It makes it worse, really, that I can still remember the soft focus nativities of my childhood, when I still had the hope of the story of the Christ child sparkling in my shining eyes. Despite some fairly early onset scepticism (in particular I found the whole Noah’s Ark thing a little much to swallow – mass genocide dressed up as a jolly childish story, anyone?), I did stick it out into my teenage years. But pretty soon it became impossible to ignore that the organised religion found inside those solid, comforting Church walls contained a fair amount of social control along with a great deal of beauty, but – for me at least – precious little truth.
Losing my religion was a painful experience to be honest, and not one that I would wish on anyone; it left me jittery and afraid for many years. There was the initial relief of letting go of a system of beliefs that seemed to have more interest with who I shared a bed with than – say – the elimination of poverty. But after that, it was a cold loss, the loss of the love and care of a greater force, the loss of a feeling of belonging, yet another dislocation from the certainties of my childhood. Even the word atheism seemed cold and dead – defined by a nothingness, a lack.
The stuff you are told as a child, by the people you love and trust, is hard to let go of. Impossible, even. When I read Paradise Lost, many years after I ceased believing in an afterlife, I found my sleep suddenly deeply disturbed by my own childhood visions of the Hell mixed with Milton’s fervid imaginings. I was told to be afraid of Hell then, and I guess on some level I still am and always will be. Adult logic is overridden by fear, cold fear.
In recent years, though, I have started to take a more positive view of my lack of religious faith. The thing is, once you start to believe in the idea that this life, your life and mine, is all there is, well it gives you a bit of sharp focus really. Better make the most of it kids, cause this is it. No eternity strumming on a harp on a cloud flapping a set of coolio wings. No. Best have your fun now, here, on earth.
And once you get rid of the idea of giving thanks, of worshipping a Greater Thingy, you can concentrate on being proud of what human beings can achieve, have achieved. I believe that human beings are capable of astonishing things, breathtaking things. So many wonderful things in this world created only by a bunch of monkeys in shoes, with our hands and our brains and all the love in our hearts.
We are also capable of great evil, of course, but it is up to us, other humans, to stop that, to prevent it, to say it is unacceptable. Once you realise that we are in charge of our own destinies, and control is not delegated to The Big Man (or blamed on Satan), then we can grow the hell up as a species and maybe start being nice to each other for a change.
And the other thing is, once you let go of the more outrageous aspects of Christian theology, you can start to see the truth, the beautiful truth at the centre of Christianity and all its rituals. I could probably do without another conversation about whether Christmas is a Christian or a pagan festival this year or indeed ever. It’s obviously both, and neither, and more. It is a HUMAN festival. An absolute necessity in the middle of winter, when the arrival of spring seems a far off impossibility. In the very darkest days of the year, we need belief that the Sun/Son will be born again; we need to light a candle against the darkness out there.
We need a reminder of what’s important – and what is important? Love, kin, kindness, friends, feasting, faith, love again. Mostly love.
And that leaves me with the very best part of my late-period-atheism, and that’s my rediscovery of Jesus. TOP BLOKE, Jesus. Not, in my humble opinion, the Son of God, what with God not existing and so on, but still a very very marvellous fellow indeed. A radical, a pacifist, a masterful story teller, with a kindness and a patience and a tolerant understanding of human nature tempered with loving forgiveness that we could all, most of all our ‘great’ ‘religious’ ‘leaders’, do well to emulate.
I often think I might set up a little club for folk like me: Atheists for Jesus? Well maybe not quite, but I think sometimes his good name needs protecting against the worst excesses of ‘men’ of ‘God’ like his “Eminence” Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, who stated with great confidence on the Today programme this year that Jesus would have been opposed to gay marriage. Go away, Father. Go away and read the gospels. You might be surprised at the love and tolerance there. (But then again, this is the same man who said that a lack of faith is “the greatest of evils’ and blamed atheism for war, so maybe I am being too optimistic.)
The thing is, religion doesn’t cause war either. It’s humans, only ever humans; it’s all human doing – suffering, war, love, architecture, art, music, children, poverty, happiness. You and me, our friends, all our worst and best feelings – they are all human made. Life, human life, is in our hands and always has been.
Isn’t it terrible? Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it true?
And that, all of that, is what I am celebrating this Christmas. Human beauty and pain and misery and most of all love and life.
I’ll drink to that this Christmas/Hannukah/Yule/Whatever, and I hope you will join me.
*this is not my least favourite line though – that accolade goes to ‘Christian children all must be, Mild obedient good as he.’ This is sheer propaganda. RISE UP RISE UP KIDS, read the bible! Jesus was OFTEN naughty, knocking tables flying for a start.