Devolve Your Beliefs
At festive Winter Solstice Luncheons across the country, determined atheists are gathering to celebrate one of the oldest and most superstitious holidays of human history. As speakers present lectures on the history of Solstice celebrations, participants give and receive Winter Solstice Cards. These vary little from the general theme of my favorite card, which depicts Charles Darwin as Santa Claus on the front. Apparently, Darwin is the Patron Saint of Solstice. Inside, it reads simply:
evolve your beliefs.
CELEBRATE WINTER SOLSTICE
Yes, Solstice is here, that most wonderful time when atheists and humanists gather together "to give meaning to the shortest day of the year." Why? According to the nicely alliterative Humanists of Huston, "It makes sense to celebrate human compassion, friendship, and family periodically. It also makes sense to do this during the coldest part of the year, given that weather effects [sic] our mood! Furthermore, by attaching our celebration to the winter solstice, we follow a long tradition while signifying our appreciation of the natural universe." (emphasis added)
Ah, now we have it -- appreciation of the natural universe. If you're still scratching your head at this point, let's return to the origins of the modern Winter Solstice celebration, starting with the Queen Mother of American atheists, Madalyn Murray O'Hair.
O'Hair had an issue with... well, a lot of things, most famously prayer in schools, but also Christmas and the way it was celebrated in American society. In a 1968 radio broadcast, O'Hair aired her grievances against Christmas. In her words,
Someone stole something from me. I don't like it. What was stolen from me -- and from you -- was one of the most beautiful holidays in the world.
O'Hair went on to quote from a late 19th century American atheist, Robert Ingersoll, who proclaimed Winter Solstice as "the good part of Christmas," which "is generally Pagan; that is to say, human and natural."
For Ingersoll and others, "the most natural of all religions is the worship of the sun," which makes it superior to Christianity, or any other religion which has a major observance in this season.
For O'Hair, the Christian celebration of Christmas was most detestable because it took the solstice celebration of light triumphing over darkness and "stole the most beautiful holiday of the year -- and for what?... a god of a horrible, punitive, new religion called Christianity."
The solution for O'Hair and many other atheists is simple: reclaim their Pagan heritage. That Paganism involves spiritual belief which would otherwise be anathema to most modern, enlightened atheists doesn't seem to matter.
And so at these festive Winter Solstice gatherings across the country, fringe atheists are returning to their Pagan roots. The rather ordinary passage of the darkest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere has become a special focal point for atheists because it makes them more mindful of how humanity is "very much a part of the natural world." No word yet on whether they have plans to celebrate sunrise and sunset in the same way.
Whether or not this is what Sam Harris and others had in mind when they admonished the new atheists to find some way of exploring and respecting spirituality, the truth is that they have been left with an alternative of nature worship which closely resembles the superstition and ritualism of the ancients.
Just take a look at the annual Winter Solstice concert held in New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Supposedly "the only non-religious event" held regularly in that sacred space, the program's musical and visual climax is the ascent of the giant sun-god in full costume.
What does Darwin have to do with all this? According to Andrew Shaffer, the man behind the rather cheeky "Order of St. Nick" greeting cards, a diverse group of people celebrate Winter Solstice: atheists, agnostics, wiccans, and pagans. (It's worth noting that the "Darwin Atheist Holiday Card" is their #1 seller and endorsed by none other than P. Z. Myers.) He sees the Darwin cards as obviously "atheistic" -- no surprise, given the theme of rejecting Christmas in favor of "evolved" beliefs -- but what he doesn't seem to see is how similar the different sub-populations of his customers are. In rejecting the Christian holiday, atheists who refuse to be "cultural Christians" a la Richard Dawkins are not progressing toward a more reasoned, enlightened holiday celebration, but are unwittingly defaulting to what was historically the most scientifically ignorant and superstitious belief system possible.
Ironically, as many atheists center their celebrations around the natural order of the sun and the Earth's orbit, they see the evidence for the improbability of our existence -- specifically, of our planet's relative position to the sun, and also to the moon. When astronomer and design proponent Guillermo Gonzalez saw his first solar eclipse, he was inspired to investigate the case for cosmological design. In stark contrast to Gonzalez's scientific quest, the American Atheists explain on their website that they
...reflect upon our astronomical uniqueness. We appear to be alone, in a universe devoid of plan or purpose. There is no cosmic intelligence that counts how many rides we complete on the merry-go-round whose axle is the sun... [we celebrate] the human species -- the only species known that can understand and appreciate the implausibility of its own existence.
Welcome to the new paganism of Winter Solstice, where it's always winter and never Christmas.