. P.S. What so many others said about Christmas and the winter solstice. I don’t even think anyone celebrated Jesus’ birth prior to Catholicism seeking to incorporate pagan rituals into Christianity (probably under Constantine, though I have not studied the history very deeply). The only event the early church celebrated was the resurrection – through weekly communion. Easter is another bit of pagan nonsense as well.

  10. I guess I still have too many bad memories from my Christian days because I have a real hard time celebrating “Christmas.” I try to get into the mood of things from a secular viewpoint, but it’s difficult. There’s just too much baggage that Christians have attached to the holiday. Altho’ I do “go along” with some of the activities for the sake of family and friends, my heart is not in it.

    As for the “rules” for being an atheist. That’s rubbish. However, since the writer was using Christmas as his/her focal point, it may be that he/she suffers from the same residue that I feel.

  11. We used to discuss this in theology classes. We came to the conclusion that atheism can be a religion because it is a belief that God does not exist. That can then be used to create creeds and rules as you talked about. We decided that agnosticism is the truly nonreligious route, as one is not really concerned with whether or not a god exists and so has no belief on which to build religious creeds.

    The religious person asks himself is there more to life than this and comes up with an answer. The nonreligious either do not ask it, or do not choose an answer. Does that make sense?

    Not saying it’s right, it was just what we all came up with concerning what is the real basis of religion and religiosity.

  12. “I’m curious to see what the rest of you think. Is Christmas inextricably tied to Christianity?”

    No its not for our culture, though it still is for me, naturally. The days of the week are named after Norse gods, but I don’t have to think of them in that way if I don’t wish to, and neither does an unbeliever have to think about what was, and for me still is, the meaning of Christmas.

    And I’ll even celebrate the date of Watson and Crick’s discovery if you invite me! : )

  13. Hey there, Nate, and all. I really enjoyed this one. I have no problem whatsoever with Christmas, and Yule. Christmas is not about Jesus anymore, and the Christians know this, you hear them complaining. Christmas is about pretty colors and lights and Santa Clause. I prefer it not happen on government property, but I am not angry at the moment. Christmas was given to us by the Pagans. Not quite a year into going open, vocal, with Atheism, I had a falling out with majority Atheism, and all the stuff I experienced in Christendom started happening again. Atheism very much has denominations, and they practice excommunication. It is Christendom revisited. I am a Pat Robertson Atheist. I have the same morals, family values, and political ideals. I am an ex-Christian, and ex Pat Robertson follower. I still agree with him many times, even his unpopular views. Needless to say, I do not get along with ATheists at all, at all. I put up walls around them. I vote for Christians and even Mormons, because they are the ones who have the morals. This is unfortunate, very. It does make me feel better to know that Nate considers me at least a dictionary atheist, though I may be right leaning in some respects. Nate and I also share similar backgrounds. I did not keep track of the long series on his deconversion, but I will come back to it. Good night, all.

  14. Well I for one am offended at just how many atheists are celebrating ‘MY’ holiday! Can’t you guys celebrate something like “the date of Watson and Crick’s discovery?”… Seriously. Who the hell is Watson and Crick?

  15. I forgot to say that I have no problem with Atheism being a religion or requiring faith. Most atheists are not good with this. I have a world view and an odd sense of spiritual satisfaction, a set of not clearly defined moral code, and I see the skies as Carl Sagan saw them, just an infinite expanse in every direction with pretty colors and lights, but no real intelligent or benevolant figure anywhere to be found. To me, I found a new religion, and one that works. I like it. I believe it is correct. And Atheists or whoever have to chose their beliefs, and accept the responsibility for it. We could be wrong. There is a remote chance that we could go to Hell for eternity. We have to live with ourself and accept responsibility and see can we take the gamble. I can take the gamble. I chose this. But it works. And I have 95% probability on it. At least that is what Dawkins told me. ;) LOL! If when you die, you get eternal anesthesia, that is not too bad, and it could be far worse. I had surgery, four hours of my life are non-existance, reality was absolutely gone. If death is like that, then, you have nothing to fear and everything to look forward to in terms of you much needed rest. I recommend you live so hard man, live hard, work hard and play hard, for tommorrow we die, and it is over man. Live!

  16. @ haydendlinder
    “Seriously. Who the hell is Watson and Crick?”
    LOL….probably not taught at Creationist school. Fortunately God gave us Google…
    Go to it my man, Jesus will be proud fo you. :)

    If you want an alternate spin on Christmas read Hogfather, by Sir Terry Pratchett.

  17. HI Nate,

    I’m with you on this. The extremism that demands that an atheist not celebrate Christmas is divisive in my opinion.

    Its a celebration that’s embedded into our lives now, may as well go along with it and enjoy the ride. I really don’t see the benefit in resisting it.

    I hear praise for Darwin Day and Kitsmas on a few places that promote atheism and I wonder what the motive is. If its to dislodge Christmas and promote their holiday of choice as a preference, is that really effort worth expending? Its screams pettiness and that’s not a good thing.

  18. I just wanted to take a second and tell everyone how much I appreciate the comments! I found myself nodding in agreement with almost every one.

    I wanted to make one small point in relation to atheism as a religion. In most cases, I don’t view it as one, mostly because of this part of the definition:

    especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

    The type of atheism that I ascribe to is essentially the same one we’re all born with — simply a lack of belief in a deity. Maybe one exists, but I haven’t seen enough evidence to convince me yet. That, at least in my mind, is different than making the positive claim that “there absolutely is no god!” If someone claims that much certainty in their atheism, then yes, I’d say it’s a religion.

    Thanks again for all the great comments!

  19. Great to read another post by you. Going back and reading the posts you were making in 2006, 2007, 2008, and then the ones you make now, is amazing. Very rare to witness somebody changing their opinion in public like that. And very inspiring. :)

  20. Christmas it seems to me, just like Christianity, bares little if not no resemblance to its origins, this being whatever anyone wants it to be. If you have fun with it, then rejecting it because you feel it usurps your belief system would not be atheistic, because in a sense you are saying that a higher power than yourself is holding you accountable to not celebrate something. An atheist is free to do whatever they desire.

    I personally detest Christmas, not due to religion, but due to the hungry look in the eyes of those unwrapping gifts. Expectations are a finicky thing that tends to let us down more often than not. I do enjoy the winter season holidays as the family gathers and games and food is shared, the songs make giddy my heart and the food tingles my taste buds, but for a few years now I and my wife have refused to partake is gifts. However, through the year we make it a challenge to observe those around us, find needs or desires and suprise those we care about with random gifts. This may be hipocritical, but I believe the suprise is the joy, and no one gets suprised by Christmas gifts. We do partake in stocking stuffing because of its simplicity and fun.

    We are enjoying our own little tradition, and wouldn’t have it any other way!

  21. If you have fun with it, then rejecting it because you feel it usurps your belief system would not be atheistic, because in a sense you are saying that a higher power than yourself is holding you accountable to not celebrate something. An atheist is free to do whatever they desire.

    That’s an excellent point, Mark! Never thought of it that way before…

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