merry christmas from an atheist

bergens tidende, 21 december 2006

There is apparently a 'War on Christmas'. On both sides of the Atlantic, angry Christians are fighting back against nasty secularists who are intent on taking the Christ out of Christmas. In America, Fox TV anchorman John Gibson's The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse Than You Thought has become a bestseller. In Britain, the Archbishop of York John Sentanu, the second most important figure in the Church of England and Britain's first black archbishop, has lambasted 'aggressive secularists' for 'throwing out the crib at Christmas' and 'trying to pretend that it is possible to enter the true meaning of Christmas by leaving out Jesus Christ'.

The idea that that secularists are waging a war on Christmas seems slightly absurd. After all, as believers keep reminding us, religion is supposed to be on the rise and secularism on the wane. In any case there seems little need for secularists to wage such a campaign. For over half a century now, Christ has had little more than a walk-on role at Christmas. Christmas plays an important role in the lives of most people in the West. But it is defined for most people not by religious experience, but by shopping and drinking, the office party and the family meal, the mad rush to buy presents and not get seduced into spending too much money.

I probably represent one of Archbishop John Sentanu's worst nightmares - I am not just an 'aggressive secularist' but a militant atheist to boot. But I have a Christmas tree in the house, I've sent out my Christmas cards, bought my Christmas presents and I will cook goose on Christmas Day. And I will probably listen to Bach's Christmas Oratorio or to Mahalia Jackson's wonderful gospel singing while I am doing so. Yet I don't have a religious bone in my body. I have no intention of going to church, singing carols or pretending to my daughter that the Nativity story is any less of a fairy tale than the story of reindeers pulling Santa's sledge.

It is quite possible, in other words, for secularism to co-exist with the celebration of Christmas. And I am not alone in believing this. Seventy per cent of Britons describe themselves as Christian, but only 17 per cent regularly attend church. Christianity has become a cultural identity rather than a religious faith. And much the same is true for the rest of Western Europe. The European Values Study revealed that only a third of Europeans believe in a personal God, while among 18-24 year olds fewer than 1 in 5 believed in the Resurrection.

Christmas has become secularised not because people like me are waging an aggressive war against it, but because Christians themselves have lost faith in their faith. It is not just belief in Christianity, however, that has become eroded. We live in an age in which there is a widespread sense of cynicism and moral malaise. The idea of moral progress or of universal values is widely derided. Many deny the possibility of a common language through which we can make sense of the world. They assume that there are no durable values that can transcend differences in identity, culture and religion. As a result we have come not only to celebrate diversity and difference but also to fear promoting strong ideas or giving offence peoples and cultures. Against this background, it is not surprising that many public bodies and institutions feel nervous about celebrating Christmas. According to a recently published survey in Britain, 74 per cent of British employers have banned Christmas decorations for fear of offending non-Christians. These figures may be debatable, but few would deny that a widespread fear of offending minorities is helping restrict the public role of Christmas.

The irony is that such multiculturalism is the antithesis of a secular outlook. Secularism seeks to separate the public and private spheres. In a secular society faith would be an entirely private matter of no concern to the state. Religion would play no role in the public sphere. The importance of secularism is that helps create an open public space, free of the kind of sectionalism that often bedevils religious or cultural life. That is why the original proponents of secularism were not atheists, as is now widely believed, but Christian believers in the newly created United States of America, who did not want the factionalism of religious conflict to undermine the new republic.

Multiculturalism, on the other hand, seeks to erode the distinction between the public and the private. Multiculturalists want not just to tolerate distinct cultures and faiths, but to celebrate them and indeed to institutionalise them in the public sphere. The consequence is the destruction of the public sphere as a common space for all citizens and the creation of a fragmented public life - the very opposite of what secularists seek.

So Merry Christmas to everyone - and a very happy secular New Year.