No anthropologist from Mars would be especially surprised that religiously fraught holidays cluster around the winter solstice. We humans naturally identify God and the cause of good in this world, with light, and evil with its absence, darkness. And there are a lot more of us in our northern hemisphere, where this is the moment of least light, than there are in the oceanic southern hemisphere, where that is reversed. Our Martian would report back to his/her/its universities and peer reviewed journals that things on earth are, in that respect, as one would expect.
There are believers of many sorts on this planet, he would note. There are also unbelievers, (that is, those who either doubt or deny that there exists any central source of spiritual Light for the universe). And the latter consider December an opportune time for making their case that – there need not be anything special about December. There’s a twitter hashtag for this, #AtheistXmasTraditions.
With due respect to all the beliefs and unbeliefs of our readers, this “points of view” column is going to transcend the political, and thus will not employ the usual Left/Right format. It is even going to transcend the interplanetary, and so will say nothing more about our Martian. Welcome to our special holiday issue.
One soon discovers, using that hashtag, that atheist Xmas traditions include “shouting fake news in the audience at the church’s annual nativity scene,” putting out milk and cookies … for yourself, and even expressing gratitude “for the random circumstances that led to my existence.”
A more intriguing proposed “tradition” requires some explanation – and not only for the benefit of Martians, either. One atheist using this hashtag says that he calls the holiday “Christopher Hitchmas.”
This is in honor, presumably, of Christopher Hitchens, a prominent journalist who in the earliest years of this millennium was considered one of the “Four Horsemen” of contemporary atheism. Hitchens, who passed away six years ago, authored a book titled God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens expressed regret that “little Jewish children celebrate Hanukah, so as not to feel left out of the tawdry myths of Bethlehem, which are now being so harshly contested by the more raucous propaganda of Mecca and Medina.”
Also pertinent to this season is Hitchens’ observation during an unmoderated video discussion with other prominent atheists that the Maccabean Revolt celebrated at Hanukah may be the single most unfortunate event in human history, representing a move away from enlightened secular Hellenic civilization toward messianism and theocentrism.
The Believers’ View
Of course, believers in that God think the success of the Maccabean revolt (167-160 BCE) was a good thing. Whether it was a miraculous thing, whether God intervened so that a one night supply of oil could last eight nights, is a question not to be settled here. But resistance against a Hellenizing tyrant is resistance against a tyrant. Religion performs one of its great historic/secular functions when it does motivate resistance to tyrants.
Further, those who believe that a Messiah has come, and (whatever His actual birthdate) that late December is a fitting time to celebrate his birth, will continue to offer their Joy to the World.
Sometimes they return the fire coming from the atheistic side. On twitter, Robert Cunningham writes for many this holiday season when he says, “there is a deep irony in raging against something you don’t believe exists, in aggressively evangelizing a lack of belief….atheism has become the trendy god and secularism a new religion.”
As the Unitarian Universalist Association suggests on its website, this season should remain a time to “join our hearts and minds together in the spirit of meditation and prayer.”
We might well also remember the words of a famous newsman, Eric Severeid, who called Christmas a “necessity” because, he said, “There has to be at least one day of the year to remind us that we’re here for something else besides ourselves.”
A Last Word
We need to call in a thinker of great authority to give us the last word here. I suggest the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who wrote, “For despite the fall, the injunction that we ought to become better men resounds unabatedly in our souls, hence this must be within our power, even though … we thereby only render ourselves susceptible of higher and for us inscrutable assistance.”