An Atheist Christmas Letter
Posted: December 16, 2006
As I write this, I'm thinking about what I'll put in my
holiday letter this year. It has been a few years since I sent a letter, or even
holiday cards. As a relatively new atheist, I've become rather frustrated at
so much of the holiday nonsense and by the time this part of the year rolls
around, I've just overdosed on it. While some of the holiday cheer is good,
there is so much spin and packaging of ancient myths that it's hard for a
rationalist like me not to feel under siege.
My first instinct is to fight back a bit and play
iconoclast. The truth is important, after all. Yet, I feel some guilt
trampling on people's often well meant holiday spirit in the only communication
that most of my distant friends will receive from me all year. So I've figured
out a compromise. I'm writing this little essay saying some of the things I
wanted to say about the holidays from an atheist perspective. I've made it
open to all, so perhaps more people will know the atheist perspective on
Christmas. My private holiday correspondence will point to this essay with an
The Reason for the Season?
The first thing that needs to be addressed is the reason for
the season. To properly answer the question, you have to go back a few tens of
thousands of years to a time when human cultures were making the transition
from being nomadic to adopting an agricultural economy. Humans at the time
lacked a proper understanding of the solar system and the motions of the bodies
within it. As a result, humans deified the sun and the moon as they were so
obviously important to their success. The moon is important to nomadic tribes
as the full moon provides light that aids in night time hunts. Worshiping the
moon was seen as a way to improve the hunt and ultimately, the survival of the
With a shift to agriculture, the sun is clearly more
dominant because the sun makes the crops grow. Winter must have been an
especially scary time as the waning daylight meant that man had to survive for
a while living on what was stored and what could be scavenged. To ease this
angst, early astronomers tracked the movement of the sun and watched for the
time when the days stopped shortening and began lengthening again. This yearly
astronomical event is known as the winter solstice. It was
difficult for early man to measure exactly, but they knew to watch for it. And
they knew what it meant--the eventual return of longer days when their lives
would not be so difficult. Not surprisingly, religions centered on the sun
have rituals near the time of the solstice and most have resurrection myths
connected to the coming renewal of spring. These simple religions were an
attempt to make meaning of a cosmic and important phenomenon of the cycles of
So, while axial tilt of the earth is the true reason for the
season, we can also feel a connection with our more primal human reaction to
the season, which is a sense of hope and renewal for the coming year. We can
do this honestly, understanding the movement of the planets and their emotional
effect on us. These are the real reasons for celebrations this time of year.
These are the things that I personally try to connect to this time of year. I
feel it is part of my connection to my humanity and to the planet I call home.
Atheists don't generally celebrate holidays in the original
sense of the word: holy days. Gatherings of atheists this time of year
generally give more than a nod to the winter solstice, but there are no rituals.
On the surface, this might seem to be a shallow and nerdy response to what
others may feel is the real significance of the Christmas season. In truth,
it's the other way around. The meaning of the season existed aeons before any
of today's religions took root. For a better understanding of these topics, I
refer the reader to the works of Joseph
Campbell who wrote extensively about the mythological themes that cross
religions and their origins in our collective humanity.
Birth of Jesus
Christianity is the dominant religion in our culture and
Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, Christianity's central figure on
December 25th. There is so much mythology surrounding the nativity that it
would take at least a book to fully unravel. A good compact source of
information is The
Christmas Story: an Overview of Christian Belief. Many of these myths
are uncritically repeated this time of year. I'll hit on a few of the facts
that everyone should know--especially people who call themselves followers of
The only first person "eye witness" account of Christ anywhere in
existence is the Apostle Paul's encounter with Christ as a spirit-being out the
desert (really not much more than a flash of light). All other accounts of
Jesus/Christ are just lore from oral tradition.
We know today that a large number of people have visual and auditory
hallucinations, so there is no reason to believe Paul encountered
anything supernatural. Again, this is the strongest evidence
for Christianity--all other evidence amounts to hearsay.
