Should Atheists Celebrate Christmas? Tom Flynn Debates Lindsay Beyerstein

December 27, 2016

Tom Flynn is Executive Director of Council for Secular Humanism (a program of the Center for Inquiry), as well as a novelist, journalist, and editor of Free Inquiry magazine. Outside of the freethought universe, however, Flynn may be best known as a professional Christmas opponent “the Anti-Claus,” and author of the book The Trouble with Christmas.

For decades, Flynn has argued against atheists taking part in the celebration of Christmas, saying it makes hypocrites of nonbelievers and validates Christians’ claims over the season. Point of Inquiry host Lindsay Beyerstein disagrees, and this week she and Flynn engage in a friendly debate over whether atheists should reject all trappings of the holiday, or claim its secular aspects for our own.

This is point of inquiry, welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production of the Center for Inquiry. 

I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism. Editor of Free Inquiry magazine and director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum. 

He’s also the author of the Welbourn book The Trouble with Christmas, which argues that atheists should not celebrate the holiday. I’m here to talk to him and maybe argue with him a little bit about why atheists should celebrate Christmas. Tom, welcome to the program. 

Oh, it’s great to be with you, Lindsay. 

This is kind of a point of inquiry. Tradition, your suit and tie. Christmas appearance. People look forward to it all year. And this year I thought we would do something a little bit more combative. So let’s give back the battle for Christmas. It’s going to be what you would say to convince someone, an atheist who’s really hard core approach Christmas as to why they shouldn’t celebrate it. 

Well, I think the the first element is that based on my own experience, there’s a much bigger feeling in the Christian community than most atheists and humans seem to realize, that atheists and humanists who celebrate the holiday in some form, whether full board Christmas or the Solstice or Saturnalia or whatever, tend to be seen as hypocrites. 

By whom? 

Bye bye. Christian believers who can’t understand why we persist in celebrating the birthday of someone we claim not to believe in, but enjoy celebrating. 

I had a wonderful time picking out a Jesus birthday present for my boyfriend to open to the tree. And why should I care if some Christians somewhere thinks that I’m a hypocrite? 

Well, here’s here’s the thing. I’ve had I’ve had about 35 years experience having, let’s say, conversations with Christians of varying levels of zeal who come up and ask me questions when I speak. Whatever you can sometimes just do, you know, confront me on the street corner and want to know if I’m saved and discovered that they’re talking to a professional atheist. 

And that’s always a fun moment. 

Oh, absolutely. And, you know, there’s always a few questions that you can be confident you’re going to get. There’s going to be the question about if there’s no God, where did you come from? And there’s going to be the question of if you don’t believe in hell, why don’t you feel free to just rape and rob and kill and do whatever you want. And sooner or later, you always. 

I always like to go with no reason. Fear me. I like that. I like that. That I must try that sometime. If you’re in a hurry, it’s good. It does. 

It can just cut to the chase. But sooner or later. The third question that always comes up is, well, yes. What do you do December 25th? 

And I have seen this time after time after time. 

There is nothing I can do with a Christian challenger that is more startling, more disorienting, and actually more open and more making more of an opening towards genuine dialog than when I say, oh, if December 25th falls during the work week, I go to the office and and usually they deny it. They say they refuse to believe it. Newcrest. Well, I can just go on Amazon and show them my book and that kind of settles that. But once they realize that now they’re talking to an atheist who doesn’t celebrate the holiday, who sits it out, you know, I’ll hear things like, wow, finally a real atheist or, you know, gee, I’ve always had questions I wanted to ask someone like you. Now, it’s anecdotal, but the conclusion that I draw, at least tentatively from that is there may be a lot of maybe resentment’s too strong a term, but there seems to be a lot of observation among large numbers of Christians that there’s really something wrong with non-religious people cling to the holiday. And, you know, we’ve seen something kind of curious in the you know, if you remember what happened with the gay and lesbian community 30, 35 years ago, that rich Americans became aware of how many gays and lesbians there actually were, and that all by itself seemed to change attitudes. 

So you’re saying it’s kind of a visibility argument that by publicly not celebrating Christmas where it’s really free? A ton of free advertising for Athie ism. 

