The Roots of Civilization
In the earliest days of civilization, mankind came to an understanding that we were at the mercy of nature. Because of this, there was much worship of life-sustaining items such as the sun and water and the earth itself. Our early ancestors saw the cyclical process of nature itself and to be more in tune with that cycle, they devised celebrations to honor the cycle. They followed seasonal events such as solstices and even devised calendars that have developed into what we use today.
This respect of nature is still quite evident in tribal cultures all over the globe. For people subsisting on the earth and nature alone to survive, it is crucial to understand these changes. It is easy to understand how people can anthropomorphize nature and see it as something to be worshiped. This idea is so popular that there is a general term for this type of religious nature worship, which is Pantheism. Albert Einstein himself took a very pantheistic view of the universe and said, “I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind...” (spoken to Rabbi Herbert Goldstein in 1929).
Remembering How Long It Took To Get Here
These traditional celebrations have persisted and morphed and been blended into religions. It is right to say that these holidays have pagan roots, but if we look even deeper, their roots are a part of all that we are. We celebrated the harvest and we hoped for a good sowing season. We hoped that the rains would be plentiful and that the game would be in good supply come hunting season. These are the things that sustained our lives before supermarkets and department stores. Before online shopping and easy credit terms. It took us quite a long time to get from there to here, but it all started with recognizing that we are part of an order and a cycle here on earth.
When mankind began to piece together a better understanding of our interaction with the world around us and of nature itself, we started looking at the “how” of it all and we called this exploration science. As our understanding grew, we drew away from trying to work in balance with nature, and instead began to work to manipulate and control it. We learned to build aqueducts to transport water to our fields, and how to enrich the soil to produce better crops. We’ve moved all the way now to being able to grow our food, plants and animals alike, in buildings with artificial sun and recycled air.
Because of this attitude – because people have forgotten just how hard we’ve had to work to get here, and how much of a struggle life is when you have to simply live on what nature provides, we’ve lost our respect for nature and for our place within it. We have all the intelligence and ability to live in near total harmony with nature, and yet we choose to simply use and abuse without thought of consequence. The right-wing pundit and talking head Ann Coulter said, "God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.'" - (Hannity & Colmes, 6/20/01)
Is it any wonder our oceans and lands are being overused and “raped”, to use Coulter’s terminology? That woman made this comment on national television and there were people applauding her total disregard for the planet, including all other forms of life here.
The Ecosystem and You
Now, I don’t ascribe to nature worship. I don’t see nature as some sort of being and I wouldn’t worship Gaia any more than I would worship Yahweh. However, I do have great respect for nature and I recognize that I am a part of nature and I have a place in it. I remember those simple lessons in grade-school science classes about the ecosystem and the food-chain, and how they link every living organism on this planet together. This is something our ancestors seemed to inherently know, or at least be able to clearly see in the world around them, and that understanding is the true source of what we know as most of our current holidays.
In our earliest days, mankind found a rhythm with nature. We formed a metaphorical dance with nature – and then we formed dances to celebrate the metaphorical dance with nature. We gathered together and we sang and danced and feasted and rejoiced in the dance. We heard the rhythm of the “heartbeat” of nature and we made drums to reflect that heartbeat. We heard the winds whispering and we made wind instruments with which to speak back. We feared the dark and what might lurk there and we made masks to fool the demons we supposed were waiting in the shadows.
As atheists we have let go of the superstition and the supposition, but that doesn’t mean we must also abandon the wonder and reverence. It doesn’t mean that we should not celebrate with our fellow man. We can make it our own as well. For example, we don’t celebrate Christmas in my home —we do however celebrate Atheist Children Get Presents for No Apparent Reason day on December 25th. No matter what we choose to call these holidays at my house, I make it a point to stress the origins of why we celebrate at these certain times of the year and why they were important then and should be important to us now.
Celebration Humanity Itself
For me personally, celebrating these holidays is just a way of celebrating humanity itself and being a part of all this. It’s a time to reflect on humanity’s roots and remember that we’re all part of something amazing and wonderful. It’s a time to laugh and smile and be merry. A time to dance and drink and eat and have wonderful conversations with folks we may not see often. I let go of the myths and found the real reason for the season.
If I needed any other reason to celebrate, I’ve got two very good ones at home. I remember the joy of celebrating holidays when I was a child and I can’t see any good reason to deny my sons that same joy. My boys are going trick-or-treating this year as Batman and Robin. We will travel house-to-house collecting candy and goofing off. We will smile and laugh and get bellyaches from eating too much candy. We’ll go home and watch Halloween television specials and just enjoy each other’s company. And I’ll talk to my boys about the harvest season—the reaping, and how important it was to people a long time ago. We’ll discuss All-Hallows Eve and Samhain and I’ll make sure to give my sons the greatest gift there is – the gift of knowledge.