December 2007

Thanks for the response. I know you have a lot of incoming posts that require attention and I wondered if you actually got to them all. Apparently, you do!

Good timing, too. Christmas season is upon us (although the most stressful parts are over.) For many years, I didn’t give much thought to the “Merry Christmas” wishes and festivities of the season. Although I didn’t believe in God, I always thought Christmas was fun and harmless.

But a few years ago, I met an agnostic Jew. He was proud of his Jewish heritage, but realized that Judaism was as flawed as any other religion. But he pointed out that Christmas can be very alienating. He said, “My religion teaches that Jesus Christ was a fraud. When someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, they’re implying that I should celebrate the birth of someone my people consider to be a heretic! How would they feel if a Satanist wished them a Happy Devil’s Day?”

I then started to notice all the strangers that wished me a Merry Christmas. I’m sure they don’t mean any harm, but it reminds me of other forms of alienation. I’m a heterosexual white male. Sometimes, I’ll be with a group of other white males and the group will decide it’s okay to bad-mouth blacks or other races, or simply use the word “n****r” just because we’re all white… Or to viciously attack the “inferiority” of women or talk about them as if they’re only here to provide us with sexual pleasure or something to look at. Or talk about solving the homosexual “problem” by killing them all. I don’t approve of racism, sexism, or gay-bashing and in those situations, I have to decide how much I’m up for a fight or whether fighting will make any difference. When I choose to smile and play along (not by participating, but by being quiet) I get an intense feeling of guilt that takes a long time to get over. Once, I consulted a black friend who said, “As long as they’re not hurting me or my family, it’s their problem, not mine.” There’s some truth in that, since it’s improbable to change those people, but intolerance is seldom just the problem of “the intolerant”, they often find a way to make it someone else’s problem as well.

A few years ago, a Hindu co-worker wished us a Merry Christmas on her way out the door. I stopped her and said, “Wait. You’re a Hindu wishing a Jew and an atheist a Merry Christmas? What’s that about?” She laughed and said she’d been here so long it was just a habit. She’s devout in her beliefs and Christianity doesn’t have the conflict with Hinduism that it has with Judaism, so she wishes Christians a Merry Christmas and now wishes me “Happy Holidays”. I don’t lecture or confront strangers or casual acquaintances about the “Merry Christmas” alienation, and I only talk about it with people that can listen without becoming hostile (I have one friend who insists that this wouldn’t be America if Christians were a minority and the everyone should celebrate Christmas!), but I can’t help thinking about it with every holiday greeting.

How do you handle intolerance (religious, racial, sexist, or otherwise?) I find I have to take it case by case and evaluate the risk versus reward. I remember one time getting a white guy to admit he only used the word “n****r” because everyone he knew did and he said he’d stop, but that tends to be the exception. Of course, I could always ask, “What would Jesus do?”, but I don’t especially want to die for the sins of man. Joking aside, I do believe that there was a Jesus Christ that people followed and built a religion around, but I don’t believe he was God, since I don’t believe in God, but I wonder, if he existed, what was Jesus really like to have made such an impression?

Happy Holidays, if you have holidays.

I celebrate Christmas; it’s part of my culture. I don’t have a crèche or go to church, but I celebrate the holiday in a secular way (and I know Jewish people who do the same).

That said, I know that there are people — atheists, Jews, some Christians, etc. — who are offended by the omnipresence of the Christian season. There are a number of things that can be done about this.

First and foremost is to remind yourself that a wish of “merry Christmas” isn’t intended as an insult or a putdown. In some cases (such as greetings in retail stores) it may not really have any religious content. But it’s really no more insulting than having someone say “have a nice weekend” when they don’t know that you work Saturday and Sunday, or saying “bless you” to an atheist who sneezed.

Second, if it really bothers you, find a way to deal with it that is polite but satisfying. You can answer “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Hanukkah” or even with a smile and “No thank you” if you like.

Third, don’t let yourself be carried away by irritation. The day wasn’t created as an insult to you — at worst it’s a celebration with an origin in mythology. Deal with it the same way that a non-American in this country would deal with the 4th of July — take the day off and do what you like with it.

Fourth, if you are so inclined, do what you can to continue the transformation of Christmas into a secular holiday. It seems strongly headed in that way anyway. We’ve done this in the past with other holidays (Valentines Day, Halloween), so why not keep up the tradition. Then everyone can celebrate Christmas without feeling like they’re betraying their religious beliefs.

Fifth, even though I am encouraging tolerance and acceptance, don’t let yourself get pushed around by real instances of Christmas bigotry. Nobody should be allowed to force you to decorate your workplace, exchange gifts, or wish others “merry Christmas.” Find your comfort zone and stick with it — but do it in a nice way as much as possible.

Now let’s talk about active racism and bigotry — calling names, deriding groups, perpetuating stereotypes. There’s no excuse for that. In some situations, it’s even illegal. I’ve interrupted someone in the middle of a joke because I could see where it was going, and although I did it in a polite way, it was very clear that I wasn’t going to put up with any sexist garbage. If the situation is such that I don’t feel safe correcting it, I distance myself from it.

I hope that answers your questions. Thanks for writing!

Posted on December 28, 2007 at 8:13 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Dealing with religious folks

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