Why a Jewish Atheist Loves Christmas

By Alan M. Perlman, Ph.D.

    I have always thought of Christmas as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their hearts freely. And therefore, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Those are the words of Charles Dickens, and I have completely come around to his point of view.

I’ve always been a secular Jewish humanist – an atheist who believes that human problems can be solved by human beings, with no reference to any divine authority. But in Judaism, as in other cases throughout the world, ethnicity and religion tend to overlap. Just as many Arabs are Muslims (though some are secular), many Jews believe in God and in the truth of the Bible (i.e., the 19 books that comprise the Hebrew Bible or, as Christians and others call it, the Old Testament).

But we secular humanists do not, even though we identify with Jewish culture and history. And we secular Jews do share the American Jewish experience.

Early on, for me, as for many 1950s Jews growing up in Christian America, Christmas felt like a gigantic party to which we were not invited. In response, a lot of Jews made compromises with Christmas (putting up Christmas trees in their homes, for example), or exploded Hanukkah into a competitive festival – or both.

Then I looked closer at Christmas and saw the sordid underbelly that Christians knew was there all along: the overeating, the overdrinking, the overspending, the frantic gift buying and all the emotions that accompany it, the frantic partying...it all seemed so exhausting, and I became thankful for not having to be involved in it.

So now my attitude toward Christmas is more balanced, and I can watch benignly, participate a little, and feel myself in harmony with those aspects of Christmas that agree with who I am: the spirit, the season, and Jesus. That's right, Jesus. I'll explain.

The season and the spirit are obvious from the words of Dickens and to anybody who’s grown up with as many Christmases as I have. It's a time when everything smells good and looks good...and when Christians practice what they preach, or at least try to. Compassion, charity, and good cheer predominate. We become conscious, if only briefly, that we are all indeed brothers and sisters -- in fact, science tells us that the genetic differences between us are infinitesimal.

And what about Jesus? I'm not a Jew for Jesus, but he clearly had something important to say. As a secular humanist, I set aside all the storytelling, all the supernatural events, all the centuries of iconography and cathedral building. I think about the man himself.

Libraries are full of exegesis and speculation, but what do we really know? He was a preacher, a teacher, and, very importantly, a Reminder. (He was executed, apparently, along with many others, as an enemy of the state; secular humanists attach no particular significance to his death).

Just as it does in every era, religion had drifted loose from its original, spiritual moorings: good behavior, good works, a good life. Like the ancient Hebrew prophets, Jesus reminded people that it wasn't about fancy temples and priestly vestments, any more than today it’s about showing up at Christmas or the High Holidays in your furs and your Lexus. It is about good thoughts and good deeds.

Mythology aside, there can be no question that Jesus, however valid and memorable his preaching, was not unique. Equally -- and more -- sophisticated material on morality, psychology, and spirituality appears in the Tao te Ching, which dates from the sixth century B.C.E., and in the Upanishads, ancient Hindu texts from as early as the eighth century B.C.E.

But Jesus reminded people about the importance of compassion, humility, charity, and nonviolence...and about the individual’s responsibility for making moral choices. In the ancient world, such spiritually advanced individuals were few and far between. They were rare enough to have entire religions founded upon them, especially when they have such excellent PR and marketing as Jesus had.

His disciples spread his story quite well. Furthermore, in the competition for spiritual shelf space, Christianity had two big advantages over Judaism: it offered greater roles for women and required no circumcision.

But Jesus’ message soon became burdened with an accretion of mythology and superstition. I would bet dollars to doughnuts that if Jesus was indeed the humble soul I believe him to be, he would have said to his disciples something like, "Guys, please do not create a mythology around me, okay? Don’t make a god of me. Just pass on my message. No fairytales."

Well, they created fairytales anyway, and beautiful ones too, because people love stories, and good conduct apparently doesn’t sell on its own merits. But if you want a minimum of mythology, and perhaps a closer approximation of what Jesus may actually have said, I suggest you look at the Gospel of Thomas, which, of course, is not in the Bible, probably just because it contains so little of the supernatural.

If you put similar passages from Thomas and the accepted gospels side by side, you'll notice that the latter are more God-oriented. Keeping God center-stage means job security for priests – and power for Popes. It makes all the sense in the world.

But if Jesus was correct, then we don't need priests, rabbis, churches, synagogues, or any of the elaborate apparatus of religious myth and ritual. Part of his message was, as I understand it, that we can each be Christlike, through good behavior, 365 days a year. That would be a great way to celebrate his birth.

Merry Christmas!


Alan M. Perlman is a secular humanist speaker and author -- most recently, of An Atheist Reads the Torah: Secular Humanistic Perspectives on the Five Books of Moses. For information, go to www.trafford.com/06-0056


Anonymous said...

Very nicely put.
This is also why, unfortunately, caustic putdowns of religions don’t work. The good, basic guidelines to decent behavior that are in the foundation of religions are all mixed up with the ridiculous, horrific, fairytale, violent stuff. It’s hard for people to separate them. Add the natural tendency to look to authority, and religion has a lock-down on “reality”. If only non-believers had a church! We have no central tenant, no book, nothing written down, nothing stable, just free thought. People are sheep and have a hard time with free thought.


