December 23, 2022 | David F. Coppedge

Happy Atheist Christmas

Atheists don’t want to be left out of Christmastime. But are
their “ethical celebrations” well grounded in their worldview?


— Christmas is “for” everybody, including atheists. But Christmas is not “of” atheism. —

It’s the “hap- happiest season of all” for many around the world, as the lights, songs, feasts and parties demonstrate in December. Atheists surely don’t want to miss out on the fun. Instead of attacking it, some think there are ways to hop on the bandwagon and have an “ethical” Christmas that is more ‘enlightened’ than believing that the baby Jesus was the Son of God come to deliver us from our sins.

The word “Christ” in Christmas denotes its historical roots in the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth, of course, and its religious significance is celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike with Christmas concerts, manger scenes, and plays. The “war on Christmas” still takes place in some quarters by officials overly worried that non-Christians might be “offended” by the sight of a Christmas tree; read about a recent example. And yet without doubt Christmas is already one of the most inclusive holidays of the year, celebrated around the world. It’s a federal holiday in America.

Granted, many of the trappings of Christmas are already thoroughly secularized: sleigh rides, Santa, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman and all, and anyone can sing along with numerous non-religious Christmas songs (White Christmas, Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Deck the Halls). Actor Tim Allen (The Santa Clauses) commented that one can enjoy Christmas without denying its religious roots (The Beau Davidson Show, 22 Dec 2022). People frown upon a Grinch stealing Christmas, or a Scrooge saying ‘Bah! Humbug’ at Christmastime. It would be bad publicity for unbelievers to display that attitude. Unbelievers might as well join in the Christmas spirit. But how best for atheists to do that? New Scientist has suggestions.

Green Christmas: How to have an ethical and guilt-free festive season (New Scientist, 22 Dec 2022). This reprint from 2018 by Chelsea Whyte and Alice Klein was posted by the secularist-materialist-evolutionist news site New Scientist as part of the magazine’s “Advent Calendar 2022” (advent of what?). The reporters offer suggestions: “If you celebrate Christmas, it doesn’t have to be a feast of rampant consumerism and devastating gluttony,” they say, never mentioning any of the religious aspects of the holiday. “Read our guide to cleaning up your Yule.” Isn’t cleanliness next to godliness?

Atheists can surely be “festive” but can they truly be ethical on the foundation of their materialist, evolutionary worldview? How can one be “guilt-free” who sees all behavior as determined by genes and the environment? What is joy but a response of neurotransmitters and hormones? And what can atheists reflect on? What really matters if it all ends in death?

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but it could still use some improvement. Christmas often brings a mix of joy, excitement and last-minute shopping panic, but it is also a time of reflection for many people, an opportunity to stand back and dwell on what really matters.

The authors seem oblivious to the fact that “Green Christmas” was the title of one of comedian Stan Freberg‘s classic radio skits mocking the unbridled commercialism of Christmas in 1958. In that skit, at one point, there is a brief pause as one sober character interrupts the noise with a question: shouldn’t people remember something? “Remember what?” replies an advertising agent. “Whose birthday we’re celebrating,” the man replies. After a pregnant pause, the noise resumes with the merchants thinking only of all the dollars coming in.

These reporters define “green” not with greenbacks but with carbon credits.

The past year has been a wake-up call about the state of the planet, with record-breaking heatwaves and wildfires highlighting the perils of climate change, and China’s restrictions on rubbish imports spurring a global waste crisis.

The rest of their article advises the largely non-Christian readership how to have an “ethical” Christmas:

  • For your Christmas tree, a natural tree is probably better than a fake one; you can even grow your own.
  • Use cloth, popcorn or natural holly for decorating your tree, not plastic or tinsel.
  • Don’t toss your tree in a landfill; turn it into mulch, “which is then returned to the soil to nourish new life. It is a Christmas miracle.”
  • For your Christmas feast, avoid red meat and dairy. Respect the planet by eating lentils and beans. Or go vegan.
  • If you must have some Christmas turkey, try cutting out meat for weeks afterward as a kind of penance.
  • Waste not, want not. Don’t buy more food than is needed, and store the leftovers in the freezer.
  • If you travel for Christmas, take a train or bus instead of flying or driving.
  • Offset that travel guilt by riding your bike to work more afterwards.
  • Don’t make the children believe in Santa Claus. They can enjoy the story but shouldn’t be trained to think it is true.
  • Instead of donning now our gay apparel, substitute flashy sweaters with gifts for poor children.

If you want to feel warm and fuzzy about your jumper selection, you could opt for a hand-knitted woollen version instead, says Capponi. Wool is biodegradable and you can find suppliers that have good animal welfare practices and make minimal use of pesticides, she says. Plus, it doesn’t count as sweatshop labour if you make a family member knit it for you.

