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As an atheist boy, growing up in a religious household and attending a religious school, I’d quickly come to detest anything I considered to be vaguely theological. I refused to participate in the setting up of the nativity scene with my family. If my brain registered even the faintest sentiment of religious belief in a carol I would abstain from singing altogether (even though many carols that I did sing were still no doubt overtly religious). As I matured, I found this to be the central problem with adopting a universal rejection of everything religious – it is never-ending. Practically all tradition in Western society is founded on our deeply rooted Judaeo-Christian heritage. Even the seemingly secular phrase ‘goodbye’ is a contraction of the phrase ‘God be with you’.
It would be absurd if I started removing even the most basic phrases from my vocabulary just to avoid accidentally participating in religion. This was the point at which I realised my atheist attempt to remove myself from everything religious was both totally impractical and severely disrespectful. I haven’t abandoned the use of the word Thursday – even though its etymological roots lie in Norse mythology and I do not believe in Thor and have an aversion to human sacrifice. Just as I don’t have to associate myself with the beliefs of the hegemony who founded the Gregorian calendar but I respect the science that made it possible, and the cultural and practical relevance of the calendar today. Christmas is no different.
Make no mistake, I’m no proponent of the opinion that we are ruled by a celestial Big Brother, but it’s important to understand what it means to be of that opinion. Though I won’t be advocating church-going or praying any time soon, it might be a good idea to understand what it meant to go to church and pray for our ancestors. And what that still means for some people. History is a shared story, and one we cannot erase. So, if you are to make something of your future, I would suggest first looking at the past. Attempts to undo history now that we can recognise its mistakes seem noble at first but are dangerously utopian. History is exactly that – history. No amount of wishful thinking is going to undo the misgivings of our ancestors.
What’s worse than that, however, is the attempt to cover up artefacts of the past which we see as evil from our moral high ground. Campaigning for the removal of statues of people who were, for instance, known racists displays two things: firstly, that you believe that the statement ‘racism is bad’ is particularly illuminating, as if in saying this you embody the pinnacle of morality. Secondly, that you critically underestimate the overused saying, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (a quote attributed to George Santayana). Though most agree that Cecil Rhodes was an evil man, it does us no favours to attempt to erase him from history; I’d much rather have to walk past statues of men like him than the real thing.
One major misconception about atheists is that we wish to destroy anything with a religious connection. Which, of course, is the exact quest I was occupied with (even if only on a small scale) before my appreciation of a deeply religiously entangled history. Atheists didn’t participate in the degradation of the King James Bible to the New English version. We didn’t blow up the Bamiyan Buddhas. We don’t blow up Shia mosques. It’s not us who destroy and desecrate holy sites; we leave that to the pious. So, whilst it is sad to see people destroying history – and I would rather they didn’t – we can at least be grateful that the religious are responsible for their own destruction.
So, what does all this mean for an atheist trying to work out their position on Christmas and the way in which they celebrate it? Well, Christmas as we know it today is not the same as the Christmas people knew a hundred years ago. Moreover, Christmas today means different things to different people. The meaning of Christmas to a Baptist is different to a Catholic; just as it is different for an atheist. Christmas to me is a time to be with family, eat good food, and take a much-needed rest.
All of that can be enjoyed without the need to conform to the belief system whose institutions have only loose acclaim to the nature and significance of modern Christmas. Don’t let anyone whose own culturally preconceived notions surrounding a celebration tell you how you should or shouldn’t engage in that celebration. So, the next time you are faced with singing a carol or saying grace at the dinner table, and your atheistic distaste begins to take hold, remember this: whilst we shouldn’t utter falsehoods, we should have few qualms with uttering meaningless statements.