In Defense of a Thoroughly Secular Christmas

“Maybe leave the manger in the basement”

So, what to talk about on this Christmas Friday? I could discuss the Jesus birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, i.e., that they cannot be taken seriously as history—and all the reasons why; that virgin birth is a borrowed concept, which most of the New Testament authors rejected. These birth narratives are so deeply embedded in the Christian psyche—baby Jesus in the manger—that the faithful are usually unwilling to examine them critically. So much has been researched and written on this, so I’ll take a pass on it today. But check out the article that John Loftus posted here yesterday, Johno Pearce (aka the Tippling Philosopher) Debunks the Nativity Narratives!


Likewise, the fact that Christians rechristened—so to speak—pagan year-end celebrations, i.e., turned them into Christmas, has been discussed endlessly. In the ancient world it had been noticed that the winter solstice marked a turnaround: days began to get longer again. The long procession toward spring had begun; that was cause for celebration, and the Christians rebranded that holiday as Christmas. Indeed we have no clue at all when Jesus was born: no dates are even hinted at in Matthew or Luke. It’s all religious invention, as has been discussed for a long time, so I’ll pass on that too today.


Let’s focus instead on… 

(1) Who “owns” Christmas, as the midwinter celebration is now commonly known? 

(2) Are Christians willing to acknowledge that their Christmas story is a gateway to shallow theology that degrades into bad theology?     


I’m a product of small town, rural Indiana—about as traditionally Christian as any spot on earth, I would say—so Christmas is a part of who I am, no matter that I eventually saw through the theology behind it. So I have no problem wishing anyone Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, and I welcome these greetings in return. And to Christians who stridently insist that we “keep Christ in Christmas,” I say, “Go for it, in your celebration of the event.” But you don’t own the holiday. Those of us who are now outside that religious tradition very much enjoy those traditional Christmas elements that help alleviate the gloom of bleak midwinter.


Earlier this month, Seth Andrews stated the case pretty well in a Facebook post:


‘Christmas is what we make it, and the very best elements of the holiday have nothing to do with superbabies born of virgins come to rescue humankind from God's own screw-ups, but instead focus on the good stuff: love, time, family, music, decor, food, laughter, fun, memories, goodness.” (Facebook, 7 December 2020)


Jerry Herman captured this idea in one of the songs in his musical Mame:


…we need a little Christmas right this very minute
Candles in the window, carols at the spinet
Yes we need a little Christmas right this very minute

Hasn't snowed a single flurry, but Santa dear we're in a hurry

Climb down the chimney
Turn on the brightest string of lights I've ever seen
Slice up the fruit cake
It's time we've hung some tinsel on the evergreen bough


For I've grown a little leaner, grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder, grown a little older
And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder
Need a little Christmas now


For we need a little music, need a little laughter,
Need a little singing ringing through the rafter
And we need a little snappy, happy ever after
We need a little Christmas now! 


All this is much better than what the Christian story purports to be, as Seth Andrews put it, a miraculous baby “…come to rescue humankind from God's own screw-ups.” 


In an article published just this week, Celebrate Christmas? Maybe Leave the Manger in the Basement, Valerie Tarico draws attention to the bad theology we find in the wake of “baby Jesus in the manger.” It’s bad enough that the story is based on superstition about a pregnancy caused by a spirit (Christians commonly fail to see the occult nature of this claim because it was a holy spirit that did the deed), but Tarico points out more serious misgivings. She refers to “…the rapey-ness of god-impregnates-human-woman stories and how this one in particular glorifies female subservience. For parents raising their young daughters to be strong, independent women, that alone might be grounds for setting aside the nativity scene.”

But it gets worse; Christians seem largely oblivious to the grotesque doctrine at the heart of their faith, as Tarico goes on to point out:  

‘The traditional Christmas narrative, built as it is around the idea of a child born to be a blood sacrifice, escapes our scrutiny only because it is so familiar—that, and the fact that the story is wrapped in the beauty and love and generosity and joyfulness that is the rest of the Christmas season. Many people, both Christians and not, emphasize parts of Christmastime that aren’t about the human sacrifice story, and despite complaints about mangers and nativity scenes disappearing, they have the right to do so. The holiday traditions handed down by our ancestors come in all sizes and shapes. And, as with everything else we’ve inherited, some fit and some don’t. Each of us decides which to leave in the basement as we unpack those we cherish, those that fill us with delight and inspiration.”


Christians are stuck with human sacrifice, and thus their religion may qualify as the worst of the world’s so-called “great religions.” They tend to dwell on texts that sound nice, e.g., “God so loved the world,” but Guy Harrison has succinctly stated the fallacy behind “that he gave his only son”: 


“No one seems to know why a god who makes all the rules and answers to no one couldn’t just pardon us and skip the barbaric crucifixion event entirely.” (Christianity in the Light of Science, edited by John Loftus, p. 30)  


Hence there’s a sound basis for preferring a thoroughly secular Christmas, free from such bad theology. We’re also entitled to our own wish lists, a few things that would make a better world. One such list was spoken by Robert Ingersoll in 1897, and still makes sense today, although a few of the references are dated:


“I would have the Pope throw away his tiara, take off his sacred vestments, and admit that he is not acting for God—is not infallible—but is just an ordinary Italian. I would have all the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests and clergymen admit that they know nothing about theology, nothing about hell or heaven, nothing about the destiny of the human race, nothing about devils or ghosts, gods or angels. I would have them tell all their “flocks” to think for themselves, to be manly men and womanly women, and to do all in their power to increase the sum of human happiness.


“I would have all the professors in colleges, all the teachers in schools of every kind, including those in Sunday schools, agree that they would teach only what they know, that they would not palm off guesses as demonstrated truths.”


Humanity would be a lot better off if we adopted a few holidays celebrating advances is our understanding of the world. I made this suggestion in an article here on the DC Blog, 21 June 2019, We Can Do Better than Religious Holidays: Why Not Celebrate Things that Actually Happened?   


But the Winter Solstice happens too, and humans have long delighted in its promise of better days to come. I’ll leave the final word on this to Valerie Tarico:  


“Like all solstice celebrations, Christmas brings light and warmth and beauty into the darkest time of the year. Christmastime offers us a smorgasbord of mid-winter festivities from cultures across the Northern Hemisphere, and we build our family traditions around whichever of these bring us happiness.”



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


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