Atheistic Holidays

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.

As Christianity came to dominate older pagan religions, it Christianized their holidays.  The holidays were not abandoned, they were modified.  And as Christianity fades away, the holidays are becoming de-Christianized.   The main Western religious holidays were pagan before Christianity and they are becoming pagan again after Christianity.

If atheism is ever to become a successful way of life, appealing to a large number of people, then atheism needs to provide holidays.  And there already are pressures on atheists to provide positive alternatives to the old Christian holidays.  Consider Christmas.

Atheists are often criticized by the conservative press for making “war on Christmas”.  And atheistic attempts to send negative messages during the Christmas season have been met with scorn.  Consider the case just this month (December, 2011) in which the Mayor of Ellwood PA refused to display an atheist banner declaring that “there are no gods”.  The Mayor had quite nicely invited the Freedom From Religion Foundation to contribute a secular banner to the town’s holiday display.  And the FFRF chose to send a politically insensitive and negative message.   Arousing hatred and anger is no way for atheists to build a successful large-scale movement.

There’s no need for atheists to attack the Christians for their December celebrations.   Increasing conflict and making hatred does no good for anyone.  A more positive strategy is for atheists to advocate celebration of the Winter Solistice.  Many atheist groups do celebrate the Winter Solstice (e.g. the New York City Atheists).  Of course, the Winter Solstice is an old pagan holiday.  I love the little essay “How to have a peaceful pagan Christmas”, by Claire Rayner.  It’s in The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas (edited by R. Harvie and S. Meyers).

On its webpage dealing with Christmas, the American Atheists group writes:  “Indeed, none of the trappings of Christmas are Christian.  All of it predates Christianity.  Yuletide, and Yule logs come from the Pagan holiday of Yule (the pagans also took the Solstice for their own).  Santa Claus is Nordic, Germanic, or Celtic, depending on who you ask, and there were no tinsel-covered evergreens in Bethlehem — that’s Pagan too.”

So go have a merry Yule celebration!  Put up a pagan tree and light a pagan yule log.  Go out and greet the rising sun with cakes and wine.  You can do all sorts of pagan Winter Solstice rituals without believing any mythological or theological doctrine.

Atheists are celebrating the Winter Solstice.  But what’s next?  If you’re celebrating Winter Solstice, then symmetry suggests celebrating the Summer Solstice as well.  And Easter is a Spring Equinox festival.  So atheists can replace Easter with Spring Equinox celebrations.  Symmetry again suggest celebrating the Fall Equinox too.  How about Halloween?  It seems like it’s already America’s most non-Christian holiday.  Atheists may want to celebrate that too.  As you probably know, these are all old pagan holidays.  And there are plenty of old pagan rituals and behaviors that go with those holidays.  You don’t have to believe in any mythological or theological doctrines to do the celebrations.

The Secular Seasons Project is part of the American Humanist Association.  The Secular Seasons Project encourages “Unearthing pagan roots, or providing secular interpretations, of holidays that are widely viewed as specific to Christianity or other dominant religions.” And they’ve got some very good ideas for secular holidays (feasts, sending cards, etc.).  The themes of the old pagan holidays are based on the natural cycle of the solar year – on empirically verifiable events in the natural world around us.  Surely atheists can accept those themes.   Celebrate the Rennaissance at the Spring Equinox (the dawning of light after the dark ages).  Or celebrate the Enlightenment at the Summer Solstice.

Here is something some neo-pagbans do at Halloween that atheists can do as well.  They hold a “silent supper” honoring the dead.  Pictures or memorabilia of dead loved ones are brought the the supper.  The supper is held in silence – all sit quietly together, reflecting on the nature of life and death.  Holding a silent supper does not imply that you would become a neo-pagan.  Nor by mentioning it do I endorse neo-paganism.

It’s arguable that there is a very deep structure of holidays in Western culture.  This deep structure is the Wheel of the Year.  The Wheel of the Year consists of the four main solar holidays (the equinoxes and the solstices).  It also includes four intermediate days.  The Wheel of the Year (in the Northern Hemisphere) basically looks like this: Halloween; Winter Solstice; a day in early February that is midway between the solstice and equinox; Spring Equinox; Mayday; Summer Solstice; a day in early August that is midway between the solstice and the equinox; Fall Equinox.

If atheists collectively begin to celebrate the eight days on the Wheel of the Year, then it is arguable that they have taken steps towards the construction of an atheistic religion.  It should be clear that this does not mean that atheism is a religion.  Atheism is merely the denial of the existence of the theistic deity.  But a group of people unified by celebration of a common system of holidays by holding feasts or parties has gone a good way towards the construction of a religious identity.  The collective celebration of those holidays is the beginning of an atheistic religion.  Of course, it does not entail belief in any mythological or theological doctrine at all.  It can all be as scientific as you please.  After all, the Wheel of the Year is based on the movement of the earth around the sun.

