If you want to know what I think of the Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, a book that’s just been released, which was put together by the lovely Ariane Sherine (organiser of the Atheist Bus Campaign) and which features essays from many of the grooviest godless guys and gals of our time, you can read my review on Amazon. What follows is something like what I might have written for the book, had I been
asked to contribute able to fit it into my jam-packed schedule at the time.
Most atheists who are open about their non-belief – and have any interest in following the kind of discussions about it that some of us obsess over and base entire blogs and websites around – are used to having quite a variety of epithets and accusations hurled at us from those kind and generous people who follow the commands of a loving god. They tell us how we’re going to burn in hell throughout eternity, for instance, or that our stubborn disobedience must be borne of hatred and foolishness, or that we’re all amoral maniacs who have no reason not to embark on a constant rampage of hedonistic violence whenever it suits us.
It’s this last one I want to focus on here: the idea that any atheists who aren’t raping and murdering left, right and centre are somehow “doing it wrong”. The notion that we’re failing to understand the ethical implications of our worldview, and ought to be acting like despicable bastards if we had any sense.
I’m sure I don’t need to explain to anyone here that there do exist a number of good reasons not to revert to feral sociopathy whenever it suits us, beyond simply the threat of eternal punishment from some supposed authority. Even most religious people are moral and compassionate for reasons entirely unrelated to their fear of retribution or a desire to please some celestial overlord. But in a way, the lame accusation about the godless is… nearly right. Sort of. In some regards.
Atheists certainly aren’t without morals, but we are without sin. The very concept of sin is meaningless without a religious context. Unless you take it to mean nothing more than an immoral or unethical act, or a crime against some earthly authority, there’s simply nobody for atheists to sin against. We may have a moral system rooted in humanism, and there are often penalties for flouting human-instituted laws – but any commandments issued solely by God, we are totally free to ignore. If the deity of some religious sect wants things done in a particular way, or requires certain obeisances, rituals, or the like, and proclaims that it would be “sinful” to neglect these duties, we needn’t pay any attention.
We can act freely, with no code of restraint at all on the matter of sin and religious tradition. We can do whatever the hell we like.
This doesn’t mean we will, of course. In many cases, the blasphemy, heresy, satire, and other brands of irreligious disrespect to which we are entitled will overlap with our own moral codes of behaviour. I could offend every supreme being you care to mention as vilely as I can find words for (and tomorrow I may well do just that), but civility sometimes holds me back. I have friends who are Christians, and there’s no need for me to be a dick about it. But this is exactly my point: I can pick and choose my own behaviours on this matter, based on what suits me. When it comes to sin, and theological tenets, and religious traditions, I make up my own rules.
Religious traditions like Christmas.
I love Christmas. As I said in that review (which, as of this moment, 10 out of 10 people found helpful), it seems like an opportunity for everyone to just be happy and nice to each other for absolutely no reason. And I think this can only be a good thing.
Admittedly, it has its boring elements. There are several times throughout the day when many people feel obliged to go to church and remind God how great he is. Some of the more Jesus-centric music is pretty drab. And what’s the point of an advent calendar that just has some rubbish pictures behind the doors and no chocolate?
But the great thing about being an atheist, and thus being bound to no religious rules, is that I can disregard all that stuff I don’t like. And the even greater thing is that I can indulge in all the fun bits as much as I can feasibly make happen. Decorating a tree, exchanging presents, eating a gorgeous roast dinner, spending time with my increasingly half-heartedly religious family… count me in. Even listening to some seasonal carols, and maybe singing along with some songs about Jesus. Whether these are important parts of somebody else’s belief system needn’t concern me at all. Whether I’m having fun (within the limits of my regular, secular principles) is the only thing that I need to feel obliged to.
So, I’ll take a pass on the worship, but look forward to putting on a compilation CD with some choirs singing Silent Night. Yes please to the angel on the tree, the rousing harmonies of O Come All Ye Faithful, and Elf ; no thanks to the eggnog, chestnuts, nativity plays, and “remembering the true meaning” of anything. I’ll wish people a Merry Christmas, a Happy Holidays, and whatever other festive greeting they’d prefer. I’ll revel in Christmas spirit, and I’ll co-opt whatever sacred traditions I damn well please.
I can even use the obvious Tiny Tim reference as a sign-off, and not care about the faultiness of the premise:
God bless us, every one.