The Ethical Dilemma: Holiday Music Torture

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective? In the spirit of the New York Times “The Ethicist” or Slate’s “Dear Prudence,” Humanist Network News is proud to introduce “The Ethical Dilemma,” an advice column by Joan Reisman-Brill.

Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at All inquiries are kept confidential.


Holiday Music Torture: I run a bed-and-breakfast. While I absolutely love the holiday season in all its festivity and cheer, I’m having a real problem with the soundtrack. We play music over the intercom for our guests’ enjoyment. I happen to love many of the traditional carols, but they are not politically correct and some of our patrons would find them offensive. So instead, we play non-religious songs like “Jingle Bell Rock.” While the guests come and go, we are bombarded for the duration until I just want to beat my fists against my ears. Make it stop!

–Longing for a Silent Night

Dear Silent,

We all endure this, whether it’s coming from the radio, piped into every store, or even blasting on city streets. There’s no escaping religious Christmas songs or their secular, sometimes artistically inferior, counterparts. And these repetitious tunes start looping earlier every year. 

But you have a number of options to save your ears from ringing like Quasimodo. First of all, you don’t have to play holiday music at all. Just stick with the regular soundtrack of music you enjoy. If you have guests who specifically request holiday tunes, play that for them when they’re in the inn, then switch it off when they go out for the day. Establish a rule that holiday music is available only after December 24 and must end by midnight on December 25. If it’s really turning you into Scrooge, pull the plug on your sound system and say you’re having “technical difficulties.”

By the way, there’s nothing wrong with non-religious people enjoying Christmas carols. As legendary Messiah conductor and atheist David Randolph said, there’s no such thing as “religious” music—only music put to different uses. Brahms, Verdi and Berlioz, composers of enduringly beautiful religious pieces, were atheists, and Irving Berlin, who wrote the all-time favorite “White Christmas,” was born Jewish and died agnostic. So play whatever you and your guests enjoy, and you won’t have to ask Santa for earplugs. 

Atheist Date in Disguise: I’m in the market for a romantic relationship and ultimately marriage. I’m planning to try a couple online dating sites, as well as other means to meet potential partners. Recently I approached a few prospects, but the minute I said I’m an atheist, they bolted. I’m thinking maybe I should downplay that until they get to know me. In the meantime, I could claim the religion I was raised in, while noting that I’m not very religious. Is that a good plan?

–Looking for Love

Dear Looking for Love,

In all the wrong places! Unless you are interested in personal experiences you can turn into a script for a screwball comedy, or a tear-jerker, this is not the way to roll. When your dates learn the truth, they will also learn that you are dishonest about yourself and either ashamed or just spineless. And what do you do if you get in deep with someone deeply religious and realize that the truth–kissed her prince who turned out to be a frog–will be a deal-breaker? Will you speak up and apologize for the emotional trauma, or just keep pretending all the way into marriage and family? Why would you even want to pursue a relationship with anyone who’d reject you simply because you’re a non-believer?

Don’t embark on the road to intimacy afraid to reveal who you really are. Yes, someone who will only date a certain type today might feel differently tomorrow, but you don’t want to initiate a relationship expecting one of you will have to change. Hold out for someone who’s receptive to you as you are. You yourself could conceivably wake up one day embracing religion, but unless that happens, don’t go around professing false gods.

You don’t have to lead off with “Hi, I’m Pat and I’m an atheist.” Consider what terms best depict you—atheist, agnostic, non-believer, humanist, freethinker—and prepare a brief sound-bite summing up your outlook. Then if no one bites, keep casting until you find someone who says, “Tell me more!”

By the way, there’s lots of action in non-believer dating services. Check them out. Just don’t check off a belief you don’t believe in. 

Religious School: I was brought up in an ultra-fundamentalist religion and married a wonderful girl from the same community four years ago. Around that time I became an atheist while she has remained religious, although not as strict as we were brought up–but both of our families remain religious fanatics. Usually a situation like this results in bitter divorce and custody battles, but my wife is so amazing we were able to talk it out and remain together. However, my wife insisted on sending our children to a religious school—I have no problem with that, as long as the school also offers a solid secular education and teaches tolerance of all beliefs. But our older child recently started pre-school and already he’s being taught religion. I’m worried that some form of indoctrination or brainwashing is taking place. As his parent, I have a responsibility to ensure that he grows up an independent critical thinker. How can I ensure that our children are brought up to challenge everything they are taught in school and by family (challenge, but not necessarily abandon; ultimately that would be up to them) without contradicting my wife’s beliefs?

–Agreed to Disagree

Dear Agreed,

The fact is your beliefs do contradict your wife’s and there’s no getting around that. It’s great that you and your wife are staying together, but is she the one who’s amazing? You made an amazing leap when you embraced your atheism in such an unsupportive environment, but you sound as though your wife is doing you a favor by staying with you. What about all you are doing to accommodate her?

You made a huge and unfortunate concession when you agreed to send the children to religious school. Of course your son is being taught religion, and at this early age he’s probably only being taught one—The One. You can bet the agenda (even if hidden) is to indoctrinate the kiddies before they have a chance to develop critical thinking skills. If there ever is any lesson about tolerance for other religions, it will very likely be lip-service about being polite about stuff that won’t go away. There will probably be little if any positive consideration of atheism.

It would be ideal if you and your wife could revisit the decision about the kids’ education. Admit you regret agreeing to religious school. If she’s as committed as you to your marriage and family unity, she should be as willing to flex as much as you have. Suggest a compromise: pre-school at a religious school, then a secular elementary school (you can sweeten the deal with Sunday school or other religious lessons on the side), and then let the kids choose after that. At the very least, make sure the religious school is aware and respectful of your atheism. If not, look for another one—the most progressive you can find, and preferably one that includes students and teachers from other faiths. Even if you’re stuck with the school situation, remember that you went to ultra-religious school yourself yet you developed the critical abilities to reject religion—and you didn’t have an atheist parent. Your kids have you right there providing a living, breathing counterpoint to what they’ll be taught at school.

You can never ensure that your children will one day choose atheism any more than your parents could ensure that you would follow their faith. But you can equip them to think for themselves and make informed decisions.