An Atheist’s Proposal
I saw this video, earlier, and it reminded me of something I’d thought for a long time:
For those of you at work, the link is to Steve Martin singing “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.” Which is true. I’ve often lamented that while I love to sing hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Lord of the Dance,” and, my personal favorite, “One in the Spirit,” there are no equivalent atheist songs. Or rituals. Or (and this is important) holidays.
Yes, I know, I can hear you now. “But aren’t we atheists because we don’t believe in holy-ness, or really, much of anything?” And I say, yes, you’re very clever. Have a cookie.
But I think we should. I think we take a few days and declare them, more or less unanimously, our holidays.
As any atheist can tell you, we’re the Rodney Dangerfield’s of the “beliefs” world- we don’t get no respect. There is something about professing a belief in no god, as opposed to a belief in some other god- that brings out the theologian in even the most casual religious believers. I’ve noticed also that among those people who actively proselytize, there is a great deal more comfort in approaching an atheist than in approaching a professed Muslim or Hindu.
This all, I think, ties into the question of legitimacy. This can be clearly seen in George H. W. Bush’s comment that atheists are not really citizens. Even in this Islamophobic day and age, it is impossible to imagine a similar comment being made about Muslims. And any such unprovoked attack on most other religious minorities would be met with incredulity, scorn, and probably an immediate apology. Think of a President saying “no Sikh is a real American citizen,” and imagine the response. (Admittedly, the anger would probably come after a bit of frantic, nationwide googling, but still.)
Part of this is because when you’re an atheist, being a formal, declared whatever doesn’t really matter. I mean, that’s really the freakin’ point, innit? We don’t believe in woo, we don’t pray to woo, we don’t have a big party on some day when we thing the woo did something cool. We just go about our freaking lives, do our thing, and try to have a good time, right? But, on the other hand, I think I’ve come up with five good reasons why we should.
First, the emotional appeal. Whatever else they may be, religious beliefs, or the lack thereof, are an important part of who we are as people and as a species. And religion and science have at least something in common, and were born of the same fundamental and amazing human characteristic- we want to know. The point at which we became human, if not genetically, than at least in function, was when some guy on the savannah looked up at the stars, and around at the world in all its strange and inexplicable beauty and said “So….what’s going on here, huh?” Most atheists are, at the core, skeptics and investigators, people who are determined to ferret out the truth wherever she hides. This is an impulse that is beautiful and should be celebrated.
Second- we are legitimate people. We have a belief in common, and there are a lot of us. Being a Christian is as simple as believing that Jesus Christ was/is lord and savior of all human beings. Being a Muslim is as simple as saying “there is one god and Muhammad is his prophet” And being an atheist is as simple as saying “there is no god at all.” We have as much right to a unique and celebrated identity as any other granfalloon.
Third- respect. Beliefs, to gain traction and acceptance, need to have at least some legitimacy, and some demonstrable, recognizable symbols, songs, images- in short, some freakin’ marketing. We want to be recognized as legitimate people with legitimate beliefs that should be given the same legitimate recognition as any other belief, and too that end, the trapping and suits of organization are very useful. Actually, that is probably the most important qualifier- an “organized” religion gains legitimacy simply through that modifier. It is how we know that the Methodists are different in degree, if not in kind, from David Koresh.
Four- what, you wouldn’t love to be able to tell your boss “Sorry, can’t come into work tomorrow. It’s no-god-mas and I’ve got to wrap presents for the kids?”
Fifth, and most importantly- holidays build community, and people need holidays. We need an excuse to celebrate, and a few days a year when we remember what, and who is important to us. When we share who we are and what we feel with the world at large. Holidays remind us of important things as well- charity and giving lie at the heart of Christmas, atonement at the heart of Yom Kippur. And, as a former Christian, there is something lovely about seeing other people sharing your faith, celebrating and rejoicing the same thing, for the same reasons. Our differences are set aside as we remember who we are.
So then- what holidays should we have, and why should we have them this way? Well, to probably put too fine a point on things, holidays celebrate all sorts of shit. But generally speaking, holidays of all type fall into two big catagories= celebration and sorrow. July Fourth, Easter and Channukah are celebration, while Memorial Day, Good Friday, and Yom Kippur are sorrow. So we need at least two holidays- the day where we all get together and party, and the day of remembering our own and the world’s flaws.
