It’s the most horrible time of the year

atheistbook11The Associated Press’ Patrick Condon has a story with a great headline — “Atheists at Christmas: Eat, drink and be wary.” It’s all about how uncomfortable the Christmas season is for some avid non-believers and is a good follow-up to Eric Gorski’s recent piece on atheist groups on college campuses. Here’s how the Atheists at Christmas story begins:

Angie O’Neill recently moved into a new apartment complex for seniors and she’s trying to make new friends. But Christmas is a tough time of year for an atheist.

“All the planned activities at this time of year revolve around the church,” said O’Neill, a retiree and an atheist for decades.

O’Neill sought an escape this week, joining a group of her fellow nonbelievers for a weekly “Atheist Happy Hour” at a suburban Mexican restaurant. The group, Atheists for Human Rights, is active year-round but takes it up a notch this time of year with a Winter Solstice party, a charity drive and good attendance for the weekly gathering at Ol’ Mexico.

For one thing, it’s a chance to share coping techniques during this most religious time of year. They range from the simple, like warning about certain stores that blare religious Christmas songs, to tougher tasks like how to avoid certain topics with certain family members. These atheists describe adjusting some customs to make them their own, like Nancy Ruhland, a pharmacist who sends out Christmas cards to friends and loved ones — but makes sure to find ones without a Christian message or subtext.

As someone who observes Advent during the time when most Americans are in a Christmas frenzy, I am conscious of what songs are being played and how difficult it can be to explain to friends and family that we aren’t on the same calendar as they are. And I find it mildly distressing that everyone else stops celebrating Christmas on the day when we start celebrating it. And I always find these odd-men-out stories interesting. Will we get coverage of how holidays can be utterly depressing for people who don’t have families or homes to go to? Yes, we will!

The story paints a picture of a certain type of atheist who is “quick to stress belief in the pagan roots” of Christmas. And many say they want to celebrate Christmas in a Pagan manner. For instance:

“Food, we like. Presents, we like. Seeing family, we like,” said Val Woelfel of St. Paul, an aspiring archaeologist. Woelfel, 47, and her boyfriend, Bjorn Larsen, 32, planned to erect a tree in their living room: “Sacred trees are an ancient custom. It’s pretty, it smells nice and it’s pagan,” Woelfel said.

Some of the atheist attitudes toward Christmas seem the result of well-practiced defense mechanisms. [Marie Elena Castle of Minneapolis, the 82-year-old founder of Atheists for Human Rights and an atheist activist for two decades,] for instance, gets just as irritated when people tell her “Merry Christmas” as some Christians do when people tell them “Happy Holidays.” O’Neill, who declines to give her age, said she wished parents would tell their kids there is no God at the same time they pass along certain information about Santa Claus.

So they’re the ones who don’t like the greeting “Merry Christmas!” I kid. Anyway, the big question I had after reading this story was why these atheists felt more comfortable celebrating the holiday in a Pagan manner than in a Christian manner. (Yes, I capitalize Pagan – the AP Stylebook jury is still out.) I mean, I know there are people who self-identify as Pagan Atheists, just as there are those who self-identify as Christian Atheists or Jewish Atheists. Usually that means that the individual rejects belief in God or the gods of the religion while following other tenets of the belief system. Is that what we’re talking about in this story? Or what’s the deal?

Also, I have, unfortunately, the mouth of a sailor. But still, I was a bit surprised to see the story devolve into the scatological. An atheist retiree who lives with his 92-year-old mother is quoted as saying she “believes in all that c–p.”

Now, that “c–p” is the Christian church’s celebration of the Incarnation of Christ, the belief that God took on human flesh. To Christians, this is one of the most profound mysteries and blessings of our religion. I don’t doubt that the retiree believes it to be rubbish, but I wonder if this couldn’t have been handled a bit more respectfully. Also, when did I become an old fuddy-duddy?

