It may be mid-January, but I’m still thinking of Christmas.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve just might be my favorite of the year. It is the one time that my entire family gets together. We spend several days eating our favorite foods, catching up and playing board games.
I’m the only member of my family who doesn’t live in Minnesota — I moved away several years ago — so that week is particularly special for me. While the snow piled up outside, I stole my 7-month-old nephew from his doting grandmother and smooshed his face into mine, worked on an unsolvable puzzle with my siblings and ate way too many cookies.
As I was getting ready to leave for the airport, my dad’s girlfriend stopped me at the door. “I’ve been wanting to ask you something,” she said, leaning in. “I know you’re an atheist, but is it OK for me to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to you?”
It seemed like a silly question, but she had a reason for asking. She explained that she was nervous about atheism and the holidays thanks to a man she had dated in the past. He had identified as an atheist, and refused to come along to her family Christmas. “As he put it, he’d never celebrate a ‘hol-lie-day’ for a made-up god,” she relayed with a sigh. “And it wasn’t just Christmas; he hated all religious holidays. Frankly, it was one of the things that ended our relationship.”
In hearing her concern, I recalled the recent controversy over atheist billboards targeting the holiday. Dave Silverman, President of the American Atheists, made the press rounds to explain that their “You KNOW It’s A Myth… This Season, Celebrate Reason!” billboard — the most attention-getting of the bunch — was intended to persuade atheists who “go through the motions” of celebrating Christmas to stop doing so. Many religious people decried it as blasphemy; like Susan Jacoby, I just thought it was a self-defeating case of misplaced priorities. We cannot promote Humanist values when we expend our energy lobbing simplistic critiques at the religious, or demand that people stop participating in practices they enjoy simply because they’re associated with religion.
As the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, I am working on the ground to build up positive Humanist community. Just a few weeks before I visited my family in Minnesota, the Chaplaincy threw a Humanist holiday party, replete with a lighted tree, seasonal music, a donation drive and gift-giving. The sense of community was palpable. Three days later, we gathered to make 120 scarves for the New England Center for Homeless Veterans. We weren’t “going through the motions” — these activities fulfilled our natural human desires to congregate, to seek solace in one another’s company, and to help those in need. As my boss, Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein,has said: “Lectures and debates are important, but we must also sing and we must build. I mean that metaphorically and literally.”
I may not be much of a singer, but I can build. To build, literally and metaphorically, a Humanist community that is healthy and sustainable, we must get over this sense that provocation should be our number one goal, and that positive engagement with others is unimportant.
The week following Christmas has passed and we find ourselves in a new year. With a new year comes new work. One of the projects I am most excited about is “Challenge the Gap,” a new initiative of theFoundation Beyond Belief, an atheist and Humanist charitable foundation, which aims to find common ground between the religious and the secular. It is, to my knowledge, the first time that an explicitly atheist and Humanist foundation is funding interfaith cooperation.
It is a new Humanism for a new year: one that looks forward in hope, not back in anger. I believe that ethics and engagement are central to what it means to live in the world as a Humanist, and that Humanist community and identity require an affirmative foundation, not one structured in contrast to ideologies we disagree with.
Secular Humanism should not be defined as a rejection of religion; otherwise, we risk living our lives looking for ideas — and people — to rebuff. Rather, Humanism ought to be seen first and foremost as a desire to be the best people we can be, to commune with other humans and live ethically and humbly together. It should not be vindictive or oppositional. Instead, it should seek to build bridges whenever possible, with whomever possible. Let’s not let our differences destroy the essential social bonds that will facilitate cooperation and understanding.
Walking out the door, I reassured my dad’s girlfriend that I will always celebrate Christmas with my family, but I am reminded by her concern that we have a lot of work ahead of us to reconcile the religious and nonreligious in America. The American Atheists may be continuing their wasteful, tone-deaf strategy with a new billboard stating “You KNOW they’re all SCAMS,” but the future of Humanism isn’t blasphemous billboards, bombastic rhetoric or even blogs; it’s reaching out, reciprocity and relationships.
This year, my resolution isn’t to eat healthier (though I should) or to finish my book (which I will). It’s to foster understanding between people of different religions and creeds, and to do what I can to build up a compassionate Humanist community — in other words, to embody Humanism and challenge the gap.