Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Don't Push That Viking Mythology On Me

(Note: the following was originally published December, 2007, in the Ottawa Citizen. I thought I'd repeat it because, well, this stuff never goes out of fashion, does it?) I am an atheist. I do not believe in Zeus, Thor, Quetzalcoatl, Ganesh or Allah. I do not believe Moses parted the Red Sea. I do not believe Mohammed, Joseph Smith or anyone else ever spoke with angels. And I very much do not believe that God impregnated a virgin who gave birth on Christmas Day. Thus, while I appreciate the efforts of those sensitive souls who spot and erase references to Christmas in schools and other public settings, I must insist that the inclusion revolution go much further. I mean, what's up with "Wednesday"? The spelling has been slightly corrupted but it's pretty obvious it comes from "Woden's Day." Yes, Woden. The Norse god. Brother, I am sick to death of having that Viking stuff shoved down my throat. Monday? Named after Mani, another Norse god. Tuesday? Tyr's Day. Thursday is named for Thor, Friday for Freyja, and Sunday for Sunne. I do not worship Woden. I do not believe in Woden's existence. No Wodenist am I. So I should not be forced to hear his name every Tyr's Day when my editor asks why I'm late filing my Woden's Day column. Incidentally, the only relief from Norwegian domination of the days of the week is Saturday, which was named after the Roman god Saturn and -- as you may have guessed -- I do not believe in Saturn and I consider it outrageous that I should be forced to repeat the name of a god I do not believe in every time I invite friends over to watch Saturday morning cartoons. Scrap the lot of them. It should be easy to come up with inclusive replacements. Perhaps "Day One, Day Two, Day Three. ..." That would be a little bland, I must admit. Maybe we could use a different set of seven names. Something that wouldn't offend anyone. Perhaps the seven dwarves. Doc Day, Sleepy Day, Dopey Day. Brings a smile to the face, doesn't it? But I suppose dwarves may not like it. Or rather, little people. Sorry. OK, forget that. Anyway, I'm sure the reader gets the point. Our calendar is infested with non-inclusiveness. July is named for Julius Caesar and August for Augustus Caesar. As a descendant of people conquered by the former and an atheist who does not accept the alleged divinity of the latter, I feel excluded all summer. And then there's the year. For a little while longer, it's 2007. Why is that? What happened 2,007 years ago? That's right, the pregnant virgin again. Switching AD ("in the year of our lord") to CE ("common era") makes not the slightest difference. Every time I am forced to say or write the year, I am affirming that the most momentous event in history, the one around which all others are measured, was the birth of that baby with the questionable parentage. Having students sing the unedited version of Silver Bells may be an act of crushing oppression but it's a walk in the multicultural park compared to the religio-cultural imperialism embedded in the way we count years. Of course we cannot simply select a different event as the basis for numbering years because no event is deeply meaningful to all people -- Oscar night aside -- so choosing any event over any other would mean more exclusion. The only solution is to put balls numbered one to 2,007 in a toque --a very big toque -- and have a blindfolded monkey pick one. The year on the existing calendar that corresponds with that number becomes the new Year Zero. And just like that we've got inclusive years. Now back to the original problem of Christmas. It's clear that simply airbrushing the word "Christmas" from songs and greeting cards doesn't fully deal with the issue. By law, December 25 is a special day, so we all need to be able to say what that day is, and yet to do so we have to verbally affirm the divinity of Jesus. Outrageous. The name itself must be changed. Renowned atheist Richard Dawkins has suggested that since Sir Isaac Newton actually was born on Dec. 25 -- unlike that Jesus kid -- we might call it Newton Day. Dawkins was joking, but I think he's on to something, although there is a danger that some may be offended by another honour going to a dead white male. I also worry that Dawkins' idea could cause people to recall that both Justin and Alexandre Trudeau were born on Dec. 25 and Canadians could end up with Trudeau Day. I don't think I could enjoy fruitcake on Trudeau Day. Someone is bound to suggest "Winter Holiday," but note that the word "holiday" comes from "holy day" and thus implies the existence of some sanctifying authority. It is therefore deeply offensive to atheists. Or at least it is to this atheist. People think they're being inclusive when they wish me "happy holidays," but it hurts my feelings. So stop it. Where was I? Oh yes. The statutory day of non-work formerly known as Christmas. Perhaps "Winter Day Off" would do. Or less formally, Winterday. We must tread gingerly, however. It's summer in the southern hemisphere so immigrants from that half of the planet may feel excluded. Consultations with the southo-hemispheric community would be essential. Of course there is another possibility to all this. We could simply accept that our calendar is the product of many cultures and thousands of years of history. We could also realize that the names and events of the calendar, along with associated songs and other rituals, have as much or as little meaning as we -- each of us, individually --choose to give them. Today is the day we honour Saturn, if you wish; or maybe it's just Saturday. Christmas marks the birth of God's son; or perhaps it's the day we gather round a dying tree -- the Norse again -- to revel in materialism and get drunk. This is not perfect, mind you, but perfection is a dangerous illusion in a pluralistic society. A shrug and a smile can do more for tolerance and multiculturalism than a thousand sensitive school teachers. "I'm not one of those who wants to purge our society of Christian history," Richard Dawkins recently told the BBC. "I like singing carols along with everybody else." See, a shrug and a smile. It's easy. I'm off until Freyja's Day. Until then, Merry Christmas!