Bah Humbug!

So, I am heading back to California for some much needed R&R…I am also looking forward to getting my Playstation 3!!! I can’t wait until they release Fallout 3, but until then I will be catching up on all of the PS3 games that I have missing out on! Very exciting…so posting around here should be lite for the next week or so (like anyone cares!)…but in the immortal words of the Govinator; “I’ll be back”

But at the same time I can’t help but feel duped by the Catholic Church. You see, Christmas is a Christian holiday (uh, ‘Christ’ ‘Mass’, anyone, anyone????), and I am not a Christian, so I feel weird celebrating it. People tell me that it is a secular holiday, but that’s just wrong. When you celebrate Christmas you celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, son of God. End of story. Whether you recognize that that’s what your doing doesn’t seem to me to matter. It certainly doesn’t matter to the Catholic Church! They have a long history of incorporating the imagery and beliefs of pagan religions in order to convert people to Catholicism (why do you think there is a Easter Bunny? Easter commemorates the death and subsequent rising of Jesus Christ, the bunny is a spring fertility symbol…), isn’t the ‘secularization’ of Christmas more of the same strategy? I mean when atheists and agnostics are celebrating the birth of the Messiah you gotta hand it to the PR department of that Messiah!!!

Of course, there is nothing wrong with celebrating Christmas if one is a Christian (there is nothing wrong with celebrating hanukkah if one is Jewish, etc). And there is nothing wrong with comming together to celebrate the spirit of giving and the importance of friends and family and helping those that are less fortunate than ourselves. I fully endorse and support all of those things, and I welcome the opportunity to give and recieve gifts from and for loved ones. But for those of us who are not Christians, why do we have to do it on Christmas? There should be a seperate, nationally recognized secular holiday, maybe ‘Family Day’ or something, on December 26th.  That’s what I’ll be celebrating. So, Season’s Greetings!!!

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15 thoughts on “Bah Humbug!

  1. Why shouldn’t atheists and agnostics acknowledge the religious nature of Christmas? I celebrate Thanksgiving, but don’t view this celebration as an endorsement of the Puritanical religion of the Pilgrims or the injustices that quickly become evident in their relationship with the American Indians. Rather, I am impressed by the ideals of religious tolerance and the ethnicly diverse community celebrated by this holiday that becomes so important in the history of the United States. In the same way I feel like even atheists (obvs. not all, e.g. Hitchens, Harris, and co), can celebrate Christianity on Christmas as a vital part of our cultural heritage.

    Sure, we won’t do this in the same way as the Christians–no praying or gratitude for the Incarnation, but Christianity is inextricably part of our culture’s mythos, and insofar as we value our cultural heritage I think we have to also value and acknowledge Christianity’s part in it. We can still do this while acknowledging that Christianity is a religion based on a bunch of false claims. We can do this even if we think that on average Christianity has been more harmful than not (unless we think it is always harmful).

    This is not a way of saying that non-religious people should celebrate Christmas, but rather just that there is a way in which Christmas, even as an avowedly religious holiday, can be worthwhile to non-Christians.

    Also, just as a note: I don’t think you can celebrate “Family Day” as a holiday. Holidays are collaborative community affairs, and your creation by fiat of such a holiday would not seem to meet the required conditions for instantiation. Not all celebrations are holidays (e.g. birthdays).

  2. When you celebrate Christmas you celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, son of God.

    Says who? I know many Christians want to insist on this, but they lack the authority to dictate the cultural meaning of my actions. That’s certainly not my personal understanding of the holiday I mean to celebrate. But maybe you are an externalist about such meanings, as suggested by your remark that “Whether you recognize that that’s what your doing doesn’t seem to me to matter.” But then, if we are to put aside people’s misconceptions and identify the “true meaning” of a celebration by tracing it back to its historical/cultural roots, we find that Christmas predates Christianity. So if origins are trumps, it is not a Christian celebration at all (and all those Christians are just confused when they think they’re celebrating Jesus’ birth). On the other hand, if you think the Church was able to co-opt the existing pagan festival and impose their own cultural meaning on it, then there’s no reason why secularists cannot do the same in turn.

    (Indeed, it seems clear that our shared cultural meaning of Christmas already incorporates blatantly non-Christian elements. I don’t recall reading anything about Santa and Rudolph in the Bible…)

  3. Hey Joshua! Thanks for the comment!!!

    Yeah, you make a good point, I guess I hadn’t thought about that possibility because I am more on the Hitchins side. I mean, are you going to celebrate slavery because that was a big part of American History? No, we should recognize it, but it’s not something to be proud of or to celebrate!! I mean, think of the Christian Missions that are scattered athrough California. A lot of Native Americans died to make those…is that something we should celebrate?