Paul was quite convinced that Christ was a spirit in human shape and not
a flesh-and-blood human.
He considered humans to be essentially dirty and as such the human form was
completely unsuitable for a god man. The first few centuries of Christianity
saw a great debate about whether Christ ever existed in human form.
Eventually, the side that argued for human form won out. They needed a human
form to bolster the idea that Jesus suffered on the cross for our collective
original sin, linking Christ to some of the main and accepted themes of Judaism.
Paul knew nothing of these ideas, as they were invented later; nor did he know
of most of the key events in Jesus "life" on earth for the same reason. Paul
was quite sure that the crucifixion occurred in a spiritual plane, disconnected
from events on Earth. Since Christians don't believe Paul's conception of
Christ, they obviously think he was a liar. If he was a liar, then why should
they believe anything at all about Christ, since there are no other primary sources
Indeed, much of the lore surrounding Jesus was pulled in from
various places. The notion of Jesus being a human from Galilee (and
simultaneously Bethlehem) was probably based on a composite of a number of real
people and imagined deities. Lore surrounding a divine Christ was borrowed
from Mithraism, Attisism, and a host of other
religions that were mixing together in the great melting pot of the Roman Empire when the legend appeared. The Jesus mythology and the Christ mythology were
also eventually merged, having been previously separate. A person has to
search very hard for any facet of Jesus/Christ lore that was not borrowed from
earlier mythologies. These facts, combined with the 30 or so missing years of
Jesus documented life would make any thinking person doubt that any part of the
story is factual.
Early Christianity had a big problem on its hands. Paul had
preached about the return of Christ and was quite clear that it was to be
during the lifetime of his disciples. See The Lowdown
on God's Showdown. He even urged the faithful to stop having children
as it would just complicate their lives during the transition that was about to
occur! As far as we know, Christ never came back, making Paul a bona fide liar
and Jesus a false messiah. Paul even said at one point that lying was a good
thing if it aggrandized God (Romans 3:7)... or was that condemning lying? It's
not so clear, but Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, expanded on
the first interpretation. The problem of Christ's non-return is still a
festering sore on Christianity. It has not been resolved, but the faithful
don't care about the fatal flaws of their religion; they have faith.
I call it gullibility.
To distract the faithful from the festering problem of a
non-returning Christ, a miraculous birth story was invented long after his "death".
The story has been embellished heavily over the years to become what we now call
the nativity story. Even the original story has its problems however. Some of
the confabulators worked very hard to tie Jesus' blood line back to King
David, with whom the God character had made a covenant in earlier scriptures that
his descendents would rule forever. Unfortunately, even the Bible tells us
that David's line had stopped ruling a long time before Jesus was even thought
about. God was therefore a proven liar (or a myth) and they realized it. To
try to bandage this fatal wound, the story tellers worked very hard to have
Jesus born in Bethlehem, which they thought they could spin as fulfilling the
prophecy in the Old Testament. One problem with this is that the "prophecy"
was about an earlier king (Immanuel), so the prophecy was unrelated to Jesus. (No
magic here. The prediction was conveniently coined after the event occurred
and attributed to an earlier time. It's like "predicting" today that World War
II will occur, and then claiming the prediction took place in the earlier 1814.)
Another problem is that Jesus had to have a human biological father for this
prophecy to be about him. (According to the Bible, females contribute
nothing.) That is the only way he could have David's blood. To drive this
point home, there is a lineage from David to Jesus in the Bible. To drive the
point home even more, there also is a second, conflicting lineage from
David to Jesus in the Bible. If one is good, two different ones must be
better! Both of these are in complete contradiction with the idea that Jesus
is born of a virgin, the foundational miracle of Christianity. That myth has
its roots in a Biblical transcription error where "young woman" was
mistranslated to "virgin". There are probably a hundred more problems with the
nativity story. I hope these facts give the reader an idea of how silly the
whole thing is.
