Atheists can celebrate religious holidays – like they play Monopoly?

I recently discovered a delightful collection of short clips from interviews of atheists that one Chris Johnson conducted on a whole range of topics.  According to Johnson’s website, he is a photographer who is “traveling through the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom putting together a book of photographic portraits of atheists.

“From the college professor, to the farmer in Kansas,” Johnson writes, “I want to document my fellow atheists and ask them what brings meaning and joy to their lives. The goal of the book is to visually capture the diversity of non-believers and the ways they maintain a better life, not in spite of their atheism, but because of it.”

That is, Johnson’s goal is to show that “the atheist life is a better life and it deserves to be celebrated.”

As we’ve discussed before, atheism is a judgment about the quality of the evidence for and against God, and so whether or not the atheist life is better or worse than the religious life has no bearing on whether or not atheism makes sense.  Still, I find it interesting to hear how atheists find meaning in their lives, define their morality, grieve, enjoy life, treat religious holidays, etc., differently from theists.

In my previous post, I showed a clip from Johnson’s interview with Julia Sweeney on dealing with death.  Here’s another interesting short clip, this one from his interview with Patricia Churchland, Professor of Philosophy Emerita at the University of California, San Diego.  How does Professor Churchland, an atheist, celebrate Christmas?  (Can you tell she’s Canadian?)

And so Dr. Churchland’s two approaches are:

1)      Understand and appreciate the history behind the holiday.

I have had discovered the same benefit.  Whether it’s the origins of Christmas as a celebration of the winter solstice or, in my case, the origins of the Jewish holidays, I find that the awareness of how the holiday was originally intended and celebrated as compared to today quite intriguing.

For instance, if you’re a mainstream Orthodox Jew, Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and is the day when God judges all human beings for the coming year and Shavuot (Shavuos) is the anniversary of the giving of the “Ten Commandments” on Mt. Sinai.  However, as a Freethinking Jew, these holidays gain a certain richness when I appreciate that in Biblical times these holidays had nothing to do with any of this and instead had completely different reasons for their celebration.

I think it’s interesting to see how these holidays have evolved over time and to think about why they evolved the way they did.  E.g. in Biblical times, most of the Jewish holidays were agricultural, to thank their god YHWH (Hashem) for the crops, etc.  As society moved into the cities and the agricultural significance of these holidays was no longer meaningful, the Jews needed to develop new reasons to celebrate these holidays.  And so I find it interesting to see, for instance, how the Holiday of the First Fruits (Shavuot) evolved into the Holiday of the Giving of our Torah.

2)      Enjoy the theistic aspects of the holidays, the way we enjoy playing Monopoly.

I have found this part a little more difficult but still possible.  E.g. on Passover, when we’re reading in the Haggadah about all the miracles God performed for our ancestors as He took them out of Egypt “with an outstretched arm,” it’s hard at times just to put my mind into the game, so to speak.  On the other hand, when we’re singing Dayeinu or other holiday songs, I find it fairly easy just to enjoy the song and the connection with the tradition and community without being bogged down with the theistic implications of what I’m singing.

And a third approach that Dr. Churchland does not suggest but that I have found commonly employed:

3)      Draw your own meaning out of the holiday.

Going back to Passover, I think one reason why so many otherwise-unaffiliated Jews relate to Passover is because they have found in it a modern-day message.  Rather than celebrating the one-time event of the supposed exodus of our ancestors from Egypt 3,300 years ago, many Jews are really celebrating the fact that Jews have managed to escape the bondage placed upon them countless times throughout history.

In addition, those who have overcome personal struggles such as addiction no doubt think of Passover as a day to celebrate freedom from personal slavery.  Similarly, when I celebrate Succot (Succos) – the Holiday of the Gathering of the Crops, I feel gratitude for the various “crops” that we have been fortunate to “harvest” in the previous year through our modern-day vocations.

The above is not to argue that an atheist should celebrate religious holidays but rather to demonstrate that those who choose to do so have multiple reasons for what they do.


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