Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Does an Atheist Life Have Meaning?

            As we come to the beginning of a new year, a time that many people traditionally treat as an opportunity to take stock of their lives, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on what gives our lives meaning.

            One of the theist criticisms of atheism that seems to come up with great frequency is that atheism makes life meaningless. I always find it odd when this criticism is brought up in debates about the existence of gods, since it’s a complete non sequitur. Whether or not a god can give your life meaning has no bearing at all on whether a god exists.

            But I’m not going to go into a detailed discussion on the problems with that line of argument. This post isn’t about that. It’s about how I, as an atheist, deal with the question of meaning in my life. It’s a question that so many people ask themselves in the course of their lives, and one with many see as an obstacle to adopting an atheistic world view: what does my life mean?

            I’ll come right out and say this up front: atheism cannot tell you what your life means. It cannot even tell you that your life has any objective meaning whatsoever. So, if you’re looking to be told what your life means, it’s not going to happen here. For that matter, I’m not even going to tell you what my life means. And it’s not that I’m keeping anything from you, but rather that I can’t tell you what it means.

            The reason for this is fairly simple: meaning is inherently subjective. Nothing in all the world means anything, unless it means something to someone. What’s more, most anything you can think of won’t mean the same thing to everyone, nor will it mean the same thing to you at different points in your life. As far as I can tell, the whole idea of “objective meaning” may very well be nonsense. I’m not even sure that it’s something that’s desirable, especially not for something as complex as a human life. Can you imagine how unutterably dull it would be for the meaning your life to be able to be boiled down to something simple enough to be understood exactly the same way by everyone regardless of their perspective? Isn’t that what an objective meaning would be? I actually find that idea rather bleak and colorless.

            My life, and its meaning, is constantly evolving even just with respect to me. I understand myself differently now than I did last year, which was different from how I understood myself ten years ago. Everyone whose life has touched mine has left some of their influence behind, and taken away some of my influence with them. The meaning of my life will be different for them than it has been for me. The girl to whom I was a lousy boyfriend in high school will assign different meaning to my life than will my son or daughter. I don’t see any reason to want to erase all that different perspective, the rich interplay of how lives affect each other, how meanings interweave throughout our lives, in favor of some idea of “objective meaning” that I can only think cheapens the whole notion of meaning.

            Some argue that the temporary nature of an atheist existence renders all of this ultimately meaningless. To this mindset, only an eternal existence beyond mere materiality has any meaning at all, by virtue of its permanence. I don’t see it. Given eternity, it’s a virtual certainty that eventually all that can be done will be, all meaning that can be mined will be, and then still you’re left existing on and on. That doesn’t seem any more meaningful to me than a temporary existence. Actually, it seems less meaningful to me.

            In this life, I will never learn what “everything means.” And, probably, nobody else will either. But that’s because meaning will be constantly changing, constantly evolving. There are always new meanings for everyone to find, for everyone to create, and yes, for everyone to forget only to be discovered anew by someone further down the line. I want my life to mean something positive to as many people as it can, but I also want it to mean something different to as many people as it can. Meaning is dynamic, subjective, and yes, temporary. In my mind, that’s what makes it beautiful and, not to put too fine a point on it, meaningful.

Friday, December 12, 2014

What War on Christmas?

            I guess I’m a bad little atheist culture warrior. Here it is, mid-December already, and while conservative Christians were already declaring the onset of hostilities all the way back in October, I still haven’t fired a single shot in the War on Christmas. I haven’t demanded that a single church take down its nativity scene, or threated to boycott a store because their greeter or cashier said “Merry Christmas,” to me. I haven’t even vandalized any baby Jesus statues. It’s almost like I’m not fighting the War at all! Why not? Am I just bad at this atheism thing?

            Or am I just like the vast majority of atheists, who aren’t waging a war on Christmas at all? Who do, in fact, find the very notion of such a war absurd? You do know, don’t you, that when Bill O’Reilly announces the War on Christmas every year, the only notice most atheists give to the idea is to make a passing joke? You know that, right?

            The War on Christmas is a joke. Sure, one side (I’ll give you a hint: not the atheists) thinks it’s a real serious thingTM, but to the rest of us, it’s a joke. And it’s not even a “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” kind of joke, where we actively participate in writing it and spreading it. It’s the kind where all we have to do is sit back and watch the one and only side actively participating in their own made-up war stumbling around jousting at shadowy caricatures and taking it all oh-so-seriously. The participants make a joke of themselves, and we laugh.

            “But wait!” you may say, “Atheists really do try to take down nativity scenes, and people really do try to make stores say ‘Happy Holidays,’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas!’”