Albert said...

If Christianity was 99% benign, sites like this wouldn't exist.

Anonymous said...

I don't recall anyone suggesting it's 99% benign. The message of the original poster is that there is a great deal of good in christianity, if only we could get through all the muck; it's the essential good that's inherent in being human. In fact, christianity as practiced in the US is probably more benign than represented here (not counting catholic priests), because this site attracts people who have been the most damaged by Christianity. My Christian friends may be deluded but they derive more joy than fear out of their religion.


Anonymous said...

How much poison do you need to make a barrel of fine wine undrinkable?

As for me - a nearly militant atheist - I love Christmas.

First of all, it was, originally, a "pagan" rebirth festival, which gives it a deliciously ironic flavor to me as I watch all the Christians celebrate it. Really serious Christians DON´T celebrate it, which means they miss out on a whole lot of fun (serves them right).

But the atmosphere of Christmas is of course not one associated with the godman Jesus anymore, but of warmth from the cold, the closeness of loved ones and light in the darkness. Christianity has attempted to hijack these feelings, which are eminently holy in my opinion, and also in my opinion, they have failed. Even the image of Baby Jesus is not offensive to me anymore... after all, Christmas is about (re-)birth.

I hope they keep celebrating it after Christianity has gone the way of all religions.

Merry Christmas. :)

Anonymous said...

Here's my entry on why you should worship Zeus or Santa Claus as opposed to the Christian God.


If you must obey a god to fulfill your religious needs, try worshipping a dead god like the ancient Greek God Zeus, because:

1) No one will ever chastise or threaten you because you did not give enough heart, soul, time, and money to Zeus.

2) You don't have to give any money to Zeus because no one is watching or employed by the house of Zeus.

3) Zeus doesn't care, nor will his priests threaten and manipulate you, because you did not vote Republican.

4) Zeus doesn't have any priests who will try to molest or rape you.

5) Zeus doesn't have any priests who will hate you because of your ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or background.

6) You can pray to Zeus for miracles, such as healing from a terminal disease like cancer, and receive the same 99.99% failure rate as praying to the Christian God. The only difference is Zeus doesn't ask you for money.

rossextian said...

This what I call the Christmas/Hanukkah season:Insanity Season! All the pressures of buying presents, traveling to go away, and regrets for what I did not acomplish during the past year drive me up a wall!

There are more suicides during holiday season than any other time of year.

Yes I have a "Bah Humbug" attitude toward holiday season. It drives me up a wall and makes me relieved when January comes!

It does not matter whether you are of any religion, it cannot be avoided.

I once heard two people tell me of this anti-Semitic incident they saw happened at a Christmas party, the host said "Everyone, you are all welcome, but if you are Jew, please leave now!" It was not until many years later, I realized that Joseph and Mary, and even the man those of us as ex-Christians no longer believe in, Jesus, would not have been welcome at that party! So much for "Peace on Earth, Good will toward men."

Somebody like Oliver Stone or Steven Spielberg, should make a serious movie about the horrible, dark side of holiday season, and release the film on Boxing Day.The day after Christmas.)

To everyone reading this comment, I wish you the best in getting through the trials and tribulations of insanity season!

Steven Bently said...

Has anyone ever considered what the reasons for holidays are for, in all reality?

When we see people scrambling to pick out that perfect gift or that plump turkey in order to please another person.

When we read and hear about holidays being the time of the most suicides and domestic crime.

When we see people bashing other people to be the first one in line to buy a play station or Elmo.

Does anyone else outside of free thinkers see the insanity of this?

Maybe my thinking is skewed, maybe we should be the one's to be first in line and if anyone gets in our way we knock them on the side of the head.

Maybe it's the free thinkers getting in line and bashing people's heads, and I'm just and ole fuddy-duddy.

If I decide to buy someone a present, if I think they do not already own ten of them already, I will just buy it and give it to them regardless of what the calendar says.

Has anyone noticed how we let a piece of paper hanging on the wall, with numbers on it, dictate how we think, feel and act?

It's like people cannot function without something lording over them.

I know alot of people will go ahead and buy presents after christmas for next christmas, because they will be on sale, while Jesus is in heaven counting all his money.

Anonymous said...

There's plenty of room for open-minded folks to agree on the main things in life...

It would be good to spend more time on those areas than on the edges where the disagreements reign supreme--though sometimes, they come front and center by necessity. At those times more than ever, we need calm, rational, and yes, charitable, discourse to reach compromise and the common good.

I'll link your post.

You may well enjoy our seasonal blog, War on the War on Christmas at http://waroc.wordpress.com

It's basically a clearinghouse of Christmas controversy, with a humorous bent. I hope you or your readers who have thoughts on the "controversy" will feel free to leave links to your posts in comments, we'll review them and put them in the main body of the post.

Happy Holidays!

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