Sunday, April 27, 2008

Now that Earth Day is over, let the planning begin for the summer solstice and World Humanist Day in June.

The Institute for Humanist Studies, an Albany, N.Y.-based nonprofit, is calling attention to its calendar of atheist holidays on its Web site, www.secular The group wants nonbelievers (or at least people who don’t celebrate religious holidays) to have a handy reference guide of the calendar of holidays honoring free-thinkers, banned books and nature, among other themes.

Matt Cherry, executive director of the Institute for Humanist Studies, said his group is trying to expand options and alternatives for secular holidays. He said he hopes even people affiliated with a particular religion will consider the options.

“Some religious holidays are about culture and tradition, not theology,” he says. “Even people who go to church only on Christmas or to synagogue on the High Holidays do so out of cultural heritage, not because they believe the religious doctrines associated with it.”

Some of the highlights of the Secular Seasons calendar include Thomas Paine Day (Jan. 29), April Fool’s Day (as always, April 1), and Ingersoll Day (Aug. 11) — which celebrates the birthday of 19th-century thinker Robert Green Ingersoll, who was known as “the Great Agnostic.” Secular Seasons recommends visiting his birthplace in Dresden, N.Y., for a holiday celebration. (Hey — you live only once.)

The site also breaks down the customs of Festivus, the holiday popularized by Jerry Stiller on “Seinfeld.” In that episode, a Festivus pole is plain aluminum, made to contrast with the ornate Christmas trees; the official greeting is “Happy Festivus”; and each person complains to family and friends how they have disappointed the complainer in the past year.

Mr. Cherry said Darwin Day (Feb. 12) is growing in popularity. Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday is in February 2009, and next year also will be the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book “The Origin of Species.”

Honoring the man who helped us understand science and humanity is a reason to celebrate, said Mr. Cherry. His recommendations: Throw caution to the wind and attend a biology lecture or even have folks bring fossils to a party.

“This year, there will be almost 1,000 events for Darwin Day around the world,” he said. “I hope Hallmark would come out with a card. There are lots of photos to celebrate evolution.”

William J. Murray, chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition, a Washington nonprofit, said the United States already has plenty of made-up holidays.

“We’ve got Valentine’s Day, although that actually is a saint’s holiday,” he said. “We’ve got Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. If someone wants to make up a holiday, they can be my guest — as long as they are not going to impose that holiday on the vast majority of us who celebrate religious holidays.

“There is no smaller minority in this country than atheists,” said Mr. Murray, son of the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who was once the nation’s best-known atheist and from whom he became estranged when he embraced Christianity. “The proposition of [atheist holidays] is in itself ridiculous.”

The recently released Pew Forum U.S. Religious Landscape Survey found that 16 percent of Americans consider themselves unaffiliated. However, most of that number (12 percent) said they were “nothing in particular,” as opposed to the 1.6 percent who said they were atheist. Christians of various denominations make up the largest segment at 78 percent.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cherry and Secular Seasons are seeking suggestions from the public on holidays to add to the calendar.

“We’ve gotten more ideas for free-thinkers to be celebrated,” said Mr. Cherry.

Among them: Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister; Mexican revolutionary statesman Benito Juarez; and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, first president of modern Turkey.

Also suggested was an expanded observance of Cosmonautics Day, the Russian holiday on April 12 that celebrates Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space orbit.

Since you just missed it, put the vodka and caviar away and get fired up for National Day of Reason in May, organized a few years ago to counteract the National Day of Prayer. Common customs: a day of care to help the elderly or disabled, and a blood drive.

Just don’t expect a church service, or candy.

One more thing not to expect with atheist holidays: parades featuring pandering politicians trolling for votes.

Now that’s cause for celebration.

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