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How an Agnostic Celebrates Winter Solstice, the Year’s Darkest Day

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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To celebrate Winter Solstice, darkest day of the year, I’m posting an edited version of a column I originally wrote for The New York Times more than a decade ago, before I got divorced and moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, from a Hudson Valley hamlet:

Garrison, New York. My wife recently decided that our family should celebrate Winter Solstice. To be honest, I wasn’t eager to cram another event into our frantic holiday schedule. Also, my Catholic upbringing left me with a knee-jerk aversion toward the rituals of religion, whether Christianity or my wife’s paganism.

Nevertheless, an hour or so after nightfall on December 21, I dutifully pulled on my coat and boots, skidded down our icy driveway and tramped into a field bordering our property. Near a clump of skeletal trees on the field’s far side, I found a circle of stones enclosing a heap of sticks, which my wife and two children had gathered earlier that day. With a chunk of artificial kindling and a dozen matches, I got the sticks burning, just before I heard voices and spotted candle lanterns bobbing toward me.

We only sat around the fire for a half hour or so. The night was thumpingly cold, and smoke kept blowing in our faces. My six year old son Mac and four year old daughter Skye were more interested in jabbing the fire with sticks than in listening to their parents’ makeshift stories about the Man on the Moon and other celestial beings. My daughter singed her hair, and the tip of her mitten melted.

Then, glancing up at the stars and full moon, I was suddenly overcome with awe. As a science journalist, I know that scientists don’t have a clue how our universe sprang into being billions of years ago, or why it took this particular form out of an infinitude of possibilities, including nonexistence. Nor does anyone know how inanimate matter on our little planet coalesced into living creatures, let alone creatures that could invent reality TV. Science, you might say, has discovered that our existence is infinitely improbable, and hence a miracle.

It is one thing to know intellectually that life is a miracle. It’s quite another to see it. Saints and poets aside, most of us rarely do. Our pinched perception stems from two deep-rooted cognitive tendencies, instrumentality and automatization. Instrumentality is our compulsion to view life as a series of tasks that advance our selfish interests. Automatization is our propensity to learn chores so thoroughly that we perform them with little or no conscious thought.

These traits have undoubtedly helped our species survive. Automatization is an especially handy cognitive feature, because it allows us to carry out more than one task at the same time. We can ponder a shift in our 401K investments, for example, while driving our kids to school or watching them sing in a Christmas concert. The downside of instrumentality and automatization is that we end up sleepwalking through life.

Every now and then, however, if we’re lucky, we wake up. We stop seeing the world as something to be manipulated for our ends. We simply see it, undistorted by our desires and fears. This form of perception is the goal of all contemplative spiritual traditions. When an aspirant asked the 15th-century Zen master Ikkyu to write down a maxim of “the highest wisdom,” Ikkyu wrote one word: “Attention.” The dissatisfied aspirant asked, “Is that all?” This time, Ikkyu wrote two words: “Attention. Attention.”

Art, poetry and music can help us pay attention. And so can religious rituals, which might explain why so many people who aren’t otherwise religious—including agnostics like me–still celebrate holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah. We especially need these rituals in this most benighted of seasons, when we are prone to dwelling on life’s darker aspects.

The bugbear haunting Christianity and other faiths is the problem of evil. If we were created by a God who loves us, why is life often so cruel? But sitting with my family in that circle of stones on Winter Solstice helped me see that birth, beauty, love and laughter also pose a problem. If there is no God, and we are here through sheer happenstance, why is life so wonderful? It’s a mystery, which no theory or theology can possibly dispel.

My family celebrates Winter Solstice every year now. Even when it’s unseasonably mild, I still look forward to returning to the warmth of our home, where we practice another ritual conceived by my wife. Sipping hot chocolate, we flip through an album of photos that she assembled to help us recall the year just past.

Remember when we visited Grandpa in Colorado, and your brother learned to snowboard and your sister got sick? Remember the baby crow that Mommy found in the woods and raised, and how he loved to jump on Daddy’s shoulder and yank his hair when he was reading his morning paper?

The kids will squabble over who gets to turn the pages of the album. I’ll brood over a deadline, or plot how I’m going to ditch the family tomorrow to play pond hockey with my buddies. But for at least a moment I’ll pay attention and see. I won’t know who or what to thank, but I’ll be grateful nonetheless.

