Monday, December 24, 2007

An Atheist at Christmas

A friend from high school is in the unbecoming habit of forwarding Internet sludge to a large mailing list. You know the thing: collections of "jokes I thought you'd get a kick out of," unfunny cartoons, patriotic "Support the Troops" goo -- the kind of thing that I generally toss out unread. (I'd put him in my e-mail spam killfile, but I occasionally do look forward to some of the school news he passes on.)

This morning's missive, though, really set my teeth on edge. The e-mail was titled "My Sentiments Exactly," and purported to have been authored by former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein (he of the TV shows, a Creationism advocate). It was a typical diatribe against the secularization of American culture, and an obvious "War-on-Christmas" sally. It managed to bemoan the ending of school prayer, imply that Madalyn Murray O'Hair was murdered because she was an atheist (she wasn't), assert that baby-coddler Dr. Benjamin Spock's son committed suicide (he didn't), and declare that "public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and the workplace" (certainly news to me).

Of course, it mostly didn't come from Ben Stein; it was a cobbled-together bit of hokum from a CBS Sunday News commentary by Stein, with the more inflammatory business about O'Hair and Spock added in from another bit of Internet claptrap purporting to report some comments by Billy Graham's daughter after September 11. In sum, the item forwarded to me was simple intellectual pollution, more goddamned dumbness that cloaks itself as folksy wisdom and makes its forwarder feel virtuous for having passed it on.

Besides the slanders and the untruths, and the profoundly irritating conflation of the concepts of "secular" and "atheist," what was most off-putting about the thing was its general aggrieved tone, as though its author were part of some put-upon minority, an underclass of the righteous who loathe the idea that many people don't take their religion quite as seriously as the righteous think they ought.

As an atheist, by constitutional law I can't legally hold public office in the states of Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. (The U.S. Supreme Court said this was baloney in 1961, but the prohibitions are still in those states' constitutions.) An activist friend attempted to convince me to run for the Loudoun County School Board a year ago; I had to tell him that this blog is quite easily connected to my "real" name; and that if it were found out that I've occasionally blurted out my lack of regard for supernatural pixie-dust in these pages, I'd be unelectable for garbage commissioner, let alone be trusted with the education of the county's li'l malleable minds.

So who's the Downtrodden Minority here?

Now, why am I yammering on about this on Christmas Eve? Because, absence-of-god-dammit, I love Christmas. I love the weird agglomeration of historically pagan, Christian and Roman symbols and traditions; they make me feel connected to the centuries. I love cutting down a young pine tree and dragging it into my house to slather it with electric lights and small family mementos. I love the smell of pine, cinnamon, cloves, chocolate, candle-wax, coffee and brandy. I love the Solstice, and look forward to lengthening days. I love the music. (Wonder Woman's copy of The Carpenters' Christmas album is playing in the next room as I type this, and I'm even prepared to tolerate that, as long as I can throw on Bach's Weinachtsoratorium afterwards.)

I love the fact that in a couple of hours, I will summon Betty and Freddy to track Santa's progress on the NORAD website, even if they both lost their belief in Santa ten years ago. We will read "The Night Before Christmas" and a couple of other books as we have every year for many years (I've never been able to interest them in Dickens, unfortunately). We will hang our stockings by the chimney with care, all of us fully aware that the idea of a fat man in a red suit sliding down the flue with a sack of toys is a trifle silly. It doesn't matter that it's a dumb myth, easily seen through by a reasonably intelligent six-year-old. It's what you do.

I rather deeply resent the accusation that I, in some to-me-unclear way, declared War on Christmas. I'll cop to a War on Irrationality, sure. War on Dumb Received Wisdom on the Internet. But because I think that everyone's Solstice observation should be respected, from Albigensian to Zoroastrian, because the assertion that the United States was founded on "Judeo-Christian values" is a grave insult to the Enlightenment, and to history itself, I resent the implication that I want to stamp out an entire holiday.

So let me conclude the sermon with an absolutely unambiguous, impossible-to-mistake message:

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Merry Christmas!

Then, go read this.


Linkmeister said...

And a hearty Mele Kalikimaka to you too.

Neddie said...



