Happy New Year! I’m not Chinese so I was not actually paying attention to the New Year. First I got reminded by the dumpling shop I “liked” on Facebook. Then I got some notes from Asian students about missing class for the holiday. Which reminds me of the sociologically important point I make in lecture every year. My university has a religious accommodation policy which I wholeheartedly endorse. All students must be accommodated for religious observances, and all claims of a need for religious accommodation must be taken at face value. (As the policy states, there is no dignified or respectful way to interrogate a student about his or her religion.) This is subject only to the rules that the need for accommodation be stated at the beginning of the term (not the night before a paper is due) and that there can be a limit placed on how many days of accommodation should be provided.
For Chinese people, and many other Asian groups, the New Year is the most important family/cultural holiday. People go to great trouble and expense to spend the holiday with family, and there are many meaningful cultural and spiritual practices associated with it, even for nominally atheist people. But our religious accommodation policy does not cover this holiday unless people are willing to say that their religion is being Chinese, or that their religion is Daoism or “Chinese traditional” religion. If they are willing to ask for religious accommodation for the holiday, they can have it, but mostly they don’t ask.
I have long been fascinated by this artificial legalistic boundary between “religion” (which must be accommodated) and “culture” (which is ignored as a basis of accommodation) when, in reality, the two are always wholly intertwined.
An older post in which I reflected on related issues on my own blog