There are atheists who meditate and who pray.  There are atheist groups that provide celebrants for social ceremonies marking life-passages (birth, marriage, death).  There are atheist groups that advocate the formation of a system of atheistic holidays, celebrated with their own rituals.  There are some organized ritual communities which tend towards atheism (or humanism), such as the Unitarians, Ethical Culture Society, and the lonely little North Texas Church of Freethought.  The Foundation Beyond Belief is an atheistic-humanistic charity.  There are atheists developing the world-view of religious naturalism.  Although it is still small and not yet very well organized, I would say that the formation of an atheistic religion is already well underway in America.

Other posts in the series so far:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity

The Theistic Deity and Atheism Defined

The Wiccan Deity: An Initial Philosophical Analysis

The Wiccan Deity: Related Concepts in Philosophy

On Atheistic Religion

Nine Theses on Wicca and Atheism

Criticizing Wicca: Energy

Atheism and Beauty

Do Atheists Worship Truth?

Some Naturalistic Ontology

Criticizing Wicca: Levels

Atheism and the Sacred: Natural Creative Power

Atheist Ceremonies: De-Baptism and the Cosmic Walk

Atheism and Possibility

The Impossible God of Paul Tillich

Atheism and the Sacred: Being-Itself

Pure Objective Reason

Criticizing Wicca: Rationality

The God and the Goddess

Wicca and the Problem of Evil

The Wiccan God and Goddess: Reality and Mythology

On Participation in Being-Itself

Criticizing Wicca: God and Goddess

The Increasing Prevalence of Woo

Wiccan Theology and Sexual Equality

Revelation versus Manifestation

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Mike L

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Eric.

    I’m not particularly sympathetic to the supernatural aspects of the pagan worldview (spells, potions, talismans, etc.); however, I have often thought that if someone were to “worship” or “revere” something (even in the sense of “something bigger than me that gives me perspective”), the progression of the seasons makes the most sense.

    We need energy to live and thrive; indeed, we *are* energy at some level. The sun (Sol Invictus!) is the primary source of that energy, and periodically pondering the ancient cycle of planting, tending, reaping, and storing food for the winter can keep us mindful of our place in the interconnected web of life on earth. The festivals of the pagan year serve this purpose admirably, and can even be expanded to metaphorically include the cycles in our own lives as individuals, societies, and ecosystems.

    I’m not sure there’s much hope of unifying atheists/freethinkers under one set of holiday observances. But saying “humans generally seem to benefit from social rituals and rites of passage; here are a few that make sense and might work for you” could be helpful in getting the meme ball rolling!

  • Mike L

    I think it’s vital that atheists/freethinkers (and other non-Christians) continuously and firmly point out the pre-Christian origin of many holidays and observances, as you have in this post. Widely-observed holidays, especially Xmas, provide a useful framework for challenging unexamined cultural assumptions.

    First, it can help deflate the “War On Christmas” meme by eroding the idea that Christianity has exclusive rights to this winter solstice holiday season.

    Second, it can serve as an entry point (dare I say “gateway drug”?) for culturally conditioned Christians to start questioning other aspects of their belief system which they may have assumed factual from the time they “learned” them in Sunday School.

  • Amber

    Thanks for the post! I LOVE the Christmas holidays. Always have. It’s a time for family and friends to gather and eat good food. I also love some of the decor (trees, wreaths, pinecones, etc). When I realized I was an atheist I wasn’t sure how to handle the Christmas thing. But, researched and found the winter solstice to be the actual reason for the season, and one that lets me still decorate and enjoy the parts of this season that I’ve always loved. I sent out winter solstice cards, and my husband and I will have our celebration on December 21 this year. I agree with Mike’s comment that humans enjoy social rituals and these are great ideas for at least some of us. As you mentioned in the article it can be dangerous ground to call atheism a religion. But, I love the idea of celebrating the solstices, especially. I read something that had the idea of having a tree/wreath for winter solstice and then saving them and burning them in a bonfire celebration for summer solstice. Sounds good to me!!!

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Thanks for your post Amber! The winter-solstice / summer-solstice idea is interesting. I’ll look forward to hearing more about your rituals or activities.

  • hbart

    “There are atheists who meditate and who pray”

    This may be a silly question, but are atheism and praying not mutually exclusive concepts? I can’t wrap my head around how one might combine them. Can someone help me?