Photo by Matzei, Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bussen_Oberschwaben_Sonnenuntergang_zur_Wintersonnenwende_2011.JPG.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. popseal 8:21 am 12/20/2013

    I tried agnosticism but it didn’t work for me. Too much evidence of changed lives around me kept the God issue alive even though I tried to put it out of my mind. 1970 brought some ‘Jesus people’ to my door and guess what? They were right! Unfortunately the status quo religion scene still is doesn’t ‘get it’ and thinks replacing pews with theater seats will bring life to the experience. Nevertheless, it turns out that Jesus is exactly Who He clamed to be and remains so.

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  2. 2. RSchmidt 9:58 am 12/20/2013

    “If there is no God, and we are here through sheer happenstance, why is life so wonderful?” our brains are rewarding us for behavior that we associate with a successful individual/family/tribe. If we were cats, the same behavior, having all those peers around, would be stressful. Wonderful, is in the eye of the beholder.

    As an Atheist I find neo-paganism appealing. Primarily for the events. They are connected with something real, the changing of the seasons, so they are not vacuous cultural artifacts. But I admit that I don’t follow them religiously.

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  3. 3. RSchmidt 10:05 am 12/20/2013

    @popseal, “Nevertheless, it turns out that Jesus is exactly Who He clamed to be and remains so.” what is the evidence that substantiates that claim? There is little evidence to suggest that the Jesus of the bible actually existed, and even if he did, most of what was written about him was fabricated to make it look like he was fulfilling ancient prophecy. So your claim seems to be erroneous. I can appreciate you believing in him and following his teachings but to claim, on a science site by the way, that he is exactly who he claimed to be is nothing more than a leap of faith and this is the wrong forum for that.

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  4. 4. WarmNeutron 10:23 am 12/20/2013

    @popseal: “Too much evidence of changed lives around me kept the God issue alive”

    Did you try to search for alternative, natural explanations for these changed lives before you thought it might be the work of God?

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  5. 5. plswinford 2:59 pm 12/20/2013

    I seem to be existing in a constant sense of wonder, which I appreciate. As an agnostic (one who is looking for some form of falseafiable evidence backing someone’s theology), I don’t attribute my sense of wonder to any diety. But I do appreciate it.

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  6. 6. rkipling 7:33 pm 12/22/2013

    As an agnostic, I am untroubled by anyone else’s beliefs as long as the beliefs don’t include violence toward those they consider infidels. In college it was a minor entertainment to confound the righteous by pointing out logical problems with their particular faith. After a year or two it occurred to me that I was engaging in a form of bullying. If a religious belief helps someone make it from one day to the next, who am I to deny them that comfort?

    As far as why life can seem wonderful, there may be or perhaps will be those who can give you an answer from a scientific perspective. Whatever mechanism that is, was the likely genesis of religion.

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  7. 7. Von Stupidtz 5:58 am 12/23/2013

    Behold, the great zen inventor himself. Left enough hints for future enlightened minds. I too had similar thoughts about the universe and its origins while I was just a little kid.

    And….thank you, thank you for this wonderful article.

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  8. 8. rkipling 1:15 pm 12/23/2013

    Von Stupidtz,

    The Zen of Snarky Comments?

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  9. 9. db91711 3:23 pm 12/23/2013

    Bullying is just mean. But when people air their beliefs, they should expect responses from people who don’t agree.

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  10. 10. rkipling 3:31 pm 12/23/2013

    db91711,

    Fair enough, but for a time I went out of my way to have them question their beliefs. People can handle situations however they wish. For my part, I don’t find it interesting to debate religion anymore.

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  11. 11. Rikpar44 7:02 pm 12/23/2013

    Enjoyed your blog post. Just one little nit to pick. Down here in the southern hemisphere December 21 is not the darkest day of the year, although I don’t want to be hemispherical about it. It’s actually midsummer’s day.

    On the religion/believer issue, I’m an atheist Buddhist with Daoist tendencies. As a Buddhist/Daoist, I can quite comfortably be an atheist. It’s wonderful, really. More people should try it.

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  12. 12. rkipling 4:51 am 12/24/2013

    Rikpar44,

    If people weren’t so Laozi, maybe they would?

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  13. 13. Von Stupidtz 9:46 am 12/24/2013

    rkipling,

    In the end, its just the internet,”virtual unreality” and to be taken as seriously.

    Keep in mind we are visiting the blog of an author who questions even real reality.

    I do apologize if I hurt your feelings in the virtual world.

