NYTs on atheists at holidays: Fox Butterfield, is that you?

There is such a thing as "low-hanging fruit" in life, and, it turns out, even in journalism. I am, therefore, a tad grateful to The New York Times for this easy-to-pick story about atheists who happen to organize gatherings close to the 25th of December, but don't dare call them "holiday parties." One bit of explanation: James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal's online opinion section, specifically his daily "Best of the Web Today" feature, coined the phrase, "Fox Butterfield, is that you?" to describe writing that's obvious-yet-oblivious. Butterfield was the Times' crime reporter who incredulously once noted, "Despite drop in crime, an increase in inmates."

The latest Butterfield Award goes to the Times for noting  "During Religious Season, Nonbelievers Assert Right to Celebrate." You can almost see the #firstworldproblems hashtag adjacent to the headline. Let's begin:

In the darkness of an Upper West Side concert hall last weekend, 150 audience members holding twinkling plastic candles sang and swayed to celebrate reason and the season. Snow fell with abandon outside.

“We are not alone,” a humanist rock band crooned in a call and response.

“I wanted a holiday that made us feel connected, and feel connected to the world,” Raymond Arnold, the M.C., said at the start of the show he created, “Brighter Than Today: A Secular Solstice.”

Mr. Arnold, 27, a self-described “agnostic-atheist-humanist” who grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., told sardonic sermon-like stories to explain scientific developments since Stonehenge.

Then he invited the audience to sing a Christmas carol. “Some of you might be like, ‘I came to a secular solstice, what up?’ ” Mr. Arnold said, drawing laughs. He explained that “Do You Hear What I Hear?” did not mention Jesus Christ and could refer instead to the birth of an idea. He was going for “a sense of transcendence,” he said. It felt a little like church.

Apart from the fact that Arnold is just plain wrong about the carol making no reference to Jesus (the reference might not be explicit -- "The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night/He will bring us goodness and light" -- but it surely is understood by most Western hearers), an immediate question is, "Is this really news?" If, as might be imagined, there have been atheists, agnostics and "freethinkers" for centuries, is it not also reasonable to assume that some of the folks might gather together for solace against a world laden with Christmas imagery?

But, it turns out, the nonbelievers seem to have enough internal squabbles to perhaps inspire someone else to reprise the famous Emo Phillips monologue about religious differences:

“We’re trying to ride the crest of that wave and bring a more open, vocal and proud face of atheism,” said Michael Dorian, 49, New York’s regional director for the American Atheists. Mr. Dorian runs a musical variety show in New York, the “Godless Revival,” which planned a solstice party on Dec. 22 at Connolly’s Pub in Midtown. After Mr. Dorian’s afternoon shows, which do not encourage singalongs, the audience is invited to stay for “The Afterlife,” an informal social hour.

“We’re fun-loving,” Mr. Dorian said. “We want to show we’re not a bunch of outcast, alienated, creepy folks.”

But at times, even without God, organized atheism can look a lot like organized religion — complete with the schisms. The Godless Revival split from a group called Sunday Assembly, a “godless congregation” started by two British comedians, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, that began barnstorming across the United States this year. After helping to organize Sunday Assemblies, Mr. Dorian said he and two colleagues on the steering committee clashed with the British founders over the churchlike feeling and the rule against using the word “atheist.”

Now the imported Sunday Assembly is being hosted by the New York Society for Ethical Culture, which considers itself a nontheist religion. It, too, is seeking to bring in a younger demographic.

It only builds from there, concluding with a revealing vignette:

Soon, the members [from the Center for Inquiry] did just that, as they headed to the East Village for some karaoke at a monthly event called Skeptics on the Mic. Mr. Gibson sang a rap song from Outkast. Alexa Blumenstock, 19, led a spirited rendition of “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie.

The season, reflected another member half-jokingly, does not have to be stressful for nonbelievers, even when they return to their religious families.

“In my opinion, you never need any reason to get drunk with your family during the holidays,” said Alexander Woodman, 20, before correcting himself, secularly: “during the winter.”

Reading that, I was reminded of the late Rev. John A. O'Brien, a Roman Catholic priest whose 1974 book, "The Faith of Millions" chided Protestants for rejecting Rome's authority while chanting "Sola Scriptura," but clinging to what O'Brien said was the Rome-designated Sunday as the day of worship, much  as a child running away from home might carry "his mother's picture or a lock of her hair." (This bit has become argument fodder for Sabbatarians, but that's another story.)

One wonders if the atheists/nonbelievers aren't carrying a memory as they party near the 25th of December, but the Times doesn't really ask -- or answer -- that question.

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