Atheism/Atheism and Holidays

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Question
Hello my name is Kelly and I'm writing in English about Christianity and Atheism. If you don't mind I would like to ask you a question.
1) How to Atheists justify celebrating holidays such as Christmas or Easter, when these holidays are in fact Christian holidays?
Thank you for your time.
-Kelly

Answer
Hello,


First, let's understand that "Christmas" - defined as the nativity of Christ- is not a hard and fast historical event. Indeed, the date actually coincides (to within a reasonable uncertainty - from when it was originally declared) with the winter solstice. This is the date in the year (for the northern hemisphere) when the Sun is at its maximum declination below the celestial equator (now calculated to be at -23.5 degrees).

At the same time, it is the date at which the Sun begins its (apparent) journey back north along the ecliptic to meet the celestial equator by the time of the Vernal (Spring) equinox. This northward march mean the winter solstice marked the astronomical date when days began getting longer - hence a solar "re-birth" in a manner of speaking.

The date itself was not selected as a genuine historical marker, but as an act of political accommodation with the then Roman Emperor.

By selecting December 25th (the date of the ancient winter solstice)  as the nativity of Christ, the Church repaid Constantine for his generosity (via the "Edict of Milan" issued in 313),  which not only permitted Christians the freedom of religious worship and their religion's recognition by the State, but also reparations for previous losses, such as having property confiscated. In other words, the choice sealed a continued basis for accommodation and cooperation between Rome and Christianity and also empowered the latter - providing the impetus to become the religion of the then civilized world.

Most atheists I know are aware of these historical facts, but alas most Christians are not. This I believe is what has led to Christian misunderstandings about atheists "celebrating" Christmas when in fact we are merely acknowledging a generic mythical date that coincides with an astronomical event. (Though true, many atheists don't acknowledge anything at all)

Less well known, is that the ancient religion of Mithraism was also well-entrenched in Rome by the time of the Christian choice of December 25th, and indeed, they (Mithraists) also celebrated that date as the nativity of the Lord Mithra. (See, e.g. the book, 'Pagan Christs'. )   In this respect, the American Atheists organization is quite correct and December 25th "does not exist as any uniquely holy date", hence for all intents is a myth.

For many atheists then, the issue is elementary: they simply recognize the date as that coinciding with the ancient Winter Solstice and mark it purely as an astronomical event. Yet socially we may well celebrate with family and friends and even exchange gifts, but this is part of a recognized *secular*  formality or custom- not any serious religious gesture or acknowledgment - especially given the historical background.

Similar arguments can be applied to any "celebration" of Easter, which - for most atheists - simply means partaking in a family holiday, going out to dine or having friends and family over for a meal. Such secular actions merely coincident with a date (seen by Christians as having religious meaning) doesn't mean atheists share in their belief or meaning.

Hopefully, this answer helps to clarify why there really is no problem, or contradiction. So long as one grasps the historical background and the distinction between secular and religious celebrations!  

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Philip A. Stahl

Expertise

I specialize in the areas of scientific materialism and consciousness described as a materialist epiphenomenon. Also can answer questions pertaining to general atheism, atheist-agnostic differences etc.

Experience

I have been an atheist for over 36 yrs. and have written four books on the subject: 'The Atheist's Handbook to Modern Materialism'(2000), and 'Atheism" A Beginner's Handbook', 'Dialectical Atheism' (2011), 'Beyond Atheism, Beyond God' (2013)

Organizations
Intertel, Mensa, American Mathematical Society, American Astronomical Society, American Geophysical Union

Publications
Atheist articles: 'The American Atheist' magazine, assorted U.S. newspapers (e.g. Baltimore Sun, Denver Post); papers-articles published in Intertel's Journal: Integra. Books: 'The Atheist's Handbook to Modern Materialism'(2000), 'Atheism: A Beginner's Handbook' (2007), 'Dialectical Atheism' (2011), 'Beyond Atheism, Beyond God' (2013)

Education/Credentials
Master of Philosophy in Physics. Also took more than 3 yrs. of theology and metaphysics courses at a Catholic University (1964-67) - before I became an atheist. Thus, I have much more religious familiarity & background than many atheists.

Awards and Honors
Writers' Digest Award for the essay 'The Atheist in America' (2000), Government of Barbados research in solar physics award (1980-84), AAS Solar Physics Award (1984)

Past/Present Clients
American Atheists, Barbados Philosophical Society, Harrison College- Barbados, Colorado Springs Freethinkers

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