Celebrating Christmas without religion: Katherine Sissons looks back at the festive season

Before the new year dust settles and we leave January, Katherine Sissons takes a look back at Christmas. In this article, she considers the question: ‘What do atheists do at Christmas?’ Drawing on interviews with her London based atheist participants, Katherine argues that their Christmases are far from meaningless without the ‘Christ’, showing instead that they are linked with family relationships and a sense of personal identity.   

KSissons photo

Many readers will sympathise: it’s Christmas, you’re trying to relax, but well-meaning friends and relatives keep asking about your work. This year, the 25th December fuelled questions about my own work – researching experiences of nonreligion in London. One question in particular kept cropping up: ‘What do atheists do at Christmas?’.In a recent poll, 93% of the British adults who were surveyed reported that they celebrate Christmas. Other contributors to this blog have written about the difficulty of measuring the religiosity of the population. However, it is clear that the number of people who celebrate Christmas greatly exceeds the number who identify as ‘Christian’, which might be 59% (according to the 2011 Census for England and Wales) or 42% (according to the British Social Attitudes 2013). These figures suggest that most British adults will know someone – probably several people – who do not consider themselves Christian, but who do celebrate Christmas. Nevertheless, the questions from my friends and family indicated that some people remain curious about how and why non-Christians, and the nonreligious in particular, celebrate Christmas. Back in December, I asked some nonreligious Londoners to share their Christmas plans.

Celebrating Christmas without religion Sonia identifies herself an atheist. She describes Christmas as ‘a non-event for me, but still an event’. Although Sonia is the only atheist in her family, none of them go to church on Christmas day. ‘My family were all raised in different places so we come from an array of Christian backgrounds: Seventh Day Adventist, Church of England, Pentecostal’. If all the family members were to attend their different churches, they would be separated. ‘Christmas Day is when we get together as a family. There will be plenty of Caribbean food and plenty of cheer. The cupboards are emptied of their contents, so we have rice and peas, vegetables, mac[aroni] and cheese, sweet potato, yams, boiled green banana, fried plantain, salad, meat, lamb and chicken, finished with a slice of rum cake’.

Sonia has not given any Christmas presents for about nine years. ‘I’d been toying with the idea [of no longer giving presents] for a year or two’, she explained, ‘but I didn’t have the courage to do anything about it’. Once she had made the decision to stop sending gifts, she had to explain this decision to her young nephew. ‘I told him that I wasn’t buying presents anymore, because Christmas is a holiday that doesn’t mean anything, but I would buy him a birthday present, because that day does mean something’. For Sonia, her nephew’s birthday is a time to celebrate his life, and to be thankful that he is here, part of her world. I asked Sonia to describe how she felt, having this conversation: ‘I was a little nervous’. Now, with hindsight, she jokes ‘What was I expecting him to do? Throw a tantrum? Have me arrested for withholding presents from a minor?’

Now, Sonia neither gives presents nor expects to receive them. Reflecting on these experiences Sonia concludes: ‘if you explain and are clear, people will try to understand, even if they don’t agree. Then they can cross you off their Christmas list – in a nice way’.
Kathleen feels uncomfortable with terms such as ‘atheist’ and ‘humanist’, but says that she would ‘probably tick “none” on survey’ (i.e. a survey asking about religious identity). Although Kathleen is adamant that ‘you don’t need to go to church to be a kind and compassionate person’, she would like to attend a carol service because it reminds her of the Christmases of her childhood. For her, the carol service is not an act of worship: ‘it just makes me feel like it’s Christmas’. However, she is reluctant to go alone and is usually unable to persuade her husband and daughter to go with her.

Kathleen sends Christmas cards as a way of staying in touch with friends and distant relatives. Most of the gifts she buys are for her husband and daughter, although she also buys presents for some of her work colleagues: ‘they all get me things, so it feels like the right thing to do, really’. Kathleen explains that Christmas is ‘about spending time with family’. She was especially keen to describe her Christmas tree: ‘it’s really lovely. We don’t use any shop-bought decorations – well, just the lights. Everything else is something we’ve made’.

