Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Does Santa care if you're a Christian? (militant atheists, take note)

The Golden Latrine spends the blustery days after Christmas Day each year weeping into the last of the cold cuts, his tears thankfully blotting out the endless re-runs.

However, there's only so many top 100 lists featuring Stuart Maconie (a man, as the great Stewart Lee pointed out, "able, if the price is right, to recall almost any aspect of the entire spread of all human existence") you can take before you begin to crave a bit of intellectual substenance, and my favourite article over Christmas was a piece by the philosopher Allan de Botton, grappling with the thorniest of Christmas issues: Should an atheist celebrate the holiday at all? [NB: If at this point you're keen to get back to gorging on Quality Street while watching Cars 2 with your aunty and your girlfriend, the short answer is yes they should. Thanks for reading.]

Despite being a non-believer, I have always been a twinkly-eyed enthusiast for Christmas. As a child I would transform our front room every year into a tinsel and decorations obstacle course. It never occurred to me that the yearly nativity play was meant to be anything other than a good yarn. It's clear then that it's quite possible to celebrate Christmas and enjoy reuniting the family and eating nice food and a glitzy tree, without the trappings of religion.

For the more militant of atheists though, the equation is simple. Christmas is a celebration of the life of Christ, a gaudy carbuncle on the underside of Christianity. If you aren't a believer, there's simply nothing for you here. Take this, as a random example:

During the so-called holiday season, [the atheist] must be able to stand aside and look at it all objectively and say, "Why, this is silliness. Gussied up though it may be in tinsel and fantasy, it's all no more than ritual kow-towing to an imaginary being in the sky. I'm a grownup now, and I no longer need to believe in Santa Claus.

The question came up for me before when a Jewish ex-girlfriend explained to me that her family wouldn't be celebrating the festival fully because they weren't Christian. To which my natural response was: well, um, neither am I.

De Botton talks about being raised as a hardline atheist (him and his sister were given presents in August to subvert the Christmas tradition), but coming to realize that Christmas (and by extension, religion) could serve a useful social purpose. As he puts it:

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.

I find that a fairly watertight argument (if any militant atheists are reading, do feel free to post and tell me why it's not). For Dawkins et al, religious belief is simply a category error, based on a misunderstanding of the scientific method. If only the religious looked at the facts, they'd have no choice but to forsake their faith and skip merrily into the sunset of scientific reason. But science only tells us how things are - it doesn't tell us how to live, or offer up any sense of community.


CrocodileLipstick said...

I don't quite understand where the 'militant atheist' term originates? Dawkins is hardly storming carol services and demanding we change any reference of Christmas to Winterval is he?

Dawkins understands the cultural worth of Christmas: he enjoys the traditions and carols and is a champion the literary value of the King James Bible, for example.
He's for a secular state where people are free to 'do god' if they wish and for a true separation of church and state.

The Golden Latrine said...

No, I agree, Dawkins isn't storming midnight mass (it's an alluring image though, for sure). But he does equate religion to a mental illness (among other things), which I think is deeply patronising and polarising.

Just to be clear: my critical comments about Dawkins were more general, I wasn't marking him out as one of the 'militant atheists' who don't "do" Christmas.