This Christmas, millions of people will belt out ‘Oh come, all ye faithful’ with gusto in churches, school halls and on doorsteps across the country. I, too, will take pleasure singing it at the top of my voice – on Christmas Eve, immediately after the final reading of the Nine Lessons and Carols. There is just one slight spanner in the works: I’m not one of the aforementioned faithful. I’m an atheist.
Sadly, it is necessary to clarify what my atheism means. For me, it is quite simple: I don’t believe there is, or ever was, a god. I tend to the view that the universe happened by accident, that Earth formed in that universe by accident, that life arose on our planet by accident and that humanity evolved by the most happy accident of all. The outcome of those tiny chances has led to something amazing that we should celebrate: people, in all their jaw-dropping, eye-popping wonder.
That’s it. The faith of others bothers me not a bit – so long as they don’t try to force disbelievers to obey their rules or take their own belief as heavenly licence to harm others. Should someone’s beliefs lead them to harm themselves – a Jehovah’s Witness refusing a blood transfusion, for example – then that is their business, in the same way that someone who chooses an unhealthy diet should be free to do so. The so-called New Atheism, in which some thinkers decided to abandon their logic and their compassion in order to mount a zealous crusade against all religion, holds no appeal for me. So if you’ve clicked on this article hoping for a bitter blast against Gods and godliness, you have come to the wrong place (and if you clicked fearing such a broadside, you can release that baited breath and read on).
There are plenty of atheists with the same view – indeed, I’d suggest we form the majority of disbelievers. You won’t hear from us as much as from the dinner party bores or the ranters of the non-fiction best-seller lists, I’m afraid, but as conservatives we can all recognise the existence of quiet majorities, unloved by those broadcast producers who are out for a battle of extremes.
It’s fair to say that those of us who go to church at Christmas, though, are probably fewer in number. Why go to sing songs of celebration for the birth of an incarnate god in whom I don’t believe?
It would be easy at this point to recite an anthropological argument about some ingrained evolutionary need for a feast to mark the solstice. But that wouldn’t really be true. The Winter Solstice passed yesterday, and I felt no genetic urge to rush to a nearby henge for its observance.
In fact, I will be in church on Christmas Eve for much the same reasons as everyone else: to raise my voice in chorus with a community, to relish the familiar tunes of our nation and to be moved by the poetry of the book which shaped our language more than any other. The rituals, music and traditions of the season are as indivisible from that joyous Christmas feeling as our Christian heritage is from our national culture. Christ was born, Christ lived and taught or had attributed to him many of the principles on which our society is founded, Christ died – doubting that he rose again doesn’t change his impact on Britain. I may not be a Christian in a religious sense, but quite a large part of me is one in a cultural sense.
Does it make me a gigantic hypocrite to rise from a pew alongside my family and friends as the organist kicks off ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’? Perhaps, though I can’t say it bothers me. Nor do I expect that it would bother anyone else in the congregation very much, except perhaps the few who would pity my likely damnation (in a way that would upset the modern, frightened-to-offend Church of England, but is nonetheless true and honest to their faith).
The fact is that we are forged by the stories of the Bible – by those that are true and those that are untrue, by the factual, mythical and magical – and by the artfulness of its translators. Even people who would claim never to have read a single line will unwittingly know a host of phrases from the Old and New Testaments. The first reading in the Nine Lessons and Carols (Genesis 3:8-19) concludes by giving us the paraphrase ‘dust to dust’.
My heart will swell as the service takes its course, and we will head home that night ready to warm ourselves in the old stories and traditions which make up the final preparations for a family Christmas. Some will be religious, some will be pagan superstitions which have fallen through the cracks of history and some will be those weird and wonderful in-jokes which evolve year-on-year and generation-on-generation in each family across the country. As an atheist at Christmas, those are my traditions, too – I wouldn’t want to shake them off, and could never do so if I tried.