I wasn't going to bother commenting on this story, because it seemed so boring and trivial: conservative political figure makes off-the-cuff remark that betrays ignorance of minority group. My friend Donna Harris of the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba has already commented on the matter, and well, and I was content to leave it at that. But I got a call this afternoon from a Winnipeg Sun reporter seeking comment, and it served to solidify my thoughts on the matter, so I figured that I might as well share them.
For context, here's what provincial Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said:
I want to wish everyone a really, really merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, all the holidays... all you infidel atheists out there, I want to wish you the very best also. I don't know what you celebrate during the holiday season, I myself celebrate the birth of Christ, but it's your choice, and I respect your choice. If you want to celebrate nothing, and just get together with friends, that's good, too. All the best.
First of all, personally, I don't think that this is a big deal. At all. Pallister seemed to be speaking extemporaneously, and he appeared to be expressing honest goodwill to everyone.
Most of the outcry seems to centre on his use of the word "infidel", which Pallister claims is simply another innocent word for "nonbeliever". Although I would argue that "faithless" is probably a closer match etymologically, I'm content to let that pass without wasting too much time pointing out that the term is generally considered derogatory and pejorative.
What does cause me a bit of concern, on the other hand, is that Pallister seems to believe that atheists "celebrate nothing". I'm not sure quite how to make sense of this comment, for of course any given atheist might celebrate any number of things during the holidays: family, friends, the turning of the seasons, and the birthday of Sir Isaac Newton come most readily to mind. But atheism isn't a religion: there are no tenets or dogma, and atheists are not a homogenous lot.
Atheists believe and celebrate in all sorts of disparate things. An atheist might believe in Keynesian economics, or might be of the Austrian school. An atheist might follow Kant's categorical imperative, or have a more utilitarian ethic. An atheist might be a humanist, or even an Objectivist.
Atheism isn't a belief system. Asking what atheists believe or what atheists celebrate is like asking what people who don't believe in faeries or ghosts believe or celebrate. Any number of things, certainly. Not all the same things, naturally. But probably not "nothing".
Update (2 December 2013): That was quick. The new article is now available on the Sun's website. It is brief, as is to be expected, and makes a minor error or two (although I started the group, Ashlyn has been the organiser of the Winnipeg Skeptics for almost a year), but it's fine.