Until recently, Kathleen was still using decorations inherited from her mother and grandmother, as well as decorations that her daughter (now in her late 20s) had made as a child. This set of decorations was lost: ‘We didn’t realise they were gone until we bought the tree and had nothing to put on it. It was very sad – I’m still very sad about it. They were connections with the past I no longer have – lots of lost memories…but we have fabulous new memories with the new things we have made together and hopefully we can pass those on to future generations’.

Rita and Scott both describe themselves as ‘atheist-slash-humanist’. They give presents and send cards, though Scott explained that they ‘deliberately avoid cards that say “Merry Christmas” or have pictures of Jesus on them’. For Rita, whose parents were Latvian, the Christmas period presents the opportunity to take part in what she describes as ‘Latvian traditions rooted in the country’s pre-Christian pagan heritage’.
This year she and Scott travelled nearly 200 miles across the UK to attend a Latvian Winter Festival celebration. They sang Latvian songs and took part in a ‘log pull’ – a log is dragged (usually around a property or around a town) and then burned, burning away the bad things that occurred in the last year. They also ate Latvian food – diced pork, sausage, pickled pumpkin and plenty of black beans, which, Rita explains, ‘are supposed to stop you from crying in the next year’.

Explaining the significance of these practices, Rita says: ‘a thousand years ago the songs and rituals might have been seen as a kind of active magic, a necessary part of bringing back the sun. I doubt anyone has thought that for centuries, so now the purpose is to come together with friends, neighbours, and your compatriots to mark and celebrate the turning of the year’.

Writing in 1971, Colin Campbell noted that the nonreligious were often depicted as ‘loners’. (Campbell 2013). Interviewing nonreligious people for this article, it was clear to me that, although they celebrate Christmas in different ways, they all plan their celebrations with reference to a web of social relations. They consider, accommodate, and negotiate the expectations of family, friends, colleagues, and wider society.
Sonia delayed her decision to stop giving Christmas presents because she was nervous about the impact that decision would have on her social life – her ties to her family and to her nephew in particular. Kathleen’s enthusiasm about her Christmas tree is not a symptom of individualism or materialism, and does not contradict her statement that ‘Christmas is about family’. When she speaks of ‘connections to the past’ and ‘lots of lost memories’, it is clear that the lost decorations were important to her because they represented some of her most significant social relationships – to her mother, grandmother and daughter.

Theorists across a range of disciplines have acknowledged that social identity is multifaceted: gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, religion are just some elements that might comprise one person’s identity. Social identity is also situational – as an individual moves between social settings, different aspects of their identity may feel more important than others. Perhaps some people expect the Christmas activities of the nonreligious to differ radically from those of Christians. In doing so, they assume that a person’s position with regard to religion should override other aspects of their identity in determining their Christmas practices. In fact, other aspects of identity also influence the ways in which nonreligious people celebrate. Sonia’s family acknowledge their genealogical and cultural ties to the Caribbean with the food that they eat. Rita described her Latvian celebrations with great enthusiasm, but only talked about her lack of religious belief when prompted. Perhaps for Rita, her Latvian heritage is more salient than her ‘atheism-slash-humanism’ at Christmas time.

Sonia, Kathleen, and Rita andScott have not adopted their Christmas practices unthinkingly. They are highly reflective when thinking about why and how they celebrate. They are not celebrating Christmas, as in the birth of Christ, but they are celebrating at Christmas time. They differ in exactly what and how they celebrate, and their attitudes and practices indicate just some of the variety of nonreligious responses to Christmas.

Campbell, C., 2013. Toward a sociology of irreligion 2nd ed., Reading: Alcuin Academics.

Katherine is a doctoral student in the department of anthropology at the University of Oxford.  She is interested in the variety of lived experiences of nonreligion in the UK.  Before starting her doctorate she lived for a while in Vanuatu and is still interested in religion and religious change in Melanesia. Katherine is also Assistant Editor for NSRN Online, with responsibility for the commissioning and publication of book review and media related blog posts for the NSRN blog.

