For most people, it’s back to work after a day off. The tree is still up, the trash bag overflows with crumpled wrapping paper and the refrigerator is filled with leftovers from a sumptuous holiday dinner. Fa-la-la-la-la is still ringing in our ears.
And then there’s Ron Herman.
Herman is a genial fellow I met a couple of weeks before Christmas, as the Christmas spirit was in full swing. The newspaper was jammed with ads for Christmas sales. Shops and radio stations were playing Christmas music. And social calendars were filled with Christmas parties and potlucks.
While most people today will be heating up some leftover turkey or ham and exhaling a long, “Whew,” Herman told me he planned to be spending today recovering from exactly nothing. No tree to take down. No party to clean up after. No presents given or received. No special meal.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for him, “Just a normal day,” he told me.
When we met, Herman handed me his business card, and when I read it, I realized I can call him not just an atheist but a card-carrying atheist. (We happened to meet, not unironically, in front of a decorated Christmas tree.)
He’s the director of the Albuquerque chapter of a national organization called Freedom From Religion, which includes atheists (nonbelievers) and agnostics (serious doubters) as it members. The group has about 200 members, 30 of which are active in meetings and outreach. He also belongs to the Humanist Society of New Mexico, which has about 100 registered members.
Christmas, the day that celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, has become a universal holiday with government offices and private businesses closed and most people, regardless of their faith, enjoying a paid day off from work. Schools let out for vacation. Mail isn’t delivered. And for weeks, clerks, co-workers, just about everyone, wishes everyone “Merry Christmas!”
I’d gotten in touch with Herman, because I was curious about how atheists, who are a largely silent group, experience the Christmas season. Do they feel estranged, overwhelmed, offended? Do they just go along with the Christmas-celebrating majority?
“Ah, gosh,” Herman said. “Some traditions are hard to set aside. They’re caught up in history and family.”
He’s 66 now, but when his children were young, he and his wife decorated the house and had what he calls “a low-hysteria holiday.” Until last year, he said, he still put up a Christmas tree. This year, he decorated with lights and greenery, which is seen as a pagan symbol. He doesn’t give Christmas gifts; he likes to give people gifts on their birthdays.
Herman was raised Catholic in Las Vegas, N.M., and he was an altar boy and sang in the choir. He has been an avowed atheist for 12 years and a doubter since college.
“It’s difficult to come out,” Herman said, using the terminology more often associated with declaring oneself openly gay. “Atheism is not highly thought of in this country. Most people don’t understand.”
But he is today an open atheist.
When a store clerk counts out his change and says, “Merry Christmas,” Herman most commonly says, “Oh, thank you. I’m an atheist, but I appreciate the thought.” (He says the same thing when he sneezes and someone says, “God bless you.”)
Herman, a semiretired product development engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, isn’t the kind of guy to lead with his chin.
“Ordinarily, I don’t make a big deal out of it,” Herman said. “I don’t feel offended by any of it. I have to respect what religion means to many people and the good that it does in their lives.”
As long as governments don’t use taxpayer money to promote religion, Herman has no beef with the season or with religious people. But he also wants to make sure nonbelievers have a voice.
“Part of my interest in being a vocal atheist is to let more people know that we are out here,” Herman said. “We are members of the community and we’re responsible members of the community with integrity like other people. And we strive to do good even though we don’t have gods. I like to let people know, hey, we’re not all believers.”