It’s easy to tell it’s Christmastime, isn’t it? Although the spectre of the War on Christmas (gasp!) seems to have stayed pretty much locked in his dusty coffin this year, the newspapers are still full of articles on Christmas food, Christmas presents, Christmas card lists, et cetera et cetera ad nauseam. Of course, every year out come the chin-stroking crowd wondering if you really ought to celebrate Christmas if you don’t believe in God; for instance, this offering by Natalie Haynes in the New Statesman, and this from Jim Al-Khalili in the Guardian, are unchallenging and sweet like a well-made mince pie. Then someone comments on the comment, and then someone comments on the comment about the comment just to be pretentious and post-modern. You know, exactly like I’m doing now.
The point I’m trying to get to is an admission, or a confession: I read in church this evening. Now, I don’t go to church. I am not a habitual attendee or a “cultural Christian”, though I always go on Christmas morning out of sheer force of habit. This was more out of social niceties: I was the first child to read for the current minister of the local Presbyterian Church, and it seemed appropriate that I ought to occasionally reprise my performance. So I read Matthew 2:1-12 at the annual carol service, the story of the Magi visiting the infant Christ.
In a way, returning to the church to give a reading sharpened my atheistic reflexes, especially when it’s pretty much known by most serious people nowadays that none of the events of the Nativity were real. The events are confused and mistaken – the gospels conflict even within themselves over whether Herod the Great was on the throne (Matthew 2, Luke 1:5) or whether it was Governor Quirinius acting under orders of Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1-7), periods ten years apart. No census would require Joseph to return to Bethlehem, the city of David, anyway; this was a fictitious detail added to fulfil the alleged prophecy of Micah 5:2, which seems to refer to a clan rather than a town. No evidence exists either of a massacre of the innocents, or a new star in the sky, or any of this guff that gets stammered and wept over in primary schools across the land every single year. You get the idea.
People in the church know I don’t believe in God. It’s not exactly a secret – I started asking a lot of awkward questions in the youth sessions before I left the church permanently when I was about thirteen. It was hard, I admit, to refrain from muttering too much at the falsehoods being preached as inerrant truth. But I expected no less. I went, and I repeated the nonsense, because I like churches. I like the Bible – well, the language, if not the lies and half-truths and campfire fables within. I especially like hymns. In spite of this, Christianity remains my enemy, and Christmas remains at least partially the celebration of the birth of the mortal Son of a non-existent God. Alex has written inspiringly of his interfaith work, but I have no such reasoning behind my continued sop to the church of my youth. The church never abused me, or indeed treated me with anything other than kindness; my upbringing was strict, but never strictly religious or fundamentalist; the people there are essentially decent and upstanding, if a little puritanical.
The gratitude in my minister’s voice was palpable: perhaps he was putting my name in the Maybe Not Going To Hell After All list, maybe he just liked having a decent roster of readers, or it’s possible he just has actual human fondness for me as a person, having known me for much of my time on this earth. One way or another the church is still a presence in my life. I sometimes attend chapel at college, another dirty little secret I have as a god-bashing atheist. The dean, Reverend Jeremy Caddick, is a humane and liberal man with the distinction of operating the first Anglican church to bless civil partnerships.
At some level, my experience with religion was and remains too nice for me to make a truly clean break and risk a slightly awkward Christmas morning. Reconciling my belief that religion is a malign influence on the world with my almost universally positive personal experience of organised faith in practice is difficult. But there it is. I like the trappings of the Christian churches, even while I gasp at the vile opulence of the Catholic Church and the monstrous venom of the Westboro Baptists. I enjoy the hymns, even while I remember the victims of the crusades and the Inquisition and the Salem trials. I marvel at devotional art and the sonorous, beautiful words of the Bible, even while I consider the foulness of the Christian beliefs of atonement and original sin. Moreover, I’m not proud of this: I am morally cowardly in my continued lip service to Christianity. I admit with shame and regret that I’m good in nobody’s books – especially not God’s. But I do not propose to change, not in the near future at any rate while I still live with a believing family. Perhaps, in the commission of one sin, I can take the guiltiest of pleasures in the process. And what could be a greater, more triumphant affront to religion than that?
Happy holidays. Merry Christmas.