I was raised Catholic, wandered away in my mid-teens, became emphatically atheist toward the end of college. To do my parents justice, they’ve never tried to make me feel bad about it, though Mom does turn on the guilt a bit once in a while. Dad’s usually even interested in honest debate! So I’m a lucky one. We’re a very Christmas-centered family, and I never have any compunctions about enjoying the holiday. I don’t really care what I call my midwinter festivities, and the cheerful gutted paganism of lights and trees and an old bearded man who comes out of the snow to pass judgment has all the fun of Dr. Who enthusiasm or a Renfaire, only everyone else is excited too. I have no issues enjoying the old Christmas carols for the pretty music and archaic language. I lack the confidence in sympathetic magic that’d make me afraid to invoke imaginary beings. And I’ll set up the Christmas decorations for my dad, whose heart problems make it hard on him, including all his nativities. He collects them. Whatever, they’re little statues.
So all in all, I’m happily reconciled to Christmas and have no objection to doing my part when it comes to the mish-mashed cultural trappings, whether it’s a six-month-old baby in a plastic manger or bedecking an evergreen with lights to coax the sun back again. However, my parents have traditionally been in charge of the Christmas pageant at a church kid’s event, and they want me to help. I don’t want any part of proselytizing to children as a matter of course. However, my parents enjoy their tradition and the social clout it gives them, no kid who’s been brought to the event won’t already be steeped in the Catholic thing, and they’ll do it anyway. If I help they’ll just have a less stressful time of it. I’ve always found the Christmas narrative the least intrinsically yucky part of the Jesus story. When I was in high school I wrote skits and took parts for this performance, so I even have a personal history with it.
Do I concede that the whole thing is mostly harmless and give my folks a hand? Or does the simple fact that I’d be taking part in indoctrinating kids, whatever else the circumstances, render this a concession I can’t make?
Christmas Elf, Not Nativity Shepherd
The principle you’re trying to follow is to avoid causing harm or hurt, and you’re trying to assess which path is the least likely to do harm or hurt, and if there must be some, which path will do the least harm or hurt.
Life constantly puts us in situations where we have to balance our principles with pragmatics, and there is no set place where they always balance. We cannot rely upon a prescribed answer. We must use our judgment case by case by case. There is never any perfect solution; we make our best guess, and take our chances. Even with our good intentions, we must accept responsibility for the outcome.
I think you have presented a strong case for helping your parents, because they enjoy running the pageant, but it’s a stress on them, and you can reduce their stress and possible risk to their health. You will also be showing them a similar acceptance and respect that they have shown you in your disbelief.
You are being very conscientious to consider the principle side of the question by wanting to avoid indirectly contributing to the indoctrination of young people by helping with the pageant. However, it sounds like the actual effect that you would have on them would be extremely minimal if any at all, and as you point out, they have already been repeatedly exposed to it.
So I suggest that in this case helping your parents is the option that is least likely to cause harm and hurt, and the most likely to help two specific people. It also has a very small likelihood of indirectly and tangentially causing an arguably negligible amount of harm to unspecified people.
You have a limited number of Christmases to spend with your parents. You’ll have the rest of each year and the rest of your life to follow your own convictions more meticulously. You’ll also have opportunities to help young people who are beginning to question the indoctrination that you mentioned. There are more and more of them each year. Having mindfully dealt with several dilemmas like this one will give you compassion and patience for them. When they’re in that very uncomfortable place of doubt, someone showing them compassion and patience is what they will need the most.
Enjoy the time you have with your mom and dad, and fill it with as much love as you can. I agree that you are a lucky one to have parents who have responded to your atheism with such equanimity. They also are lucky to have you, with both a mind that wants to be precise in principles, and a heart that wants to be generous in love.
I hope that you and your parents enjoy a very happy time together in this season of natural cold and dark, and human warmth and light.