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Sam Harris’ “Waking Up” Spotlights the Possibility of Secular Spirituality

In this post Kyle Thompson reviews Sam Harris’ new book. In it Thompson explores Harris’ argument that spirituality and nonreligion are compatible signalling an interesting departure from his scientific atheist perspective. Thompson argues that this shift in atheist discourse is one researchers of nonreligion should take note of. 

For readers who casually follow the work of Sam Harris, known first and foremost for his consistent lambasting of all things religion, his new book, “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion,” might come as an unexpected addition to the author’s bibliography given the common association of spirituality with religion. This means that Harris had to be careful not to scare away an audience of book-buyers who would be reluctant to take seriously the spiritual musings of a New Atheist while ensuring his loyal fans wouldn’t think he went off the deep end and became a New Ageist. It is perhaps this balancing act that caused “Waking Up,” a work of spirituality meets self-help meets science, to lack both philosophical rigour and a clear prescription for newcomers to spirituality. But no one should be unduly worried, Harris’ guide, flaws and all, offers an interesting turn within the secular, and New Atheist, discourse that deserves genuine attention from researchers and laypeople alike.

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Religious ‘Nones’ Generally Have More Liberal Family Values in Areas of Greater Disaffiliation

Using quantitative studies Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme discusses how religious nones demonstrate greater photocommitment to liberal family values in areas of high religious disaffiliation, impacting upon the value divide between the unaffiliated and their more religiously committed neighbours.

It has been shown time and time again that the religiously unaffiliated (those who declare they have no religion when asked) tend to be more liberal in their views towards gender roles, sexuality and abortion compared with the religious in Western nations (Finke and Adamczyk 2008; Norris and Inglehart 2004; Putnam and Campbell 2010). One of the principal mechanisms behind this relationship between religious affiliation and conservative moral values is institutional religiosity’s role in shaping such attitudes. Individuals raised and actively participating in a religious group are more likely to adopt and adhere to this group’s beliefs about what is right or wrong (Hayes 1995; Layman 2001; Nicolet and Tresch 2009; Raymond 2011). Religious ‘nones’ on the other hand are removed from such institutions which often promote more conservative value orientations. Continue reading

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The BASR Atheism and Nonreligion Panel

On 4th September 2014 Lorna Mumford was part of the ‘Discursive and Material Approaches to the Study of AtheismPicture0028 and Non-religion’ panel at the British Association for the Study of Religions’ annual conference hosted by The Open University in Milton Keynes. Here she reflects on the presentations and key themes that emerged.

The aim of the ‘Discursive and Material Approaches to the Study of Atheism and Non-religion’ panel was to move away from focusing on purely propositional understandings of atheism and nonreligion, toward exploring the manifestations of nonreligion through material objects and within discursive contexts. Continue reading

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God-blasters vs Philosophical Atheists: Real and Perceived Divisions Among Unbelievers

Elliot Hanowski draws on the history of Canadian unbelief to argue that ideological labels should not Elliot Hanowski pictureovershadow the pragmatic way unbelievers of all stripes actually behaved when dealing with the broader society.

Ideas never stay pure and unadulterated when they spread through human societies. Likewise, ideological labels rarely reflect the pragmatic ways human beings appropriate, revise, and apply those ideologies based on the needs of the moment. Historians of nonreligion, who often trace the social history of ideas, need to be keenly aware of this fact. For example, the twentieth century saw a wide variety of labels applied to unbelievers: from rationalists, humanists and freethinkers, to secular socialists, anarchists and communists. Their diversity has been one reason that a unified social history of unbelief has been slow to develop. A broader approach is possible, but it will require historians to look at unbelievers not just as repositories of a particular intellectual formulation, but as people who took practical steps to navigate and contest a culture that was hostile to their views. Continue reading

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The Paradoxes of Secularism in Contemporary Japan

Jason Ānanda Josephson discusses evidence from Japan regarding the complexity of  employing Euro-American Jason Josephsonunderstanding of concepts such as religion, nonreligion and secularism  in other cultural contexts.

