December 16, 2018
Leonard Hitchcock

With no intention of dampening holiday spirits, I feel I must point out that Christmas is, arguably, illegal.

That is to say, it is probably unconstitutional, given a strict reading of the First Amendment’s so-called “establishment clause.” That clause prohibits the government from showing favoritism toward any particular religion or sect thereof. Some of the original colonies had instituted “established,” i.e. state-supported churches, and it was generally agreed by the Founders that that was a bad idea, so they forbade the government from becoming entangled with religion in any way.

Yet Christmas and Thanksgiving are both national holidays that recognize and honor Christianity and its adherents, and there are a number of state governments that go further by making Good Friday and other Christian events state holidays. At the same time, there are no holidays that honor and facilitate the religious practices of Muslims, Hindus, Jews or Buddhists or any number of indigenous Native American tribes, or hundreds of lesser-known religions.

As a consequence, U.S. citizens who happen to be adherents of non-Christian faiths must, for many of their sacred occasions, take a day off work, and have their children miss a day of school, in order to perform whatever religious observances their religion directs them to. Christmas itself discriminates against some Christians, for there are Eastern Orthodox believers who do not celebrate the birth of Christ on Dec. 25.

Evidently, then, the currently-observed Christian holidays constitute preferential treatment of one religious tradition and short shrift for all the others, and are in violation of the establishment clause.

But Christmas transgresses the establishment clause not merely because it shows bias in favor of one religion, and thereby denigrates all others. The U.S. Supreme Court, in its decisions regarding the establishment clause issues (for example, in Engle v. Vitale, 1962) has made it clear that the clause forbids the government to promote religion in even a generic sense. In other words, those of us who are avowed atheists and agnostics — as well as all those who regard religion as nonsensical but are less forthright about it — are protected by our Constitution from any government act which implies that it’s better to be religious than not to be religious.

How then is the existing, unconstitutional partiality of the government toward Christianity, as exemplified by its national and state holidays, to be remedied? Equal treatment of all other religions might be one way, though once one looks at the list of special days recognized by each of the world’s religions, it’s apparent that making any substantial proportion of them into holidays would leave few work-days in the year in which to accomplish what needs to be done.

I personally would feel adequately appeased if the government chose to gave me and those who are of my opinion a holiday of our own — a day on which our right to reject religious doctrines of all descriptions would be recognized.

To call such a holiday “Non-believers’ Day,” might seem appropriate, but that would define us by what we are not, and implicitly call attention to our minority status. “The Day of the Non-Deluded” has a nice ring to it, but is still negative. Perhaps “Face the Facts Day” would work. That would at least suggest that we believe in something, and indeed we do, viz. the world as revealed by science.

No doubt people would be curious about what we non-believers would do on our special day. The pious public might well anticipate a day devoted to mocking and deriding religious beliefs and engaging in the dissipation to which the irreligious are prone.

I would hope that we would do quite the opposite: devote the day to thinking deeply about, and confronting honestly, what we know of the state of the world and our own nature, and the problems we face.

It would not be a day devoted to propitiating imaginary gods and nurturing the illusion that we are semi-divine creatures destined to live forever in the golden halls of paradise. It would, instead, be a day to acknowledge that we humans, while clearly the most intelligent of animals, are indeed animals, and possess traits that have made us — in part because of our intelligence — exceptionally destructive.

It would be a day to remind ourselves that humans have no divinely-assigned purpose or function, no supernatural endowment, no fate other than that which awaits all living things, and no moral code handed down from above, and therefore that how we treat each other and the other creatures with whom we share this world, is entirely up to us.

Though we discovered that useful rule about “doing unto others as we would have them do unto us,” we have been unable to follow that rule with much consistency within our own species, and largely failed to realize that those “others” must include all our fellow creatures. We have, as a result, already wiped out a great many of the astonishingly diverse and beautiful life forms that have evolved alongside us, and are on the verge of making the planet all but uninhabitable for the rest.

I think that a day in which to contemplate this situation would be most useful.

And what day of the year then would be appropriate for our holiday? I suggest Feb. 15. That is the birth date of Galileo Galilei, the scientist who correctly insisted that he had established an astronomical fact that exposed a religious fiction. Surely that was a precedent that deserves a commemorative holiday of some sort.

Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is an alumnus of the University of Iowa and did graduate work at Claremont Graduate University and the University of California, San Diego. He taught philosophy in California and Arizona for 15 years. In 1985, after earning a library degree, he was hired by Idaho State University. He retired from ISU’s Oboler Library in 2006.

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