Athiests and Christmas: Why They Celebrate the Holiday

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Survey of atheist scientists asks why they go to church

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If Jesus is the reason for the season, why do some atheists include church in their celebration of the “winter holiday”? Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund surveyed science faculty from “elite U.S. research universities,” and found half of the 2,198 surveyed considered themselves religious. Her research has appeared in the journal Sociology of Religion and the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Ecklund’s findings concerning atheist parents surprised her and should remind Christians and Christian churches of our responsibilities, especially at Christmas.

“Our research shows just how tightly linked religion and family are in U.S. society — so much so that even some of society's least religious people find religion to be important in their private lives,” said Ecklund.

Taking a closer look at a sample of atheists, Ecklund found 17 percent attend a religious service more than once a year. Religious institutions varied and included churches, mosques, and temples. Their reasons included the desire for a sense of community and the willingness to please a spouse. This finding is not surprising, as religious rituals divested of actual belief are not uncommon.

Many atheist scientists took their children to religious services so they could “make up their own minds about God and spirituality.”

Ecklund was surprised, however, to find many atheist scientists took their children to religious services so they could “make up their own minds about God and spirituality.” “We thought that these individuals might be less inclined to introduce their children to religious traditions, but we found the exact opposite to be true,” Ecklund said. “They want their children to have choices, and it is more consistent with their science identity to expose their children to all sources of knowledge.”

For instance, one scientist surveyed rejected his own Catholic upbringing but takes his daughter to a smorgasbord of religious services including Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist. He said, “I … don't indoctrinate her that she should believe in God. I don't indoctrinate her into not believing in God.”

Some people are unconvinced truth actually exists and accept the fallacy that mutually exclusive things—like various choices for who is the one true God—can be simultaneously true. And many such people wish to raise their children without “forcing religion” on them, as if true belief could be forced on anyone.

But real choices require real information—real answers. Exposing children to a religious menu does not offer them a fair choice. Unfortunately, as detailed in Ken Ham’s co-authored book Already Gone, many churches fail to offer any more answers than an atheist parent conducting a tour of local religious establishments. When children and adults enter our Christian churches, they need to hear the Bible’s answers to life’s hard questions about sin and suffering and death. They need to be shown science and history are consistent with God’s Word. They need to understand why they should trust the Creator God of the Bible. If we fail to provide these answers, then we fail in our mission to reach the world for Jesus Christ because we fail to tell people why He came and died.

What about Christmas? Many people visit church only at a holiday. Amid the festivities and musical programs of the Christmas season, shame on us as Christians and as churches if we fail to explain why Jesus Christ came into this world. Christ was born into real history, and we should present that history so children and adults—even holiday visitors—will see how, from the time of Adam’s rebellion 6,000 years ago until Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God was preparing the world to receive—and crucify—His Son to pay the price for our sin. If we only tell visitors about the sweet babe in the manger and don’t tell them why He came to die and how each of us needs the salvation He offers, then we miss the opportunity of a lifetime. We may in fact miss the opportunity to influence someone’s life for all eternity. As Charles Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol, “No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.”

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