As part of the birth story, they chose late December as the date
of Jesus birth so that the Catholic Church could begin co-opting the Roman Saturnalia Festival,
from which we get our traditions of holiday merriment, having a big meal, and
gift giving. Easter was likewise co-opted from pagan spring fertility
festivals from which we get bunnies and eggs, both fertility symbols. The
whole nativity story was fabricated to hoodwink more people into a growing
religion. To their credit, the invention of Mary was a stroke of genius that
"worked miracles" for marketing Christianity.
In case anyone is wondering why atheists have a
condescending attitude toward Christians it is because very often atheists know
more about Christianity than the believers. We are consistently amazed that
anyone believes these ridiculous religious claims. People believe,
unfortunately, because they are ignorant. Anyone relying on a church for their
source of information about Christianity will be systematically misinformed.
People who know the truth aren't generally converts. It is the faithful that pay
the incomes of the ministers. So, they perpetuate myths among the gullible in
order to eat and have power over them. They tell people that faith
(gullibility) is a virtue so as to flatter the believers and perpetuate their
Atheists get criticized for being humbugs about Christmas.
According to some sources, we're even fighting some sort of war over it. Many
of us do consider ourselves at war with ignorance and the thuggery that often goes
along with it. Myths are not harmless and gullibility is not a virtue.
Nothing good has ever come of them. Bergen Evans hit it on the head when he
wrote in A Tale of a Tub,
"For in the last analysis all tyranny rests on fraud, on getting someone to
accept false assumptions, and any man who for one moment abandons or suspends
the questioning spirit has for that moment betrayed humanity." Now let's look
at the effects of myths and gullibility.
Peace and Good Will
One of the nicest wishes that I get in Christmas and holiday
cards is the wish of peace on Earth and good will toward men. Good stuff. Very
often, however, that message has been associated with some Christian image,
such as the three Magi (who never existed) making their trek to see the child
savoir. The implication is that somehow those sentiments have something to do
with Christianity. Again, the more a person knows about Christianity, the more
he might think the association is a lame attempt to improve Christianity's
image--to put lipstick on the pig.
As for peace, the most horrible wars and atrocities
have had religion at their core. A person who believes he is acting based on
the righteousness of God will eagerly suspend human compassion. Gott mit uns.
Non-believers are rationalized to be not worthy of compassion because God hates
them, they lack souls, or they're supposedly working for some equally
ridiculous competing supernatural concern. Religion is largely impervious to
reason and it generally takes a long time for sanity to prevail.
Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are called the Abrahamic
religions. They all worship one and the same tribal god of Abraham. Yahweh,
God, Jehovah, and Allah are all names for the same god. You might think all of
these religions are on the same side, but you'd be wrong. The various sects of
these religions have been killing each-other since their beginning. Even
today, most of the tension in the Middle East has at its roots the ancient
religious conflicts between sects under the same god. This god's believers
have aptly demonstrated that He is incompatible with peace. Likewise, I cannot
square the idea of Jesus being called "the prince of peace" when so many
millions of people have been killed in his name. This appellation shows an
amazing amount of ignorance combined with a lack of sympathy for the victims.
As for "good will toward men," I have my doubts as well. Much
of the killing in the name of God has been in concert with some equally
horrible persecution. Christianity has been behind witch burnings, the Inquisition, pogroms, and many other ills. The
Abrahamic religions have always subjugated women. Gays are
demonized to raise money by religious demagogues. The Bible has been used
to justify slavery. It does so unabashedly. There is no mention of pedophilia
in the Bible, but incest with your daughter seems to be allowed. The Catholic
Church has effectively run a pedophile ring for decades while none of the
organizers have been brought to trial.