            You’re right, of course. But these things have nothing to do with a War on Christmas.

            Let’s talk about nativity scenes, to start. This is a straight-up church/state separation issue, and has nothing to do with trying to get rid of Christmas. Any person, business, church, private organization, whatever, has every right to put whatever religious iconography they choose on their private property. You may see an individual atheist here and there getting indignant over them, but by and large we really don’t care. In fact, I happen to like Christmas decorations and fully endorse such displays. When it becomes an issue, when lawsuits get involved, is when nativity scenes are put on public property (by which I mean “property held by the government,” not “property that happens to be in a publicly visible place,”) to the exclusion of all other religious messages. It has nothing to do with Christmas itself, and everything to do with the government endorsing a particular religious belief over all others.

            Moving on, we can talk about store greeters saying “Happy Holidays,” or “Seasons Greetings,” instead of “Merry Christmas.” This is, of course, related to a couple little secrets that are known to only a very select few people, so of course you can be forgiven if you don’t know about them. The first secret is this: there is more than one holiday being celebrated at this time of year (for example: Chanukah, Yule, Solstice, Kwanzaa, New Year, etc.). The second, even more deeply held secret, is that not everybody celebrates Christmas!

It may be appropriate to take a pause here while you pick yourself up off the floor, and to let those two secrets sink in.

            OK now? Are you ready to move on to thinking about the implications? Here are a few of them that you may want to chew over. You see, by and large the greeters and cashiers at the store (especially the big chain ones) don’t know every – or even a large percentage – of the people who come through. They don’t know what holidays you do or do not celebrate. Saying “Merry Christmas,” to a complete stranger who might be, say, Jewish, or Muslim, or Wiccan, or even a Christian of a denomination that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, would be a complete non sequitur. As would be saying “Happy Chanukah” to a Christian. But “Happy Holidays” covers just about everyone (even people who don’t celebrate any of the seasonal holidays, since they’ll probably be getting a holiday off of work at the very least). It even includes Christians. It is not an attempt to erase Christmas, it’s an attempt to include non-Christians in the generally festive atmosphere engendered by having so many seasonal celebrations clustered together.

            I am not saying that “Merry Christmas,” is offensive. I am saying it’s not necessarily an appropriate thing to say to a stranger who might not celebrate it. Especially if it’s not even Christmas Day – and remember, retailers are spreading out the holiday buying season over longer and longer periods of time. If you’re not careful, you’ll be saying “Merry Christmas” to a Jewish person in the middle of Chanukah, three weeks before Christmas, and making yourself (and, by extension, your employer) look like a complete tool. If, like most businesses, your goal is to appeal positively to the widest possible selection of customers, “Happy Holidays,” only makes sense.

            When you demand, on threat of boycott, that stores acknowledge your holiday and only your holiday to the exclusion of everyone else’s (which is what demands for greeters to say “Merry Christmas” amount to), you are not defending your faith from attack. You are demanding that it be privileged above everyone else’s beliefs. That’s not a War on Christmas, it’s a War by Christmas on all other holidays. I’m quite certain there are many Christians who are fully aware of this, and press the war anyway because they believe it is only right and proper for their beliefs to dominate and overshadow all others. But many actually do seem to believe that there is an active effort to destroy or erase their holiday. I want to assure them that this just isn’t so.

            Having discussed those two issues, I’d just like to say a little something about Christmas itself. Most Americans – including many non-Christians – celebrate some version of Christmas. Some of us love the heck out of it. A war on something we celebrate and enjoy would be nonsensical in the extreme. Sure, we may not celebrate for the same reasons Christians do, but here’s the thing: we’re not obligated to. Culturally, Christmas has come to signify family togetherness, and a celebration of love and generosity both within your family and within the wider community. But you’re not obligated to see it that way if you’d rather focus on its religious side. I really can’t stress enough how much it really, really doesn’t bother us if religious people want to celebrate a religious Christmas. It’s the constant demands that people who don’t share your beliefs behave as if they do, and that their own beliefs are and ought to be invisible, that prompts the kinds of pushback you receive.

            In the end, secular America is not trying to take Christmas away from you. We’re not trying to tell you that you can’t have Christ in your Christmas. You can have your pageants, and your extra church services, and your nativity displays, and none of us have much to say about it other than “enjoy!” In the meantime, I will celebrate my Christmas how I choose, and I will happily wish everyone the greatest possible enjoyment of whatever version of whatever holiday they happen to be celebrating this time of year.

            Happy Holidays!