The 19th Century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, put before people a choice: Dionysos or the Crucified? He saw with clarity that there were two starkly opposed views of life being lived out around him. One followed Dionysos, or Dionysius, the Greco-Roman God of wine, who championed hedonism. The other was the Christian way, the way of the crucified saviour who gave his life for others. God taking on flesh to save the world — that’s crazy, said Nietzsche. Many today seem to agree with him.
A new book called The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas agrees with Nietzsche, but wants to tell even him to chill out a bit when it comes to Christmas. If there is a summary message to The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas it is that atheists can have their Christmas cake and eat their godlessness, too. In other words, get Dionysian, have a great time at Christmas and don’t feel guilty about not being religious. That’s the summary message of the many short, humorous chapters that make up the book.
A lot of the book is simply humorous, such as the geeky chapter doing a scientific analysis of ‘Christmassiness’ or the one on how to make the most hateable Christmas light display for your house and garden. But there’s some serious thinking going, too.
Jenny Colgan, a novelist, and one of the contributors to The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, writes that “accepting the Christmas story means accepting a whole bunch of other stuff; doctrine perhaps not quite so tea-towel- and stuffed lamb friendly” (p.11). In other words, Christmas is kind of pleasurable, but the stuff about sin and judgement isn’t.
I guess she’s right: both Christmas and Easter are essential to the Christian message. And Easter involves a less festive type of tree.
Nevertheless, I was struck by the pettiness of some of the opposition to Christianity. One writer says she gave up on God because he didn’t reply to the Christmas cards she wrote as a five-year old; Simon Le Bon (yes, of Duran Duran fame) philosophizes that if God doesn’t have a brain, then he can’t think and therefore doesn’t exist; another writer says her defining moment of unbelief was because she didn’t get a good role in the school nativity play.
It was startling how many of these writers had abandoned God for frankly childish reasons. Many chapters hark back to childhood, and then in various ways outline the child’s disappointment with church, religion, the Bible and/or God. Religion isn’t something they grew out of; it’s something that disappointed them.
Richard Dawkins does his best Bertie Wooster impersonation (perhaps lost on those not familiar with P.G. Wodehouse’s comic novels) through which character he unveils many of his problems with the Christian faith. He finds no reason to believe in a personal deity rather than Nature; he finds the idea of substitutionary atonement abhorrent; and the Bible is self-congratulatory myth. Oh, and he (that is, his persona in the story) deeply disliked his high school Scripture teacher, whom he gives the name Aubrey Upcock (I do wonder why; what is going on with Richard Dawkins?).
I found this story from Dawkins troubling. It is so full of disdain and mockery for Christianity, much of it rooted in bad experiences, and yet it, too, like so many of the other stories, seems to be rejecting God because of childhood.
It was also surprising to me that most of the atheist writers love Christmas. I expected more attacks on ridiculous religiosity and its complicity with consumerism and wastefulness. But no, most of these atheists love a good carol, a good baked dinner, and loads of presents under the tree. As one says, “Pooh to Deep Meanings, as far as I’m concerned. All any of us have is the here and now…so eat, drink and be merry” (p.124). Go, Dionysos! It should be said, however, that one atheist is dreaming of a Green Christmas, so there’s at least some claim to Deeper Meaning.
In fact, another important element of the book is its emphasis on building an atheistic view of ethics based on kindness. This is a commendable goal, but the thinking on the topic is surprisingly shallow. It is one thing to call people to “forgive purely because it is nicer to forgive” (p.166), but quite another to seek justice for those who have been wronged, to love those who are opposed to you, and to be humble and merciful in the face of injustice done to you. For these ethical goals, Christianity offers a much stronger and more realistic approach.
But Grayling highlights a problem: Christianity is associated with too narrow a worldview by most of these atheist writers
One of the more intellectual contributors to the book, philosopher A.C. Grayling, writes that most of the things he enjoys about Christmas derive from Roman traditions — gift-giving, decorating trees, feasting. In other words, the Dionysian element. Plenty of others would say that the Christian elements of carol singing, caring for those in need St Nicholas-style, and sharing with family, are just as pleasurable. But Grayling highlights a problem: Christianity is associated with too narrow a worldview by most of these atheist writers.
Nietzsche was wrong to set his two worldviews so diametrically against each other, and I think the writers of this book make a similar mistake.
The Christian worldview encompasses both the path of suffering and the joys and pleasures of life. It’s Dionysos and the Crucified, It’s both/and, not either/or, and the pleasures of the ceremonies around Christmas pull together the dramatic story of the saviour born in humble circumstances with the coming agony of his journey towards crucifixion and resurrection.
For a jolly Christmas read, a lot of the writing in The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is quietly melancholy. It is as if some of the authors are saying, “God, I wish this were true because it’s such a great story and it would give us such reason to celebrate”.
They are right about the greatness of the story; I wonder whether it might have been rejected for the wrong reasons. If it occurred, as the Gospels claim, if God took human form and entered our world to bring us love and hope and peace, it is worth celebrating and also worth suffering for if it comes to that.
Greg Clarke is Director of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article originally appeared at The Punch.