    But even if I grant your point, the point I was making is still intact. Christmas is a religious holiday not a secular holiday and when you celebrate it, for whatever reason, you are celebrating a Christian holiday. Calling it a secular holiday and then performing the standard Christian rituals and ceremonies is absurd. That the main point I want to make. It is inconsistent to celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday.

    Thanksgiving is a little different. It is not a religious holiday now (even though it may have started as a semi-religious holiday). It is a secular holiday. It is recognized as a day for giving thanks for what one has, its placement on the clander is due to its origins in Fall/Autuum Hartvest celebrations that many cultures have. The things you mention seem to be things which you are thankful for, and that is fine (or things which make it ironic to celebrate the holiday) but neither is the expressed purpose of the holiday. Yet, the expressed purpose of Christmas is to commerate the birth of Jesus Crist.

    Re the last point: there is a sense of ‘holiday’ in English where it just means ‘state-santioned no work/school day’ (see, for instance this dictionary entry). In that sense Family Day would be a perfectly respectable Secular Holiday. Even by your standards I don’t wuite see the problem. Why can’t the community come together to celebrate the family and the spirit of giving and helping those that are less fortunate than we happen to be? So, granted that birthdays are not holidays (though some are, like the ‘sweet 16′ or the Bhat Mitzah (I can’t spell that!). Though, these wouldn’t be a holiday in the sense of state santioned day off work…but even still all celebrations won’t be holidaysFamily Day seems different from birthdays because only a few people care about any given individuak’s birthday (except in celebraty cases) and nor is there any moral obligation for me to care about the birth of some person that I do not know, or at least it seems reasonable to think…but there is a moral obligation to help those that are less fortunate than I am, and so there is some reason to recognize the values that we associate with the “Christmas Spirit” this is why non-religious people (or even non-Christian religious people) like to celebrate it (aside from the presents, I mean). I agree that this is something to celebrate, buit there should be a way to do it that does not also involve celebrate the birth of some religious figure…

  4. Hey Richard, thanks for the comment.

    So, you think there are two distinct holidays? The Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ and the secular holiday celebrating the spirit of giving that fall on the same day? Each of which is called ‘Christmas’?? Each of which has all of the same traditions and rituals? I don’t see why we wouldn’t just say that there is only one thing there…

    It is true that Santa isn’t in the Bible, but he is a Christian saint! And Rudolf is almost certainly part of an allegory and stands for Jesus (he is ostrasized, but in the end saves everyone? C’mon!)…

    I don’t think the Church co-opted a previous holiday and gave new meaning to it I think they incoperated elements of the holiday into their Christian holiday as a way of tricking/coaxing people into converting to Christianity. So ‘Cristmas’ does not name some ancient celebration of the Solstice, it names the Christian celebration (unless, as you seem to suggests it is ambiguous and also names a secular holiday, but I don’t know why you would think this!)

  5. Sorry Professor,us British common wealthers current and former already have December 26th, Boxing Day that is and it is does have religious origins.(Saint Stephen’s) I fail to see the big deal with celebrating what you celebrate on the same day and call it what you like. As a native Jamaican my friend s and family members call it family day and no harm done. Why not call your celebration Festivus and make up your own rules?? Or since you want to give and receive gifts call it gift day. People seem to shop and party on labour day but in the islands we actually work. My point is everyone should do whatever makes them comfortable and don’t get too caught up in semantics :)

  6. Hi Chrissy,

    Yeah, I always hear about Boxing day and the different stories of its origins (it was the day the servents had off after serving on Christmas day, it was the day that the church donation boxes were opened and money given out, etc)…

    But I agree with your main point. MY problem is not with the fact that the celebration is on the same day, but that it is on the same day and includes all of the same rituals (I.e. decorated tree, carols, etc), At that point you are celebrating Christmas whether you like it or not. And that’s not just semantics…

  7. “Whether you recognize that that’s what your doing doesn’t seem to me to matter. It certainly doesn’t matter to the Catholic Church! They have a long history of incorporating the imagery and beliefs of pagan religions in order to convert people to Catholicism…I mean when atheists and agnostics are celebrating the birth of the Messiah you gotta hand it to the PR department of that Messiah!!!”

    I don’t think it’s plot by the Catholic church to have people convert but if anything, it’s a plot by corporations to have people spend money. At the end of the day, though, you do end up spending time with friends and family, giving and receiving gifts, helping the less fortunate, etc. So I guess what I’m saying is, it doesn’t matter whether or not people celebrate for religious reasons or whatever. Although to get technical, I’d prefer it if the holidays didn’t have religious roots, but whatever because after all, we are all victims to commercialism.

