Secular Celebrations Have to Suck in the Modern World

I’ve occasionally seen atheists who crow about how Christmas is a secular holiday as well as a religious one. This has always struck me as odd because the secular celebration of Christmas is awful and has been for a while. C.S. Lewis has an essay about it, and he died in 1963. Why (some) atheists are proud about something that people start complaining about in late November, I don’t know.

But thinking about it, it occurred to me that in the modern world, or at least the modern (rich) west, secular celebrations have to suck. This is because they literally can’t be about anything. Let me explain.

Traditionally, festivities were used to make real (by experience of pleasure) the hidden reality being celebrated. Whether it’s the glory of something in the past, the glory of something recurrent, or the goodness of God, people would eat foods they couldn’t always eat and play games they couldn’t always play to feel the reality of the goodness being celebrated.

The modern west, however, so totally indulges all of its senses that this is no longer possible. Even the few people who don’t eat a diet which is primarily candy (mostly in the form of candied foods), they have access to a rich variety of delicious foods. It’s very common that special meals are things like Turkey, Ham, and other stuff which was once sumptuous but is not generally the worst meal you’ll have all month.

People would decorate to please the eyes, but with modern printing, TV, phones, etc. we look at bright colors and pretty images all day long. Looking at the same decorations for a few hours is a sensory downgrade from normal.

People used to use expensive perfumes to stimulate the senses, but perfumes have become so cheap that they’re everywhere. Scented candles would be a dime a dozen except for inflation.

People would sing songs and play music to stimulate the ears; we listen to music so much it fades into the background. I literally had to stop and listen to discover that the grocery store was playing “Christmas” songs. (The scare quotes are because most of them are really winter songs.) Most of the time I don’t notice that music is even playing.

The modern west is so saturated in sensory stimulation that we ignore most of it as noise. This leaves us unable to use sensory stimulation for celebration. (This is probably why drinking to excess is so popular—most people spend most of most days sober, so being drunk is at least is a change, if not exactly a good change.)

This is not a problem for religious holidays, because we still have something we’re actually celebrating. On Christmas I will go to mass and be happy. Even the pointless sensory stimulation that we will carry on because it’s tradition can remind me of “the reason for the season”, and that is good.

But a purely secular holiday has no such advantage. There is no secular reason for secular Christmas, and none of it works. It’s a bunch of bother to have a worse time than normal. (Atheists will also say it’s nice to spend time with family, but if they actually liked it they’d do it more than once or twice a year.)

This is a real problem for atheists and will only get worse as technology gets better. This is going to have an effect on our culture, though I’m not sure what that effect is. Perhaps atheists will be bred out of the population before it has much of an effect. Still, I think that this is going to be influential. (Another possibility is that secular celebrations will become purely traditional not because anyone likes them but for the satisfaction of a connection to the past.) It will be interesting to see.

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