For the first, a celebratory day of feasting, I have several ideas. The first is simple- May 21st, the day Harold Camping and his friends were not raptured. It is simple, and already has high name recognition. However, after thinking of it, I don’t like it. It feels less like “this is a day to celebrate who I am and what I believe with the people I care about” and more like “Haha! Stupid Jesus People!” And even more- it is both defining ourselves in juxtaposition to a religious belief, and it is doing exactly what Christians started out doing- piggybacking their beliefs on days that already had something going on, to make the transition easier.
So, the first and most logical choice is a notable birthday- Darwin is the easy choice, but a little too easy. So is Gandhi. While both were amazing men who deserve celebration, it would be nice to take this opportunity to recognize some other notable atheists who did great things.
Along those lines, here are my suggestions-
21st of March- Zackie Achmat’s birthday. An incredible South African activist who has and tirelessly for LGBT rights and many, many other causes. And he’s still alive- we don’t believe in an afterlife, so we need to recognize great people while they’re still around.
25th July- Rosalind Franklin’s Birthday. The woman who got screwed out of the credit for discovering DNA.
December 26th -Baba Amte’s birthday. An Indian activist who worked tirelessly to help lepers.
11 March- Douglas Adam’s birthday. If I have to explain this one, you’re reading the wrong damn thing.
21 June- Sartre’s birthday. Notable, at least for me, because he did more than anyone to help me clarify how one is good outside of a religious framework.
December 16th. Santayana’s birthday. Another wonderful, and hugely influential, atheist philosopher.
18 May- Bertrand Russell’s birthday.
My personal vote will probably go to 28th July- Karl Popper’s birthday. The man almost single-handedly invented the modern scientific method.
And we also need holidays to remember. Frankly, I think the best idea behind a holiday is Yom Kippur- a day of atonement, of reconciliation and compensation. A day where you make things right. A day where you are reminded that you, like everyone else in the world, has messed up, needs to acknowledge your mistakes and make them right.
To that end I suggest September 23d, the day the Mars Climate Orbiter crashed into Mars because one group was using metric and one was using imperial. It reminds us that for all our care and work, we can fuck up as badly as anyone. Perhaps we can have ritualized readings of scientific papers about the “ether” through which light travels, or the works of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.
So that’s my proposal. Not a “But Thou Must,” but something fun and unifying- our very own little cultural marker. A day or two when we can fly OUR flag, put up OUR decorations, and know that all across the world, there are people who don’t believe in the same thing doing the same thing on the same day for the same reasons. We spend much of our time alone, as atheists. We are cut out of many aspects of modern life, and often find ourselves unexpectedly ostracized. The moment where everyone else begins to pray before dinner, the sudden reference to religion in a place far outside where it belongs-all these things serve to separate us out from the well of humanity- a distinct point where our differences are singled out in a way that they are not for people of faith.
And of course, there is always Atheist Pride Week. Which I think is great idea, but also disparate from what I’m suggesting. A pride week suggests an activism, a raising of awareness, as well as celebration. A sort of “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” What I want is something like the Atheist Christmas, a day about simply being a peaceful atheist. A day to remember where we came from, and what we don’t believe. A day to simply be at peace with ourselves and the ones we loved. A day to share in peace. Also, a week is usually too long to get off work. (Hey, we atheists are first and foremost a PRACTICAL people.)
So, I’d like to hear from you guys- dates you think it should be on. Other holidays we need. And the trimmings! There’s no point to Christmas without a tree, so what should we use? (I favor small, noninvasive shrubberies myself.) What songs should we sing around the symbols? What should become our traditional Atheist Day foods? What should we call these holidays that sounds cooler that Atheist Day?
And finally, please understand- I’m not saying this because I think we need a structure, or because we all agree. We’re a big group encompassing every possible political belief and tone of skin. But once in a while, it’s nice to set the ’me’ aside and celebrate a greater ‘us.’ Once in a while, its nice to have a holiday.