Monday, 24 September 2007

A humanist calendar ...?

At our recent student fair, I saw an interfaith calendar that highlighted all the various religious festivals and holy days of several world religions. Of course, humanism wasn't on it – not only because humanism is not a religion, but also because, although we are a community of people with shared values, we have not really established a yearly calendar of dates special to our community.

Throughout history, one thing that has united human communities is a common calendar of observances. From the solar equinoxes and solstices indicated by Stonehenge, to the holy days (and weeks and months) of any contemporary religion you could name, to the secular holidays celebrating days of national importance (Canada Day, the Queen's Birthday, Family Day), every human community has shared important days of the year. These days commemorate events of historical importance to the community (national independence, birth or death of important religious figures), mark the seasons (harvest festival, solar equinoxes/solstices), or simply set aside time for things the community values (Family Day, National Day of Prayer, National Day of Reason).

Humanists have some such days, though they may be local rather than general to the community at large. For example, our Edinburgh branch of the Humanist Society of Scotland holds a Darwin Day event on February 12 (generally a discussion with an evolutionary theme). Many American non-believers hold the National Day of Reason, on May 3 (giving blood) – in part to celebrate reason and in part to protest the National Day of Prayer on the same day, an unconstitutional incursion of religion into their officially secular state.

For those of us with families who celebrate the standard holidays of the dominant culture, there are clever alternatives. The fun and creative Church of Reality website suggests celebrating Newton's birthday on December 25 (“because Newton actually was born on December 25th”).
“We call the holiday Crispness because it's about keeping your mind crisp. And it's not a coincidence that it's the same day as Christmas and the Yule holiday where Christmas came from. It is the day that we celebrate the Tree of Knowledge, which represents the sum total of all human understanding. We use the traditional pine tree, which is already a very fractal looking tree to represent the Tree of Knowledge. The tree is decorated with lights and ornaments symbolizing The Sacred Network or the Internet.”
It's fun, it's festive, and it means that Deena and I can celebrate December 25 with our (nominally Christian) families without a nagging sense of dishonesty to our values and beliefs. (Remember that using the dates of existing celebrations for a new community with very different beliefs is an ancient and honorable tradition.)

I just learned (a day too late for this year) through Dale McGowan's blog that the fall equinox (September 21) is the International Day of Peace. This is something most humanists can get behind. Earth Day covers the opposite equinox, on March 21.

A source of many potentially awesome holidays, at least in the final few months of the year, is the Cosmic Calendar, brainchild of the great Carl Sagan. In it, the entire 15-billion-year history of the cosmos as we know it is scaled into a single year, with the big bang at the start of January 1st and the present moment at the end of December 31st. Along the way you get events like the formation of the Milky Way galaxy (May 1), the Solar System (September 9), and the Earth (September 14), the origin of life (September 25), on up through our ancestors: eukaryotes (November 15), worms (December 16), fish (December 19), insects (December 21), dinosaurs (December 24), mammals (December 26), primates (December 29), hominids (December 30), and then down through the evening of December 31. Go see the whole year here or here.

There are clearly many potential humanist holidays to choose from – some already established in certain communities, others new and untested. Deena and I already celebrate some of them (such as Darwin Day and Crispness), and plan to celebrate others in coming years.

What do you think? Do you, as a humanist, celebrate humanist-themed days through the year? Do you simply take the holidays of the culture around you, and spend the time in your own humanist pursuits? Do you think we'll ever have a common calendar of humanist days, or are we simply too individualistic for such conformity?

Are shared holidays too much a part of religion, and not appropriate for humanists to buy into? How should we balance individual thought and independence with community and interdependence?


  1. As for the "religious" holidays, personally, I fully intend to celebrate Christmas and Easter, and I'm upset with humanists who try to distance themselves from these holidays. Christmas and Easter are secular holidays! It's what has people like Bill O'Reilly with his "War on Christmas" dreck so riled up; they think they're leading a crusade to reclaim the Holy Day from the infidels.

    We should be embracing these holidays, rather than backing off and giving them back to the religious nuts. Because, when you get down to it, it's not about a god-man-child at all... it's about having an excuse for a party. And everyone loves a party.

  2. I have to say, though, I like the Cosmic Calendar idea. It makes for quite the festive season in December.

  3. Thanks for the comments. Since we get Christmas and Easter off here, we'll take them. But we can pick our own symbols and meanings to celebrate.

    And now Dale McGowan has picked up on the idea of an advent calendar. Cool.

    Do you get the "Take Easter back from the bunny" billboards? We get 'em here. I figure, if they make any headway with that (good luck!), we could run a counter-campaign: "Give Easter back to the bunny". ;)

  4. Hi Tim,

    I love the Sagan Cosmic Calender. I'll have to start introducing that to friends. I've come across your site before, and tonight I typed in 'humanist holidays' into Google, and this post was great.

  5. I think Birthdays are great Humanist holidays.

  6. Thanks, Trilobite. (Or can I call you Flying?)

    Leslie, I agree. Birthdays are a celebration of the value of the individual, one of the things that I cherish as a humanist.

  7. A guest blogger over at Friendly Atheist has pointed out that Thanksgiving is, in spirit (if not history), a completely secular holiday: giving thanks is something atheists and theists of every stripe can do. We may differ about what sort of agents are out there, and how many things in our lives are due to them, but we agree that if someone does something that benefits you, it is worthwhile to thank them.

  8. Hi Tim

    i was just reading Steven Law's book The Philosophy of Christmas which makes the point that while most religious festivals are in decline, Christmas is the only one that's not only holding its own but that continues to exercise a hold on the wider non-Christian community.

    I think Aaron's right: it's a secular holiday and an excuse to celebrate family and community and as such I think we should embrace it. And i'm tired of people giving me wierd looks when i talk about 'The WInter Solstice'...


This blog has now moved to a new domain:

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.