  • Wear wool instead of synthetic fibers.
  • Buy second-hand Christmas sweaters, but don’t over-wash synthetic fabrics. Avoid spread of microplastics.
  • Use low-wattage Christmas lights. Less impact on the environment. Recycle burned-out ones.
  • Avoid tinsel, foil wrapping paper and other non-recyclable materials. Reuse wrapping paper.
  • Give ethical gifts, like potted plants, homemade jam, tickets to shows, or a subscription to New Scientist.

While many of these suggestions make sense and can be endorsed by believers, Chelsea and Alice realize that devotion to their version of a “green” Christmas can appear like a severe case of self-righteous virtue signalling. Well, just embrace it, they conclude, tossing that hot potato to Arunima Malik from the University of Sydney.

Not only does ethical gift-giving make you feel like a superior human being, it can also be easy on the wallet. Whip up a dozen homemade jams on the cheap, and if anyone complains about your stinginess, you can tell them you’re just trying to save the planet.

An atheist’s “ethical” Christmas can even spread the good news as a means of secular evangelism:

Another option is to buy presents that foster green habits, says Malik. Home compost bins or reusable coffee cups or water bottles, for example, may encourage your relatives to reduce their waste over the long term, she says.

One can hear Stan Freberg’s character in the background complaining, “People keep hoping you’ll remember, but you never do.” “Remember what?” “Whose birthday we’re celebrating.”

More than fun and games: Celebrations can benefit your health and well-being (Indiana University, 21 Dec 2022). This article doesn’t even mention Christmas at all, or Hannukah, but coming out on December 21, it most likely is timed for the “holiday party” season. What does the smiling lady in the photo advise for marketers to make them feel better about their holiday party plans?

“Many celebrations this time of year include two of the three conditions – eating and drinking while gathering together,” said Kelley Gullo Wight, assistant professor at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business and co-author of the study. “Adding the third condition, making an intentional effort to recognize other’s positive achievements, is key. For example, take the time to congratulate someone for getting accepted to their first-choice university, or a work project that went well, or a new job offer. This will maximize the benefits to your well-being and the well-being of all the attendees at that holiday party.

To feel even better, raise money for charity. After all, the intent of the article is to “benefit your health and well being,” isn’t it? Marketers can be selfish for promoting an unselfish cause. They don’t have to pony up their own money or volunteer their own time. They can look virtuous by getting other people to do it.

“We found that when people feel supported socially after a celebration, they’re more ‘pro-social,’ and more willing to volunteer their time or donate to a cause,” said Danielle Brick, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Connecticut and co-author on the study. “This would be a good time for non-profits to market donation campaigns, around the time many people are celebrating positive life events, like holidays or graduations.”

The operative word is “market” the campaigns, since this article is intended for “marketing managers.” Marketing is fine, especially for non-profit charities. But isn’t the prof forgetting something? “Whose birthday we’re celebrating.”

Christmas Party 2002

I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating this time of year. When I worked at JPL, various offices had “Christmas parties” from 1996 through 2006. Nobody had a problem with red and green decor and costumes. I played Christmas carols on my French horn one year and got a hearty round of applause. Nobody expressed being offended.

The “Cassini Virtual Singers” sang humorous mission-oriented lyrics to Christmas carols like “Joy to the World” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” People wore Christmasy clothes, and decorations looked festive with Christmas colors and seasonal treats.

As late as 2006, it was hard to eliminate references to Christmas ideas and decor.

Rather suddenly, that began to change in 2007. A new “Diversity and Inclusion” department appeared at the lab. Now, the word Christmas took on ominous tones. Everyone at the lab had to take a multiple-choice test on their PC screen about how to be more “inclusive” around the lab. There was no reward or penalty for a bad score, but any “wrong” answers were immediately greeted with suggestions about how to give more “inclusive” responses. There was only one “best” answer to each question; all others were graded “inappropriate.”  The one about Christmas is shown below, which I saved with a screen capture.

The “best” answer is to expunge all traces of Christmas.

Notice the moralizing. Christmas is not “neutral” but “holiday party” is. A party without any trappings of Christmas (even secular ones, like Santa and a Christmas tree) was classified as “religion neutral.” It was also now deemed naughty, not nice, to assume that people were in “traditional families” any more.