I made that argument in my book, The Trouble with Christmas, which came out in 1993. I don’t think that argument is as important anymore because so much survey data has come out. Showing that, you know, the numbers of non-religious people are growing. Just to look at people without a religious orientation where 25 percent of American adults now. But the thing that’s curious about that is even though most American Christians acknowledge how large our community is and how fast it’s growing. That really hasn’t put much of a dent in the negative attitudes. And I wonder if part of that is that large number of American Christians are developing the feeling that most of us are hypocritical or not to be taken seriously because of what we do at holiday. 

I don’t think it’s that we’re hypocritical or that were threatening because it seems like when I tune into Bill O’Reilly, if I can’t avoid doing so, what they seem to really angry about is not so much hypocrisy is that that we’re so powerful that we’re debasing their holiday, that you’ve got atheists and Jews and any number of people who are not Christians celebrating Christmas. And suddenly it becomes about Santa and free and presents and cookies. And that makes them really angry. 

I think probably both things are going on at once. I mean, one of one of the things we have to keep in mind is that there’s a profound disconnect in the cultural aspects of the holiday. A Christmas as a whole has this Christian IRA. And there’s certainly a Christian component to it. But most of what we do at holiday time in the United States is either of pagan origin or of post Christian commercial origin. And yet the funny thing is there’s this the stolen valor phenomenon. Christianity gets this huge burnishing of its cultural credit because it’s perceived on the holiday, even though not a lot about the holiday is uniquely Christian. So with a holiday whose roots are so complex, there’s room for the Bill O’Reilly’s to say that all these secular people and these non Christians are just riding roughshod over our holiday. At the same time, there’s room for individual Christians to be going, wow, why does this atheist who lives next door have a Christmas tree in his front window? What’s wrong with him? 

I think they’re both. What if he now does does the also celebrate Chinese New Year? And you don’t believe in the Chinese astrological calendar and you also celebrate Halloween and you don’t believe in the supernatural? I mean, does belief really have to track holiday observance? 

I think it does. It depends on the holiday. I mean, I think Halloween is certainly an illusion as an example of a holiday that has lost almost all of its religious freight. And I think Chinese New Year is too, especially for a lot of Bellen. Chinese people were just drawn to the spectacle of it. But on the other hand, let me let me ask you a question. Lindsay, I’m going to go out on a limb. I’m going to assume that you are not a Muslim. How am I doing? 

You’re doing great. Hundreds. OK. What did you do for Ramadan this year? 

I would have liked to go to an aid dinner if somebody had invited me. I keep hoping I’ll get an invitation. 

Well, nobody nobody invited me there. But I think most most non-Muslims don’t do Ramadan just because they perceive it as a live religious holiday of a tradition that’s not theirs. It’s someone else’s. 

But the White House celebrate. And I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you agree with me that the president is not Muslim. But they saw it. 

They had a they had nice dinner at the White House. And it didn’t seem to be a celebration. Didn’t seem to be an expression of the fact that the president is Muslim, but rather just that this was a gathering that people might enjoy attending in a spirit of interfaith and finding community. 

Well, I imagine that tradition will change for at least the next four years. 

Yes. Definitely. 

But yeah. 

Or if not, I would love to be a fly on the wall at Donald Trump’s first Ramadan event. 

Oh, you wouldn’t need both. I’d take money. But while I that you know, you can’t unsee that. 

You’re saying you’re expecting a shift in in celebration. 

I suspect there will be less overt acknowledgment of non Judeo-Christian traditions. I would love to be proven wrong on that. But I would say as a actually in my editorial in the upcoming issue of free inquiry, which comes out in about a week and a half, I described Trump as the box of chocolates president elect. 

You never know what you’re going to get on any given day or indeed any given tweet. 

Yes, yes, quite precisely. But, you know, going back to this idea of Christmas as someone else’s holiday, which is something that I suggested in my book, and I think it’s still very valid to a very real degree. Yes. The pagan trappings are there and yes, the commercial trappings are there, but to a very real degree, Christmas. Bill is inherently the birthday of Jesus. And if Jesus is not your savior, I would suggest that Christmas is not your holiday. And at least for atheists and humanists who feel that way, there should be the freedom to treat Christmas as somebody else’s observance, just the way most of us treat Ramadan as someone else’s observance. 

Absolutely. I mean, I don’t know anybody that would want to make anyone who does want to celebrate Christmas celebrated either. 

It, you know, a full literally forced people to celebrate Christmas. Oh, there it is. 