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  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I think the quote was intentionally left that way to emphasize the subject’s distaste for his mother’s beliefs, rather than the reporter’s or the editor’s. It worked, too; I (irrationally) wanted to slug him for referring to my faith that way. :)

    As for the Pagan angle, I get the impression that such customs are all right with these atheists because it constitutes a rejection of Christianity, which is the religion they’re trying to reject. Other religions don’t really show up on their radar, except as an afterthought.

    What struck me most about this article was the (dare I say) pharisaical attitude the atheists in it take toward Christmas. As though they have to avoid any trace of it lest they be polluted by its touch.

  • Stoo

    Just pondering, is referring to a faith that way inherently worse than any other worldview? (religious, philisophical, political).

    Anyway it brought across the attitude of some of the atheists quite succinctly.

    re: paganism traditions, I would be interested to know how much of it is to spite xtians, and how much genuine interest in ancient customs. I’ve known some pagans who are more or less atheist but I don’t know how much overlap there is between them and the new atheist movement.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Stoo,

    I think that my question is really just about the wisdom of including that word. We all have sources who cuss like sailors or otherwise use words we would never include in a quote or story — I guess I’m surprised that c–p is permissible.

  • will47

    If the guy using the expletive is really that bitter about Christianity, I’d say go ahead and put it in the story. No sense in beating around the bush. I’m guessing, by the way, that an “Atheist Happy Hour” probably doesn’t really provide a decent cross-section of atheists in the US, though; you’ll likely get the more negative end of the spectrum. Because of the negative reaction these sorts of stories tend to cause in Christians, it might be fairer to try to find more tolerant atheists than just to report the views of those at the Happy Hour.

  • Martha

    ““Sacred trees are an ancient custom. It’s pretty, it smells nice and it’s pagan,” Woelfel said.”

    Sooo… wouldn’t that attitude be less atheist and more, well, neo-pagan? I mean, is the story really saying that atheists don’t mind religion as long as it’s pagan or polytheistic?

    And how is having many gods (polytheism) better than having one (monotheism)? If you are objecting to the very notion of belief in deity as irrational, how can you say “But I like this set of beliefs in deity”?

    As for the guy who won’t let his 92-year old mother have a Christmas tree in her own house – yeah, that’s not showing the better face of being a Bright, now is it?

  • Stoo

    Hmm. If, say, the story was about poor treatment for wounded soldiers (not commenting on reality, just to make up a hypothetical), I might say it’s reasonable to quote a sailor calling it c**p.

    I dunno, I’m not saying this for sure, but the word does seem to be viewed as a bit milder these days. I’m sure I’ve heard it on the Simpsons a couple of times.

  • Stoo

    Martha I’m not an expert on Paganism but I get the impression that for many of them the gods mentioned are metaphorical, or reprentative of reverence of nature, or at most just aspects of a fairly vaguediffuse divinity. Which Atheists are going to find less objectionable than the Xtian god.

  • Judy Harrow

    Hi, Mollie,

    First, thank you again for your respectful attitude!

    Until the contemporary Pagan renaissance grew large enough to be noticed by naubstrean culture, “Pagan” was generally conflated with “Atheist.” Older dictionaries often defined “Pagan” as non-believing.

    So it’s possible that the reporter, the editor, or Ms. Woelfel herself simply were not aware that Paganism involves different beliefs rather than unbelief, and were using the terms interchangeably. The Yule customs are pretty, smell good, and reinforce human community in the face of the cold and the dark, which is why they survived Europe’s transition to Christianity, and why we share them today.

    Blessings of the season to you and to all who read this blog!

  • Judy Harrow

    oops, that should be “mainstream culture. Apologies! — JH

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I think that my question is really just about the wisdom of including that word. We all have sources who cuss like sailors or otherwise use words we would never include in a quote or story — I guess I’m surprised that c—p is permissible.

    I went back and looked, and the AP wire release didn’t have the usual “Note contents” warning for editors about questionable language or subject matter. I’m surprised.

  • Brian Walden

    I thought the article was good. Condon let the people tell the story through their own words, and I identified with many of them.

