An atheist Christmas

Anthony Gottlieb tells us that Simon Blackburn ‘remarked that [Karen] Armstrong’s attitude to religion is reminiscent of Alice after hearing the nonsense poem “Jabberwocky”: “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are.” Armstrong is far from alone among believers in retreating to the haven of incoherence.’

And as we draw near to Christmas, the incoherence takes on a peculiar character – infecting perhaps unbelievers and believers alike – as the vast majority of those living in some form of Christian society partake in ritualistic eating, drinking and general merriment. On one level, this is not incoherent for unbelievers at all, seeing as this sort of winter festival was a pagan tradition long before the Roman church appropriated all the pagan shrines and claimed the festival for itself, premised on historically questionable accounts of the birthdate of a historically questionable person.

But some unbelievers will find themselves at dinner tables with relatives and friends who do take these modern myths seriously, and who sometimes appear to believe that we can know exactly which ideas our heads should be filled with, and why. And they may play along, sitting politely while prayers are uttered, not protesting when these relatives and friends say crazy things. This could sometimes involve some incoherence, in that your unbelief isn’t standing in the way of allowing others to continue believing absurd things. The politics of these situations are complex, though, and I don’t mean to argue that one has an obligation to always burst the belief-bubbles of others.

After all, some of these religious ideas, as exemplified by Christmas, are noble and good: friendship, love, giving, and having fun come to mind, as does the simple idea of having a few days off work. But if one gets the sense that these ideas – or others not mentioned here – are somehow premised on a particular time of year, the fear grows that they may increasingly become reserved for that time of year. As with resolutions at New Year, or that month after a trip to the dentist, where one flosses obsessively before reverting to more typical patterns, our plans and intentions count for little if they affect our behaviour for a trivially short time, or affect our behaviour only when we are reminded to behave differently due to the promptings of events on the calendar.

This “holiday season” has so far been filled with the best and the worst of human character – as all months are. Last week, the Doctor and I were mugged. A friend disappointed us with his narcissism. Another friend has a partner whose tolerance for pseudoscience is leading her to not want to vaccinate their one year-old child, thereby endangering his life (and the lives of everyone else on the planet, in a small way).

She also wants to send him to Sunday School, where she believes he will learn “history”. But the child is beautiful, and fascinating. Another friend has a daughter, and the interactions between her and her parents really make one hope that parenting has anything significant to do with the way children turn out. Likewise with some newer friends, whose two children are so well-adjusted that one can’t help but treat them as real people. And of course, the Doctor and I have much to be thankful for, and will no doubt continue to have a season filled with joy.

But it’s always this way – people do stupid things and clever things, they harm and they help, and they sometimes have no clue which they are doing, or why. And perhaps the balance shifts towards the positive over Christmas – I don’t know (and on the whole, it probably doesn’t, given all the lives traditionally lost on the roads at this time of year). It won’t, however, make much difference if people are especially nice to each other for such silly reasons. As us atheists often remark, a definition of “goodness” which is premised on being accountable to Big Daddy hardly makes one virtuous – and likewise, being charitable and generally “nice” to one’s fellow humans because it’s Christmas is not the motivation I’d hope for, seeing as I then have no guarantee you won’t be a complete tosser for the rest of the year.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.