Book Review: The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas

It may now be as customary as carols, eggnog or nativity scenes. Odds are that each November and December there will a fracas over whether there is a “war on Christmas.” No doubt, those who contend Christmas is under attack by liberals, secular humanists or what have you will say “we told you so” if and when they see The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas on the bookshelves. Yet one of the things this compilation of essays demonstrates is that, like the members of non-Christian religions, atheists aren’t out to eradicate Christmas.

Editors Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers break the essays into six broad categories dealing with Christmas and its celebration around the world. The 42 contributors (as Harvie and Meyers point out, 42 is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything range from astronomer Phil Plait to science writer Simon Singh and Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon to iconclast Paul Krassner and satirist Neal Pollack. And, of course, what compilation of writings by atheists would be complete without Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist who has become one of the leaders of the so called new atheist movement?

Those who contend there is a concerted effort to “take Christ out of Christmas” may also see this as a trans-Atlantic salvo. Given American attitudes toward atheists (they are “less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others from a long list of ethnic, religious, and other minority groups”) and the increasing secularization of the U.K. and Europe, it should come as no surprise that most of the contributors are British. Some were involved in, and many refer to, the Atheist Bus Campaign, which bought ads on London and other buses that said, “There‚Äôs probably no God. Now stop worrying and your life.” In fact, those buses are the starting point for Dawkins’ tongue-in-cheek “The Great Bus Mystery.”

The range of the essays is equally as broad, from the philosophical to the arts to personal experiences. Many take a humorous approach, such as Jennifer McCreight’s suggestions in “Gifts for the Godless” or Nick Doody’s overview of the science of “Christmastology.” Moreover, while most of the pieces leave no doubt the authors don’t believe in God or the Christmas of the Bible, these aren’t essays aimed at converting (so to speak) believers or claiming theists are idiots. For example, while Adam Rutherford explains why he thinks most scientists are atheists, he observes there are many good scientists who are religious and while he doesn’t understand their viewpoint, he doesn’t condemn them. Other contributors recognize some value in Christmas celebrations.

British singer/comedian Mitch Benn explains that rather than rejecting Christmas, it’s fine for an atheist to celebrate it, even if that may seem a contradiction. “What it all comes down to is a question: what is Christmas?,” he writes. “And the answer — for all of us, believer or otherwise — is that Christmas is whatever you want it to be.” Likewise, he doesn’t believe the word Christmas is exclusive territory. “It’s fine. Go ahead. Say it,” he says. “Christmas. There. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Christmas. It’s easy. Christmas.”

In “How to Escape from Christmas,” British journalist Andrew Mueller applies somewhat uncommon phrasing to express a view that may be more common than anti-atheists believe. Although Mueller doesn’t believe in God or Christianity, he says he greatly admires what he sees as the core message of the religion’s namesake: “try not to spend your brief time in this corporeal realm acting like a dickhead, and be mindful of the other chap’s point of view if at all possible. There are worse historical figures for whom we could insist on throwing an annual planet-wide party. Like, for example. almost all of them.

Natalie Haynes expresses a similar view in “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”

The values behind Christmas — I mean the ones that should, in my view, underpin Christianity but so often seem to get lost — are ones I think many non-Christians share. I’m not crazy about the baby, the shepherds, the kings, and the virgin birth, but loving one another, forgiveness, generosity? Most of us would agree that the world could do with a bit more of those.

Others in the book may not buy into the ritual or seek alternatives, such as the essays suggesting how to celebrate a green Christmas or as a pagan. Yet part of the strength of The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is that it gives voice to a variety of perspectives from a group decried and ignored in today’s America. And one need not be an atheist or irreligious to find plenty to enjoy in it. In fact, if those most likely to view the book as an attack on Christmas would take the time to read it, they might learn that the contributors and their atheist brethren aren’t Grinches with tiny black hearts who want to destroy Christmas for others. In fact, the royalites from the book are going to England’s largest HIV charity.

Undoubtedly, though, the atheists will manage to irritate the war on Christmas set. After all, the atheists are not so doctrinaire as to insist that only those who believe can be allowed to enjoy Christmas.

Of all the days in the year, the day no one should be told how to enjoy is Christmas.

Mitch Benn, “How to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Christmas,”
The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas

2 comments to Book Review: The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas