Before I address this topic, I think it best if I state where I am coming from on the subject of divinity. I am a sceptical atheist. By this I mean I see very little evidence to suggest a higher power of a metaphysical nature behind the workings of the universe, but recognising that I am not omniscient, I reserve a (very small) corner of doubt in my mind as to the non-existence of God. If he/she/it/they do exist, I do not believe said divinity cares a fig about humanity, what it eats, who it sleeps with, how it prays, or how it defines its moral compass.
My god would be a cold and mindless thing, a Lovecraftian demon-god marked by a complete indifference, perhaps even unawareness of, humankind. My god would be a clumsy god, one that hurled the universe into existence and left millennia to do the work of shaping the mountains, seas, rivers and lakes that it could not create directly itself (for this is what science tells us – those mountains weren’t made in a week, sorry my Judeo-Christian friends but the geological evidence is against you here). Likewise, the countless species that gradually emerged from the soup and crawled onto land to spend the next x million years forging the animal kingdom we know today could not have been a simple, direct creation of a potent, knowing divinity. The painful process of evolution tells us otherwise.
Put under the spotlight of science, with its power to strip away and eliminate possibilities, divinity doesn’t come off so well – he/she/it/they don’t have a lot of space left in which to manouevre. Science has left us with two choices: either god doesn’t exist at all, or he is a dysfunctional screw-up of galactic proportions, quite incapable of creating anything from the celestial clay without leaving the heavenly workshop in an awful mess. Before we even get onto man’s flawed nature, what’s with those volcanic eruptions and tidal waves? The cosmic meteors that could theoretically wipe out our painstakingly evolved planet overnight? Hardly the trademark of an omnipotent hand, methinks…
I have many friends who share my atheist bent, many more who would go one further and label themselves ‘devout’ (I personally hate this oxymoron, but that’s for another post), and quite a few who, in spite of all the above, are believers. What do we have in common?
We all celebrate Christmas.
For my Catholic and C of E friends this is hardly surprising. They genuinely believe that Jesus Christ, either literally or metaphorically, was the Son of God and therefore represented divinity on earth. For these people he is a cornerstone of their culture, an essential part of their mental furniture as Western thinkers. For them, it is obvious: of course they celebrate Christmas.
But why do the rest of us? Why is it that of all my so-called rationalist, non-theist friends (me included), not one has the courage of their convictions to boycott the whole thing? You aren’t Christian – so why give credence to the most potent date in the Christian calendar by celebrating it? Surely such an event goes against everything a good rational humanist cherishes – logic and reason over blind faith and habit?
But it’s fun, I hear you cry. You get to go out on the lash, receive presents, a chance to catch up with your family and friends. Hmm. Let’s unpick that shall we?
Number one: the Christmas piss-up. To which I say – don’t make me laugh. Since when have Anglo-Saxons (or any Europeans for that matter) needed an excuse to imbibe? We do it every week, for god’s sake (oops I mean, for reason’s sake). The pub, not the church, is the go-to focal point of Western culture, especially in Britain and Ireland. Do self-respecting atheists really need a dubious two-thousand year old claim to divinity on earth as an excuse to go drinking? I think the answer to this is so manifestly self-evident that it doesn’t warrant further examination.
Number two: the giving and receiving of presents. I have yet to meet one intelligent person over the age of 18 who would not gladly trade the opportunity to receive a few (largely useless) gifts for shedding the onerous burden of having to buy them and thus shore up a little more of what is increasingly becoming the most precious commodity of all in the hardwired, results-driven West: time. I have not recently met anyone who embraces the prospect of Christmas shopping with anything more encouraging than a steely resignation. No rational, right-thinking person enjoys it, because any rational, right-thinking person could probably think of a hundred other things they would rather do with their time (and money).
Number three: a chance to see your family and friends. I’m not going to peddle the obvious cliche that says ‘everyone hates their extended family’. I don’t believe this is true. I certainly don’t. I enjoy meeting up with my relatives, as they all live in a foreign country and I don’t get to see them very often. But again, do we really need to peg familial reunions to the birth of a carpenter’s son in the Levant two millennia ago who either had divine patronage or serious mental health issues brought on by trauma caused by the Roman occupation of his homeland? As rational, thinking atheists, who determine our own futures (as best we can given the circumstances presented to us), set our own boundaries, make reasoned, informed decisions as to what is right and wrong, are we so incapable of arranging our own family get-togethers? Is this beyond the scope of the human race? I’m not asking for the Hadron particle collider here – a bit of organisation and cooperation, and you too can enjoy a Jesus-free family reunion at any time of the year.