Probably the most surprising Japanese bestseller of 1996 was a short monograph written in a largely accessible style by Ama Toshimaro, a professor of International Studies at Meiji Gakuin University, titled Why Are the Japanese Non-Religious? (Nihonjin wa naze mushūkyō nanoka). This monograph had a widespread appeal in Japan partially because it touched on a seeming paradox: that many Japanese who claim to be ‘without religion’ (mushūkyō, 無宗教) actually engage in activities–Buddhist funerals, Christian weddings, Shinto festivals, prayer ceremonies at Shinto shrines–that seem to Ama and other observers to be profoundly religious (Ama, 1996: 8-10). This work presented a seeming contradiction between self-identified secularity and popular religious activity. Moreover, as European scholars were quick to note, the very Japanese citizens who claimed to lack religion attended multiple religious institutions without seeming to experience any incongruity. Restated, Japan seems to be a repository of paradoxical diversity in which each given ‘areligious’ citizen practices a plurality of religions.

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Utopian New Atheism? Review of A. C. Graylings’s ‘The God Argument’

Jolyon Agar discusses the moral framework presented in ‘The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and For Humanism’ by A.C. Grayling (2013).Agar

A.C. Grayling’s recent contribution to the burgeoning literature on so-called ‘New Atheism’ is, on first appearance at least, a more promising affair than that offered by (among others) Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Unlike these other writers, Grayling is able to critique the philosophical foundations of religious belief as a professional philosopher. Much more intriguing was Grayling’s implicit promise to desist from unrelenting criticism of religion and instead provide details of what the alternative world guided by New Atheist principles might look like: how a moral framework shaped by atheistic humanism might tackle hugely divisive social issues such as assisted suicide, recreational drug use, divorce and sexual morality. Continue reading

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Event Report: The Association for the Sociology of Religion Annual Meeting

Amanda Schutz sat in on a session covering issues of nonreligion at the Association for the Sociology of ReligionIMG_0143 annual meeting, which took place in San Francisco, California, 13th-15th of August. Here, she shares her interpretations of these presentations and her thoughts on how they represent a step in the right direction for this growing field.

The Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meeting demonstrated that the subfield is slowly acknowledging the significance of nonreligion and recognizing where the gaps in our current understanding lay. While discussions of secularism and secularization littered the sessions, only one was dedicated to issues of nonreligion. Although the session title was changed from ‘Religious Nones’ to ‘Religious Identities, Narratives, and Strategies’, three of the four presentations still dealt with topics related to nonreligion, with all three tackling questions that have remained unexplored. Continue reading

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A Dialectic Atheology – Understanding the Past, Present and Future of Atheism

Charles Devellennes sets out his ideas for developing a dialectic theory of atheology, as an alternative to Professional shotattempting to unify different forms of atheism.

Is there a continuity between various strands of atheism, despite all of their differences? This important question – for atheists and those who study atheism – is difficult to answer because it is not easy to see what the bluntness of the new atheists has in common with the subtlety of other philosophers of nonreligion, such as Richard Rorty or William Connolly. Instead of attempting to find a unifying theory of atheism, I have proposed, in a recent article published in Telos, that we need a dialectic theory of atheology. Continue reading

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Review: 50 Voices of Disbelief

Eric Chalfant reviews Blackford and Schüklenk’s 50 Voices of Disbelief (2009), and notes that, although intended for a lay 20140514_144016audience, the plurality of personal narratives and experiences recounted by contributors to the book serves as a reminder to academic researchers that atheists constitute a varied demographic with ‘complicated stories and multifaceted self-understandings’.

The cover of 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists depicts a candle that has just been blown out, the smoke wafting from a dead wick. At first glance, this might seem to reflect a certain kind of negativity prevalent in treatments of deconversion, the transition from religion to atheism. We frequently hear terms like ‘loss of faith’ used to imply that the movement away from religion is one of subtraction – the peeling away of religious affiliation to something more fundamental, neutral, and untouched by processes of acculturation. This understanding of deconversion tends to lose sight of the active and creative processes involved in identity-formation. Atheism, contrary to the claims of many religionists and atheists alike, is not a purely natural state given prior to the contamination of religious ideology; it is a subject position achieved in lived experience and discourse – it is actively constructed, formed, and negotiated.
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