Tom Flynn, the Anti-Claus

Should non-believers celebrate a secular version of Christmas as a sort of winter holiday? According to Tom Flynn, the answer is “no.” If you haven’t heard of Flynn, he is the Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism, editor of Free Inquiry, and the author of The Trouble with Christmas. (As Flynn points out, his book makes an excellent holiday gift!)

Flynn was touring the U.S. speaking to atheist groups on the topic, “The Trouble with Christmas.” (He calls his tour the “Anti-Claus Tour 2011.”) With considerable humor, Flynn presented the history of the Christmas holiday we have today in the U.S. and the UK, which he attributed to DWAMQs (“Dead White Anglo Males…. and a Queen”), including Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria.
Flynn argued there are parallels between holidays related to Osiris and Mithras, on the one hand, and Jesus, on the other. (For example, Mithras’ birthday was believed to be December 25, whereas the gospels do not mention Jesus’ birthday.)
Flynn presented six of his top ten reasons against parents teaching their children about Santa:
1. To perpetuate the Santa Claus myth, parents must lie to their children.
2. To buoy belief, adults stage elaborate deceptions, laying traps for the child’s developing intellect.
3. The myth encourages lazy parenting and promotes unhealthy fear.
4. The myth harms children’s moral and emotional development and damages family dynamics.
5. The myth promotes selfishness and acquisitive attitudes among children.
6. Children may not enjoy the Santa Claus drama as much as parental nostalgia suggests.

Flynn urged secular humanists to respond to the “Christians’ birthday festival” by being “conspicuous in sitting it out and sitting out contrived secular alternatives” like the Winter Solstice and HumanLight. In his words, “If we are not Christians, we are not pagans either.” A practical consequence of this position, as Flynn sees it, is that secular humanists should not wish other people “happy holidays” because “many people are not celebrating any holidays at all.”

The question-and-answer period was interesting: Flynn seemed to receive a friendly but skeptical response from the atheist audience, if the questions were any indication.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. I agree with Flynn that parents should not lie to their kids about Santa. But what about celebrating Christmas or, as he calls it, “contrived secular alternatives” like the Winter Solstice and HumanLight? I celebrate a completely secular version of Christmas purely as a family tradition, but I can understand why other non-Christians might feel very differently. For the same reason, I do not celebrate Winter Solstice or Human Light: they mean nothing to me. I can understand why some nonbelievers feel the need to create a secular holiday alternative, while others (like Flynn) see no reason to celebrate any holidays.

I guess I am just a “holiday subjectivist.”

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Andyman409

    I always though Daniel Dennet was the atheist Santa…

  • Dan Gillson

    I always hate it when stodgy intellectuals pooh-pooh well earned fun. Seriously, without the holidays, what reason would we have to get drunk and sing songs?

  • Jeana

    @Dan Gillson wasn't aware we needed a reason ;)

  • Alex Dalton

    I think he should speak to Christians as well. Why should we continue to lie to our children about Santa if it is harmful? I think we'd all be better off (esp. financially) if we could do away with at least the aspects of this holiday that we all agree are mythical.

  • Stig K Martinsen

    This is exactly the kind of nonsense that gives atheists a bad name. Most people are happy to have rituals and festivals that mark the major transitions of life, and smaller rituals for the transitions of the year, like the winter solstice in this case. The tradition of having some kind of feast at the darkest time of year is both older and more universal than Christianity or any other currently fashionable belief system that rituals constantly get hooked on to.

    People should be free to practice rituals whether or not they're tied to any religious beliefs; in fact it bothers me how the religious always try to monopolize celebrations of major life events like birth, transition to adulthood, marriage and death.

    Why shouldn't we have a feast at what would otherwise be (at least for many people in the northern hemisphere) a depressingly dark time? Flynn is of course free to not join the party, but he should let everybody else have their feast, social gathering, winter solstice or whatever, with any rituals and symbols that feel right to them.