Amherst, NY - A significant portion of the US population is non-religious. According to a 2001 City University of New York survey (ARIS 2001), 14 percent of adults polled defined themselves as "secular" when asked about their religious outlook, and a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Life found that 16 percent have "no religious affiliation." This amounts to some 30 million Americans.

In the midst of the holiday season, how do the millions of us who have no religious beliefs or affiliations deal with religion during the holidays? What should a nonbeliever do when other family members say grace or give a blessing? What if a nonbeliever is asked to lead the family in grace? How should one celebrate the holidays with family and friends while being true one's non-religious views? What should a parent do if the subject of religion comes up at school?

Here are some secular suggestions that the Council for Secular Humanism has compiled from the input of agnostics, humanists, and skeptics in religion:

1) Being non-religious does not mean you have to play the part of the Scrooge.

Even if you don't share religious beliefs with family and friends, you can still sociably participate in the holidays and enjoy the season as a special occasion to celebrate and correspond with friends and family. Send non-religious holiday cards to the people you care about. Give presents in the spirit of simply being nice.

2) Live and let live: don't make your beliefs an issue--unless someone else makes them an issue.

This depends on the situation. Many nonbelievers find that family and friends are open to friendly debates about the existence of God and meaning of life, but if you think these topics will ruin a holiday get-together by spawning conflict, let sleeping dogs lie.

However, this advice doesn't mean that atheists, agnostics and skeptics should make themselves punching bags for family friends and relatives who want to engage in a mean-spirited argument. Be assertive and defend your views if attacked, but never make yourself the one responsible for ruining the holidays by leading an offensive.

3) If you're asked to lead or participate in prayer, respectfully decline or suggest an alternative.

If someone asks you to "do the honors," respectfully decline and allow someone else to lead the prayer. If anyone asks about your refusal, simply tell them that you're not a believer and suggest that the best person to say grace or lead the family in prayer is someone who can do it sincerely. You might also encourage a silent "grace" or moment of reflection at the holiday dinner table. Those who want to pray can do so silently; you can use the moment for secular reflection.

Organize your own celebration.

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  • 4) Make an occasion to celebrate on your terms.

    Would you like the holidays to be secular? Take the lead and organize your own celebrations with friends and family. They can be on Christmas Day or any other day, as the Human Light people do. Some people-many people-don't want to give up the traditional meal on the traditional day, but would like to dispense with the religious trappings. After all, sharing with friends and family is what really counts in life.

    5) Give and volunteer.

    Contrary to widespread belief, religious people and organizations don't own the concept of charity. Be active as a donor or volunteer during the holidays to remind others-and yourself-that being caring and generous does not require religious belief.

    6) How should you to handle religion and Christmas mythology as atheist and agnostic parents?

    Religion at school:

    Views vary on exactly where parents ought to draw the line when their children are exposed to religious beliefs they don't hold. As a general rule of thumb, the question is whether your children are being taught about other people's religious beliefs to make them aware of the cultures and traditions of others or they are being pressured to participate in religious activities and affirmations of faith. Decorating a Christmas tree, spinning a dreidel, or learning about Ramadan probably won't impinge on your rights to raise your child to be non-religious. In fact, the questions that your children will raise after learning about the religious beliefs of others will give you an opportunity to talk with them about what you do or do not believe in and why.

    If you're going to protest or intervene in traditional school activities, consider bringing it up with school officials after the holiday, to make a difference for next year. If possible, avoid putting yourself and your child in the position of forcing the last-minute cancellation of an event that other children have been looking forward to. If, however, you feel that your child is clearly being indoctrinated or compelled to participate in an overt religious activity, it's your right to protest or intervene immediately.

    Santa, Elves and Magical Flying Reindeer

    Lighten up about the lighter aspects of the Christmas mythology. Your child's future rationalism won't go like smoke up the chimney if they expect Santa to come down the chimney. Don't make the mistake of trying to impose totally rational explanations on young children. One agnostic whose entire family is composed of atheists, pantheists, and ethical culturists was astonished when his 3-year-old grandson began cry in front of the fireplace at a family gathering on Christmas Eve. No one could get him to stop crying or to figure out why he was doing it. Finally, he wailed one word, "Santa." Then they realized that he was worried that Santa was going to burn when he came down the chimney. Even though his parents had never told him about Santa, the fat man in red suit, of course, at every mall, on TV, and probably the talk of all the children he had interaction with. The grandfather threw water on the fire and told his grandson that they wouldn't have a fire again until Santa had come and gone. Did he put his 3-year-old on the path of a lifetime of superstition? No. It's O.K. to indulge a little childhood fantasy.

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