Him and his Satanic incantations! His foreign tongues of lies and deceit! The Dark One walks among us!

(Mahalo Nui Loa, Linkmeister. And a Hau'oli Makahiki Hou to you!)

Anonymous said...

First! Just after Christmas lunch here in Oz.

Let's face it: Christian's bitch about everything. Why should Christmas make any difference to their sullen, bitter, anti-life outlook? Leave them to their miserable days of chest-beating and hand-wringing over whatever random issue annoys them at that moment in time, which is basically the result of childhood mental abuse. Don't try to understand it. It's illogical to expect logic from illogical minds.

We have Crazy Christians who stand outside our shopping mall here, 'preaching', (basically shouting in people's face), to anyone trying to enter about the evils of capitalism and forgetting the true meaning of christmas, ie. baby Jeebus. A few hours later I saw them inside the very same mall loading up their trolleys with food in the supermarket. I guess the real meaning of Christmas to them is a Jumbo pack of Chips Ahoy and a 24 pack of Coca-Cola.

No-one will ever convince me it's not just Socially-acceptable mental illness.

Larry Jones said...

Excellent holiday rant, and one that can be reused as a Rant For All Seasons. These mindless messages of mostly made up stuff really plane my shins. On some level they must express the actual feelings of the numbskulls who forward them, and that's kind of scary.

Actually, since you hit so many nails right on the head with this post, I may copy it and forward it to a few hundred people myself. But I'll attribute it to Tom Brokaw...

The Viscount LaCarte said...

Another home-run Ned.

Early on in the post, you said this:

A friend from high school is in the unbecoming habit of forwarding Internet sludge to a large mailing list. You know the thing: collections of "jokes I thought you'd get a kick out of," unfunny cartoons, patriotic "Support the Troops" goo -- the kind of thing that I generally toss out unread.

As you know, I forward jokes, songs, political messages etc. to you and others. I don't forward them to those who don't share our politics, our taste in music, our sense of humor and our lack of belief in things that have no evidence to support them. I don't because I have no illusions that they'll one day see and agree. I don't because even though I don't share in their perspective, I don't want to force mine on them either.

Why don't they afford us the same level of respect? My friends know my politics, my distaste for blind patriotism, my lack of religious beliefs, and yet the deluge continues...

Merry Christmas Ned, to you and your family. I'll be in the area weeks 2 and 3 of January and I hope to see you then.

The Viscount LaCarte said...

I decided to rerun my
War on Reason post of two years ago.

Unknown said...

Not that you're likely to want into this group, but you can't join The Boy Scouts, either.
I know because my son at thirteen was finally released from the group when he announced to his fellows during a full meeting (for a year the leader had argued with my son that if he left others might follow to their lifelong detriment) that he was harboring serious doubts about God's existence. The fact that his family advocated full acceptance of gays was ignored. But "serious doubts" set him free. That's what he said when I picked him up after his last meeting: FREE AT LAST.

Christopher said...

Preach on, Brother! A couple of days ago I received a mass-email from an aunt of mine, which purported to be a common-sense Bill of Rights. There were eleven of them. Some of them made sense. The introduction took a random shot at "liberal blabbermouths," which seemed unwarranted. One item on the list stated we do not have the right to universal health care, which seemed like a bold statement coming from a doctor's wife. And of course Item #11 read that this is "one nation under God" blah blah no right to change our heritage blah blah blah. I was affronted and would have loved to put the smack-down on my aunt, but I felt that might alienate my forty-plus cousins who share the same opinions as her.

JD said...

All right, all right, I am an Episcopalian, but as some of us have recently demonstrated we are a flexible lot, and I applaud you Neddie for your stance against this forwarded crap.

Anonymous said...

Neddie, it's a shame that you live in the boonies. I'd love it if you could come hang out with me with the National Capital Area Skeptics and the Beltway Atheists.

The other J. D.

BreadBox said...

Merry Christmas, Ned, a few days late --- and thanks especially for putting into silvery-belled words what I've so clumsily been thinking this year: how much I love the ceremonies, and the fact that my smart 5 year old believes in Santa still --- we'll see whether she still believes at 6! --- and the eggnog and excess and carols and presents and company.

A lovely post.