You should see the people who kind of met on my Facebook page this time of year. 

This is one literally coming in saying you must you must celebrate Christmas. 

You know that there’s something seriously wrong with me that I don’t. And even I mean, even long before Facebook, everyone I first wrote the book back in 93. At that point, I was just looking at the cultural you be equity of Christmas. I mean, how do you get away with it? How do you get away from it? It’s the sort of thing where you and nobody’s really coming to your door and saying you must celebrate. But it’s almost impossible to live a life in this culture that ignores it. And at some point that becomes oppressive. And, yeah, that’s that’s still a problem. It was a problem in 93 and it still is today. 

What kind of things to people speculate might be wrong with you if you don’t celebrate Christmas? 

Oh, they want to know what happened to me in my childhood. They they expect that I was going to have some story about, you know, having been sexually exploited by a department store, Santa Claus or something. 

They actually had a pretty joyous experience of Christmases as a kid, right? 

Oh, yeah. I, I, I loved Christmas. I had a few I had a few little experiences that were disturbing and looked at from a distance. I had one close childhood friend who was a real handful one year and at the age of about six he actually got a lump of coal in his stocking. 

And I read that the rest of my childhood thinking that happened fairly frequently and was kind of amazed to grow up and realize that it almost never happens. 

Only only children with really sadistic parents. Yeah. So what do you say to is Sue just saying? 

Well, you know, I’m not I’m not I’m not doing this for the optics of anyone else. 

I’m just enjoying this. Would you say that crossed the line into being morally wrong? 

Or is it just simply which just kind of self-defeating or eccentric or weird that, you know, it would be very helpful to go further in that inquiry to have a little more empirical evidence. And one of the one of the problems that I touched on this in the book, and it’s still very much the case. There’s a there’s a near Tabu against social science research into the practices of the holiday. It happens occasionally, but you don’t see much of it. But one thing, I think it’s probably difficult to find funding. 

But let’s look at just the Santa Claus myth. Arguably, you could say that for like the last hundred and seventy five years, America has been running the largest child psychology experiment in history. Almost every American child has been a member of the experimental group. There’s no control group. 

No one is keeping track of no randomly assigned control group anyway. 

Yeah, yeah. So it’s a you know, we still have no idea yet. I argue that some aspects of the Santa Claus tradition may be harmful for child development. Others argue that they’re all good. Nobody knows. This is fascinating. Fascinating aspect in Dale McGowan’s book, Parenting Beyond Belief. Dale and I did a point counterpoint and I argued the case that being taught to believe in Santa Claus might predispose young minds to accept huge whoppers about gods and the supernatural when they get older. Dale argued that the experience of learning that the Santa myth was all your parents actually predisposes children to be better skeptic’s later on. But we both admitted that nobody’s nobody’s really studied this. 

Yeah, I mean, there is a big there. As far as I know, there’s no research on that. It’s interesting, though. It is amazing. 

I mean, when you consider when you consider just how ubiquitous the Santa myth is and the enormous emotional impact it has on this vast number of children. And nobody’s figured out whether from a psychological standpoint, it’s not a your nicely. What’s there’s an elephant in the room here. 

There are a lot of flashbulb memories. At the very least, we know that it’s a really emotional experience. People tend to remember, like almost everybody has a story of. The time that they stop believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the tooth fairy, but they realized and I feel like that’s at least a start. But people that it’s I mean, for future research, we don’t know until we do the studies. But it sort of seems to me that that level people have a very accessible emotional experience about the time they first realized that they’d been had. 

I mean, I feel like that’s a good that’s a good thing to have in your emotional repertoire, that it’s not, you know, waiting till high school and losing your money to a pool shark. 

You know, you would you would think so. And I would think that I would love to see some serious research to see whether that experience in late childhood, early adolescence does or doesn’t have an effect on later religious belief formation. It was just because of its ubiquity. If there’s anything about the Santa myth, that’s even a small degree harmful. Well, while we our parents were victims of it, we victims of it. Our kids are going to be victims of it. 

You know, it’ll be really interesting would be to compare urge to study children who grew up in households where Santa is celebrated alongside some other religious tradition. Like a lot of my friends growing up are Jewish and they celebrated both Santa and Hanukkah. And so it was sort of clear by implication that Santa wasn’t real. I wonder what would happen if you compared them psychologically to kids who grew up thinking that Santa was real? By implication. 

