“If the nativity to you is nothing more than a fairytale, how do you handle Christmas?”
“Much of what is best about Christmas is entirely unrelated to the story of the birth of Christ. It revolves around themes of community, festivity and renewal which predate the context in which they were cast over the centuries by Christianity.
Alain De Botton
Christmas is inevitably a rather problematic time for atheists. Does one sour the mood, somewhere between the turkey and the pudding, and overtly declare the entire festivity is built on the naivety and, if one’s feeling particularly spiky, the blatant stupidity of one’s ancestors? Or does one simply fill up the stocking, sing Away In A Manger and go with the occasion in a spirit of politeness?
In this area, I wasn’t reared for compromise. I was brought up in a devoutly atheistic household, by a father who made Richard Dawkins look open-minded on the matter of there perhaps being a supreme being. I recall him reducing my sister to tears in an attempt to dislodge her notion that a reclusive god might dwell somewhere in the universe. She was eight at the time. If any members of their social circle were discovered to harbour clandestine religious sentiments, my parents would start to regard them with the sort of pity more commonly reserved for those diagnosed with a degenerative disease and could from then on never take them seriously again.
Christmas was a particular testbed of loyalties. At its approach, my parents would go into overdrive, stressing the absurdity of all its rituals, art, songs and traditions. They weren’t so cruel as to deny their children presents – but to make the point, they insisted on giving them to us in August. This wasn’t a problem. It was rather special. I went through childhood feeling rather sorry for people vulgar enough to have Christmas trees and advent calendars: hadn’t they understood?
Then, in my mid-20s, I underwent a crisis of faithlessness. It began with a re-evaluation of Christmas – and gradually spread to religion as a whole. My feelings of doubt began one year when I was invited to spend Christmas at the home of a Christian friend. He had evidently taken pity on me. At the time, I was single, professionally adrift and obviously lonely – and when he suggested I might like to test my prejudices and come for a bit of lunch (playfully promising there would be no attempts to save my soul, or at least not till after the main course), I didn’t even pretend to put up a fight. Needless to say, the occasion was eye-opening in the extreme. I felt I was doing something very taboo simply by pulling a cracker. There was warmth, jollity, music, even moments of faith that no longer felt especially alien or daft. As lunch spread out across a lazy afternoon, I began to face up to the full scale of my ambivalence regarding the doctrinaire principles with which I had been inculcated in childhood. I never wavered in my certainty that God did not exist. I was simply liberated by the thought that there might be a way to engage with religion without having to subscribe to its supernatural content.
It should be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find occasions such as Christmas useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain religious ideas into the secular realm. The real issue is not whether God exists, but where one takes the argument to once one decides he evidently doesn’t. We invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day: the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses; and the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise. God may be dead, but the urgent issues that impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inaccuracies in the tale of the five loaves and two fishes.
In turning our backs on all aspects of religion, we allow it to claim as its exclusive dominion areas of experience that should rightly belong to all mankind – and that we should feel unembarrassed about reappropriating for the secular realm. Early Christianity was itself adept at appropriating the good ideas of others, aggressively subsuming countless pagan practices which modern atheists now tend to avoid in the mistaken belief that they are indelibly Christian. Much of what is best about Christmas is entirely unrelated to the story of the birth of Christ. It revolves around themes of community, festivity and renewal which predate the context in which they were cast over the centuries by Christianity. Many of our soul-related needs are ready to be freed of the particular tint given to them by religions – even if it is, paradoxically, the study of religions that often holds the key to their rediscovery and rearticulation.
For an atheist to make friends with Christmas is likely to annoy partisans on both sides of the debate. Christians might take offence at the selective and unsystematic consideration of one of their holiest festivals. Religions are not buffets, they will protest, from which choice elements can be selected at whim. However, the downfall of many a faith has been its unreasonable insistence that adherents must eat everything on the plate. Why should it not be possible to appreciate the depiction of modesty in portraits of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, yet bypass the doctrine of the annunciation; admire Christianity’s emphasis on compassion, yet shun its theories of the afterlife? For someone devoid of religious belief, it may be no more of a crime to dip into aspects of faith than it is for a lover of literature to single out a few favourite writers from across the canon.
Atheists of the militant kind may also feel outraged, in their case by an approach that treats religion as though it deserved to be a continuing touchstone for our yearnings. They will point to the furious institutional intolerance of many religions, and to the equally rich, though less illogical and illiberal, stores of consolation and insight available through art and science. They may additionally ask why anyone who professes himself unwilling to accept so many facets of religion – who feels unable to speak up in the name of virgin births, say – should still wish to associate himself with a subject as compromised as faith. To this the answer is that religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in a range of interests – education, fashion, politics, travel, publishing, art and architecture – which puts to shame the scope of the achievements of even the greatest secular movements and individuals in history.
At Christmas, without any naivety (without forgetting the Inquisition, the Crusades and those many very corrupt priests), it should be possible to sidestep religions’ more dogmatic aspects in order to be nourished by aspects of them that remain consoling to sceptical contemporary minds. I have tentatively been celebrating it for a number of years now. My wife (educated by nuns, theology degree from Oxford) and I began things very modestly indeed, with a metallic light-up “tree” from Habitat and a Marks & Spencer oven-ready turkey, sprouts and potato combo. The whole thing, with present swapping, was over in 40 minutes flat. We felt very special. But we’ve had children since and this brings atheists into line like nothing else. Our youngest has proudly been playing the innkeeper in the school nativity play. Both our children sing of Jesus’s love with gusto.
