Penn Jillette: Atheists Need Holidays Too (Bonus Link Love)

festivus-yes-bagels-noTomorrow’s Friday Link Love will feature a discussion on the New York Times about whether atheism is a religion. As a setup to that, Penn Jillette has a book out called Every Day is An Atheist Holiday! Here’s an excerpt, posted on Brain Pickings:

In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll invents the idea of the un-birthday. If we celebrated those we’d have 364 more (in a leap year) un-birthdays than birthdays. Atheists have always had the corner on un-holidays. Christmas, Easter, Good Friday, Ramadan, Rosh Hashanah, the day Tom Cruise had sex with a woman are all holidays in some religion but they’re never a celebration of life. The joy is the exception that proves the rules. It’s the celebration of a joy that we don’t have.

The word ‘holiday’ comes from ‘holy day’ and holy means ‘exalted and worthy of complete devotion.’ By that definition, all days are holy. Life is holy. Atheists have joy every day of the year, every holy day. We have the wonder and glory of life. We have joy in the world before the lord is come. We’re not going for the promise of life after death; we’re celebrating life before death. The smiles of children. The screaming, the bitching, the horrific whining of one’s own children. … Sunsets, rock and roll, bebop, Jell-O, stinky cheese, and offensive jokes.

For atheists, everything in the world is enough and every day is holy. Every day is an atheist holiday. It’s a day that we’re alive.

Once again Jillette lumps religion into the same tired heap of deferred-gratification, sweet by-and-by that bears little resemblance to religion as it’s lived by many, many, many people. Even Christians for whom praying the sinners’ prayer gets you a ticket to heaven are working to fight poverty, human trafficking, and even climate change. But that’s not my point.

Further, the idea that atheists are people who are full of joy and mirth is so over the top as to not warrant much comment. I find them to be just as dour and road-ragey as the rest of us. Except Buddhists. You get the feeling those folks don’t ever drive angry.

Instead, I want to highlight the importance of holidays, for atheists and for everyone.

Of course every day is a gift to be celebrated, whether you are a Christian, a Baha’i, a Pastafarian, or a member of the Church of Christopher Hitchens of Latter-Day Drunks. No less than Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out that in the Jewish/Christian creation tale, God creates the stuff of the universe and calls it all good, but when he creates the Sabbath he calls it holy.

Things are good. Time is holy. Jillette is absolutely right. We have the wonder and glory of life, right now. We need not wait until Christmas or Easter to revel in it.

But the problem is, that kind of wide-eyed wonder is simply not sustainable 365 days of the year. I’m not even sure it would be desirable. Human beings need seasons. We need rhythms and days and times set apart. OK, maybe need is a little strong. But psychologically speaking, holidays are healthy. They serve a worthy purpose.

I respect the heck out of Alain de Botton, atheist philosopher, partly because he approaches both his atheism and the religious life with humility and curiosity. He understands the utility of many aspects of the religious life, including days and seasons for specific purposes. Take it away:

Ms. Tippett: And, I mean, it’s interesting, a couple of other things that you — features of — very religious features of traditions that you also say that atheists and secular society could learn from, like the Day of Atonement in Judaism or the tradition of saints in Roman Catholicism.

Mr. de Botton: Yes. I mean, taking those two, the Day of Atonement, a fascinating moment in the calendar in Judaism where people essentially say sorry to each other and they say sorry against the backdrop of a God who doesn’t make mistakes, but humans who do. You are given license, encouragement, structure to do something which would be mightily hard if you were left to do it on your own like, as I say, saying sorry. It’s much easier to say sorry if everybody is doing it on a particular day because then there’s a sort of cycle of mutual apology and forgiveness which makes the whole thing much more normal. We’re very suspicious of ritual in the nonbelieving world. You know, we think that there shouldn’t really be rituals, that the private life should have its own rhythms and that no one should come in from the outside and say, you know, today we’re going to say sorry and next week we’re going to worship spring and the day after we’re going to think about the qualities of humility in a saint or something. The idea is you should do all this on your own in private. I’m coming around to the view that that’s nice in theory, but the problem is we’ll never get ’round to it.

As someone who practices, thinks about, and writes about Sabbath, let me humbly suggest to Jillette and other atheists that you not let go of holidays. I’ll leave it to you to discern what those might be—and you could have big fun with this by coming up with your own, or just co-opting the religious ones. (We did it first, and turnabout is fair play.)

But this wonderful life that we all live in different ways? Is also a life filled with commutes and grocery lists and sciatica. It gets away from us, all too easily, if we don’t take time to savor it. Holidays help us do that.

8 thoughts on “Penn Jillette: Atheists Need Holidays Too (Bonus Link Love)

  1. NotAScientist

    “atheists that you think about embracing holidays.”

    Most of us do.

    For example…my wife and I celebrate Christmas. Not in the religious sense, but in the secular sense. And since people in the Northern hemisphere seem to have celebrated in a similar way since as far back as we can tell, there’s no reason to stop just because Christianity tries to claim the entire season for themselves.

      1. NotAScientist

        Just remember the simple fact that all ‘atheist’ means is that we don’t believe in a god or gods. Everything else is up for grabs, and we disagree on plenty.

        1. MaryAnn

          Your comments have helped me see that my title was imprecise. Changing it from “atheists need their own holidays” to “atheists need holidays too.”

  2. jillsusan

    More than a few years ago, I attended the North Texas Church of Free Thought with a couple of friends of mine. It was in December and they spent most of the time singing (more like mocking) traditional Christmas carols with the words revised for the free thinkers. It was very off-putting for me. Now, of course, I shouldn’t judge this church on just one Sunday alone, but I never went back. I’m happy to stick with my UUs. I do, however, like “For atheists, everything in the world is enough and every day is holy. Every day is an atheist holiday. It’s a day that we’re alive.” but I’ve heard this sentiment preached in almost, if not all, churches that I’ve ever attended, leaving out the words “atheists.”

  3. bobraxton

    not deism, theism is the belief in one … so what does the “a-” (negation) do as in “a-theism”? Is it simply not-belief? or is it some other number than one — such as the number zero, for example, or perhaps the number two or the number three. I am a philosophy major. I suspect that there are many church people (in theology) who also would shy away from “existence” of “god” or “God” or “Godde” in the sense that as Creator, this (not actually “being”) is un-create and therefore could not “exist” in the sense that we believe we exist. The real question is not do we believe (in God or Godde) but rather does she believe in us. (Compare with the story in the book of Job – God: is Job kidding?!)

  4. Kate Dunn

    I believe rituals and celebrations do offer healing and grace for religious and non-religious folks alike. The weekend after 9/11 my family attended a wedding, and I don’t think anything could have calmed our distress more than insisting on celebrating love and commitment and the blessing of a new family.
    One of the surprising traditions for my family in recent years is a wonderful Christmas party held by dear friends who are atheists, but who love Christmas. Dozens of people, Christian, Jewish, atheist, stand around a tree and sing both secular and religious carols. I know the carols mean something different to me than they may to others in the room, but the fellowship is wonderful. This past year the party took place right after the Newtown massacre, and before the caroling one of the hosts made a short speech essentially saying that our purpose here on earth while we live is to remember the love all around us, honor the dead and “fight like hell for the living.” And then we sang our hearts out. I doubt very much that my friends would consider their atheism a religion, but I know this Christian is grateful to have such good people in her life.

  5. Pingback: Friday Link Love: Science Videos, Memoir Writing, and Gratitude « The Blue Room

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