    I got the impression that almost all the patrons of the Athiest Happy Hour had bitter experiences with Christianity, yet there were favorable allusions to pagan practices and Judaism. I wonder if many of them object to Christmas as a symbol since it’s the most prominent secular holiday of Christianity. Many others, afterall, find themselves able to heartily participate in Christmas traditions in a completely non-religious way.

  • Jerry

    Also, I have, unfortunately, the mouth of a sailor

    Many eons ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth, some friends and I who were rooming together in college decided to try to clean up our language. So we put out a jar and dumped a nickle in it for every swear word that we uttered (today that would be $1). After some time, we all went out for ice cream sundaes (see what I mean about eons ago). We also decided that “chomp on carrots in 4/4 time” was not a chargable phrase:-) And sometimes someone dumped 25c into the bucket let out 5 words with some satisfaction. But it did work to reduce the number of such words when there was an obvious and immediate cost to saying those certain words. Also elements of a contest to clean if suggestive language emerged.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I got the impression that almost all the patrons of the Athiest Happy Hour had bitter experiences with Christianity, yet there were favorable allusions to pagan practices and Judaism.

    I thought I was fairly proficient in creative profanity, but I’m switched if I can work out what that’s supposed to substitute for.

    I got the impression that almost all the patrons of the Athiest Happy Hour had bitter experiences with Christianity, yet there were favorable allusions to pagan practices and Judaism.

    That was the sense I got, too. As though the problem isn’t religions in general, but Christianity in particular. Then again, Judaism has cultural elements that can be taken separately from the religious aspects, and Paganism is sufficiently undefined that anything can be called a Pagan custom without having religious overtones.

    By that token, Santa Claus and attendant mythology should be just hunky-dory with them, too. But I don’t see any mention of that angle.

  • http://tfhgodtalk.blogspot.com Jeff H

    “I dunno, I’m not saying this for sure, but the word does seem to be viewed as a bit milder these days.”

    Stoo has it right. The word is just not what it was. For many years I taught high school English, and I eventually came to realize that while students understood that the f-bomb was unacceptable in most contexts (all, in my mind), they had no idea why. When I would tell them that that word (with -in’ attached) was not an adjective, they questioned me. Many had no idea of its actual derivation.

    The same is true with c–p, which for most now is just a mild throwaway expletive. They have no sense of its scatalogical root. Indeed, I am reminded of a field trip to see President Ford come to town when I was in the fourth or fifth grade. A young woman in the crowd behind us used the stronger scatalogical expletive in conversation, and my mother, a chaperone for the day, turned to her and said, “Please don’t, it attracts flies.” Perhaps some reminders of meaning like this would at least bring us to a limitation of use in better context.

    None of which addresses how flippantly and abusively this term was applied by its speaker in this article to describe the dearest thing to his dear old mother…

  • Brian Walden

    For one thing, it’s a chance to share coping techniques during this most religious time of year. They range from the simple, like warning about certain stores that blare religious Christmas songs…

    The negative reaction to songs played in stores is telling. I don’t think there are many stores playing religious Christmas music – instead it’s songs about the winter weather, visiting family, etc.

    I sympathize with the angst that they feel. I was raised in a liturgically barren Catholic parish where the only religious education I received was about warm and fuzzy feelings. I don’t know anyone I grew up with or met in college who was raised Catholic and hasn’t fallen away from the faith (I did as well for several years). Now I notice that I get agitated over even the smallest elements of progressive Catholicism and have to constantly remind myself that most of the people practicing them have no ill intent. The situation is different, but I can relate to the emotions that even the most innocuous things can bring up.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Sorry, my copy-and-paste skills must be on the blink:
    We also decided that “chomp on carrots in 4/4 time” was not a chargable phrase.

    That’s the phrase I couldn’t figure out.

  • Martha

    Stoo, if she’s sufficiently comfortable (or confused) not to mind practices derived from pre-Christian religion, I really don’t see why someone would be horribly scarred by hearing a blast of “Away in a Manger” or “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” in a shop. After all, irrationality is irrationality and magical thinking and delusion, no matter the flavour.

