"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Gnu atheist / cultural Christian

One thing about self-identifying as an atheist is that it can become very easy to invent moral dilemmas when it comes to celebrating religious festivals.
Like most people in this country I celebrate Christmas, buy Easter eggs for my kids and will cook and eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (despite ignoring Lent). Even Halloween, that most secularised (and Americanised) of high days has religious connections with All Hallows and I guess it is that imminent festival that has made me think about this.
The first obvious thing to say is that as an atheist I celebrate these holidays in name only, and the reason that I keep Christmas and not Hanukah is that I have been born into a notionally Christian country to C of E parents. Culturally, these days are significant to me and my family and friends as holidays, and an excuse to party. But I do also find myself drawn into religious settings at these times; school carol services in Church for example where not only my atheism but my antipathy to religion in general can make me feel hypocritical and uncomfortable. By supporting my daughter and the school’s social events I also end up supporting an institution and a belief system I disapprove of.
Of course sometimes you get the satisfaction of pointing out that these festivals are not Christian per se but were originally pagan and were either exapted by the Church for its own purposes or possibly stem from the pagan origins of Christianity itself. But surprisingly these facts are not always as welcome or interesting to everyone else as they are to me: Go figure!
Anyway pagan roots don’t really cut it, as those festivals were merely celebrations of earlier gods whose non-existence is on the same footing as the Christian one.
The more salient point about the timing of religious festivals is that they also tend to coincide with equinoxes and solstices, points in the year upon which the seasons turn and would have had real significance to our hunter-gatherer and agriculturalist ancestors. In fact this very significance would have given these times the religious significance they acquired, oblivious as our ancestors were of the physical reasons why they occurred.
In the west, even the most rural of communities is largely insulated from the vagaries of the seasons, but the cultural imperative to mark them lives on and gives a rhythm to the year and a reason to associate with friends and family.
So as Halloween approaches, whether you think of it as All Hallows Eve, or Samhain or the Autumnal Equinox it has been a time to notice for millennia as has Easter, Oestre or the Vernal Equinox and the Winter Solstice (A.K.A Christmas , Yule et al). I see no reason not to mark these times today, while taking every opportunity to strip them of any religious or occult meaning. High days and holidays have a purpose in their own right that affirms our humanity, which needn’t be sacrificed to spurious deities. So I’ll still keep Christmas as a culturally Christian atheist, but forgive me if I keep boring you with the secular details.

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