Having exploded the above reasons cited by non-Christians for observing a Christian tradition, I am left with one conclusion as to what impells us to do so.
It’s such a lovely word. Its three perfectly balanced syllables shoot from the tongue with the force of a perfectly restored Brown Bess musket. It makes us feel all warm inside, even as we feel a little ashamed for admitting it does. Because, as every self-respecting rational atheist knows, tradition is quite irrational. Ask the question ‘why tradition’ and the most apt answer you are likely to get is ‘just because’. It’s just the way we do things around here… And in that absence of thought, that laying aside of askance and simply accepting something at face value because that is what your ancestors have done for generations, lies the power of tradition.
It’s easy. No mental effort required. Just do as the Romans do (unless they’re hammering nine-inch nails into poor old Jesus) and go with it. This brings me back to my last post, because atheists celebrating Christmas proves my earlier point: humans, even highly intelligent rational ones, need myths. We need to embrace the irrational from time to time – even, as in the case of Christmas, when it is often onerous to do so. Because being a rational thinker is by turns exhausting, bewildering, and downright frightening. Existentialism brings its own kind of personalised hell to the table, and has been explored in detail by the likes of Sartre, Camus and numerous philosophers from Locke to Hume – anyone interested enough to have read this far (you poor sucker) will be familiar enough with this concept to require no further explanation.
Embrace the irrational, what are you on about Damo? We’re right-thinking atheists, surely not? Well, let’s turn that on its head and look at what it means to be 100% rational. Stop drinking – you are paying to put commercialised poison into your body, a substance that impairs your judgement and physical coordination. Ever been in love? Just a chemical shift in your brain, brought about by a change in sense-perception. Enjoy sex? Just nature’s way of hoodwinking you into procreation – if you have no desire to have children, from a rational perspective sex is surely pointless. Take drugs to suppress your libido and save yourself the trouble. Football – don’t get me started, a bunch of people you’ve never met kicking a ball around, it means nothing. Win, lose, it won’t change your life unless you believe it will. Art/poetry/music – can you eat it, drink it, warm yourself at night with it? Not likely – you could always burn a Monet or two, but firewood would be much more effective.
The point I’m making here is that when you stop and think about it, so many things that we do to bring joy to our lives are a) irrational and b) often bound up in some kind of tradition – a custom of doing a certain thing in a certain way at a certain time, whether that be observing Christmas, watching Wimbledon, going to the pub on a Friday night, or trying to pick someone up in a bar the following Saturday. Even those of us who consider ourselves to be rational anti-theists (to borrow the term from Christopher Hitchens) lead lives that are underpinned by a need to – at periodic intervals – stop being 100% rational human beings for a while. I want to get blotto. In the morning I will be a rational human being again, cursing myself for a fool and a lush, but tonight I want to drink until I fall over. For the next four hours I will hang on every swing of Andy Murray’s racquet as though my life depended on it. Until the bouncers kick me out at 3am I will hurl myself across the dancefloor like a wild animal (and I don’t even know how to dance).
Embracing the irrational allows us to suspend our disbelief, much as we do when we immerse ourselves in a sci-fi/fantasy novel or a far-fetched thriller. It gives us a break. We need these pressure valves from time to time – being rational all the time is not a desirable state of mind any more than it is a truly human one. Most of us spend our lives doing the best we can to balance the irrational and rational, the subconscious and conscious, as we strive to achieve some kind of harmony in our mindset.
Is Christmas one of these pressure valves? It seems to me that it is – partly a joy, partly a pain, entirely irrational. Perhaps, in so being, the annual festive season serves as a timely reminder to we atheists of what it really means to be human: a collection of often conflicting thoughts born of sense-perception and reflection that give rise to desires (some healthy, some not) and observations (some spurious, some reasoned). If it presents Christians with an opportunity to immerse themselves further in the ‘god delusion’, it presents atheists with an opportunity to learn to know ourselves better.