    But hey- I’m agnostic and I celebrate all sorts of religious holidays: Hanukkah, Easter, Diwali, Samhain, Christmas, just to name a few. Obviously not for religious reasons but for family and friends.

  8. Hey Richard,

    It seems to me that prima facie, I (and many others) celebrate December 25th as a secular holiday. After all, I don’t practice any inherently religious rituals or traditions on Christmas. Mainly, I don’t work, I visit with friends/family, and give other people presents. These are not religious practices. So it seems at least possible to celebrate the day of December 25th as a completely secular event. Whether I then go on to call this celebration a celebration of “Christmas,” seems irrelevant.

    I take it that your argument is that even if our celebration of Christmas is secular, by celebrating Christmas at all we are in effect participating in a celebration of the birth of Jesus, and so are engaging (perhaps unknowingly) in a religious ritual that is inconsistent with the agnostic’s beliefs.

    I have two responses. First, it seems to me that your criteria for involvement in religious tradition is too stringent. Holidays are socially constructed events, and in a diverse society like the United States it would be unsurprising to find contradictory conceptions of commonly celebrated holidays (we find this even within Christianity–so that the Catholic celebration of Christmas differs from the Mormon, or Methodist).

    So it is not that there are two holidays, but that Christmas is a thin concept that is fleshed out in different ways for different people. Also, if your criteria are correct, wouldn’t this imply that all marriage is also inherently religious?

    My second response is that even if we grant that Christmas is a religious holiday, it would not be inconsistent for an agnostic to be willing to celebrate Christmas. Hitchens’ view of religion is that it is always poisonous. If this were true then I agree that it would be inconsistent, even wrong, for an agnostic (or anyone else) to celebrate Christianity.

    However, that view of religion is certainly not required of the agnostic. I’m sympathetic to the view that on average Christianity has caused more harm than good. But (as per Robert Farley) it is so inextricably bound up into human history that the relevant counterfactuals that would count as evidence for this view are at best tenuous speculation.

    But let’s say that while you view Christianity as false you still value parts of it for its moral teaching or as a cultural artifact. In this case, it would seem consistent to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday while remaining an agnostic.

    The agnostic is not committed to any particular evaluation of the value of Christianity, only to an evaluation of its truth. Here is the crux of the issue. In order for your view to succeed participating in a religious holiday must be viewed as an implicit endorsement of the truth claims of that religion.

    Since people do not in fact take holiday celebration in that way, the burden would be on you to show this strong connection between participation in a holiday and endorsement of a religion’s truth claims. I don’t think it is shown in your post (or comments). All you show or explicitly argue for is the identification of Christmas as a religious holiday.

  9. I agree with Joshua that participation in a historically religious celebration does not commit one to the truth claims of that religion. Indeed, I would go further and say that it needn’t even commit one to any sort of positive evaluation or endorsement of the religion. (This seems especially clear when the celebrants personally conceive of their activity as purely secular, no matter its historical roots.)

    It just seems overly stringent to demand of people that they boycott all cultural traditions whose roots they do not fully endorse. Why would you make such a demand? Who is harmed by superficially secular celebrations that happen to involve decorated trees? So long as those involved understand their celebration as having a purely secular meaning (for them), any hidden religious significance is hardly going to count as any sort of victory for the Messiah’s public relations!

  10. EJ, you say,

    “I don’t think it’s plot by the Catholic church to have people convert”

    Then you just aren’t familiar with the history of the Catholic church…see, for instance this, though I definately agree that it is a HUGE commercial enterprise now.

    Joshua, you say,

    “It seems to me that prima facie, I (and many others) celebrate December 25th as a secular holiday.”

    Why does this matter? Many pagans celebrated Christian holidays as pagan holidays, an the church was more than happy to let this happen (see the above link for some history on this)…in fact, the point I was trying to make in the post is that the quote-unquote seculazation of Christmas is just another version of this strategy in the modern times.

    Also, see the meaning of the word in English the definition of the word…there is no definition of ‘Christmas’ that counts it as a secular holiday…

    “I’m sympathetic to the view that on average Christianity has caused more harm than good. But (as per Robert Farley) it is so inextricably bound up into human history that the relevant counterfactuals that would count as evidence for this view are at best tenuous speculation.”

    Uh, it’s my view that ALL RELIGION is evil, not just Christianity…I don’t think that the relevant counter-factuals are tenuous in this case…in fact I take as the mst obvious lesson that hostory has to teach.

    “Since people do not in fact take holiday celebration in that way, the burden would be on you to show this strong connection between participation in a holiday and endorsement of a religion’s truth claims. I don’t think it is shown in your post (or comments). All you show or explicitly argue for is the identification of Christmas as a religious holiday.”