    Incidentally this is a serious question to which I am seeking an answer, and not intended as trolling or any similar aggravation.

    • Amber

      I second that question. I understand meditation, but not prayer either. As an atheist whom are we praying to if we don’t believe?

    • kilane

      Someone made a post here the other day ‘admitting’ they are a praying atheist. They indicated it was because they grew up praying and they just do it when they have nothing else to do. When you can’t fix a situation (your mom is on the operating table) it gives you comfort on some level to still try through pray and some peace of mind to accept your lack of control over the matter.

      I don’t know if it’s really praying if you pray to noone but people go through the motions. I know I’ve said “thank god” before or said a silent “please god I hope this works” although never literally and nothing longer than a couple sentences (no bowing, hand clasping or the like).

    • John Morales

      It’s pretty simple: praying is deliberate wishful thinking.

      No gods necessary.

      (Now and then, such can be motivational — if one needs such a crutch)

    • Amber

      Deliberate wishful thinking? Well, hell, I pray all the time, then! haha! I won’t call it prayer, though. It makes me uncomfortable… but to each his/her own!

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    Check out the comments on my post “On Atheistic Religion”. It may indeed sound strange for an atheist to pray; but prayer doesn’t imply that you pray to somebody or something. There are all sorts of prayer that are non-theistic. And some atheists (by their own admission) do pray.

  • Steve Schuler

    Oh, Hell Yeah!!!

    I pray like a Hassidic Rabbi on crank!!!

    Well, maybe not EXACTLY like a Hassidic Rabbi on crank, but you get the idea.

    And believe me, I’m no believer.

    And I’m not kidding either.



  • drdave

    HSGP.ORG celebrates Darwin Day with a Fish Feast as our holiday between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Fascinating! Glad to hear it.

  • Kevin (NYC)

    I found this post refreshing. We should not be anti-christian or in a position to be reminding people that they are silly for believing in a god, all the time; people get the wrong idea.

    I tell people to have a “Super Solstice!” and remind them if they don’t party and make enough noise, we may find ourselves with shorter and shorter days until its dark forever. It is an important public service to have a nice dinner party on or before the solstice.

    and the days in June… on the lake at 9pm with the waning light on the cool waters..

    Let’s Get Happy People!!

  • http://Manateefritters.com Capt. Fritter

    Down here in the Florida Keys we celebrate Dec. 25th…Jimmy Buffetts birthday.

  • jamessweet

    I can always tell Eric’s posts from Daniel’s within a paragraph or two, even if I miss where it says the author at the top :)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Yeah, I love that.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

    If atheism is ever to become a successful way of life…

    Then, it is no longer atheism?

    Why should atheism become a way of life? Take any other intellectual position someone holds, from the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics to philosophical nominalism to biological evolution, and ask whether any of them should be or attempt to be a way of life. And if they became such, whether that “way of life” would still be the same as merely holding the position, or something quite a bit more and quite a bit less.

    Yes, I understand. Religions are a way of life. That is part of what religions are about. But atheism isn’t a religion. And anyone who tries to make it a religion, is creating something else than atheism. Maybe “21st century, western, naturalism as rite.” Or “reformed Wiccan.” Those may, for now, in some varieties, be compatible with atheism. But they aren’t atheism.

  • satanaugustine

    I much prefer the idea of celebrating the Summer Solstice over the Winter Solstice (I hate this time of year – Xmas[yes, I do hate it and did before I was an atheist], cold weather, snow, ice,colds, flu, fibromyalgia and other aches and pains made worse by the cold weather, short and dreary days with almost no sunlight, and, worst of all, severe seasonal depression).

    Summer Solstice, on the other hand, is one of the best days of the year and the harbinger of long, sunny days (even if it does get a bit too hot in July). I like the idea of celebrating the enlightenment on the solstice. Hell, in a way I’m even somewhat of a sun worshiper. I’m certainly thankful for the way the sun and warm weather improve my mood and energy levels. If I didn’t know better (I do), I’d guess that I have a mild ability to photosynthesize given that I can sometimes have a great day in the sun without food, but with plenty of water.

    Wouldn’t it be great if we could photosynthesize? It would go a long way towards helping with world hunger. Any geneticists working on incorporating genes that code for photosynthesis into the human genome? I’m available as a test subject!

  • John Morales


    A holiday is basically a day off work.

    (That it supposedly celebrates something is but an excuse)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers


      A holiday is basically a day off work.

