I was raised Roman Catholic, so as a child we celebrated Christmas, yet every year in my stockings there was also a small bag of Hanukkah geld. A small reminder from my mom of our family’s Jewish roots as well.
Now, as an adult, my family still celebrates Christmas, but as an atheist I find myself somewhat at loose ends this time of year. I enjoy, though it is stressful as well, the process of finding gifts for others – finding that perfect item for someone whom I love. And certainly I do not complain when others give me gifts – always a good feeling.
When asked, by a survey or the like, I will self-identify as Jewish, though more out of ethnicity than religion, but at the same time I go through life with a desidely Irish name – Shannon Clark – so in some manner I’m a “stealth” member of the tribe. Many people find it somewhat surprising that I’m Jewish, but I certainly qualify (mother, grandmother, great-grandmother who are all Jewish).
As a child, however, I attended a Roman Catholic elementary school (yes, with nuns as teachers) and nearly everyone (outside of some family members) whom I knew were Roman Catholic. I distinctly remember as a child assuming that the whole world was Roman Catholic (and yes, I know my own mother and other relatives should have been a rather obvious counterexample but that was the reality I lived in for a time).
This perception of the world, perhaps, was strengthen by the lack of a TV in my family until I was in junior high (around the summer after 7th grade). In 7th grade I attended a public junior high and certainly many of my classmates there were not Catholic, though the subject rarely came up. I had skipped a grade (never finished 2nd grade when we moved from NY to Chicago I started 3rd grade instead of complete 2nd grade) so I was younger than most of my classmates. Around 8th grade or freshman year of high school most Catholics get confirmed. Confirmation, one of the seven sacraments, is the public announcement that you will be a member of the Roman Catholic faith, that you will raise your future children as Catholics and that you will live your life as a member of the Church.
I chose not to be confirmed, at first by simply avoiding the subject, but later on in high school very deliberately. I had long held serious doubts about God, in the 3rd grade I had failed a test in Religion class when I had turned in an empty page for an assignment requiring us to “draw a picture of God” – I knew that they wanted a picture of an old man with a long white beard or something like that – but all I could imagine at the time was that God, if existing, was everything and nothing – and certainly not an old man in a white beard no matter how much that was expected of me.
I studied philosophy, fairly seriously, in high school, taking a full year course in Philosophy my sophomore year and then doing additional independent study in philosophy with one of my teachers. I found in Existentialism (though not in the later Marxist phase of Sartre) a philosophy of the world that agreed with my own views – and which gave priority to the importance and responsibility of choice.
I made the active choice not to be confirmed because had I been confirmed I would have been publicly making the choice then and into the future of living my life as a Catholic. I valued that public declaration and did not want to make such a declaration if I did not intend on honoring it. I had too much respect to disrespect the ceremony if I would be making a statement I did not believe in – and the starting point of “I believe in God” was one I would not publicly state.
My philosophy of the world is complex. I very firmly believe in the priority of individual choice and action. This is often hard and challenging, it does not allow me an amorphous “other” in the form of God (or society, chemicals, other individuals or groups) onto whom to shift blame and responsibility for my life. It is not a forgiving philosophy or an easy one, it is why I have never once in my life been drunk, it is why I avoid taking drugs that impact mental capacity (and why I do have a serious philosophical debate with myself over my consumption of caffeine).
As the party choosing to take those substances I do not then shift responsibility to the substance for any action which I might take while “under the influence” so, preemptively I choose not to imbibe. I will, occasionally, have a glass of wine or a bottle of cider, but not much more.
I’m certainly not perfect, and in fact I often avoid making a choice and thus via inaction effectively make a choice but somehow a less explicit one. This is not a good behavior on my part – and one I have to watch and continue to learn to avoid.
But to bring this back to the holidays. I find myself increasingly taking care that I focus on “the holidays” and not on Christmas (or Hanukkah) whether in a card which I send or in my speech.
This evening, I am home alone, my girlfriend is visiting her family flying back tomorrow to have Christmas dinner at my parents. I went out for an early dinner, then sat in a Starbucks for a little while before going and seeing Fun with Dick and Jane – which was fun but didn’t live up to the promise of the premise. As I walked the mostly empty streets of Chicago I found myself as always during these religious yet general public holidays feeling a bit removed from the rest of society.
I find myself much more comfortable with purely secular holidays – Fourth of July for example – and less comfortable with these religiously based holidays. I feel that I am on the outside, and I wonder how the millions of others who live in the US but who are, like myself, not Christians (or in many cases not even having been raised in a Christian background) feel this time of year. My Jewish friends joke about going out for Chinese or a movie and there are many a Jewish singles event this time of the year (I went to one years ago when I was single) but I wonder how my Buddhist, Muslim, Pagan or Hindu friends feel.
The US society is still very much dominated by Protestant Christianity. I wonder, how many people, like my youthful self, just assume that the whole world, that “everyone”, is believing the same as they do, is celebrating in the same ways and the same events that they celebrate. I suspect that the numbers of people who hold this view of the world is quite large, though I hold out some hope that growing connectivity driven by the Internet but also 100’s of channels of TV and a global entertainment marketplace may be helping to increase the intuitive awareness that there are other ways of viewing the world.
But it is equally possible that you can still (perhaps even more easily now than ever before) isolate yourself and view only those things that reinforce your own views of the world and “reality”. Customized news, TiVo, radio and other mediums all supporting just one view can render it increasingly easy to never encounter others of different faiths and beliefs (or lack of belief).
I wonder very seriously about the growing number of people who are being home schooled, who never get the complex opportunity of a public school to encounter others of different backgrounds and religions. Though that assumes, of course, that at a public school there will be diversity, this is not always true of many (perhaps most) communities in the US. I was fortunate to attend a high school which was exceptionally diverse – racially, religiously, economically. Students there were in public housing while others were given Rolls Royces when they turned 16. Every year 20 or more exchange students (and teachers) would attend the high school. At graduation we were given a speech which talked about how different the rest of the world and likely our college experience would be – how less diverse most places were.
We were lucky.
In 2006 I will be moving from Chicago to Berkeley. I leave the city where I have lived for the past 23+ years for another which I grew up hearing about (my parents met at U. C. Berkeley). It is a diverse community in many ways, but not in all ways. The tech community, of which I will be a part in the Bay Area, is not as diverse as it could (and I would argue should) be. Many events and companies are extremely male-dominated, not always very racially diverse, and in many cases (as is not uncommon with smaller firms) very uniform in their makeup. There is also passive (and at times active) discrimination against people by age – with the bias being towards younger developers. In places like Berkeley there is also an extreme lack of political diversity.
In any of these cases, like my younger self in the Catholic elementary school, it is all too easy to assume that “everyone” is like those with whom we spend our days, with whom we work and play, with whom we live and interact with. Even when presented by evidence to the contrary – a homeless man, an occasional colleague who didn’t vote for Kerry, a developer still working with Java (or C or Fortran or Lisp or even using IE) – we can still act and have the impression that everyone is mostly like us.
So my holiday wish is that everyone – whether religious or not, atheist, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, IE user, Firefox promoter, Republican or Democrat or not a US citizen – will make a point to remember that we – humans – are diverse and different and celebrate, remember, and embrace that diversity. Make a point in this upcoming new year, and throughout this holiday season to engage with the other – to seek ways to continually remind yourself that there are many faiths, many viewpoints, many experiences of life.
I wish you a happy holidays and a great new year. If you are reading this, please feel free to engage with me – whether via a comment here, email, or in person. I welcome your interactions and I look forward to the challenges (and choices) ahead of us all in 2006.