I don’t mind in the least. I’m interested in the emotions underneath these rituals, not the specifics, and really what is at stake is a celebration of family and of love. One would have to be truly unconfident about the human capacity to mature to be offended by the credulity Christmas provokes in people under 10. Given our kids also believe in ghosts and their father’s dexterity at football, there is plenty of time to sort things out down the line. I have resisted a Christmas tree, though. I stressed to my children that almost half of Christians celebrate Christmas during a warm season – and so, at the suggestion of our eldest son, our presents are now arranged around a Christmas cactus, richly decorated with cut-outs of the holy family.
For an atheist, one of the most interesting functions of Christmas is its fostering of a spirit of community. We live in a crowded but lonely world. The public spaces in which we typically encounter others – commuter trains, jostling pavements – conspire to project a demeaning picture of our identities, which undermines our capacity to hold on to the idea that every person is necessarily the centre of a complex and precious individuality. It can be hard to stay hopeful about human nature after a walk down Oxford Street. Locked away in our private cocoons, our chief way of imagining what other people are like has become the media, and as a consequence we naturally expect all strangers will be murderers, swindlers and paedophiles. Solitary though we may have become, we haven’t of course given up all hope of forming relationships. In the lonely canyons of the modern city, there is no more honoured emotion than love. However, this is not the love of which religions speak, not the expansive, universal brotherhood of mankind; it is a more jealous, restricted and ultimately meaner variety. It is a romantic love that sends us on a maniacal quest for a single person with whom we hope to achieve a lifelong and complete communion, one person in particular who will spare us any need for people in general.
The rituals of Christmas reflect a deep understanding of our loneliness. I am a great admirer of carol services, of being crammed together with strangers in a warm communal atmosphere akin to that of a pop concert or nightclub when people sway their arms to the music and (for a brief moment) it feels almost possible to love everybody without reserve. The composition of a typical congregation at a service feels significant. Those in attendance tend not to be uniformly of the same age, race, profession or educational or income level; they are a random sampling of souls united only by their shared commitment to certain values. A service or mass actively breaks down the economic and status subgroups within which we normally operate, casting us into a wider sea of humanity. We are urged to overcome our provincialism and our tendency to be judgmental – and to make a sign of peace to whomever chance has placed on either side of us.
And it is one of the few times of the year that one can appreciate the sheer beauty of functioning ecclesiastical architecture. The crafted timber door and 300 stone angels carved around the porch signal to us that we have now stepped into a zone marked by relationships quite unlike those of the offices, gyms and living rooms of the secular world. I can never forget a carol service I attended at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge a few years ago: it was the closest I ever came to conversion. Until atheists learn to use architecture as well as religions, they will be missing a vital point about what seduces human minds. Books alone aren’t convincing objects, compared with a choir singing a Bach cantata in a gothic building.
It is no coincidence that food and its communal consumption looms so large in considerations of Christmas. Sitting down at a table with a group, some of whom will be strangers, has the incomparable and odd benefit of making it a little more difficult to hate them with impunity. Prejudice and ethnic strife feed off abstraction. However, the proximity required by a long meal – something about handing dishes around, unfurling napkins at the same moment – disrupts our ability to cling to hatreds. Religions know enough about our sensory, non-intellectual dimensions to be aware that we cannot be kept on a virtuous track simply through the medium of words. They know that at a meal they will have a captive audience who are likely to accept a trade-off between ideas and nourishment – and so they turn meals into disguised ethical lessons. They stop us just before we have a first sip of wine and offer us a thought that can be swilled down with the liquid like a tablet. They make us listen to a homily in the gratified interval between two courses.
The secular world often sees in rituals such as communal singing or eating a loss of diversity, quality and spontaneity. Religion seems bossy. But at its finest this ritual-based bossiness enables fragile but important aspects of life to be identified and shared. Those of us who hold no religious or supernatural beliefs still require regular, ritualised encounters with concepts such as friendship, community, gratitude and transcendence. We need institutions that can mine, harvest and mould precious ideas for us, remind us that we need them and present them to us in beautiful wrappings – thus ensuring the nourishment of the most forgetful sides of ourselves.
The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and, throughout the liturgical year, deserves to be selectively reabsorbed. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.
I find Botton’s argument very admirable and relevant not only for the atheists’ dilemma of how big a chunk of the religion cake they have to relinquish and leave behind, but also for the believers of all faiths who subscribe to their religions only for the sake of mere spiritual gratification even if it meant buying into the religious fairy tales.
From my first hand experience, I could attest to the fact that the majority of ordinary Muslims when listening to the Quran they don’t focus on interpreting its verses or validating their historicity, rather they dwell in the pleasing and somehow tuneful recitation by the sheikh.
And likewise in Hij-annual pilgrimage to Mecca, a ritual that has been practiced for centuries of paganism before Islam- Muslim pilgrims are captivated by the dissolving of their egos into a bigger entity of millions who come from all corners of the world and from all ages and walks of life and experience maybe what the pagans felt when they used to perform the very same rituals around Kabba.
And as botton put it “Many of our soul-related needs are ready to be freed of the particular tint given to them by religions – even if it is, paradoxically, the study of religions that often holds the key to their rediscovery and rearticulation.”
Most Muslims are not experts on Sharia and many of them have no idea what the word means, but when it comes to celebrating the fasting month of Ramadan or Eid with all the entailed festivities and gatherings, something that all humans need and crave for, that is when they can unambiguously define and relate themselves to Islam.