Let me get this straight: people all around the world express their desires to this bearded dude and then he shows up everywhere, fulfilling these requests out of sheer benevolence? And no one's ever seen him? And he lives in a mysterious place up there surrounded by little helpers? He sees you when you're sleeping and knows when you're awake? And he knows whether you've been naughty or nice? Oh, come on now. Might as well believe in Santa Claus.
I was 15 when I realized God didn't exist. I remember the moment well. We lived in a neighborhood of officers' families on the U.S. Marine Corps base at Cherry Point, N.C. I was standing in the middle of our street, alone. Staring up at the brilliant quilt of stars overhead on this humid summer night, I came to a realization. It wasn't a big, dramatic, hand-spread-wide declaration to the world, "There is no God! I'm an atheist and I don't care who knows it!" It was more of a hands-in-my-jeans-pockets, shrug of the shoulders and small nod to myself, "So that's it, then."
Now, along with all the typical Big Questions of adolescence, I had a few more. And they seemed even bigger in the wake of my epiphany. If there's no God, how did we get here? Why are we here? What does it all mean? And perhaps most important of all, can I still celebrate Christmas? The idea of an atheist celebrating the birth of baby Jesus, wouldn't that be akin to a vegan going to town on a chicken fried steak? Recognizing my new beliefs was one thing, but to abandon Christmas was serious business. It would mean no more Christmas presents for yours truly. There had to be a loophole.
Like many atheists, I didn't come from a churchgoing family. My turning away from God wasn't a rebellion so much as a decision based on a simple lack of empirical evidence. There are more photos of Bigfoot than there are of God. Why hasn't Jesus ever given a press conference? Seems like that would quash a lot of doubt and strengthen his base. And those fantastic stories in the Bible, have any of them ever been bolstered by whiff of proof? A rusty nail from the ark? A crumb of limestone from the tablets containing the Ten Commandments? A feather from an angel's wing? Your honor, the state rests.
I didn't tell my parents—or anyone, really—about my conclusion. As the years passed and I continued to celebrate the secular aspects of Christmas while turning the other cheek when the holiday's "true meaning" reared its head, a corner of my conscience poked at me. Hey, it said, you're a card-carrying atheist. Should you be celebrating a holiday based on something you know is a lie? Mostly, my duplicity was fueled by my greed.
I kept my atheism to myself in order to keep those presents coming. Also, in those days the cultural climate equated atheists with sideshow freaks to be shunned and feared. Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the outspoken leader of the atheist subculture, was kidnapped and murdered. Atheists were in league with Ayn Rand and Marquis de Sade. On the rare occasion when I did share my status with someone, they'd react as if I'd announced I have two butt cracks. My close friends eventually figured out I was a nonbeliever, but mostly I stayed in the closet. To my family and the greater world, I was just another sin-ridden, God-fearing purveyor of guilt. Atheism was a big square peg in the round hole of our traditional, vaguely Presbyterian home. Telling my parents I was an atheist would be like telling them I was black.
I drifted away from my family in my 20s. I started reading Bukowski. My struggle with the Christmas dilemma continued as I joined in on the holiday fun with various friends and their families until it came time for Mass. I spent many a Christmas Eve drinking too much gin in some smoky dive bar, surrounded by other toys from the Island of Misfit Existentialists. I fell in with a bohemian crowd in Seattle, becoming enamored with Kesey and Burroughs. I loved these wild-eyed anarchists. But these were disciples of Kerouac, not Christ. How did they celebrate Christmas? I wondered. You can't just ignore it. Decorations coat the town, the music is everywhere and if you grew up in my generation, scenes from the Rudolph TV special are burned into your retinas like the Windows Vista logo on an old CRT monitor. As I dove deeper into my lonely exploration of secular humanism, Christmas was feeling more and more like an empty, money-driven routine that turned kids into greed heads and otherwise normal people into irrational, psalm-spouting dupes who spent the rest of the year stealing cable. Christmas, I decided, was for chumps.
Just because I didn't believe in God didn't mean that I didn't believe in anything. Atheism is not synonymous with nihilism, which is the photographic negative of faith. Nihilism is belief in diddly-squat. A vacuum. An existential void. The Cleveland Browns' trophy room. That's a little too dark for me, and it reeks of an easy pragmatism: "If I don't believe in anything, I don't have to be bothered with having any convictions."