      (That it supposedly celebrates something is but an excuse)

      Maybe they have deteriorated into that, or for any given person they may be that way, but it need not be the case. What is wrong with finding things of genuine value and genuine meaning and designating days of feasting and celebration to honor or emphasize or teach the younger generations about them?

    • John Morales

      Nothing wrong with it, but apparently some most people imagine everyone feels that way. Not so.

  • Tim Lehnerer

    I celebrate Telstar Day every July 10; it’s the anniversary of the launch of the first communications satellite–a legitimate triumph of science and technology, the forerunner of the internet, and a holiday that comes with its own theme song courtesy of the Tornados’ 1962 single. Lately that’s meant bringing cookies to work (which have been well-recieved to the point where my coworkers know that Telstar Day is observed in the first half of July). If you want people to start celebrating your made-up secular observances, it helps to make baked goods a part of the holiday.

    • Amber

      I might have to start celebrating that holiday, also. I also celebrate Darwin’s birthday (February 12) every year. I do happen to be an evolutionary biologist, so I might be biased. But, our lab has a party every year for his birthday. It’s awesome!

  • Ray Moscow

    Atheists can never rest until belief in the cruel, dark gods of the north has been eradicated.

    What? It already has been? Then Happy Yule, folks!

  • sawells

    Reading “If atheism is ever to become a successful way of life…” is a bit like reading “If arithmetic is ever to become a successful prime-time TV show…”. It’s baffling. You wouldn’t try to make “2+2=4″ or “The Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066″ into a successful way of life; they’re just facts. “Gods are fictional”, similarly, is not a way of life, it’s just a fact.

    Eric, where did you get this idea that atheism had to do all this religion stuff?

  • Lauren Ipsum

    …this is starting to sound like Crommunist’s thought-experiment post about an atheist church. Not quite as creepy, but approaching it.

    Celebrating the turning of seasons because the pagans did it is not somehow intrinsically more worthy or less “magical thinking” than Christians co-opting Saturnalia for Christmas.

    Why, I must ask, should we as a community want to establish an “atheistic religion”? Isn’t that exactly what the fundie Christians keep accusing us of, and we have to keep defending against? What would be the point?

    Taking the gods out of neo-paganism but following the rituals because they feel good just strikes me as entirely strange and unnecessary.

    Speaking only for myself, I’ve never been a theist and never followed a religion, and all the trappings of religion and ritual give me the screaming heebie jeebies. I cannot conceive of why I would want to ape the empty posturing of theists of any stripe, or why it would enhance my life or my standing in the community.

  • http://www.UnitedCoR.org Fred Edwords

    You noted that the FFRF “chose to send a politically insensitive and negative message.” And that is indeed one way of looking at their choice of banner. But consider their strategy. The FFRF is in principle opposed to towns having holiday displays on public property. How best to get them to stop? Create a crisis in which they must either include a banner they don’t like or discontinue the holiday display. Some municipalities have opted to discontinue their holiday display. And that is, for many, the desired outcome.

    I explain this so that the other side of the story gets included in your discussion.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      I think that the action of the FFRF was indeed politically insensitive, made enemies out of potential friends, aroused hatred against non-believers, and is ultimately a self-destructive strategy.

    • John Morales

      When has a taking a definite stance not involved controversy?

      (You can’t please everyone)

  • Eve

    The wheel of the year starts with Samhain (Sou’-when) aka Hallowe’en. Then Yule; Imbolc (or Candlemas, or Brigid’s Day–the “Saint” came later–or the Slush-fest if you’re in NYC); Ostara; Beltane (dance that maypole); Litha; Lughassadh (or Lammas, the celebration of the first harvest, Loaf-mass); Mabon.

    There are some that asserting that the cross-quarter celebrations (Samhain..Lughnassadh) are older than the solstices and equinoxes. Also, once upon a time, the solstices and equinoxes marked the middle of the season (i.e., Yule was Midwinter).

    Eve, the relaxed-Agnostic Wiccan here

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Good to hear from you, Eve! I’d love to hear more from agnostic / atheistic Wiccans or neo-pagans. If you know any, please send them to the blog! And keep writing to us yourself.

  • http://www.goddamblog.com James

    I agree that the excessive agitation needs to stop. It doesn’t do either side any good to throw rocks at each other. I like your approach here. Let Christmas be Christmas. If you don’t like the silliness of Santa don’t celebrate Santa. I know plenty of Christians that refuse to celebrate that part of Christmas. God forbid that you ever lie to your kids right. But they also don’t go around telling little kids that do enjoy the fascination with Santa that he’s a figment of their imagination.

    • John Morales

      Well, of course they don’t!

      (What better way to get children into the habit of believing in the reality of mythical beings?)