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OVERBECK: Celebrating Christmas without Christ

Nonbelievers fail to connect the joy of the season to its source

- - Monday, December 23, 2013

Every year, Christians look forward to the Christmas tradition of atheist groups buying gigantic billboards around Times Square to openly advertise their Jesus envy. They just don't get why they can't have their jolly little Christmas minus Christ. This year, the American Atheists group has a towering sign whose lit-up graphics ask, "Who needs Christ during Christmas?" A giant hand crosses out "Christ" and writes, "Nobody." Of course, most people who celebrate Christmas without Christ are atheists or agnostics. So here they are admitting to all the world on a colossal sign that they are actually nobodies. Poor atheists — even when they think they're insulting Christians, they're really insulting themselves.

Though it seems impossible for them to top this unwitting self-mortification, it gets even better with the next message on the billboard. "Celebrate the true meaning of Xmas," it says and lists helpful suggestions of how to do so. These include ice skating, charity, fun, parties, Chinese food and the Rockettes. Although one of my favorite Yuletide films, "A Christmas Story," indeed features Chinese food, I always thought of it as a fallback to be used only in emergencies, such as when the dog makes off with the turkey.

Yet David Silverman, the president of the American Atheists, is endearingly intent on making his case. "This season is a great time of year for 100 reasons — none of them having to do with religion," he asserts. "This year, start a new tradition: Don't go to church. You hate it, it's boring; you probably only go because you feel guilty or obligated ."

I guess he's describing the new "atheist churches" that reportedly are sprouting up in dank basements. What is the world coming to when atheists go to church? It sounds like more evidence that they yearn to be just as religious as we, but without the actual religion part. They're even trying to co-opt our day of worship by calling their day of non-worship "Sunday Assembly."

Just what do they do in these assemblies? According to an article in The Washington Post, at one meeting they had a rock music sing-along with a live band. How derivative of them: We do that in today's Christian churches, too. They also watched an atheist poet perform a piece on his idea of life after death. How entertaining, though, is some guy stretched out in a box clutching a bunch of daisies? Or did he magically disintegrate himself and "become one with the cosmos"?

Obviously, atheists are looking at happy churchgoers and asking, how can we get some of that? They're tired of being isolated and angry and much more likely to attempt suicide than God-believers, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry. They think that getting together and singing some tunes and maybe eating Chinese food and watching old Rockettes videos will make them less miserable. Maybe they've read the studies — hundreds of actual scientific studies and surveys over the past 40 years or so — that say practicing Christians are mentally and physically healthier, live longer, and are twice as happy as unbelievers. Naturally, they're much less likely to commit suicide.

When people are asked, "How happy are you, really?" the folks sporting bigger grins than anyone else in America are evangelical Protestants, committed Christians who attend church weekly. A hefty 49 percent of them declare themselves "very happy," while only 26 percent of the seldom-to-never churchgoers — like atheists and agnostics — checked the "very happy" box. Numerous Pew Research studies have confirmed these numbers for a very long time.

It's doubtful that the non-religious will reap these very real benefits even if they become atheist "churchgoers." Because it's really not about the singing or the pot stickers; it's about the Jesus. Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson in his book "Darwin's Cathedral" theorizes that religion provides people with a sense of transcendent purpose that those with a secular mindset simply can't match. It seems that God-believers enjoy a zest for life and hopefulness about their future that translates into better health and happiness.

It should come as no surprise that believers enjoy life more. Think about it: If Christianity didn't improve the day-to-day lives of believers and bring them help and comfort in their darkest hours, would there be more than 2 billion of them making it the most popular religion on the planet? Would nearly 80 percent of Americans, according to Pew Research, declare themselves Christians? Who in our modern, enlightened and pragmatic age would believe in a God and a spiritual system that just doesn't work?

Good luck trying to scrub Christ out of Christmas. That baby in the manger has proven more powerful than the atheists for more than 2,000 years now.

Joy Overbeck is a Colorado journalist and author.