Yeah, that would be that would be fascinating. How about. And while we’re at it, we get it. We now have a significant number of a pool of humanist parents who keep the holiday and a more or less traditional way. So you’ve got kids raised in non-religious households who nonetheless the Santa myth is part of their holiday observance. 

I’d love to see a study of kids to come here. I mean, I know there are kids who come here, but we could study them of coming from countries that don’t celebrate any kind of Christian, any kind of Christian observance who are coming and being in culture it into Christmas for the first time and what that does to them. 

Yeah. Yeah, that would be that would be fascinating. I know there has been some there was some study done of Japanese attitudes towards Christmas during and after the American occupation, after the end of World War two. And there were some interesting results that came out of that. Of course, what we’ve seen now is that the Santa myth is enormously popular in Japan. But Christmas did not get exported. Just Santa and the gift giving tradition. 

Santa in tree. Yeah, yeah. 

And it’s not really it’s not really viewed in any serious way as an religious thing at all. 

See, that seems to me like the ideal that we basically I was housing Christmas was celebrated and my house was was Santa and Tree, and it never really had any religious baggage. 

And if I could, that could just propagate outward. That’s kind of Bill O’Reilly’s worst nightmares if everybody celebrates Christmas. They celebrated in China, where there are probably more people that observe Christmas in some way than anywhere else in the world. 

But it’s also the largest, officially and largely culturally, non, non, religiously believing society. 

Right. Right. Of course, the thing is, in America, you have what I called in the book, The Paradox of Christmas. 

And now I talk about it as the stolen valor phenomena that hardly anything about the holiday as Americans celebrate it today is uniquely Christian. 

And yet Christianity is the whole holiday has a Christian aura and everything from pagan aspects of the solstice to Rudolph the red nosed reindeer somehow winds up making a deposit in Christianity’s credit account. And Christianity comes out with all the social cred that they’re seen as in some emotional way having ownership over the last six weeks of each calendar year. 

But is there an argument for express atheist counter protesting and know celebrating the holiday and a way of saying we are not doing it in a Christian way, we’re doing some other some other year end holiday, not solstice, because that has religious connotations of its own, but something like Festivus or some other variant on expressly atheist holiday traditions. 

Oh, all of those things are probably worth exploring, but I have some question as to, you know, how it’s seen. I’ve I’ve seen a lot of Festivus poles that are almost indistinguishable for one of those really bad aluminum artificial trees from back in the 1960s. 

And the well, they’re they’re awesome in their way. 

But if you have if you if you have a Festivus pole in your window and you’ve gone a little or NAIT with it and people riding down the street and their cars are going to look and just see it as a Christmas tree, you haven’t gotten the message across that you’re doing something different. You’re doing something different. But there’s enough ambiguity that most observers will think you’re just one more member of the Christian Army. 

So you’ve been doing this kind of anti evangelism for 30 years now. You must have convinced a lot of people over the years. What kind of experiences do they tell you about when they stop? 

Often they. 

The most consistent thing, and we’re not talking enormous numbers, but, you know, over the years, I’ve heard from probably 150, 200 people who’ve read the book and gone you will free at what I hear from the most consistently is their first few years. They have a lot of anger because they’re conscious for the first time of how just ridiculously ubiquitous Christmases and the culture. And, you know, you can’t go outside to get a half gallon of milk during December without getting hit in the head with Christmas. 

And they’re annoying people like me that start playing the Christmas carols in late November. Oh, oh, oh. 

Lindsay, what will we do with people like you in the privacy of my own home. 

But, you know, OK, OK. But it’s you know, you could be playing them in your car and roll your windows down even though it’s cold. 

But after a few who’s in your neighborhood inflicting Christmas like this. 

But usually these folks, after three or four years, the anger goes away and they just, you know, they’re able to get a greater distance for it from it. But the first year, people go cold turkey, wow. They have a lot of raw nerve endings and they’re really, really conscious of how intrusive the holiday is. Now, one of the weirdest experiences I ever had, One Year the Watchtower Society, Jehovah’s Witnesses, course, they don’t celebrate Christmas and each December one issue of their Watchtower magazine doesn’t article on why Christmas is evil and pagan and what have you. And one year, about 20 years ago, they built their whole article out of quotes from my book. They named me. They named the book. Of course, they cherry picked the quotes so that you’d never know I was an atheist. And the result was there was this huge upsurge in demand from Jehovah’s Witnesses by eg by atheist Christmas myths. 

