How the Secularists Changed their Anti-Christmas Tactics

One of the books reviewed in this month’s Fortean Times is a pamphlet from the British National Secular Society entitled How the Christians Stole Christmas. The Fortean Times covered it with the brief comment ‘for Grinches everywhere’ before moving on to the next book about the weird, wonderful and academically disreputable. Not having read the pamphlet, I can’t say for sure, but it looks like the National Secular Society are recycling the old arguments that Christmas was really an ancient Pagan feast that the Christians took over and rebranded. The arguments have been tackled and refuted before, but unfortunately they still reappear.

Now this pamphlet seems to mark a slight change of tactic amongst militant secularists towards Christmas. A few years ago they tried to have Christmas banned or secularised using a far more direct approach by arguing that it unfairly privileged Christianity and was offensive to people from non-Christian backgrounds. The kind of tactics used by militant American secularists and atheists in their campaigns against the festival and other kinds of public religious observance or symbolism. Possibly having realised that attacking the holiday itself makes them look like complete killjoys, they’ve changed their tactic to alleging that Christmas really isn’t a Christian festival at all, with the implication that they’re going to be the good guys for reclaiming it from Christianity.

Well the old tactic – of a direct attack on Christmas – did leave some of them looking rather foolish in public indeed. 10 years ago Howard Jacobson in his column in the British newspaper, The Independent, commented on the campaign by an elderly lady to have the public celebration of Christmas banned because, as an active member of one of the country’s main atheist or secularist societies, she considered that the state celebration of Christmas deprived her and others like her of her human rights. From what I remember of Jacobson’s article, she also had a sideline in blasphemous anti-Christmas cards. So despite viewing her action as a blow for tolerance, it’s very moot whether she was actually very tolerant herself.

Jacobson wasn’t impressed, and argued in his column that action by the state to outlaw the public celebration of religious festivals was an infringement of the freedom of conscience of those who did want to celebrate their faith publicly. This provoked an angry response from the lady in question. She naturally wasn’t amused by the way he presented her and her campaign, and accused him of the same intolerance she felt was being exhibited towards her and her fellow atheists by the British state. Indeed, she even went as far as to call him a Nazi.

Not a good idea: Jacobson is very, very far from being a Nazi. Indeed, he’s the very type of person they did their best to wipe out.

Although Jacobson didn’t mention it in his next column replying to the lady’s angry rebuttal of his first piece, Jacobson himself is Jewish. Indeed, I got the impression that the contemporary Jewish experience was a strong feature of his novels, though the other impression I had of them is that they were largely about sexual angst and the kind of pre- and extra-marital shenanigans that would definitely have headmasters around the world taking a dim view of them should one of their pupils be caught reading one. It’s also a good question how religious Jacobson actually is. Back in 1992 he published a novel, The Very Model of a Man, about Cain taking up residence in Babel to build the notorious tower. It was hardly a faithful retelling of the Biblical story, parodying the Biblical narrative and including some incidents which would shock some Jews and Christians, such as the Lord becoming infatuated with Eve and attempted angelic rape. As this was the time when the campaigns against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was at highest, Private Eye ended its review of The Very Model of a Man by hoping that, if Orthodox Judaism reacted towards the book like Islam had towards Rushdie, Jacobson had booked his place at the same remote hotel with a couple of bodyguards from Special Branch. It actually says something about British Judaism and Christianity that Jews and Christians didn’t react with outrage. I don’t know what kind of letters Jacobson got about the book, but if there were massed crowds marching up and down demanding his execution and burning copies of the book, I must have missed them. Perhaps it all happened during a commercial break, or had to be called off because the football was on instead.

So, Jacobson isn’t a Christian, and may not even be religious. He certainly wasn’t averse to parodying religion. It does seem very much that when he wrote defending the public celebration of Christmas, he was sincerely acting from his stated belief that by trying to ban it, the secularists were infringing other people’s human rights by forcing their antipathy to religious festivals on others. His article made this last point very clear. He was suspicious of such people who insisted on their human rights in these instances, as they took no notice of other people’s.

11 Responses to “How the Secularists Changed their Anti-Christmas Tactics”

  1. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    I can’t say for sure, but it looks like the National Secular Society are recycling the old arguments that Christmas was really an ancient Pagan feast that the Christians took over and rebranded. The arguments have been tackled and refuted before, but unfortunately they still reappear.

    I have some commentary on this old saw that a winter festival, or Saturnali from Rome, or earth children or whatnot (the story varies on who’s doing the slam) being primarily responsible for the dating of what we today call Christmas, but I’ll have to verify and note my sources better before I post.

    Will get back on this issue just in time for ……The Winter Solistace Festival.

    Just kidding. But I will get back before Christmas on this one.

    So cheers and nog and figgy pudding on that.

    Two other housecleaning issues of cobwebs in my head, Beast.

    First, I think you might have misinterpreted one of the quotes by Hitchens and Brooks. Mencken and Clarke and Roddenberry don’t have all their ducks in a row–true. Same for Mark Twain thinking heaven is like listening to a teacher drone on in Sunday School. But how do we assess God’s influence in our lives via faith??????

