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by Ellen Johnson, President, American Atheists
December 17, 2020

Ms. Johnson presented this talk at the New Jersey Winter Solstice Luncheon.

In December, 1897, Robert Ingersoll -- “The Great Agnostic” -- wrote a brief editorial piece for the Boston Arena newspaper. It was titled “What I Want For Christmas.” It is sometimes confused with his longer essay “A Christmas Sermon,” which appeared in the Evening Telegram newspaper six years earlier. You may recall that the “Sermon” drew the wrath of religious groups throughout the country. The Rev. J.M. Buckley, who edited a Methodist publication called “The Christian Advocate”, responded to Ingersoll’s “Sermon,” and even called upon the public to boycott the Evening Telegram for the sin of publishing such a blasphemous piece. The “Sermon” was a history and commentary on Christmas, but “What I Want For Christmas” was an idealistic wish list. It is very brief, and I’d like to read it to you...

“If I had the power to produce exactly what I want for next Christmas, I would have all the kings and emperors resign and allow the people to govern themselves.

“I would have all of the nobility crop their titles and give their lands back to the people. I would have the Pope throw away his tiara, take off his sacred vestments, and admit that he is not acting for God -- is not infallible -- but is just an ordinary Italian. I woulds have all the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests and clergymen admit that they know nothing about theology, nothing about heaven or hell, nothing about the destiny of the human race, nothing about devils or ghosts, gods or angels. I would have them tell all their “flocks” to think for themselves, to be manly men and womanly women, and to do all in their power to increase the sum of human happiness.

“I would have all the professors in colleges, all the teachers in schools of every kind, including those in Sunday schools, agree that they would teach only what they know, that they would not palm off guesses as demonstrated truths.

“I would like to see all the politicians changed to statesman -- to men who long to make their country great and free -- to men who care more for public good than private gain -- men who long to be of use.

“I would like to see all the editors of papers and magazines agree to print the truth and nothing but the truth, to avoid all slander and misrepresentations, to let the private affairs of the people alone.

“I would like to see drunkeness and prohibition both abolished.

“I would like to see corporal punishment done away with in every home, in every school, in every asylum, reformatory and prison. Cruelty hardens and degrades, kindness reforms and ennobles.

“I would like to see the millionaires unite and form a trust for the public good.

“I would like to see a fair division of profits between capital and labor, so that the toiler could save enough to mingle a little June with the December of his life.

“I would like to see an international court established in which to settle disputes between nations, so that armies could be disbanded and the great navies allowed to rust and rot in perfect peace.

“I would like to see the whole world free -- free from injustice, free from superstition.

“This will do for the next Christmas. The following Christmas, I may want more.”

As you can see, Ingersoll was very much the product of his times. Some of what he wanted has come to pass, at least to a degree. Some of his wish list remains elusive and unfulfilled.

I have a wish list too that I want to share with all of you this Winter Solstice, in December of 2000. It is perhaps a bit more modest than Ingersoll’s, but it might require as much work.

If I had the power to produce exactly what I want for next Solstice, I would begin by asking that the men and women we elect to public office follow the Constitution. I would ask that even those among them who are religious, not view this historic document as an impediment, or an obstacle,or something which can be ignored in the name of a “god” or any “emergency” that comes along.

I would ask that when it comes time for us to elect these men and women, that “we the people” have some real choices. I’d like to see at least some of these candidates, for once, openly, proudly and without hesitation, say that they support the constitutional separation of church and state. For once, I would like to NOT hear the phrase from a politician: “I believe in the First Amendment, BUT...”

I’d like to see candidates stop turning their election campaigns into religious revival road-shows. For once, I’d like to see candidates and elected officials stop effusively displaying their dependence on a god, or some holy book, or their affiliation with a particular church, as a badge that renders them more worthy to hold public office. If they have a religious belief, I would like to see it mentioned only in passing.

I would like to see religious leaders exercise less arrogance. The Christians, the Jews, the Muslims, the Confucians -- all of them -- disagree on whose “god” is real, what this “god” said or says, how this “god” wants people to live. Like Ingersoll, I would like to see these people admit -- for once -- that the fact that they have titles and wear distinct costumes, or have people reverentially fawning over their every step does not render them any more intelligent, or moral, or far-sighted than anyone else. I’d like to see them admit -- for once -- that maybe, just maybe, they don’t have all of the answers, or even most of them.

