Magazine article USA TODAY

Can the Holidays Be Happy for Secular Humanists?

Magazine article USA TODAY

Can the Holidays Be Happy for Secular Humanists?

Article excerpt

It may be difficult for the vast majority of Americans to comprehend, but there are a good many of us who choose to live--and live quiet well--without religion. For us, the holiday season can be a nightmare for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the fact that we constantly are having to defend our refusal to participate in what we consider to be mass temporary insanity.

We don't necessarily call ourselves atheists. We're just not Christians. In fact, we don't identify with any religion. There are millions of us out there. You may find us in your own families or among your closest friends. You even may be one of us yourself, but just didn't have a word for it.

For those Americans who believe the Hallmark, AT&T, and American Express commercials that bombard us between Nov. I and Dec. 25 each year, the winter holiday season evokes warm fuzzy images of stable Christian families living warm fuzzy lives. Advertising saturates us with pictures of snow-covered suburban homes all decked out for Christmas, where happy, healthy children open gifts while a pair of married, biological parents look on. Or they show Thanksgiving tables where well-nourished, God-fearing white families say grace. We're prompted incessantly to have plenty of film on hand to capture these fleeting Kodak moments, and, of course, we're supposed to keep the long-distance phone lines buzzing profitably with calls to out-of-town relatives, Everywhere you go, someone is chirping, "Merry Christmas," at you, and expecting you to say the same in return. Weekly television programs--already mindless enough--bring us "special holiday episodes," complete with miracles and personal transformations for characters who develop a sense of social responsibility for a few minutes once a year.

These scenes and sentiments always have irritated me, but I didn't know bow to fortify my boundaries enough to fend off the yearly onslaught. It took a statistic finally to move me to action. When I learned that Americans spend $2,000,000,000 annually on Christmas gifts and accompanying paraphernalia, I drew a hard line. That information so enraged me that I launched a personal campaign to reckon with the seasonal insanity that strikes friends, family, co-workers, strangers on the street, and the media. I decided to start where it matters most--with my impressionable five-year-old son, Danny.

Although I spend a great deal of time reading humanist literature, writing articles and books with a humanist slant, and viewing the world through religion-free eyes, nothing puts it into perspective better than discussing the meaning of life with Danny. When he was three, he pointed to a church while out driving and told me, "That's a church." I said, "Yes, that's a church." After a pause, he asked me what a church was.

"It's a building," I said, "and some people think that, if they go there, they can talk to a magical character named God who will help them with their problems."

"Is he like a cartoon character?" (This was an automatic assumption of God as a male. Danny probably pictured him as one of the Ninja Turtles.

"Well, some people think of God as a cartoon character, but it's really an invisible thing. It's just a feeling or an idea that people sometimes have, and they call it God. They're really talking about the energy that makes flowers grow and babies grow and rain and mountains and all the things that happen in the world. In our family, we call it nature. Some people call it God."

On another occasion, also in the car, we were listening to a tape of gospel music. (I used to be in a gospel choir because I love to sing, but I had to quit because I no longer could abide the lyrics.) A song came on that proclaimed, "Jesus gave me power." My son turned to me wide-eyed and said, "Mommy, why does that man say that Cheese Whiz gave him power?"

I have had to find a way to reckon with the religious information and images he is starting to absorb through the world at large. …

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