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The Atheist's Guide to Christmas

Steve Tomkins

Ed. Ariane Sherine
The Friday Project, 352pp, ISBN: 9780007322619

atheistchristmas.jpgI was in Hamley's toy shop on 1 November this year, and they were blasting out Slade through six storeys of crowds, 'So here it is, merry Christmas, everybody's having fun'. There's only so much premature intrusive corporate jollity for Jesus a person can take and retain their good humour, and in my case I was in there for 15 seconds before I wanted to drop kick an elf. So spare a thought for those less fortunate than you this Christmas, brothers and sisters. By the time you're opening the cranberry jelly, some people will have lived through two months of Christmas hits.  

And now here I am doing the same thing to you, writing a Christmas book review that will hit your doormat in November. Sorry about that.  But the book did come out on 1 October and this is the December issue, so I held off as long as I could. You don't have to read it now, you could always wait a few weeks, but seeing as you've got this far, you might as well continue.

The Atheist's Guide to Christmas is a collection of articles looking at Christmas from an unbeliever's point of view. Edited by Ariane Sherine, who led the atheist bus campaign subtly alluded to on the cover, this may be the first book to be a spin-off from an advertising campaign, but she has got contributions from quite a range of pundits: scientists,  journalists, philosophers, comedians and Simon le Bon. Some are all about Christmas, some only tangentially so, and some, like Brian Cox's illuminating account of the large hadron collider have nothing to do with it at all.

Derren Brown offers a thoughtful essay in defence of  kindness. What I found intriguing is his suggestion that atheists can do disinterested kindness in a way believers can't, because they are not expecting God's reward. And yet all his arguments in favour of kindness - being kind makes us happy, successful and well liked - are ultimately self-interested.

The comedian Richard Herring tells a funny story about a cat in a bathroom. Which supposedly happened at Christmas. The poet Kapka Kassabova writes movingly about the value of religion in Bulgaria. The sex blogger Zoe Margolis remembers being excluded from the nativity play because of her atheist family. David Baddiel considers the problems of trying to make an atheist movie. The journalist Anna Pickard re-writes 'While Shepherds Watched' as a hoax.

The extraordinary Prof Dawkins takes a stab at fiction, and the stab is near fatal. It's a really quite embarrassing P G Wodehouse pastiche in which Wooster sees the atheist bendy bus and Jeeves explains to him that God cannot exist, on the basis that penal substitution is an appalling idea. There's something strangely reassuring about the fact that the Dawk still thinks he can do theology, impervious to the comprehensive critical dismantling of The God Delusion. I suppose Christians can't help but find it comforting that the archbishop of atheism is a bit of a twit. Like the Italian and German occupying forces in Captain Corelli's Mandolin, it's better to be attacked by clowns than Nazis. Or maybe I'm just happy that all the disparagement didn't get him down.

No fewer than 14 of the 42 contributors are comedians. Wondering why this might be, I came up with a very interesting and credible theory to explain why comedians are more prone to atheism than the average person. It certainly had me convinced, until I noticed that another eight are journalists. Ariane Sherine is a comedy writer and journalist, so I guess the lopsided guest list reflects nothing more profound than her address book. Shame, it was a good theory.

The overall point of the book seems to be to reclaim Christmas for atheists. As AC Grayling points out, the roots of our festivities go back much further than Christianity, so if the Christians colonized pagan celebrations why shouldn't humanists take over Christmas?

Which is fine. I wish the godless a very merry one. There's two months and £15bn of it, so there ought to be enough for everyone. But there's a limit to how many times you can be interested to read yet another article saying 'Everyone else says atheists can't like Christmas, but surprisingly I love it!' It's like hearing 'Merry Xmas Everybody' in every shop you go into. In the end it comes as a delightful relief to hear Andrew Mueller despise it as 'a vast coercive conspiracy' and discuss strategies for avoiding it.

Maybe in fact it's not so much a book to persuade atheists that they're allowed to do Christmas. After all, it can't be too hard to work out. Mince pies, office parties, Slade, presents and fairy lights are not practices it takes a great deal of spiritual commitment or metaphysical conviction to sustain. Maybe it's the other way round - a book to persuade half-hearted just-about believers that just because they like Christmas, that doesn't mean they can't become atheists. It's like the church putting on a barn dance to show that Christians can have fun.  

I ended up not entirely convinced, however. The vision of humanist Christmas I was left with seemed surprisingly unsatisfying - like a nut roast and aubergine sausage Christmas dinner, principled maybe, but not quite the real thing. If you strip away the story, the carols, the church and the faith, are you left with anything besides consumer excess and excessive consuming? There's the decor, I suppose, panto and Now That's What I Call Christmas, but is that enough? Maybe Christmas is still ours after all.

Steve Tomkins

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