    After all, the Hitchens and Brooks Doubter sites and quotes are saying that things without absolute proof need no be bothered with. So we are back to the issue of the Unknown or unknowable being used to explain the Known from a cosmological or teleological point of reference. Which does sound absurdist at first glance.

    Second, as to that other Darwinian critique of us Christians, or from scientists claiming we are little but ignorant cornpones and clodcickers whose simpleton minds can’t grasp hard topics, the common issue of “picking” science apart like some Persian Bazaar might have also been misunderstood by you. Obviously you’ll find bad philosophy in science and those making some pitch by going to the past and picking what they like and leaving the gods behind. You point out Sagan did this. Gould does it to invoking Biblical imperitives to love mankind,etc.

    HOwever, what my interlocutor was arguing was actually that we Chrisitans should not get hot under the collar about evolution or Richard Dawkins or any current interpretation of science as it relates to biology or say “God did X” when we don’t invoke, say, the Angel of Death for killing a bacteria culture (when antibiotics did the deed, actually) or be OK with modern airline transport and packaged food and improved medicine on the one hand but disdain our evolotionary origins on the other because they tell us some alienating and pointless direction we care not to hear..

    THus we’re hypocrits.

  2. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Wakefield – thanks for the comment about Christmas being lifted from a pagan festival. As far as I can see, it isn’t, and the evidence for it is actually very tenuous. I’ll look forward to seeing what you have to say about it.

    As for your scientific interlocutor considering Christians to be hypocrites because some Christians reject evolution while accepting the benefits of science, and not believing that the angel of death kills bacterial cultures, there are several things that can be said about that.

    Firstly, it’s been my experience that a lot of militant atheists have a far more literal approach to the Bible than most Jews or Christians. I’ve had the same comment about Christians not really believing in the Bible made to me during a debate by an atheist who really couldn’t understand why Christians didn’t keep the Old Testament Law. They really hadn’t had it explained to them that Christians don’t keep the Mosaic Law because Christ is the consummation of the Law, not because we arbitrarily decided not to keep it. Your interlocutor has avoided this theological pitfall, but has adopted much the same hyperliteralist, it’s-either-all-of-science-or-all-of-religion attitude.

    However, modern science has its roots in Chrisianity, and the radical disenchantment of nature through monotheism. R. Hooykaas in his book Religion and the Rise of Modern Scienc points out that western science arose in the 17th century partly because Christianity saw the world very much as a creation separate from the Creator, in the same way machines were the separate creation of their manufacturers. Thus rather than nature being the product of innate, arbitrary gods, it was the product of one God, who ordered the universe through law. So nature could be rationally investigated, analysed and predicted. However, theology also has the proviso that God is also present and working through creation, so there isn’t any contrdiction in seeing the death of a bacterial culture through antibiotics, rather than the angel of death. Moreover, in explaining the world, the ancient Hebrews weren’t particularly interested in how God produced certain phenomena, such as various plagues, only that these phenomena ultimately had their origin in the will of the Almighty.

    What makes evolution, or certain forms of evolution, unacceptable is that it attempts to make God redundant and remove the source of order and creation from the world, so that it becomes simply the product of chance. There is thus a profound conflict with the theistic worldview. Now Christianity and the other monotheisms, as well as most other religions stress the importance of healing, and Christians have been present in the history of medicine expanding and developing it. This concern for healing is part of a general pattern of concern for human dignity and wellbeing. While Dawkins and the others might suggest that an evolutionary approach to medicine may allow a better and more effective approach to disease, by reducing humanity to a chance event without any meaning atheist evolutionism acts against human dignity.

    Thus Christians aren’t hypocrites for embracing some scientific advances, while viewing other developments with suspicion.

  3. mattghg Says:

    be OK with modern airline transport and packaged food and improved medicine on the one hand but disdain our evolotionary origins on the other because they tell us some alienating and pointless direction we care not to hear

    Makes an excellent point, but not the one your interlocutor intended. Take airline transport. The principles of aerodynamics are being constantly confirmed every time a flight planned under those principles is successful. But “our evolutionary origins”? No-one’s producing new species in the lab using Darwinian principles as far as I’m aware. Some science tells us what does happen and is confirmed by experiment when its predictions are accurate. But science that tries to tell us what has happened is on different ground.

    The whole “take it or leave it, and when I say ‘it’ I mean everything” line is a bit silly, anyway. I’d suggest the ability to agree with a group of people on some things but disagree on others is one sign of intellectual maturity. We don’t take this “all or nothing” approach with politicians… or priests, for that matter.

  4. mattghg Says:

    Sorry to go off topic, BR. As to that, I think the secularist zealots are dreaming of the day when everyone celebrates Christmas but hardly anyone remembers it was ever about Christ. Already there are big posters up in my town with the slogan: “Remember what Christmas is all about… ‘Yeah, Santa’s birthday’ (Bart Simpson)”. Hahaha.

    I wonder if it would be relevant in this context to comment on Dawkins saying he’s a “cultural Christian” and how he likes singing carols (Frank Walton just blogged on that).

