The word “holiday” comes directly from the phrase “holy day”. This designation, in turn, is based on the curious notion that a particular event happening on a certain date forever afterward gives that date some special sacredness or magical quality. The day of Halloween, for example, was once believed to be a time when barriers between our world and the other world grew thin and restless spirits could return to haunt the land of the living, and other supernatural events are often tied to the Christmas season.
But if a holiday is really a holy day, then what does that mean for the rest of our calendar? Are other days not holy? Are we to believe that God is somehow more present or more accessible on those days than on other days?
This is just one example of the irrationality of some theists who claim to believe that God is omnipresent, yet act as if certain places, times, or objects were more imbued with his presence than others. Another well-known example is the macabre trade in “relics”, which thrived during the Middle Ages and continues to attract much attention even today: belief that the personal possessions or even the body parts of a dead saint or holy man possess some type of supernatural power. Even today, shrines containing relics of saints are major destinations of pilgrimage, and there are stores (such as this one) that sell items such as bottled water from the Jordan River or soil from supposedly sacred sites in Israel. Even the Bible endorses this bizarre belief in magic, such as in an Old Testament passage where a dead man is resurrected by coming in contact with the bones of the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 13:21).
If I were inclined to believe in such a being as God, I would think it obvious that no day, no place, no item could be any more or less holy than any other. It surely follows from the standard theistic beliefs that if God created everything in the cosmos, then everything is equally his handiwork and imbued with his spirit. Faith, likewise, is a quality displayed by a person’s actions; it cannot somehow contaminate inanimate objects with which that person comes in contact, nor could it linger in a body after the vitality has gone. All such beliefs are extensions of the human tendency toward reification – thinking of abstract ideas and qualities as if they were material things with independent existence.
If there is any meaningful sense in which an atheist can use the word “holy”, then it must surely be true that all days are equally holy in that sense. We believe in no divinities, no relics, no elusive magical quality of sacredness. Instead we treat our holidays not as literal holy days, but as occasions to remember events of particular significance in our past that led to the state of affairs as we see it today. If our memories were perfect, we would need no holidays at all; but humans are imperfect, memories fade, and marking a particular date can serve as a good reminder of some event or achievement that deserves not to be forgotten due to the important lessons it still has to teach us.
But in the magical sense, in the moral sense, to an atheist all days are holy. On every day, there are heartbreaking sunrises and beautiful sunsets; on every day, there are people coming together to do good for each other; on every day, there are crimes, tragedies, and pains. No day is set apart, no day is sanctified, no day is any more or less spiritual or sacred than any other. Every day presents us with the same opportunities to act, whether for good or for evil, and to make choices that will influence the subsequent direction of our lives.