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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An Atheist Christmas

Ah, Christmas time. The carols and the trees and Santa and the Kentucky Fried Chicken and the belly dancers. The holly and the booze and the Christmas cakes and strippers. What does Christmas mean to you? That depends on where you happen to be.

In Japan, Christmas has more in common with St. Valentine's Day, with cakes instead of candy. There's still Santa and trees and rampant consumerism, but it's more about love of another than love of humanity. The television media runs stories about "romantic miracles" and restaurants and hotels clean up on what is basically national date night. It also marks the beginning of year-end celebrations, which is basically a month-long drunk.

Kentucky Fried Chicken has convinced everyone that the traditional western Christmas dinner is -- big surprise -- KFC and you actually have to order your Genuine Christmas Chicken Dinner beforehand. They make a killing. By the way, I'm entirely serious about this. It's true.

But real Christmas weirdness comes to us from Turkey. I wrote about this a couple years ago and it sounds awesome. Turkish Daily News reported at the time that "Turkey has for decades been having the weirdest New Year's Eve celebrations on earth. Symbols of Christmas are infused into 'crazy parties' of heavy drinking, gambling, belly dancing and even strip shows." In Turkey, they wrap Christmas and New Years Eve up together and kill two birds with one stone. Kids get gifts from Santa Claus, then everyone goes out, gets hammered, and watches belly dancers. This is a holiday I can get behind and support.

What's interesting here is that neither of these countries have a lot of Christians -- Turkey is 99% Muslim and in Japan, only 0.5% of people are Christian. In these places, Christmas is a secular holiday with Christian roots -- and those roots are pretty much ignored. The same thing has happened with many holidays in the US. Halloween and St. Valentine's day aren't spent in prayer. St. Patrick's day is about Ireland, drinking, and green clothes -- not the commemoration of a Saint.

Maybe this is what the "War on Christmas" crowd are worried about. That Christmas would be more about the Grinch and Rudolph than about Jesus and wise men. But our modern observation of Christmas only dates back to Victorian England, helped along by Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol -- a book that doesn't have much to do with Jesus either. Think back to other traditional Christmas favorites -- The Nutcracker's actually a nightmarish story about some sort of freakish rat-monster. No Jesus there.

So the "secularization" of Christmas is hardly anything new. And, as much as the "War on Christmas" types freak out, they can't really change history -- they'd like to, but they can't. They aren't worried about anyone getting rid of Christmas at all. In fact, they aren't extremely worried about the secularization of the holiday. What they're worried about is the continued secularization of America and the decline of Christian influence. By 2030, there will be no majority religion in the United States. While I doubt Christmas is going anywhere, I'd be willing to bet that it'll start looking more like the secular holiday it's become in Japan or Turkey. America will start looking more secular as well.

In fact, there's been kind of a media narrative starting that people are turning to religion for comfort in the economic downturn. Except, they're not. A recent Gallup poll found that people aren't suddenly finding religion.

Despite some news reports to the contrary, a review of almost 300,000 interviews conducted by Gallup so far in 2008 shows no evidence that church attendance in America has been increasing late this year as a result of bad economic times. In September, October, November, and so far in December, about 42% of Americans reported that they attended church weekly or almost every week, exactly the same as the percentage who reported attending earlier in the year.

A recent story in the New York Times, written by Paul Vitello, was headlined "Bad Times Draw Bigger Crowds to Churches," and reported that evangelical churches in particular had enjoyed a "burst of new interest" since September, but also that "a recent spot check of some large Roman Catholic parishes and mainline Protestant churches around the nation indicated attendance increases there, too." Producers for NBC's "Today" show picked up this New York Times story, and it became the basis for a similarly themed feature broadcast on that show on Dec. 16.

Yet, when someone actually bothered to check this story, Gallup found that "there has been no sign of any increase this fall."

Less than half of Americans attend church regularly and that's not changing. The media meme of a super-religious electorate is a myth. In fact, despite the media's hyping of the power of "values voters" and the importance of religion in political life, a separate Gallup poll found that most respondents don't see America that way.

Two-thirds of U.S. adults today perceive that the influence of religion in American life is waning, while just 27% believe it is rising. This represents a sharp decline in the image of religion compared with only three years ago, when 50% thought its influence was on an upswing, and marks one of the weakest readings on the influence of religion in Gallup's five-decade history of asking the question.

In census numbers, the fastest growing religious group in the United States is No Religion/Atheist/Agnostic, nearly doubling in size from 1990-2001, from 8% to 14%.

Still, as a member of this group myself, I celebrate Christmas. I've got the tree and the lights and the gifts and the whole shebang. But my attitude toward Christmas is more like those Japanese and Turkish revelers. I do it because it's fun, not because it's religious; just as I do with Halloween and St. Valentine's Day.

The "War on Christmas" types will tell you that people like me are out to destroy Christmas. I'm not. But I'd argue that my Christmas has more in common with traditional yuletide celebrations than theirs. I celebrate Dickens' Christmas -- peace on Earth, help the less fortunate, that sort of thing. It's ironic that the "War on Christmas" types are right wingers who aren't big fans of all that peace and love and helping the poor stuff. Those who think they're "defending" the holiday aren't actually very Christmasy, in my book. Bill O'Reilly has much more in common with Ebenezer Scrooge than with Bob Cratchit.

Christmas isn't going anywhere, but it won't remain unchanged forever. History does not stop because we wish it would. As America becomes less Christian, Christmas will continue to become more secular. For myself, I'm all for it.

Now bring on the chicken and belly dancers.