    Oh, and a very Merry Christmas to you and all your readers.

  5. Rich Says:

    Mattghg. I presume you don’t get vaccinated against things on principle.

  6. mattghg Says:


  7. Rich Says:

    Vaccinations depend heavily on evolutionary theory. If bird flu comes your way you’ll be a believer pretty quickly. Also, some of the Hi-tech things you use have had Genetic Algorithms used in their design, so the charge of hypocrisy is warranted, I think.

  8. mattghg Says:


    No-one denies that evolutionary theory can explain some things, like how populations of viruses and bacteria adapt to selection pressures. But I don’t see a seamless logical connection between this and believing that it explains everything that’s been claimed on its behalf, up to “our evolutionary origins”.

    Vaccinations fall under my category of “science telling us what does happen” because their effect has been demonstrated in the lab and in field conditions. But, I repeat, speciation has not been shown happening under those conditions. So I choose to remain sceptical until someone can show me that seamless connection I was talking about. How is that hypocritical?

  9. Rich Says:


    I know these off by heart now.

    Evo-devo isn’t complete and is under constant revision as we learn and test more. But that’s how science works. Come up with a better, more predictive hypothesis and we’ll overturn whatever it is you’ve just superseded. Einstein didn’t say:

    “Newton sucks and his work has some problems, so let’s discard it”

    He had a theory of his own…

  10. mattghg Says:

    Well, you’ve just changed the subject. I’m not getting involved in that debate, 😉

  11. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Happy Holidays!

    More to ponder around the Yule Log: Christmas– A Pagan Festivals brings the Season’s Greetings?
    Sol Invictus (“the Unconquered Sun”)?

    The Feasts of Saturnalia and other Roman orgiastic “rites of passage”?

    Celtic winter solstice festivals to mark the arrival of the turning of the Sun from Darkness to Light?

    Turns out this is in all probability, not “The Reason for the Season” any more than the sitcom Seinfeld‘s George Castanza’s phony and laughable “Festivus” Pole holiday.

    Certainly, according to some relatively new research, the Season DOES have paganistic style ELEMENTS infused within (like Holly and Ivy mistletoe, earth goddess stuff inculcated as the Christmas tree, and other harmless notables of fun, as with Halloween et al), but this is not the same thing as the very common claim of saying that Christmas ITSELF is “Pagan” in origin. Apparently–so far–nothing is farther from the truth. The early Church fathers may have compromised many things and may even have conveniently wed pagan ritual to an already extant observance in order to encourage the participation of disparate former pagans to merge with their festive occasions to chase away the darkness(and this might make a good cause celebre’!)—-but Christmas is NOT pagan in origin any more than rooster’s crowing makes the Sun come up. (The fact that the two events are generally seen hand-in-hand is not indicative of roosters making the Sun come up) Likewise, we see in history many cultures have Winter as well as other change of season festivities and celebrations including the equinoxes in honor of gods who bring in new life to the earth and other noteworthy changes, etc.

    Turns out, the pagans, who’ve gained in popularity over the years (but these arguments have actually been around quite awhile regarding the supposed pagan origins of what the West calls Christmas), are in the wrong. Yet again.

    I’ll get back to the other things the pagans are wrong about later. Too much to cover there, but suffice it to say that whether one is calling oneself a Wiccan high priestess or other practitioner of Old Things (mostly teen girls seeking power, recognition, and self-fulfillment), it seems that modern “Paganism” as practiced by the latest generation of Westerners has little connection with or continuity from or linkage to the historical types found in the Old World continent of Celtic and witch-healer and druid type legends of older times. Except a vague set of contradictory rules about nature and treatment of other life forms and polytheistic or animistic elements. Most probably, according to many researchers, this can kindly be called a malarkey movement. Utter nonsense with the exception of certain ritualistic sayings and methodologies with a mix of new fangled “Magick” thrown in by mystic thinkers from the 19th and 20th centuries.

    (I had been asked to do a guest article that I never got around to for another site detailing many of these Pagan claims about both Christmas origins and other items on their handy “accomplishment” lists, so perhaps I’ll get around to that some other time….)

    For now, please see the following link, by William J. Tighe on the actual Story Behind December 25.

    While not part of accepted canonical Scripture, ancient Jewish writings detail the notions of what is called an “Integral Age.” While not generally taken as accurate about the actual birthdate of Christ, which has been explained variously as probably being either in fall or spring (the theories having to do with lambing in the field , the census, and other activities), this nevertheless is CUSTOM from the ancient JEWISH world as regards their prophets (and Christ would have qualified as one also, in addition to His other attributes!) as interpreted by early Jews (who converted) and Christians and THEN later by Church fathers in trying to “rightsize” historical events in line with tradition at the time. Thus, even if (most probably) an incorrect assignment of date, it certainly cannot be part of paganistic ritual or tradition to have December 25 assigned for the celebration we have today.

    Just happens to fall in line with their time of the year to romp. Like many other things we think we see, history is never so simple.

    Interesting, eh? Good tidings to all!

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