At Christmas, it's tough out there for an atheist

What with the big day falling on Wednesday this year, I’m not sure exactly how much more time I’ll have to chat with all of you between now and then, so I’d just like to start by wishing everyone a very merry Christmas and a happy, prosperous and healthy New Year for you and yours. And no, I don’t feel bad about wishing a Merry Christmas to folks who may not be Christians, just as I gladly accept whatever other good wishes they may care to send my way this time of year. But it seems that some folks are struggling a bit more with the “uncomfortable” situation they find themselves in as families prepare to gather together and celebrate. This is apparently such a pressing problem that one author at The New Republic felt compelled to publish an Atheist’s Guide to Christmas: How to Talk to Kids About Santa and Jesus.

Insofar as the December holiday has become a culture-war touchstone, I suspect it has something to do with increased pominence of atheism in American life. Religiously neutral seasonal greetings were one thing when they were about being respectful to Jewish neighbors—but, at least in some corners of the country, it’s something else entirely when the respect is being directed towards the faithless.

On the other hand, Christmas can be confusing for atheists, too. Minority religious groups in Christian countries have had centuries to develop their own approaches to December 25—my colleague Marc Tracy just made the case for the joys of being Jewish on this holiday—but for atheists, there’s no established formula, let alone something that’s had time to evolve into a Chinese-food-and-a-movie cliche.

This somewhat depressing introduction leads the reader into the transcript of an interview he did with Deborah Mitchell. (In case you hadn’t heard – and judging by the lack of buzz, most of you haven’t – she’s the author of Growing Up Godless: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Kids Without Religion.) The fact that I find portions of this interview so disturbing generates a lot of conflicting feelings for me. I have worked and been friends with plenty of atheists, and given my own struggles with Faith over the last half century I’m in no position to throw stones. I also tend to have a healthy, “hands off” attitude where it comes to parents choosing how to raise their kids. (Assuming abuse is not taking place of course.) And yet some of this is just off putting.

IC: I was thinking about raising kids, and while I don’t believe in God, I want to say to them that they can believe whatever they want to believe, because if they decide to be religious then that’s their choice. On another level, Jesus actually wasn’t the son of God and I should state that as a fact rather than say you can choose and all opinions are equally valid.

DM: I definitely wouldn’t advocate lying to your kids. You know, when they say ‘what do you think happens after we die?’ I tell them, I don’t know, but this is what I think: we die, we go into the ground and we become fertilizer. You know, that’s it.

IC: Maybe shy away from saying you become fertilizer when they’re too young.

DM: [Laughs] Right, for sure. Maybe say instead, we’re part of the circle of life. We become part of the earth again, from which other things will grow. But, you know, these are conversations we have now. I never lie to them about anything in regards to God or whatever knowledge that we have. Jesus may have been an actual man, we know that, but there’s no evidence he was divine.

I really don’t know how to describe how incredibly sad this seems. You’re talking about children here, and the already challenging issue of talking to them about things like mortality, God and the infinite mysteries of the universe. Elsewhere in the article they discuss how to talk to them about Santa at a very early age. How sad for a child who goes to school and plays with all of the other kids who are excitedly chattering about the Nativity and all the decorations and what they hope Santa will bring them, only to go home and have your dreary mother sigh and inform you that Santa is a drunk who hangs out at the mall and you will some day die and turn into worm food.

Do you write this off as teaching them to “deal with reality?” Even if you are rock solid in your belief that this is all there is and life is a pointless terminal ride to the empty darkness of the grave, how do you say that to a small child surrounded by other kids whose faces are glowing with excitement and anticipation? It seems needlessly cruel, even if you’re trying to prove a point. But then, if Christmas is this much of a burden and a bother to you, I suppose you need to share your pain with someone. Even if it’s your kids.

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