what’s it like being atheist at christmas?
In the final part of our series, Rej Singh tells us why he thinks Christianity is irrelevant to Christmas.
With Christmas approaching, we set out to discover what this typically festive time of year is like for the 39% of the country that doesn't identify as Christian. And while it makes sense that Christmas time may be irrelevant, alienating or even depressing depending on your circumstance and background, those we've spoken to so far, including Muslim blogger Wiwid Howat and Jewish fashion marketer Shari Leibler, enjoy it despite their non-christian faiths.
Australia has one of the most multicultural societies in the world. And although it was founded with Christian principles, many of us don't subscribe to that religion, or any other. The number of people reporting 'no religion' in the census has been growing, from 15% of the population in 2001 to 22% in 2011. How do they feel at Christmas?
We asked Rej Singh, an insurance law worker and entertainment manager from Western Sydney, who's been an Atheist for two years. He told us why he's wishing for a secular holiday.
Have you felt alienated as an Atheist during the Christmas holidays?
I wouldn't say alienated to the extent where I felt left out, but perhaps unaware of what was actually being promoted in Christmas. I grew up with a mix of Hindu and Sikh influences. From my upbringing, Christmas has always been a secular holiday where we have family get-togethers, barbecues and exchange gifts. The aspects of alienation would be found among Christian friends who found it odd that we were marking the occasion but not participating in church masses or Christmas carols. I also started to notice many Christmas carols are Christian-related, and Christmas merchandise in shopping centres is quite reflective of the Christian narrative, with Jesus-related props and toys from the nativity scene. I feel as though Christmas has been somewhat hijacked by Christians, in what originally was a celebration of the winter solstice - a celebration dating back to pagan history. Christians feel some privilege and entitlement to their religious holiday, and this is fuelled by excessive promotion of Christmas as a Christian holiday.
Do you get annoyed about this?
I don't find a problem with this, it's their faith and they are entitled to celebrate. What derives from this however, are hostile behaviours towards those who also want to celebrate the holiday season, which is usually labelled as the 'Christmas holidays'. I've met Christians who establish expectations of non-Christians during this period, but I don't see that same recognition when other religious festivals occur. Would the circumstances be different if this holiday season were labelled and celebrated as the winter solstice? I would argue yes, as it's more secular in nature and doesn't accompany the context of religious imagery. Nevertheless, the label of Christmas is there, and has been integrated into Western culture - hence why I believe it would be more fair to see it as more of a secular holiday.
What was it like growing up as both Hindu and Sikh?
It certainly provided different aspects of thinking and comparison. These religions in my view are not as authoritative as the Abrahamic religions are. Only recently though I've noticed these religions are opening up to free thought and questioning. When I was younger this was frowned upon in the community, and a person's input was only valued depending on their status. I'm glad this has changed and the younger generations are voicing their opinions.
Now that you're Atheist, do you still celebrate Christmas? And in what way?
Yes, in the Australian way just like any other holiday. Food, drinks and fun.
The number of people reporting 'no religion' in the census has been increasing significantly, but Christmas seems to be becoming a bigger public spectacle. Why do you think that is?
There could be several factors. My theory is that the rise of all the vast information available on the internet is leading towards the end of faith. Traditionally information was passed down through people, or at best stored in encyclopedias. There were few to no filtering mechanisms to detect the fallible philosophical and scientific claims of religion. I think people are now realising that religion is not an appropriate way to understand our reality in the 21st century. Christmas does seem to be becoming a bigger spectacle, but I would not suspect for religious reasons. I suppose people are just wanting to make the most of their holiday season and look forward to the New Year.
Although the Australian constitution mentions God, and Australia is seen as a Christian nation, many people would agree that there should be a separation between church and state. But in Australia it feels like Christmas is a state-sponsored holiday. Do you think that there should be more of a separation there?
Yes there should be. There is no doubt that the constitutional origins developed in a Christian context. But Australia has developed very significantly in a multicultural sense, and a separation of church and state would be a more appropriate response to the people of Australia today. We have plenty of sources of knowledge and understanding to rationally come to conclusions on our laws and morality. There is no need for this anymore, and my view is that religious doctrines should no longer have any involvement in the policy making of this country.