The Christmas season has drawn to a close, concluding my first calendar year as a stated, outspoken atheist. So this has been my first experience of the build-up to a supposedly religious holiday.
Here are some of the questions I had:
Do atheists celebrate Christmas? If so, why? What is the reason for the season if you don't believe there was a Jesus or that worshipping him makes us better people?
My answer to all this is somewhat roundabout, and can be found in a recent Huffpost article on a Japanese religious holiday.
If I didn't have to return to work on Monday, and had unlimited funds, this is where I'd be. Visiting the stunning red halls of the Shinto shrine of Fushimi Inari-Taisha, steeping myself in the history of the place. Absorbing the architectural wonders and collective culture behind the worship of the rice-messenger God Inari.
This is where I cut back to the atheist-meets-Christmas question. Why assume that only those who believe in a faith can appreciate its traditions? To see how absurd and judgemental this assumption is, you only need to step out of Western culture for a brief moment.
Imagine a friend showing you holiday snaps after travelling to this festival. Your friend is raving about the food, the accommodation they stayed in the wonderful Shinto traditions surrounding rice worship, paying homage to Inari with various offerings...
Would you respond by saying "What a hypocrite you are. You don't even believe in a rice-God but you want to keep all the traditions! How convenient for you."
And yet, this is the sort of response atheists hear all the time concerning Christmas. At best, like some of my acquaintances, a puzzled bemusement as to why someone who thinks Christ is fictional would indulge in these traditions. In some cases, outright mockery or hostility.
Here's the deal. Most Christmas traditions are not Christian. There is no Santa in the Bible, and you won't find any fir trees in the Palestinian mythology of the Old or New Testaments. As for Turkey dinners and crackers, go figure.
If there are many reasons for the Season, Roman Saturnalia and Norse mythology rate petty high among them. Christ isn't even a bronze medal in the race for explanations Christmas traditions (his birthday if it happened at all, was not recorded in December).
But even if you could attribute Christmas to Christianity, why the hostility towards atheists joining in? Would you expect the same from Hindus celebrating Diwali with non-Hindu guests?
To steal an analogy from the late Christopher Hitchens, surely I can appreciate the Doric architecture of the Parthenon without buying into the cult of Pallas Athena? In fact, the near-destruction of this monument by later religious movements (yes, you've guessed it, Christianity and Islam), and its current preservation by secular groups and governments suggests the exact opposite. Secular and nonreligious groups do a better job of appreciating and preserving religious art, customs and traditions.
Like Shinto festivals. Or Christmas.
So why the hostility? Why are Christians just less generous when it comes to doling out the spirit of Christmas towards atheists?
My guess as to the reason for the atheist curmudgeonry during the season can be summed up in one word: insecurity.
If you can celebrate Christmas and keep the spirit of generosity and kindness it represents without the help of a religious group or priest, then who needs them?