Did you think Prometheus Prometheus Books had to print a second edition? 

It was it was really hilarious. And years later, I’m giving a talk in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and this young man stands up and tells me his story. He was he was growing up in a witness household and they saw the description of my book, ordered it on Amazon. It got passed from family member to family member with slack jawed disbelief. And about three years after that, they left the witnesses. Most of the family are now atheists and most of them never took up the celebration of Christmas. 

And that was the turning point. 

And that was then. And yes, we have the watchtower to thank for that. 

One more argument that I think is really persuasive about celebrating Christmas. Whether you like the whether you like the metaphysical baggage or not. It’s just that this a time that is set aside for having fun. And we have Americans have so little paid time off and so few vacations that I mean, sure, you can say, oh, well, you know, you can have fun all year round. You don’t need to you don’t need to plan. You don’t have a special day around it. But as a practical matter, especially when you get older, like adults don’t have playdates anymore. We don’t have whole blocks of time that are set off to go to summer camp. That, in a way, the holidays are a scheduled time where everybody is in some version of play mode. And it’s nice to have that coordinated at one particular time of the year, whether it happens to be winter or summer or whenever. 

Well, but I mean, for those of us who live in the northern half of the country, the fact that it happens during winter can be problematic enough. And course, you know, there’s this this kind of funhouse mirror phenomenon century and a half ago or so and Christmas and Thanksgiving have kind of budded off one another as more or less Klown holidays, where you read a lot of the same food and you try and bring scattered family members together for one or the other or both. 

I always see it as giving diners my training dinner for cooking Christmas dinner. You get out of a practice with that kind of stance. 

That’s a good way to do it. Do a better turkey the second time around. 

Absolutely. But, you know, why do we have been doing as a tradition? 

But why do we have this fun day or are these two fun days? Why do we have these reunite the family holidays at a time when travel conditions can be so adverse? And the answer to that is back 150 years ago, winter was the best time to bring scattered family members together over moderate distances. Nobody had farm work. The muddy roads had frozen solid. There was probably snow. If the parents were frozen, you could take shortcuts with your sleigh. That was a really, really good time to schedule medium distance travel. Nowadays, we rely on forms of transportation that don’t do as well in the snow as horses and slaves did in. 

Global warming has made things a lot slushy. 

Well, yeah, well, this is true. This is true. But, you know, I live in Buffalo, New York, and we just had snow and ice and cold temperatures and yeah, it’ll be gone midweek, but it’s still there. 

It’s still a thing. So why don’t we have our adult play holiday in June? 

Excellent idea. And you think about when Jesus was actually born. There’s not a lot of evidence that it was in a winter. It was in winter time. No, there actually was. 

What little evidence there is suggests it was probably in spring because the winters, even in Judea, are cold enough that not a lot of shepherds stay out with their flocks overnight during the winter. That’s something they start to do in the spring when the user bearing they’re young. 

If you were to design an adult play a holiday for the summer months, what would you want it to involve? 

Well, definitely, definitely bringing scattered family members together, because that is, you know, people scattered to the four winds. So that is a wonderful time to bring, you know. I think it’s important to have a time to bring scattered family together. I’d like to see a feeling rationally chosen time, I suppose, feats of strength that airing of grievances would take apart. 

That’s always a good one. I mean, never seems to happen at family gatherings, pretty much regardless. At least in my experience. 

Oh, yeah. And of course, you get you know, now a lot of families have have traditions, are having big family reunions in the summer. But, you know, I think that that aspect of Christmas is just a holdover of the transportation technologies of a hundred and fifty years ago. And maybe it’s time to catch up with the times. 

I would definitely agree with what holidays do you celebrate personally? 

Well, I sell I celebrate the you know, the national holidays, Memorial Day and Fourth of July and Labor Day and such like that. I actually used to do Halloween for a living long, long ago. I was a haunted house designer for a few. You know, way, way. 

Well, that’s all the time we have for today. Thanks so much for coming on the program. 

Well, thank you, Lindsey. And by the way, as we come up to the 25th. 

Happy just another day point of inquiries of production at the Center for Inquiry. Become a member and support the advancement of science and reason by going to center for inquiry dot org slash membership. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.