The Hardest Christmas

I was unprepared for how difficult this Christmas would be. In years past, my husband and I have easily followed along with our family’s traditions because it was easier to grin and bear it. Before our son was born, it seemed senseless to ruin everyone else’s fun because we don’t believe Jesus was the son of god, or that people should spend obscene amounts of money on useless stuff in the name of Jesus. It never made sense to us, but we didn’t have a stake in any of it. And last year, Soren was too young to actually participate in the Christmas frenzy, other than being forced by my mother to wear a frock adorned in sparkly script letters that read, “My first Christmas.” This year, however, he’s nearly two, and we feel strongly about establishing how, when, why and to what extent we will participate in Christmas. I think we have been gentle, respectful, yet firm in communicating to our families and friends on this account, but now, as The Holiday is breathing hotly down our necks, so are throngs of Christmas-obsessed loved ones with questions, demands, concerns, and expressed disappointments.

Many people who love us are very concerned about our Christmas tree — the Christmas tree that does not, and will not exist. The Christmas tree we have never had, nor plan to have. Apparently, this is a great disappointment for at least a dozen people, many of whom have never even been to our house. They seem to think that not killing an evergreen and erecting it in your living room and wasting electricity on lighting is both a depressing way to live through December and neglectful of our son.

My husband and I have also heard many gasps in incredulity about the gifts we won’t be giving Soren for Christmas. People actually seem to believe that our son is going to suffer great damage if he doesn’t peel away shiny wrapping paper from new toys on the 25th of December. They seem to be confused that we aren’t kidding or being humble or cute because they plan to give us gifts despite our repeated pleas to the contrary. Let me clarify: we don’t need anything. We don’t want anything. And it’s not even a lack of want (as atheism is a lack of belief). We want to receive nothing. We aren’t being polite or humble. We aren’t kidding. We aren’t confused or simply unsure of what we would want if we wanted anything. We want people to not even consider getting us anything. Please. Just spend time with us. Set aside an afternoon and hang out with us. That’s all we need. Because time with the people we love is the one thing we don’t have enough of. But people look at us like we’re strange. They act hurt and disappointed. It’s like we have robbed them of the meaning of Christmas. Which is funny because we’re trying to give them back some meaning of Christmas. That’s ironic coming from atheists.

I am not going to show up to our families’ houses on Christmas spewing anti-Jesus rhetoric. I would never do that. I would never try to convince the people we love, or anyone, that their gods don’t exist. I would never ask people to foresake their (mostly harmless) traditions because I disagree with them. But I expect the same amount of respect from them.

Man-bashing Has Become a Hobby

My girlfriend recently wrote me an email complaining about a minor infraction committed by her husband. She closed the email with, “I hate men.” Unfortunately, I hear this kind of language often from women. “I’d expect that from a man.” Or “Men are so unreliable.” Or one of my favorites, “You can’t trust a man to do anything right.”

I have several problems with this statement or anything like it for the following reasons: 

1) Many women in our society have adopted a reverse sexism. They spew male-loathing openly, loudly and in front of their children. They spread hate for nearly half of the population, including their own sons.

2) Blaming relationship difficulties or annoyance on an individual’s gender removes the responsibility from the individual. After all, that person can’t help being a man, right? That means that nothing will change because no one is really responsible.

3) By categorizing behaviors by gender, we perpetuate problematic stereotypes and teach our children gender roles that have nothing to do with biology. We make our children far more sensitive to gender than necessary and we define our children rather than letting them be who they are.

Women have suffered sexism for countless generations. The Bible and the Koran position women as sinful, dirty, disposable and lesser beings. In modern Western culture, women experience covert sexism in the workplace and often overt sexism at home. But hating back is not the solution. It’s part of the problem.

As mothers, we need to stop the man-hating rhetoric and teach our sons and daughters that they are equally worthy and responsible in this world. Hating anyone simply encourages them to hate you back.

Christmas is Bad for the Environment

When this recession (which is now officially over) got into full swing, I had a lot of hope that people would rebuke the consumerism of yesteryear and cut back. I am an optimist at heart (which is usually the cause of most of my disappointment) and I actually believed that people would look at their spending habits and reconsider purchasing useless stuff. I thought that the recession would have a hugely positive impact on our wallets and on our environment.

Now, as we head into the holiday season, with Black Friday just two days away, my hopes are dashed. I have seen a dozen Facebook status updates today about the long shopping lists people have for Friday, what time they plan to wake up to hit the malls, and all the debt they will be in come Saturday morning. I’m dumbfounded.

I hate when people buy my son Christmas gifts. I actually feel repulsed by those boxes wrapped in flashy paper and dripping with ribbons and bows. (Household waste increases by 25% between Thanksgiving and Christmas… as if we need to waste MORE.) Whatever is in the box, my son does not need and I would rather he not have. With the recession still a painful memory or devastating reality for so many, I had imagined this Christmas would be different than Christmases past. I imagined a new frugality, a return to the humility that I assume Christmas was intended to represent. Apparently, it was all a fantasy.

Atheism is lonely

A few weeks ago, I went to a seminar at an Ethical Society near my home. The seminar was about raising children without beliefs in gods. I’ll write a different post on that topic later, because the seminar was outstanding and helpful. For this post, though, I want to share my feelings of simply being in a room, for the first time, with about forty other nonbelievers.

I haven’t met a lot of atheists in my real life. Sometimes I come across people who are questioning organized religion, and I really enjoy talking to them. But I don’t run into people willing to share that they are atheists. I have a feeling that atheists are all around me, but that we’re all too far in the religious closet to feel comfortable exposing ourselves. When I was at the Ethical Society, sitting next to nonbelievers, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of belonging, the sense of community, and the power of not being alone. I realized as I sat there and listened to other parents sharing stories and feelings very similar to me own, that I have been seeking community. Atheism is lonely.