When the next Christmas rolled around, I got into trouble for asking why a Cassini staff email announced a “Holiday Party” instead of the usual “Christmas party.” I sent the question to my boss and to Carmen, the social events person. I included a link to an article by Dennis Prager, a very well-known Jew, who advocated that companies keep the label “Christmas Party” instead of “Holiday Party.” This did not go over well. I was not reprimanded at the time, but in 2012 at my religious discrimination trial, Carmen told the court she felt extremely uncomfortable and “harassed” by that email, even though she never told me that before, and we had had a good working relationship for years. The “Holiday Party” flap was not the main issue at the trial (see articles) but it did play a part; the lawyers used it as an example of how my “personal beliefs” were making people “uncomfortable.” For one of the next office “holiday parties,” my boss (an apostate Christian who had turned atheist when he learned about Darwinism in college), took us to one of the most un-Christmasy office parties one could imagine: a pizza parlor with pool tables and rock music. He was trying to be “inclusive” and “neutral” to support “diversity.” (I was offended, but in Diversity La-la-land, you can offend Christians; that’s fine. There is an inherent double standard in political correctness. Ironically, the holiday that always got the most lab-wide excitement at JPL was Halloween.)

DEI Tyranny

As we all know, this “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” (DEI) trend (3 Dec 2022) has become a totalitarian dictatorship in many segments of society, especially in academia and business. Little did I know at the time how overpowering it would become. Now, many institutions and corporations hire DEI officers who act like tyrants, rendering judgments on anyone with traditional values who won’t succumb to “gender affirming pronouns” and other diktats. Conservative speakers are shouted down at universities, and students or employees risk loss of their jobs for the slightest offense that can be deemed “phobic” (homophobic, transphobic) or religious. Anti-Christian hate is the only type of intolerance they tolerate (see Self-Refuting Fallacy in the Baloney Detector). Incidents these days are shocking but becoming the new normal. This week a gentle lady was arrested in the UK for praying silently by herself on a public sidewalk outside an abortion clinic (watch the video). Pro-life advocates have been arrested at their homes, in front of children, by the FBI with guns drawn. Would a society like this have invented Christmas?

Grounding Ethics in a Solid Worldview

The point of this article is to question whether atheism provides grounds for celebrating an “ethical Christmas.” Nobody would deny an atheist the right to join in Christmas celebrations; to have a tree, sing fun songs, feast on good food. And atheists can be deservedly commended if they give to charity, such as helping poor children. Being environmentally responsible is a good practice for everyone, Christians and atheists. Christians recognize that atheists can be very ethical people—the explanation being that we believe they are created in God’s image and have a conscience.

The question is whether they can justify such ethical qualities as joy, peace, well-being and charity from their materialistic (usually Darwinian) worldview. Would atheists have brought Christmas to the world? The Soviets tried to substitute religious holidays with secular counterparts, like May Day celebrations and military parades, but would they have done so if there had not previously existed religious celebrations to react against? Imagine a planet with no knowledge of the Bible, where all are atheists competing for dominance, and power is the only measure of success. I can imagine Orwell’s 1984 on such a planet, but not Christmas.

Materialist Darwinism offers nothing but fitness as a “virtue.” Fitness is selfish. Yes, the Darwinists have their theories about the “evolution of altruism” (see 16 Dec 2022), but those are rooted in group selfishness. Worse, they are rooted in determinism. If behavior is determined, nobody is responsible for anything. There is no accountability. There is no pole star for ethics. There are no self-evident truths or rights endowed by a Creator. Whatever is, is right, even totalitarian tyranny and extinction. This is why even prominent atheist Richard Dawkins said he would prefer living in a Christian society, not an atheist one.

Only the Bible teaches that people are morally responsible beings made in the image of God. Moral responsibility implies the ability to choose good and reject evil. Jesus was the supreme example of self-sacrificial love, giving his life to save sinners (i.e., all of us). The Christian worldview is the one that can justify why “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The angels told the shepherds that the coming of the baby in the manger represented “Good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10), including atheists. The ethical virtues of Christmas are rooted in the coming of the Savior to the world. At Christmas, we look back on that fulcrum of history (BC to AD) as a real event grounded in evidence with many eyewitnesses to Jesus, his life, his teachings, his miracles, his death, and his resurrection. The evidence was strong enough to convince atheist Lee Strobel to change his view and become a Christian (video).

We sincerely wish atheist readers a Merry Christmas! While you join as an outside guest in the spirit of Christmas, perhaps for the first time look seriously into the reason for the season. New Scientist encouraged its readers to recognize Christmas as a “time of reflection for many people, an opportunity to stand back and dwell on what really matters.” Ask yourself: what does really matter, if we emerged from a material big bang and an accidental concourse of atoms, and if all the things that bring us pleasurable sensations come to an end at death? Christmas is good news because the gospel means “good news.” Christ sent out the message through his disciples, “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). That’s the only thing that pleases our Maker. The angels joined in, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14).

If you taste the Christmas smorgasbord of values and find it good, we hope you will become a willing participant and not just a guest. Follow the signposts at our Site Map. Christ the Lord has come, and he rewards those who diligently seek him (Hebrews 11:6). 

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