For once, when a pope or Archbishop or Dali Lama or minister appears on a talk show or news program, I’d like to see an Atheist invited to give “equal time” for the other side. After all, whenever WE appear in the media, news directors slavishly tell us that “in the interest of fairness,” Father so-and-so or Reverend this-and-that should be there, too, to provide the other side. Whenever we are interviewed for the newspapers, a member of the clergy is also interviewed in order to comment on us. When the President gives an official speech, the minority party gets an opportunity to respond and I’d like to see Atheists have that opportunity, too.

I’d like to see all of the religious leaders of all of the world’s different religions stop telling us how to live our lives. Wearing a collar or robe or funny hat doesn’t make you an expert in ethics, or women’s rights, or the environment, or education, or anything else. I’d like to see religious folk stop bringing their various and sundry doctrines into the area of public policy. They can’t even agree among themselves! How do they know what is right for me, for you, for anyone else?

I’d like to see Atheists change a bit as well. I’d like to see us argue less with religious folks, and start talking more about how we can stand up for our rights and civil liberties. I’d like to see us wake up to the fact that it’s as important -- if not more so -- to talk to a Senator, a Congressional Representative, a Mayor or some other public official as it is to argue about creationism, or debate how many gods can exist on the tip of a needle with a minister. I’d like to see us do what all of the religious groups in this country have done, which is to demand a place at the table, and in the voice in the great discussion we call democracy.

I’d like to see Atheists follow a similar path, and gain some of the same respect and influence that so many other marginalized groups before us have done. I’d like to see it written someday that like Blacks, and women, and gays, that millions of people who lived their lives without the need for religious belief also spoke out and acted, and took the civil rights which are properly theirs. I’d like to see Atheists be among all of those other groups that are having their say in how the society is run. I’d like to see my fellow Atheists admit that we, too, have just as much right to organize, to act, to speak out as anyone else does. I’d like to see that cultural closet door open, even if just a little bit each year. Maybe by next Winter Solstice, some more Atheists in the closet will come out, if at first a trifle hesitantly.

I’d like to see Atheists stop leaving the room, classroom, lunchroom or courtroom in protest over religious mumbling. This “Atheist-cleansing” has got to stop. I want Atheists to stand their ground. Make them look at you. Make them listen to you. And make THEM leave when they want to hold religious rituals where they don’t belong.

I would like to see our government stop using my money, and yours, to further the agenda of religious groups. I’d like to see the public treasury open only to further the interests of the people, not the clergy and not the churches. I would also like to see religious groups be a little fairer, a little more humble perhaps, and stop trying to curry the favor of government so they hide behind “special rights’ and other laws.

I’d like to see Atheists supporting one another a little more and show up more for announced protests and marches - so that none of us has to further endure the frustration of being a small voice against the oppositions well-organized, financed and committed numbers.

I’d like to see judges and justices stop obfuscating the intent of the law in order to avoid making politically unpopular decisions. A creche on public property is not a secular representation of the “nuclear family”. A prayer before city council meetings is not merely “a gavel to call the room to order”. And the Ten Commandments are not an actual historical document and it is not the legal foundation of our laws.

And finally, I fervently wish that we never forget the three people who brought this important day back to the attention of our nation - Madalyn O’Hair, Robin Murray-O’Hair and Jon Garth Murray It was almost twenty years ago that I learned about and started celebrating the Winter Solstice. It has turned what was a bleak and unimportant time of year for me into something my senses and intellect recognize as real and important. It is even more important for me now that I have children and I have a day of celebration that I can share with them and do it wholeheartedly. The Murray-O’Hairs changed my life for the better and it saddens me greatly that they aren’t here with us to enjoy this or any more Winter Solstice seasons - they loved the Winter Solstice so.....They should never be forgotten.

I’d like to see a lot more, too, but this will do for now. This should keep all of us quite busy for the next twelve months, as our Earth makes another circuit around its sun. To paraphrase Mr. Ingersoll, “This will do for now. The following Winter Solstice, I may want more...”


Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.