What good has come from our religious war with the "axis of
evil"? Has our messiah president done a single good thing while he has been in
power? Thanks to the "values voters," we are now known worldwide as a country
that supports torture. Christians
(Catholics especially) seem to think that torture is a good thing. After
all, God does it, so it must be good. I've even had a well meaning Christian
"friend" come to my home and threaten me with torture so that I would do the
"right thing" in his eyes and believe in his nonsensical religion. Part of me
wonders whether such people are just sadists looking for a way of justifying
their twisted mindset. They have no evidence for their God and, at the same
time, they think it's the epitome of good to torture a person for all eternity
for the finite "crime" of not believing.
Many religious people have a charitable nature and do good
works, but is it really charity when you expect a payout? For Christians,
charity will help ensure one's reward of perpetual
orgasm. Do the math. When you factor in the infinite benefit that
religious people gain from "charity" work, you have to wonder why they don't
give away all their belongings and wander the streets as Jesus said was the
path to salvation. Christians' actions belie their claims of belief.
When the tsunami hit the Indian Ocean in December of 2004,
most American's prayed. For believers, God either sought to kill those 500,000
people or He didn't care enough about them to prevent the earthquake that led
to the event. Either way, directly helping these people is in direct conflict
with God's obvious wishes and may jeopardize one's ticket to Heaven. So many
believers chose to pray instead of providing real help. This is just another
way that belief sabotages philanthropy. Of course, many religious groups were
on the march after the event. Most were motivated to gain converts. Those
lost interest when they couldn't proselytize to the victims. Again, who is
benefiting? Where is the good will?
Science and technology have done far more philanthropy than
all religions combined. In contrast, religions generally sabotage science. Religions
are famous for destroying libraries, burning books, and murdering the authors
that they wanted to suppress. Nearly all of our medical knowledge was gained
over the objection of religion. Religions are still at it today actively
sabotaging stem cell research and the teaching of evolution, the foundation of
biology. While Norman
Borlaug was using his knowledge of biology and evolution to create cereal
grains that are credited with feeding billions of people, Mother Teresa was
collecting millions of dollars for her missionary work that sadistically perpetuated
the suffering of those under her care. She is quoted as saying, "I think
it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the
passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of
the poor people." Much of the money she collected from this travesty of
compassion went to the Catholic Church, who repaid her with a fast track to
sainthood by way of a bogus "miracle."
Most of her work was geared at increasing the poverty in India through promotion of higher birth rates.
Peace and goodwill derive from compassion and respect for
one's fellow man, taking responsibility for one's actions, and the knowledge to
make good decisions. These are the virtues that most atheists embrace under
the name of Humanism
or Secular Humanism. Ignorance
and power trades with gods are incompatible with peace and good will.
Religions are not above marketing themselves as good things, though and hiding
the facts to the contrary. Caveat emptor.
I do agree with many of the religious people that the
holidays have become far too commercialized. I have little new to say here
except that capitalism is America's true religion and the holidays are
something of a religious holiday for it, as well, with Santa as its shill. The
primary capitalist myth seems to be that buying things is the path to happiness.
It's just another holiday myth that needs to be debunked.
Speaking of Santa, it's clear that he's is just a training
mechanism for children to become Christians. Both are based on the idea that
you should be good to others in order to receive a reward from some omniscient
supernatural being. It's all about hedonism gleaned from Big Brother. When
children lose their innocence about Santa Claus, they are then indoctrinated
into the "real" belief which is a good bit darker than the training wheels
mythology. If you're not good, you don't get coal in your stocking--you get
cinders as your feet. I guess it is fear that keeps people awake in church.
When you remove all of the fluff and crap from the holidays,
you're not left with very much. Hope and renewal remain. A person can still
feel love for his fellow man, despite mankind's limitations. One can embrace
some of the fun and joyous traditions. The holiday nights are a nice change
from the dreariness of winter. And the tradition of writing holiday letters
isn't a bad one either. It's easy to get separated from those who have
impacted you and your life. It's good to reconnect with them.
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Peace and good will toward man through reason!
And if you believe, believe responsibly.