    I don’t think this is right. Why do I have to show that there is a link between trhe celebration and an endorsement of the truth of the religion? All I have to do is show that Christmas is in fact a Christian hioliday, which I think I have done, who cares if you endorse the religion? All the Catholic church cares about is the number of people who celebrate their holiday….

    Richard,

    Who is harmed? That’s a good question…I wasn’t arguing that anyone is harmed, but I do think that someone benefits, and that is the Catholic church. It doesn’t seem to me to matter what YOU think about the holiday, if you participate in it you are participating in a religious event, what is the argument against this supposed to be? That you don’t think of it that way? That just seems incredibly naive to me…all of the evidence (except the way you feel about it) points the other way…

  11. How does the church benefit? You haven’t explained how merely externalist meanings could have any moral/welfare significance. I can see how the church might benefit from people intentionally engaging in religious celebrations — such actions might promote further social support for the church. But this all depends on internal meanings, and how people think about the church. It’s just completely mysterious to me how a secular celebration of Christmas is going to benefit the church as an institution in any way at all! (Hence my earlier comment about hidden meanings vs. public relations.)

  12. I don’t know where I stand on your point about how Christmas is still a religious holiday despite the secular festivities. I give everyone gifts regardless of religion (or lack thereof) but only say “Happy Christmas” to my Christian mates. I have a tree because I think it is pretty. I sing at several churches and shows (all singing Christian material, ie, Handel’s Messiah). I do these things regardless of the fact that I am agnostic (though my parents were Islamic and Lutheran and I went to several schools run by Anglicans). So, therein lies my non-commital. However, by the virtue of me saying “Happy Christmas” to only my Christian mates, I do suppose I am admitting de facto that there is religious signifance to the date.

    As for the “Family Day,” – why do you need a specified day to give people gifts? Just give them things when you feel like it and hope that they feel the same (if your intent is reciprocation). Gifts, I believe, are to be given as tokens of affection. If you need a day to spend with your family, just do it whenever you miss them. Hallmark has enough rubbish to sell; don’t give them another day on which they can cash in. As for me, I like trees and holly and Christmas carols. Since I’d seem made to have a tree up in my house randomly, I do think I shall stick to celebrating Christmas.

    Oh – Boxing Day. I was raised in the UK and was taught that Boxing Day was the day when the box of alms was broken for the poor. I have also heard the servant’s day off reason as well. I have never heard the St Stephen’s relationship that another poster mentioned (though the Feast of St Stephen does fall on 26 December on some calendars, but the UK Anglicans don’t mark it.) Where my family’s home was, in Cornwall, there is a tradition of running into the sea in one’s posh cloting and collecting donations.

  13. “MY problem is not with the fact that the celebration is on the same day, but that it is on the same day and includes all of the same rituals (I.e. decorated tree, carols, etc), At that point you are celebrating Christmas whether you like it or not. And that’s not just semantics…”

    If the issue is not semantics but instead the rituals themselves, then what does creating a secular version of the holiday on Dec. 26th do? You can change things around; perhaps instead of a tree we’ll display a plate of spaghetti or instead of singing Christmas carols we’ll make macaroni necklaces but the particular rituals themselves seem less relevant to me than the intention behind them (what is it they are used for to celebrate) or even their origins. While the origins of the rituals are relevant insofar as we would not use that particular set of rituals if it were not for some person somewhere having used them prior to us for a particular reason, the original intention may be shed (Much like language and slang words; I can use “cool” and not mean that the temperature of something is less than warm.).

    Perhaps you want to claim it is not a secular version of Christmas but rather a unique and independent holiday. I would ask, then, what it is exactly you would be celebrating on this holiday, as that seems to be the only relevant issue. If you are celebrating togetherness and family (as opposed to the birth of Christ), how is this any different from every atheist’s or agnostic’s celebration on Christmas? When I went to my family’s Christmas celebration I was not celebrating the birth of Christ (if we accept that what defines the celebration is what it intends to celebrate and not the particular rituals used to carry out the celebration). I was performing the same rituals as those who do celebrate the birth of Christ and even called it by the same name (Christmas), but my intention was different. If it was not for the birth of Christ (or at least the belief by people that Christ was born and his birth deserved celebration) I know I wouldn’t have used those rituals or called it by that name or perhaps even gone at all but my intention in going was to be with family and nothing more. Again, in my eyes the intention behind the action is what is relevant; the particular form or fashion of any rituals as well as what we call them don’t matter.

  14. Hey Jay and CHarlie,

    Thanks for the comments! Sorry ti took so long to get back to you. I think the recent post on this stuff addresses these questions, but if I did not address somethign that you think is pressing, remind me!

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