Christmas for Atheists

You might think this is a bad time of year to be an atheist. It certainly makes me feel a little shifty (well shiftier than usual) to sing ‘Lo he abhors not the Virgin womb’ with a straight face*.

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.

About number6

I am not a number, I am a free woman. More or less.
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5 Responses to Christmas for Atheists

  1. BlondeNorthernFriend says:

    I agree. With or without belief, Christmas is about the best of humanity and the presence on earth of a man who embodied it. So I feel no hypocrisy in wishing you a merry Christmas.

  2. Macleod. says:

    As I’ve said before Laney, your best writing comes forth when you write from the heart. No top ten lists, no over-egging the humour, no contrived links – however clever. Just sincere, clear, meaningful writing. I’d actually rather hoped there was another page.

    I often wondered myself how Christianity continues to exist. Amidst scepticism, scandal, scientific discovery and the forces of secularism and humanism, why do people still believe in God and in Christmas? Are all believers (as Dawkins purports), unintelligent? Are they all deluded, seeking certainty where there is none?

    I think it persists because small children are impressionable. If no-one taught Christianity to their children, it would quickly perish, rather like Greek paganism did, leaving an interesting literature where once was belief -though it also gave Paramount Studios some great material.

    That said, it seems at this time of the year, more than any other, we’re drawn to consider the big questions, and perhaps when we can’t find the answers in the material world, we look elsewhere.

    We seem to sense that at this time that something more exists – a spiritual dimension that can’t be analysed by science or philosophy. People, who don’t normally attend church, do so once more, perhaps because deep within they/we wish there really was a meaning to life, a purpose that goes beyond our immediate material world and for such people the Christmas Story somehow brings that meaning, that purpose.

    So is it true that God became a baby on that first Christmas? That through Jesus he came to bring healing, and hope and love to an injured world? If it is true, it’s got to be one of the best good news stories we’ll ever hear.Either way, and in accord with your blonde northern friend, I too am completely comfortable with wishing you and yours the very best for the festive season.

  3. Ruth says:

    I started to read this with a mixture of trepidation (I am, I hope, neither unintelligent nor deluded, but I still call myself a Christian) and anticipation (as I always enjoy and/or am challenged by your writings). And I found myself agreeing with very nearly everything you have written. Which is quite interesting, don’t you think – you now being a self-declared atheist and me being a Christian?

    I think I concur, to a greater or lesser extent, with every criticism you have made of the church and/or religion, and have also been through the difficult process of facing up to these issues through my early to mid adulthood. The outcome was different for me, and I have found a deeper faith (‘faith’, not ‘religion’, please note) that has answered every one of these difficulties for me, albeit often by posing further challenges.

    So, if I say I agree with very nearly everything you have written, where do we differ? Simply that I *do* believe in the ‘afterlife’, although – I hasten to add – *not* as depicted by any of the mainstream churches, I am very glad to say. So where does that leave us? Well, if you’re right, that’s an end of it. And if I’m right, then we’ll have plenty of time to talk about it … but then we won’t need to, will we?!

    Likewise, following your previous commentators, I wish you and your family the love, peace and joy of this season.

    • number6 says:

      Well I shall be very glad to be proved wrong about this matter if the compensation is an eternity in your company; maybe you can teach me to knit.
      I hope I didn’t imply that faith and intelligence are mutually exclusive. It certainly is not my intention. Some of the most thoughtful people I know have religious faith; you are indeed one of my all time fave Christians and I sincerely hope you get your wings. No one deserves them more.
      I wonder how you might feel, though, celebrating an openly pagan festival like Halloween. How does that sit with you ?

  4. Ruth says:

    Not at all – the comment about intelligence was based on Macleod’s comments based on Dawkins (don’t get me started on him, so sad,so very sad …) and, sorry, we’ll have to find someone else to teach both of us to knit! We’ll leave it to another *time* to discuss what ‘eternity’ means outside the concept of ‘time’ …

    I don’t have a problem with pagan festivals, any more than I do about any other sort of festival per se – it is a matter of what each is actually about. As you mentioned, Christmas is of course based on a pagan festival, and was the result of the early church (which has one heck of a lot to answer for!) trying to suppress all things pagan. And, in doing so, sadly lost much of value and importance in doing so. I very much enjoyed and benefited from the addition of Chanukah to our town’s celebrations this Christmas (our mayor, and a good friends of ours, is Jewish). It was widely agreed that the sight of the local children lighting the menorah candles in our church, under the instruction of the visiting children from the synagogue was a very moving and beautiful experience.

    The problem with Halloween is that it can be seen as glorifying the bad, the evil, the nasty in this world, and that is not a good idea. But equally, I’m not hung up about it and have no problem with pumpkin lanterns and dressing up for the kids. I do, however, use it as a reason to talk with the kids about what is good and what is bad, and why they should aim for the good in life.

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