I don’t think it has to be lonely. We can find community with one another if we have the courage to acknowledge our convictions. Easier said than done, though.

Organized religion is powerful because it provides community, culture, pre-established rules and laws, and a way of living that’s out-of-the-box. It’s stickiness over history is because it doesn’t take a lot of effort to figure out and there are scores of people who believe similarly. Atheism requires effort, including a rejection of established norms. And that means building traditions, cultures, philosophies from scratch and often alone.

Just as much as the Baptists living next door to me, and the Catholics across the street and the Jews down the road, I need community. Sitting among fellow nonbelievers for the first time a few weeks ago, I realized what I have been missing.

The Problem with Christmas

“You’re going to deprive your child of Santa?”

That was one of my close friends when I explained that my husband and I are atheists, so we won’t be celebrating Christmas. I was surprised that Santa was what she was most concerned about. Here’s how the conversation unfolded:

Friend: “But Santa has nothing to do with God.”

Me: “True. Which presents two issues. One: he has come to represent materialism, and has replaced the central purpose of Christmas in American culture. And two: Santa doesn’t exist just as we think God doesn’t exist. We would be hypocrites if we encouraged a belief in one and not the other.”

Friend: “But you will be depriving your child of the joy and fun of Christmas.”

Me: “There are many other joys to be had in the world. Most children on this planet don’t get a visit from Santa on Christmas Eve. And they don’t have Christmas trees either.”

Friend: “So you aren’t going to have a Christmas tree either?”

Me: “Why would we have a Christmas tree if we don’t celebrate Christmas?”

Friend: “I don’t know. That just sounds so sad and depressing to me.”

This wasn’t the first time I heard my lack of religious belief described as sad and depressing. Granted, my friend was referring to our rejection of Christmas traditions as sad and depressing, but I think the implication is still there. Ironically, I view Christmas as sad and depressing. Piles of gifts that no one needs or wants. Shopping seasons that begin in August. Stressed out parents who can’t afford the gifts their children demand, and therefore feel inadequate. Churches holding toy drives for poor children whose parents can’t afford to give them heaps of gifts. And what is it all for? I see the giving theme, but giving has become hypercommercialized. Our society has come to believe that we need stuff to be whole, merry, and well. And what we give is now a reflection of our worth as people. Parents give children expensive Christmas gifts to show the extent of their love and success. Churches hold toy drives because their members feel generous and good in giving to poor children, but are they giving the children what they truly need to better their lives? The idea that a child who has nothing to open on Christmas must be a poor, sad child is beyond conprehension to me. It’s just stuff. Plastic, disposable, nonessential stuff that provides temporary pleasure.

Not to mention that half of the paper waste in America is produced at Christmas every year. But the environmental impacts of our Christmas shennanigans are another blog plost entirely.

All that said, and my conversation with my friend aside, the Christmas Question is a big looming one in our house. How do we, as atheists but members of Christian families, participate in a religious holiday that has become less religious and more holiday? By refusing to take part in any Christmas rituals, we will, at least in our families’ eyes, be rejecting family traditions. By participating, we won’t be authentic to our own ideas of the world and our own values. What does that teach Soren? But at the same time, we want Soren to have memories of his grandparents that include family traditions and rituals. The difficult thing is that most family traditions center around religion.

Even by this Christmas, when Soren is nearly two, we’ll be faced with the dilemma. Do we tell him about Santa — a fictional character like god — and let him participate in holiday traditions that are important to our extended family and friends? Or do we tell him the truth — that Santa is a fictional character that represents generosity and the joy of giving? Will my parents be distressed if they can’t have that Santa excitement with their only grandchild? And more importantly, am I robbing Soren of something if I tell him Santa exists or if I don’t? Is it hypocritical to tell him about Santa but encourage him to think critically about existence, reality and science?

Merry Christmas.

Genesis

I was raised in a Baptist family. I was baptized and went to church and Sunday school every Sunday until I left home for college. I remember sitting through church, my stomach growling as I thought about the breakfast I would have at Grandma’s once the service was finished. The sermons weren’t very interesting to me, but singing the hymns next to my dad helped the time go by faster. In Sunday school, I asked questions that the minister and teachers didn’t appreciate, such as, “Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?” The adults thought I was being “fresh” but I really wanted to know.

My skepticism about religion began as apathy. My parents did not cultivate my curiosity about the inconsistencies and fallacies that seemed evident to me, so without an intellectual outlet to explore the questions I had, I just stopped being interested. I didn’t feel any love for any gods and I didn’t feel any need for supernatural explanations to anything. I preferred thinking about the biological rather than the spiritual. Frogs, salamanders and worms occupied me for hours. And at Christmastime or Easter, I felt no emotional connection to the religious undercurrent of the holidays.

When I got to college, I was intrigued by the diversity of race, religion and culture. I had never met a Jew or Muslim before. I started to question why any of us thought we had the story of our existence right. I started taking philosophy classes, in which I was usually the loud and dissenting opinion about topics that I found myself uncontrollably passionate about: fate, theism, free will and epistemeology.

Finally, I acknowledged what I think I knew while sitting in church all those years. I was an atheist. Arriving at that conclusion felt like coming home for the first time in my life. It was right. The world looked more beautiful, complete and perfect to me.

My husband is an atheist too. We have a seventeen month old son I’ll call Soren here. The purpose of this blog is to document my journey raising Soren to be a critical thinker, a skeptic of the unprovable and supernatural, and an independent thinker. Already my husband and I are recognizing the difficulties of atheist parenting that lie ahead of us. It’s the harder road to travel, but we fully believe it’s in Soren’s best interests.