    Though when they start cranking up the Christmas selling at the same time as Hallowe’en, I can sympathise: three months of fake snow, carolling and exhortations to buy!buy!buy! have me considering the benefits of arson.

    The bit about the non-Christian Christmas cards made me laugh, to be frank: as though the woman had to go on a long, hazardous trek to find the rare card bearing the image of a robin-on-a-branch or Santa or snowy-village or Victorian choir scene or Dickensian coaching inn hidden away under the counter. To be honest, I find it *more* difficult to find explicitly Christian ones, and this is in Holy Catholic Ireland.

  • Jerry

    We also decided that “chomp on carrots in 4/4 time” was not a chargable phrase.

    That’s the phrase I couldn’t figure out.

    How to put it on a blog open to the universe? replace “chomp on carrots” with su.. rocks (how’s that? :-) . The 4/4 time was at the time considered to be a humorous musical coda.

  • Dave

    Mollie, thank you for capitalizing Pagan.

    I suppose I’m an example of a Pagan Atheist. While I’m in Circle I definitely believe in the god/desses, spells, runes, etc I work with, or they don’t work for me. Sitting at this keyboard I’m sure that all that stuff is crafted to jerk my subconscious in a particular, chosen direction. But I can’t think of it that way while I’m doing it.

    I’m enormously confident that hard-core atheist tolerance of Pagan symbols that have slipped into Christianity would not extend to what I do in Circle — that would be more c–p.

    In any event. a glad yule to all at GR. :-)

  • Caleb

    Stoo-

    I don’t know what an Xtian or an Xtian God is. Please elaborate.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    I wonder how many people who come to an event like this are true atheists in the philosophical/theological sense of the word, and how many have adopted the term “atheist” as a way of expressing their dislike for/disagreement with mainstream religion. Surveys repeatedly show that a significant percentage of self-identified “atheists” believe in God or other supernatural phenomena. Maybe it seems self-evident, but I’m curious how the groups in this article settled on the name “Atheists” rather than, say, “Free Thinkers,” “Skeptics,” “Humanists,” “Coalition for Reason,” or some other term.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Delicately put, Jerry! And it satisfies my curiosity as well. Thanks!

    Caleb, it’s an abbreviation for Christian, using “X” as the Greek Chi.

  • Stoo

    Martha I can’t speak for the people in the article but religion isn’t all the same for some of out here on planet godless.

  • michael

    All I know is that Richard Dawkins ought to tithe a portion of his riches to the Church of England out of sheer gratitude. Without Dawkins’ cartoon caricature of the Christian God, the whole Richard Dawkins industry would disappear.

    If God didn’t exist, Dawkins would’ve had to invent him.

  • Bern

    Strictly speaking, an a-theism holds that God (or gods) do not exist. Buddhism is a-theistic. But since it is impossible to prove a negative, atheism is as much a “belief” system (or “religion” if you will) as any. I can’t feel bad for the Atheist Happy Hour folk: they are choosing to be unhappy, unlike a lot of folk in a lot of countries that have it a lot worse than having to put up with too much “Christmas” once a year.

    For me, that “Christmas” feeling does start with Advent–although the two are not conflated, maybe because I’m of a certain age and had a lot of practice–and it ain’t over until Epiphany, thanks very much.

  • http://mattspoon.org CoffeZombie

    Speaking of the preference for Pagan traditions over Christian, it reminds me of something my wife told me she learned in a “History of the Enlightenment” class. Specifically, she told be about a book written during the Enlightenment where the author talks of visiting Rome, and speaks of Rome’s “barbaric” Christians, and their predecessors, the “noble” Pagans.

    Then again, IIRC, the term “Dark Ages” was coined during the Enlightenment to describe what we now call the “Middle Ages”, with the implication that, under the prominence of the Roman Catholic Church, everyone was stuck in a stupid rut. This is despite the technological innovations that occurred during that time (i.e., the development of the pipe organ, honestly, a magnificent technology, and improvements in agriculture, etc.).

    The point being that, I suspect, those athiests who love Pagan traditions are merely following in the footsteps of their Enlightenment predecessors.