I would like to write on something that Ive been mulling this holiday season, and for many seasons before it. The main topic is, naturally, my trouble with the holiday season. Secondarily, I describe how I became an atheist. This is less confrontational than much of what I write on atheism, but we have plenty of time for that later.
This season, I finally cut the very last of the cords binding me to the guilt-laden, materialistic, capitalistic, bastardized religious holiday of Christmas. Why would I give up such a warm, fuzzy, tradition you might ask?
Well. At a very young age, I was indoctrinated into these traditions, religions and culture without many other options. In fact, no choice was given at all. I was simply told that “this is how it is”, and if I questioned these traditions I was sternly scolded and told that baby jesus was sad, I might burn in hell, or that I would get my mouth slapped for saying something so blasphemous. So, I never said much of anything about how I really felt, despite being a full-fledged atheist by age *7*.
Now, if you are the average, traditional, religious conservative, by now you are already imagining that something horrible had to have happened to me, or that I have some form of mental illness that caused such an unfortunate thing at a young age. After all, so unfortunate it is that a child would grow up free of the mental shackles of religion. Something terrible must have caused this fall from grace, right? Maybe what creates an atheist is similar to how childhood sexual abuse is often suggested as the “cause” of homosexuality. Right?
Well, you wouldn’t be totally wrong as my young life did have one great tragedy, but I became an atheist 4 years before losing my mother to cancer. However the assertion of those conservative Christians closest to me is that, because my mother passed away right before my 12th birthday, this must obviously be that heart breaking event that stole god from my life, caused me to grinch up on Christmas, and was probably responsible for my tattoos and my strange taste in music. Right?
What *actually* happened is that my mother strictly controlled the television programming I was allowed to watch and put a strong emphasis on reading and education in my young life. As a result of this good parenting by my Catholic mother, I became an atheist. What she didn’t realize was, all those years spent reading and watching National Geographic, Carl Sagan, PBS television series like NOVA and Wild America, and all the educational media she provided during that time was causing me to intensely question what I perceived to be bizarre, scary, boring, totally pointless rituals which involved sitting, standing, sitting, kneeling, listening to people mumble, and a man telling stories from a fiction book that made me giggle. Of course, every time I would giggle, I ran the risk of ‘five across the eyes’, if you know what I mean.
I lived inside a little cage in my mind for probably 15 years, from age 7 until roughly 21-22, as a result of an increasingly contrary, blasphemous view of the universe that I knew I could not share with my family for fear of retribution, derision, anger, and alienation. Year in, year out, I was dragged to churches, made to write thank-you letters for gifts sent at Christmas, sent to Catholic catechism, and *made* to take part in traditions that seemed confusing and bizarrely compulsory, all the while silently protesting the constant pressure to conform to these archaic and backwards philosophies that made no sense to me.
You might be thinking, “Shit kid, how hard was writing thank-you letters at Christmas??”
Its not hard, in theory, but when your heart is not in the letter, the gifts, the expectations, and the year long guilt trip placed upon you any time you did not partake, it is hard indeed. For a while, it was easier to just go along with all the tradition than to fight it, and so I did, disingenuously, for decades.
By the time I got around to standing up for myself, I had already moved out of my family’s care and had been labeled a “tightwad” for not buying gifts at Christmas, as opposed to someone who had differing opinions on what healthy traditions are. I also became infamous for being the guy who shows up to christmas dinner wearing a t-shirt adorned with “Unsaved” or “Arrest the Pope!”
And here we are, all these years later, and its 2011. Whats changed in my life? 100% of the guilt is gone. I had the long talk with my son, who is now almost 13 and a burgeoning young freethinker himself, regarding why dad has removed Christmas from our to-do list every year. This was the hardest part for me, and the hardest part for many atheist parents around Christmas time. I explained to him as carefully as I could how Christmas is no longer about the holiday spirit, or rather that the holiday spirit itself has become corrupt, in addition to a little history on our family and how embedded this tradition is within it. Holiday spirit, like love and care, is now monetized. Advertisements tell us “Love starts with diamonds”, buy great gifts to show your children and family you love them, and you had better get a move on because time is short! Santa Claus tells us that all children get gifts for Christmas unless they were bad, so parents trapped into this tradition who are trying to get out are faced with yet another hurdle- how to deal with their young child who may have heard this Christmas contract somewhere before. Wont they think they have done something wrong if I don’t rush to the store alongside a hundred million other rabid parents to capture the latest fad toys? Wont they feel bad when their classmates brag of all the presents they received?
All in all, I feel quite good to know that Ive finally removed this(Christmas) and other judeo-christian traditions from my life and my home, however I am not content to let things lie silently without further comment. Today’s holiday “spirit” is driven primarily by consumerism and capitalism, and I wish to bring that message into the light where more people might consider its implications. Hell, our economy would probably melt down (further) if, suddenly, everyone stopped splurging at Christmas. This is why large corporations spend more and more money blanketing the entire world with their message of cheer and spending.
I am an atheist, I matter, my thoughts matter, and there are plenty more just like me. Seek out your fellow atheists and network with them for the purpose of creating social bonds and support. The churches have had thousands of years to create networks, institutions, charities, and propaganda to support and mold their members. Now, its time for atheists and non-theists to do the same.