According to the Pew Forum on religion and public life, the non-religious demographic is the largest growing segment of society. This includes atheists, agnostics, humanists, and people who otherwise might be atheists but don’t necessarily embrace the label. Many developed countries already have an atheist majority, and a recent study published by BBC News even predicts the future extinction of religion in nine countries, based on current trends.
Yet, there is ample consensus that an atheist would not be able to win an election in America. One would think that this portion of society would have more visibility and clout, but things are changing. Secularist funeral, marriage and baby naming ceremonies are becoming more commonplace, there are humanist chaplains in many universities, a humanist temple is being planned for London, and there’s even a secular scripture that has been authored by philosopher A. C. Grayling.
But one of the main challenges of new secularists coming out of the closet is figuring out what to do with themselves during the holidays. There is at times huge social pressure to have some kind of winter solstice celebration, so much so that Hanukkah, which was previously not a very important celebration, became relevant as an alternative to Christmas in the US and now Hindus in the West have even proposed their own diasporic holiday, the Pancha Ganapati, so that their children may also not miss out on presents while remaining within their cultural context.
I offer you four possible ways to celebrate your secular holidays in community.
The HumanLight holiday was created some years back by members of the New Jersey Humanist Network as their specific alternative to other winter solstice festivals that celebrate the return of light during the darkest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. Humanism is a progressive ideology that focuses on human values rather than religious values and, although there are humanist Christian and Jewish groups, most humanist organizations are fiercely secular.
The ceremonial aspect of HumanLight is quite simple: three candles are thoughtfully lit in celebration of the three principles of Reason, Compassion and Hope. HumanLight celebrations are generally organized by local humanist organizations and feature food, music, a cultural program and, of course, gift giving.
A second alternative, for people of African ancestry, is to celebrate Kwanzaa, a modern cultural creation which focuses on African culture, continuity, and community. It incorporates gifts exchange but encourages the personal creation of these gifts rather than consumerism. Kwanzaa festivities that I’ve attended have featured theatrical performances, music and Ethiopian and other African food. Like other winter solstice festivals, the main feature is the lighting of candles which represent the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa: Unity, Self-determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith.
Another alternative is to participate in secular festivities that are rooted in religiously inspired variations. There are numerous humanist Jewish congregations which celebrate the cultural aspects of Judaism without affirming its supernatural claims, as well as Unitarian congregations which feel and act much like Christian churches and celebrate their Christian roots but place no emphasis on faith, and in fact embrace doubt and welcome atheists. These congregations dedicate themselves to building community rather than requiring the mental slavery of their adherents.
A fourth option, of course, would be to just have a small, intimate gathering of like-minded friends and family. In the progressive Epicurean tradition, one might embrace the simplicity of good cheese, good bread, good friends, wholesome philosophical conversation and good wine as the best way to spend the holidays.
The point is that it’s no longer necessary for a non-religious person to spend the holidays in isolation, or to feel as if the holidays have to be a time to recede back into the atheist closet.
The above article was featured in Yahoo Voices.