This is a dangerous time of year for uneasy atheists and agnostics, especially those whose uneasy relationship is with the Christian tradition. And even more especially for those of us who, although no longer active believers, still experience that occasional, discomforting twitch upon the thread.
Dangerous because, speaking personally, it’s the time of year when faith seems most alluring, and unbelief least appealing. For the first two or three decades of my life, Christmas was the apex, the fulcrum of the year. Christmas Eve, in particular, always felt like the still and silent point of the year, when the world seemed hushed and the veil between the material and the spiritual was at its thinnest. I still feel (or yearn to feel) something of that quiet mystery, but lack the objective correlative of actual faith to make sense of it.
The late Alistair Cooke, when interviewing Philip Larkin, discovered that, convinced unbelievers though they were, both kept up the tradition of listening to the whole of Handel’s Messiah each Christmas. So do I. Not to mention Benjamin Britten’s starkly beautiful Ceremony of Carols, and a few other seasonal favourites with deeply personal associations. And at 3 o’clock on Christmas Eve afternoon, I annoy everyone by insisting on complete hush in the house while I tune into Radio 4, as the young chorister at Kings’ College launches haltingly into the first verse of ‘Once in Royals David’s City’: the unmistakable sign that another Christmas has begun.
Later in the afternoon, as it’s getting dark, we’ll pile into the car and make our way into town against the stream of returning last-minute shoppers, for the crib service at the main Anglican church – something we’ve done since the children were very small. Some years, it’s the only church service I’ll attend, and I know that’s true for most of the other families we see there every year. It’ll be our chance to renew acquaintance with some of the carols we grew up singing, and I’ll probably get a lump in my throat if they choose 'O Little Town of Bethlehem', my childhood favourite.
Is all of this just seasonal infantile nostalgia, or evidence of a genuine yearning for something more than the secular world-view that’s sufficient to keep me going, most days, for the rest of the year? And a propos of these posts, is this kind of attraction to the rituals of faith, however sporadic, itself the beginning of faith (if Karen Armstrong is right, and faith is more about performance than assent to propositions), or does it remain empty and unreal if, despite the aesthetic and emotional allure, the propositional content of faith still seems, literally, beyond belief?
At least atheists of the less-uneasy and more convinced kind can find meaning of an altogether different kind in Christmas, as in this touching song by Tim Minchin, which I came across thanks to Andrew:
But uneasy unbelievers like me still feel the annual pull of something more - the tug of transcendence - and are suckers for stuff like this: