This is point of inquiry for Thursday, December 25th, 2014.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Nora Hurley producer, a point of inquiry, and this week we have a special bonus episode for the holidays. I’m here with Tom Flynn. He’s the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, director of Inquiry, Media Productions, author, speaker and a. Christmas advocate, which means this week Puli is saying humbug to all things Christmas. Tom, thanks so much for chatting with me.
Oh, thanks so much, Nora. And a big hearty ho ho. Oh, no, no, no.
So this all started 22 years ago when you wrote an article for a secular humanist bulletin titled Confessions of an Anti-gay Laws, which led to you actually writing an entire book about the importance of not celebrating the holidays called The Trouble with Christmas. Now was a.. Claus’s something you were brought up with, or was there a point in your life where you actively realized you should just stop celebrating the holidays for the moment?
I’m just savoring antique lozzi as a verb. This is this is a new direction.
It’s not what you do opposed to.
You know, I had I actually grew up very Catholic, believed everything. I loved Christmas, love getting presence, loved going shopping the whole nine yards. Then towards the end of my high school years, I embarked on what became about a seven year intellectual odyssey during which I gradually became an atheist. So by this point, we’re talking like early 1980s and I passed a few years living as an atheist, but continuing to celebrate Christmas just because it’s what you did. And year by year, it seems stranger to me to be celebrating the birthday of a savior I no longer believed in. So finally, in 1984, I ratcheted up my confidence, has said I’m going to go cold turkey on the holiday and I have not celebrated the holiday in any form since. So no more Christmas turkeys for you. No more Christmas turkeys. We’ll get the same. I get the same turkey at Thanksgiving, but I do. But yeah. So this is this is actually my thirtieth year you’ll free. And basically from 1984 until 1992, life was very sweet. I didn’t have to buy presence or do much of anything in December. I could like live my life and get work done and stuff like that. And then in 1992, I ruined it. I wrote this column is Secular Humanist Bulletin about why I didn’t celebrate Christmas. And you, gentle reader, shouldn’t either. And in the language of a later time, it went viral. I basically spent the entire month of December on the phone talking to radio stations.
Wow. And out of that came a book contract with Prometheus where they gave me way not enough time to write the book. And Trouble With Christmas came out in 1993 and. Well, I read it as history. The rest is history. I’ve been famous or infamous, depending who you ask.
Right. Right. So after doing this for a couple of decades, have you noticed a change in reaction to your arguments? Do people seem less outraged or less shocked in comparison to when you first started in the early 90s?
I think the reactions have become more diverse. There is a lot more interest in the humanist community in doing different kinds of things. The in connection with the winter solstice. There’s been a lot of innovation with alternative holidays, human like. There’s a young man out there doing basically kind of humanist revivals that he calls secular solstice. That’s new just this year. And I think there’s more understanding of religious diversity generally. I mean, the biggest thing I think is when I wrote the book, atheists and humanists were still despised, fairly marginal minority. And there’s been the new Athie ism. There’s been this phenomenal rise in the number of Americans who tell pollsters that they have no religion. So I think there’s a good deal more acceptance for the non-religious. OK. One of the arguments I made in the book has probably been superseded. I argued in the book that being highly visible, not celebrating Christmas, would bring atheists and humanists out of the closet and put them on the map. Right. And, well, I think we got there in other ways. I think there’s still a really good case to be made that we’re passing up some opportunities and perhaps taking the risk of being seen as hypocrites. Right, when so many of us can’t seem to tear ourselves away from someone else’s holiday.
Right. So what you would say that solstice is still there. There’s a trouble as solstice as well, then?
Oh, very much so. Very much so. I mean, for one thing, the solstice is largely a pre-Christian observance. Yes. It’s not Christian.
It’s drawn. So we’re regressing even. It’s not a pagan tradition.
I mean, if we as atheists and humanists are not Christians, we’re not big fans either. Right. How does this recycled pagan observance work for us? And plus, we live in an increasingly global culture and during at the solstice is only work in one. Temperate zone at a time.
That’s true. It’s not it doesn’t have the same communal value that people seem to really like about the holiday spirit. So why are we doing it?
Yeah. Yeah, exactly. You know, we’re trying to do these things on a worldwide scale. And the solstice is obdurately regional.
Right. So I’ve heard your talk and I have to say that really I agree with all of your points. But just me personally, I find myself having a hard time being on the side that’s having less fun. So what do you say to atheists who would say, Tom, it’s just a good time, get your panties out of a bunch?
Well, it’s and people say that, too.
But I think it really comes down to a certain level of seriousness. You know, there’s a problem in the book. I talked about the paradox of Christmas. Hardly anything that goes on in the churches at Christmas time is uniquely Christian. Much of it’s borrowed from earlier traditions. There’s the solstice is. And then we’ve got this huge deposit of commercial and post Christian traditions layered on top of it. But here comes the paradox. Christianity kind of has ownership over all of this. And all these pre-Christian and post Christian and two or three authentically Christian things all come together at the end of the year and they get this big Christian Oura wrapped around them. And Christianity gets the benefit of this sense that Christianity is ubiquitous and everybody’s a Christian at holiday time.
Right. Deep down, we’re all Christian. Yeah.
Yeah. And, you know, the folks on Fox News have a field day with that. And when you can walk by an atheist house or a home in this house and see a Christmas tree in the front window, you think, oh, one more soldier for Jesus. I mean, we know we’re celebrating the solstice, but the people around us don’t know. So we we make ourselves invisible as unbelievers.
Right. And I think that’s really crucial. Speaking of Fox News, do you ever have people target you from the right saying that you are a proponent of the war on Christmas, that they just really find what you do offensive? Or do you not actually come in contact with those people?
I hear amazingly little from them. Interesting. And I think that reflects the fact that the war on Christmas, as Fox News covers, is one that they’re more or less manufacturing. You know, they’ll take innocent stories and stretch them all out of proportion.
I’ve been fighting a war, one man war on Christmas since before there was a Fox News rahad. I think they’re a little scared about the prospect of somebody doing it, right.
Yeah. They don’t want to take you on. You’ve got too many facts on.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I did Glenn Beck once. That was an experience.
That’s great. So since you started. Do you hate Christmas? More or less now. What are your feelings towards Christmas? How is that evolved over time? Oh, I hate it less.
I’ve gotten more mellow in the first few years. I just. Even before I wrote the book. But the first few years that I went. You will free. Yeah. No, I would want to go out and buy a half gallon of milk and I’d get stuck in some traffic jams around the mall and I’d be cursing Christmas. And, you know, eventually with the years I, I mellowed and there’ve been a few other folks who’ve gone cold turkey on the holiday. British columnist names James Cameron, not the guy who makes the movies. Another one who reported the same thing about 15, 20 years ago. You get somewhat more mellow about it. You also get very good at staying away from shopping malls.
Interesting. It says a skill set that you’ve developed.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, the other the other day, I had no choice. I had to take something to the post office and it was like Gallow’s. I was there for 40 minutes. Yeah. Just waiting in line behind all these people with packages. It’s like humbug.
Now you have the trouble with Christmas talks every year, right?
Yeah. Yeah. I go part actually part of my job as executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism is to go around and give talks to local groups. We have about 80 local groups around the country that are members of our affiliated local group program. And one of the things that we do is we help these groups out with occasional stops from national speakers. So each year I’ll take a week or two and pick part of the country where we haven’t been for a few years and surprise, surprise when it’s near year. And trouble with Christmas is my most popular talk.
And I remember you saying that they’re pretty much the same talk, but you try to spice it up a little bit for the people who come every year.
And that made me think.
Do you ever worry that people attending Tom Flynn talks every year, ironically dressed in Christmas sweaters and Santa hats, mall socializing and gathering, much like one does at an actual holiday party, may just become its own holiday within the A. holiday?
I’ve had to adjust to that. And it’s not it’s not just here, actually.
I don’t do this here every year. I do it here every few years. Gotcha. So as you know, most parts of the country, it’s a few years between appearances. But yes, there are. There are actually I mean, Tom Flynn groupies out there, Flinders.
Whatever they are, they make a point of every time I’m coming to do the Christmas talk, they’re there.
They follow you from place to place.
Well, nobody follows me all over the country. I’m not dead, but. Yeah, yeah, no. Yeah, I’ve had people I talk in Cincinnati and I talk and Louisville and a couple of the same people live there. Right. And yeah, I’ve, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that for some in the humanist community, getting together for a Tom Flynn Grynch a thon has become a holiday tradition.
Irony. Yes. Well, thank you so much, Tom. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
But, you know, you need to ask me one more question. What’s that? You need to ask me why I don’t celebrate Christmas.
Why don’t you celebrate Christmas?
Because it’s not the birthday of anyone I know.
There you go. What?
Well, what if, hypothetically, you met someone who was born on Christmas, would you then allow yourself to celebrate it if I told you my birthday was December 25th?
Well, you know, the funny thing is approximately one 360 fifth. The people are born on December 25th. And yet they go to their birthday. But, you know, as far as I know, none of them have saved mankind or anything.
So. Hey. Right. Yeah. Maybe. Maybe some cake. Maybe not presents. Yeah. Okay, I got it.
My wife was born December twenty seventh. And one of the things she loves about living with me is I’m the only person she knows who pays attention to her birthday.
Oh how romantic. All right. Well, this is bad and Tom Flynn. If you haven’t already read it, you should check out his book. The Trouble with Christmas. Thanks again, Tom. Thanks for your.