December 14, 2008

Celebrating Christmas

Posted in atheism, culture, history, literature, mythology, religion, scripture, songs at 12:08 pm by Jerry

Through my atheist eyes I have stumbled upon interesting perspectives of the relationship between culture and belief. The places where I have separated the two are places where some think culture and belief are, in fact, inseparable – and should be practiced as such.

Take Christmas celebrations for example (‘Tis the season). I personally don’t believe that there is a real “anointed one” (Messiah/Christ), chosen by “God” to lead “God’s people” to the “promise land”. And yet I sing songs that assume these beliefs around the Church’s designated date to celebrate Jesus of Nazareth’s birth.

Why? Because, along with ‘a time for family’ and a sense of community, I enjoy the parts of my cultural heritage that tell ancient stories of heroes to inspire humanity to be better than they are.

According to the story, Jesus gave a group of people hope for a better life by gaining the social power to break through unrealistic cultural boundaries (Can you sense a little irony here?) under which they felt oppressed. Of course, other leaders in that society saw Jesus only as a threat to their leadership rather than someone benefiting their society; and Jesus was crucified as a result of it. But he died for an ideal he believed in, an ideal his future followers wanted to believe in.

What might be a surprise to some who have read this blog of mine is that my criticisms of the dogmatic affirmation of divine morality written in the bible are not meant to denigrate the cultural beauty that can be found in the keeping and telling of the stories themselves.

To me, Christmas is the celebration of one of the many stories that have not been lost to humanity; a story about a hero and his people, seeking freedom from spiritual and political suppression. Some, however, feel that this part of our diverse culture (Christmas) can only be celebrated in one way – worshiping Jesus. And they find it offensive when non-believers such as myself are next to them not giving the Bible and it’s heroes the recognition of worth they are giving.

It’s truly disappointing when no common ground is acknowledged in our celebration of Christmas – as if I have another belief competing for the sole possession of our shared Christmas culture. The attitude is odd, when you think about it. Why not embrace any appreciation of the good qualities found in the Bible, and in the heroes written about, despite rejections of the supernatural?



  1. Ken said,

    My friends who are atheists all celebrate Christmas. One has an annual Christmas party – with all the appropriate joy. I never asked her why she celebrates it – it is an interesting question, but I just never thought about it, and I would be afraid that it might be an uncomfortable question, one she may not be able to answer.

    My friends who are Christians celebrate Christmas just like my atheist friends. I cannot detect any difference.

    A Hebrew scholar with whom I studied once joked: we are all practical atheists. I believe he is right.

  2. Jerry said,

    Hi Ken. Nice of you to drop by. I hope you had a good Christmas.

    You mentioned that your Christian friends celebrate Christmas like your atheist friends. I had an interesting moment not long after I became an atheist, when someone who I have celebrated Christmas with before, asked, “What are we going to do about Christmas?” I replied, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, now that you’re an atheist, how are we going to celebrate it?”

    I was flabbergasted. I told him, “Nothing has changed. Our Christmas celebrations have never been religious. And the times when someone tried to insert a little religious emphasis into our celebration, I was the one doing it. No one else made any effort. If you or anyone else really cared about our Christmas celebrations being about worshiping Jesus, you would’ve done something yourself.”

    My friend had nothing more to say about it because he knew I was right. And I think it may have dawned on him a little of what you talked about – being a practical atheist. Because, this friend of mine just happens to be a Pastor.

  3. Ken said,

    I wonder if when you told your friend that you no longer believed in God that it may have jolted his own faith, reminded him of his own disbelief. At the seminary I attended I think a majority of the students did not believe in God, or, at least, had major doubts. They felt nervous when the subject of belief or disbelief came up. It sounds odd that people studying to become ministers do not really believe in God, or at least have very little belief. It surprised me. It is just that people enter ministry and stay in ministry with many motives.

    Whether we end up thinking of ourselves as atheists or Christians, I think all of us in modernity must deal with belief that there is no God. For me it seems like belief and disbelief are both part of my way of looking at life – I don’t seem to have a pure belief, or that I have a desire to believe and yet don’t believe. Richard Rodriguez, one of my favorite writers, once wrote a book titled “Brown.” It is a metaphor – brown – that he uses to describe us in modernity – mixed race, mixed culture, mixed belief, mixed feelings. He says that brown is the color of desire.

    So some of us say we don’t believe in God but we celebrate Christmas, while others say we do and yet we leave Jesus out of the celebration. This is what is like to live in a brown world.

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