The Humanist Dilemma: It’s Okay for an Atheist to Celebrate St. Paddy’s Day, Right?

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Secular St. Pat’s: For as long as I can remember, I’ve always participated in the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. Each year I make sure I eat some corned beef, cabbage, and Irish soda bread, catch a bit of the parade if I can manage it, and hit a few bars for some green beer. It’s fun and I enjoy it.

This year, however, one of the crew that I go pub-crawling with said he didn’t understand why I’d keep doing this since I’m an atheist. He asserted it’s a religious holiday and an atheist should not take part in it.

I think he’s wrong, but I held back from saying anything because I’m not sure where all the other guys stand on this and whether I’d be wrong to ignore the religious aspect of the holiday. I want to continue my traditions of previous years, but maybe, as a proud atheist, I’m being hypocritical.

–Should I Give Up St. Pat’s Or Stay Green?


Dear Green,

St. Patrick’s Day is a unique holiday when everyone claims to be Irish and hardly anyone can tell you what it’s about. From what I gather, it’s kind of the story of the Pied Piper, only with snakes instead of rats and unfortunate children. I don’t really feel compelled to research the origins, because what it has become is a big parade and beer party with optional corned and boiled dinner. Like Mardi Gras, it’s about having fun and being silly, often to excess. Chicago even dyes a river green for the day, and I’m not aware that any church/state separation organizations have objected (maybe environmental groups, but the dye is reputedly harmless). The day after St. Paddy’s, people don’t head to church and emerge with anything akin to a cross made of ashes on their foreheads, so it seems it’s even more removed from its religious roots than Fat Tuesday.

I’m sure your friend hasn’t challenged you about Valentine’s Day, which is likewise named for a saint and therefore must have some religious connotations—although I don’t know what they are and I doubt many others do either. Surely chocolates and champagne aren’t sacred like wafers and wine, and Cupid is not related to angels or holy infants.

Your friend is either teasing you or being obtuse (both acceptable on this occasion). One of the drawbacks of being an atheist can be a lack of community and traditional celebrations, but you have found that St. Patrick’s Day fills the bill for you. If everyone can be Irish for the day, you can too, atheism notwithstanding. So don your green and put a shamrock (not a cross) around your neck, and party hearty—unless you’re the designated driver and God is not your co-pilot.