It's Hard to Be an Atheist on Christmas

This post was imported from Livejournal on 2008.07.18

Atheism and Christmas: Should Atheists Ignore Christmas or Celebrat...

This was a good read. It's inspired me to write about my own personal experience with this. I've been struggling with this a lot in the past 4-5 years.

My family is religious, but not overly so. Methodism is one of most liberal denominations of Protestantism. One thing that was always very important to my mother is that we go to the Christmas Eve service at her church. Most of my life I went to this. When I was a Christian, I even enjoyed it. But one time, I believe it was December 2003, when everyone was getting ready to go, I didn't get dressed.

After everyone had gotten into the car, Megan, who was not my wife at the time, but was living with and taking care of my grandmother in town, came to get me. I was lying on the couch, trying to figure out what to say. I told her I wasn't going, and that I couldn't. She said "Go for your mom." I said I still just couldn't. I told her to stay here with me. She looked at me, can't remember if she said anything else, but left for the car.

I don't know what happened next, but I assume Megan told my family "He's not coming." My mom called out my name and I came to the door, not dressed. She said "Come on!" and I said "I'm not going." She said "Jim, come on, please. For me."

I just stood there, torn between two opposite forces. I didn't want to upset my mother, my family, my girlfriend, who I'm sure was mortified beyond belief. But at the same time, I had already revealed my non-belief with my parents and family. I didn't make a big show of it, but they all knew that I didn't go to church, I had a problem with religion, and that I didn't call myself a Christian anymore. Even then I didn't know whether I was atheist, agnostic, deist, or what. But I don't think they grasped the gravity of what that meant until that moment.

And in that moment, I'm sure I know everything that was going through each of their heads:

My mother was sad, scared, disappointed in me, and maybe a bit angry at my stubborn insolence.

My father was angry that I was upsetting my mother. He knew how sad that was going to make her and he probably knew she would be crying on his shoulder later that night. He was thinking about how immature I was not to put my mother's feelings before my own "selfishness."

My brother Lee was probably a little confused and annoyed. He was probably thinking "Great. We're gonna be late. I'm gonna miss the Prelude." He's a musician.

My other brother Joe was probably thinking "There goes Jim, starving for attention again." I don't honestly know what Joe calls himself these days. His wife was raised Seventh-Day Adventist, but I don't know if they attend any church services. I know that he has never particularly enjoyed going to Christmas Eve service, but he does.

And my girlfriend, who I loved, was probably thinking "Please, just get in the car. Don't make this any more awkward for me than it already is.." She doesn't feel as strongly as I feel about things like this. She isn't a Christian, but she doesn't really call herself anything, because it's just irrelevant to her life. (As a side note, a strong atheist being married to someone like that is almost as different as a moderate Christian being married to an evangelical one. The respect for each other's beliefs, most of them being the same, is there, but certain specific views are quite far apart.)

As I looked from face to face, I could feel each and every one of those emotions that they were feeling. I looked at my mother again, and said "I'm not going." I don't remember what happened after that, but she said something along the lines of "Fine" and my dad pulled out of the garage. The last thing I heard was the garage door closing as I walked back through the kitchen.

I went and laid down on the couch and cried. Part of me was missing the tradition, the family unity, the singing, the just plain magical spirit of the activity. But another part of me told me that that magic was gone forever. It had been tarnished by what Christianity now meant to me. It might've been at that moment that I fully realized the draw that church has for so many non-religious people. A place to go to socialize, to sing music, to discuss morality and philosophy with other like-minded people, to receive a hopeful message to help start your week.

I had gotten over most of that. I hadn't been to church in months at the time. I drew inspiration from other sources. I socialized with friends. I sang and played music with my band. Most of it wasn't irreplaceable. What I wasn't over was the tradition that only comes once a year, that I just hadn't thought of until the day drew closer, and the dread started creeping in. But now that I had made my decision, I stuck by it. When they got back, we had coffee and listened to music. I rejoined them as part of the family. I participated in the gift-giving, the decorating of the tree (for one of the final years my parents had a tree), even holding their hands during their pre-dinner blessings.

Looking back now, while it may not have been the best way to make the point, I think I needed to make it. Every year since then, when we're in town for Christmas, I go home, and I spend time with my family, and when it comes time to go to the service, I just don't go. No one questions it, they don't ask me about it, it's just something that no one talks about. I can see, years from now, when my brothers have children, Lee and Joe, with an inquisitive child or two: "Why doesn't Jim come to church with us?" "That's just something Uncle Jim doesn't do." "Oh.."

As the years have gone by, I've been faced with many choices about what to celebrate and not to celebrate. I've probably made some good decisions, and some bad decisions. And there will be more decisions to be made. Someday, Megan and I will have children. My mom will undoubtedly want to bring them to church. My views and Megan's views will undoubtedly change slightly, maybe even drastically by then. What decision will I make? What decision will she make? And if they're different, what compromise will we be able to come to?

These are difficult questions, but someday, whether I like it or not, I'll have to answer them.

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Comment by Loren Miller on May 11, 2012 at 7:38pm

Let's be real: any holiday can be about what YOU choose to make of it.  In my case, my wife is agnostic and I'm an atheist.  Christmas for us is about sharing and celebrating our love, which is plenty.  If we choose to visit my mom's in Sun City, she doesn't push any religious agenda with her celebration either, so it's not an issue.

If someone were to invite me to Christmas services, I would politely decline, and if they wondered why, they would get a straight answer.

On top of everything else, let's remember that before there was Christmas, there was Yule and Saturnalia, and the christers very obviously and purposefully expropriated the holiday to advance their own agenda.  They can celebrate it THEIR way and I will celebrate it MINE.



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