Humanist Holidays

Recently, the Friendly Humanist has taken a great interest in what we, as humanists, should do about festivals and holidays. Obviously there is a genuine need for some kind of holiday at this time of year; it’s cold and horrible and I wouldn’t get up in the morning if it wasn’t for my mum shouting at my brother to get up and go to college (ooh I didn’t mention, I’m writing now from beyond the border!).

The Friendly Humanist has been concentrating on the Cosmic Calendar, a brilliant piece of thinking by Carl Sagan, who reduced the entire history of the cosmic universe into a calendar for 1 year. With this timescale, the early homo sapiens only came into being in the last 10 seconds of New Year’s Eve. I’ve read other ways of comparing it. If you stretch your arms out at each side, and conceive that the fingertips of your left hand represent the origin of life on Earth, and the fingertips of your right hand represent the present moment, then (if I remember this analogy correctly, I can’t remember where I read it) vertebrates would only emerge at about your right elbow, homo sapiens would only emerge at the knuckle nearest your fingernail, and all recorded history since the Greeks would be erased with just a single stroke of a nail file. Makes you feel really significant, doesn’t it?

Anyway I’ll come back from my tangent and ask the question I’ve been thinking about for a good couple of weeks now. It’s all very well using logical alternative methods to come up with our own humanist holidays, but is it necessary? We have perfectly good holidays right here that are becoming increasingly secular, and I think we can just hijack them. After all, was Christmas not originally a pagan festival before the Church hijacked it and suddenly decided (arbitrarily) that Jesus was born on that date? Now, especially in the UK, I think people are more and more deviating away from the “true” meaning of Christmas, and it’s being hijacked by secularists as a time to be spent with family, which is certainly appealing to a humanist lifestyle. The same can be said of other religious festivals.

But the downside is that if we did that, we’d be hearing the same criticism that I’ve heard a number of times, that humanism is merely a parasite of Christianity and other religions. But why not!? Why shouldn’t we take the good bits of religion, like the “love your neighbour” morals of the New Testament, or in this case the family values of Christmas, and get rid of all the bullshit? Religion (in my case Christianity) is a big part of the culture, history and heritage of our society, and we don’t have to reject all the good things that it entails when we reject the religious beliefs.

The thing about all this is that if we take on any humanist holidays of our own, whether we hijack pre-existing ones or we make up our own, is that from the outside humanism will look just like another religion, and we’ll become part of the very thing many of us are trying to destroy. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, because it may help humanism appear as a more viable alternative to religion, but at the same time compromises our values somewhat. Make up your own mind.

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3 Responses to Humanist Holidays

  1. Tim Mills says:

    Mike,

    I completely agree with you. I like Christmas. I was raised in a non-religious household, and we had a huge family Christmas every year. I hope to celebrate Christmas with family every year for the rest of my life.

    But I think it’s psychologically valuable to find ways to celebrate, in the wider humanist community, the things that we believe. And let’s face it – sceptical inquiry, science, and evolution just don’t have religious holidays that we can appropriate. So my approach is to add new humanist days to the existing holidays (as a Canadian, I also enjoy Thanksgiving as a purely secular autumn event).

    Ultimately, some (most?) of the new holidays proposed by people like Carl Sagan, the Church of Reality (look up their winter “Crispness” holiday), and me will fail to catch on. But maybe some of them (like 10 December, Human Rights Day?) will work their way into the wider consciousness.

    Who’s going to complain about extra holidays?

  2. grammarking says:

    Tim,

    I certainly wouldn’t complain about more holidays, I enjoy them very er… drunkenly. And I take your point about celebrating what we believe. But perhaps it would be better to do this through heightening the profile of awareness days, which do already exist (or if they don’t by creating them), rather than making them pseudo-religious holidays?

  3. Tim Mills says:

    Mike,

    I think you’re giving “religion” more credit than it deserves. Not something you’re often accused of, eh?

    What do we mean by “religious”? I take it to mean something along the lines of “pertaining to a belief in supernatural agencies (usually a god or gods) which participate in human existence”. Something like that.

    So how is the Cosmic Calendar, which makes no reference to supernatural agencies, “pseudo-religious”? Holidays and celebrations are not religious things, they are human things. Religions are human things – that’s why religions have holidays and celebrations. Humanism is a human thing – that’s why humanists have holidays and celebrations.

    The incidental fact that the currently dominant religions have a longer history of holidays and celebrations than humanism has is completely beside the point.

    So please, don’t give religion more credit than it deserves. Religious traditions have no more right to claim privileged use of the idea of holidays and celebrations than they have of words like “value” and “transcendent”.

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