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  14. 14. rkipling 8:24 pm 12/24/2013

    Von Stupidtz,

    Absolutely no apology necessary. I was virtually untouched. Anyone with such a self-deprecating user name can’t be all bad.

    I never take offense at anything here. I had only a minor concern that you seemed unhappy. I got over it pretty quickly. I don’t disagree with you other than to say it’s really not a big deal. People do the best they can.

    Some time back, one guy, who said he lived in China, was so unhappy with one of my comments that he called me an omnipotent child. Since English wasn’t his first language, it’s possible he meant something else I suppose? Anyway I replied thanking him for the complement saying that I really wasn’t quite that powerful. Never heard back from him.

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  15. 15. PeterWZ 3:55 pm 12/26/2013

    I find it so sad that people who have decided to be agnostic or atheist cannot allow people of faith to enjoy their holidays = holy days. We disagree on God’s existence and even on the existence of Jesus Christ who happens to have over one billion followers right now on this earth. For someone who is doubted to have existed, then we are truly facing something amazing when so many “believe” in Him. Can people of good will be fooled? Of course, they can. Have so many been fooled? That is a question worthy of respectful discourse.
    If someone in these United States does not want to celebrate Christmas or believe in Jesus, that is his or her prerogative. Snarky comments about believers are so without class, that I wonder if shame and simple etiquette have also been liquidated with one’s throwing out belief in God. I have felt too much love in my life – something which cannot be quantified despite so many talented experts’ best efforts – that I cannot doubt God’s existence and His presence to me.
    I wish those who are without faith the best. There is nothing truly transcendent in their lives to encourage them. They exist, but it seems they do not really live. They are sure they know how we came to be, but they cannot say why. Science is wonderful, but does not enter into that area of knowledge.
    As a man of faith, I believe I know why I am here and whither I will go. I am sad for those who can only see the mechanics of the world and not really consider possible the fact of the original mechanic who set it all into place and keeps it going.
    I love to read and learn about how our universe works. That is why I am a subscriber to SA despite the meanness of so many editorials. We can disagree, but can we not do it with respect? Of course, I am saddened by “believers” who are unkind to non-believers, and I do my best to engage them in dialogue and fraternal correction. Nontheless, that small number does not justify the mean words and hurtful expressions found on this site and in the pages of SA by those whose only belief is that they are better than everyone else who does not agree with them about the existence of God.
    Celebrate or observe the Solstice or Christmas as you see fit. Grow by that to be a better member of the human family or only the human race. I treat all as brothers and sisters, even though it is sometimes so hard. May this season be observed by all happily and may each seek his or her own meaning as makes the best sense for him or her. May all find their peace as best they can.
    I believe in the human family and I look to the next step of my journey when my work here on this earth concludes. I can understand the multiverse, but I personally find it lacking as the explanation for my and our lives here.
    Again, best Christmas and/or Solstice and/or nothing wishes to all.

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  16. 16. rkipling 5:13 pm 12/26/2013

    PeterWZ,

    A belated Merry Christmas to you. I hope you find peace and joy in your beliefs.
    I really enjoy Christmas traditions and carols. Decorating a Christmas tree is great fun.

    Some argue with my definitions of atheist and agnostic as simplistic. To my understanding, atheism requires exactly the same level of faith to absolutely know God doesn’t exist as to believe in God. I’m an agnostic by default because I just don’t know either way.

    Atheists who need to bring attention to their beliefs are a puzzlement to me. They really should admit that they adhere to a belief system which requires just as much faith as those they ridicule. Maybe their problem is that they are unsure in their belief? I would say that atheists with that approach are no different than Islamists attempting to convert the rest of the world. But, at least the atheists don’t proselytize under the threat of death so far. Plus they miss out on tree decorating.

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  17. 17. babby 1:33 am 12/27/2013

    I think you’ll find that a great many atheists go in for all or most of the rituals of Christmas. After all, what’s not to like? The solstice also marks a turning point in each year — the days begin to grow longer.

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  18. 18. greenhome123 11:12 pm 12/27/2013

    Abstinence is not 100% effective. Just ask Jesus mom. I’m sure there’s a lot of girls on jerry springer that would love to use the old got knocked up by god excuse.

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  19. 19. hkraznodar 3:04 pm 12/30/2013

    @RKipling – Re:comment 12
    OK, you win. No one is going to top that and now I have to go watch Kungfu Rascals just because you posted that.

    Link to this

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