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: