Saturday 19 December 2009

An uneasy atheist at Christmas

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 And even more especially for those of us who, although no longer active believers, still experience that occasional, discomforting twitch upon the thread.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?

Who knows?

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:

Happy holidays.


Martin said...

Here's a comment from Eve that somehow went astray:

Eve Garrard said...

What a terrific description of the condition of the uneasy atheist, Martin, thankyou for writing it. I recognise and share a large amount of this; in fact, it doesn't actually require Christmas or wonderful Britten music to start me off - just going into a suitably gothic and/or lonely church is enough to make tears prick at the back of my eyes. And that's without even having been brought up as a Christian! So it can't just be nostalgia doing the work.

Merry Christmas to you, or as merry as can be expected for atheists in this uncomfortable predicament.

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 19, 2009 12:07:00 PM

Saturday, December 19, 2009 7:23:00 PM

Martin said...

And a merry Christmas to you too, Eve. Thanks for the comment.

peter said...

Martin --

I would suggest "to go with the flow", just allow yourself to succumb to the feelings you experience, rather than seeking to find beliefs which would justify them to yourself or to others. As you know from my blog, I think it a peculiarly contemporary western intellectual feature this, the seeking of beliefs to provide rationale for actions.

Would you seek to explain love in a similar way, in terms of some objective beliefs about your loved ones or about the world? Of course not. We all recognize love as subjective, beyond rational explanation. So, why seek to explain a desire for mystical experiences in terms of some objective beliefs then?

Minnie said...

Delightful post, Martin - thank you. Read & enjoyed it yesterday, so returned to do the decent thing and say so.
Written with clarity (difficult when discussing largely emotional matters and the mystifying states you describe), plus sincerity and a slight wistfulness ... (or is that my gloss, from the optic of a believer?!).
Love the Poulenc.
Bonne fete - as they say, here (you'll have to imagine the lovely, singsong accent). Merry Christmas & happy New Year to you, Mrs M and the Marginalia.

Martin said...

Thanks to both for the comments.

Peter - Good to hear from you. 'Go with the flow'? Sounds appealing. The trouble is, the flow comes and goes, and has no consistency without the undertow of intellectual assent...otherwise it's mere subjectivism and emotionalism, perhaps?

Minnie - Wistfulness? But of course. 'From the optic of a believer' : perhaps you'll say more, some time? Glad you liked the Poulenc: currently my seasonal favourite, just pushing Praetorius into second place.
A Merry Christmas to you too. And I hope you've recovered from your fall.

ModernityBlog said...

Nah, Martin, not a difficult time for *all* atheists :)

Xmas ain't too bad, if you forget the mass commercialism, the vulgar adverts, the silly music, the fake sincerity, the excessive indulgence, the drunkenness, the falling over, the vomit and the agony of remembering that you've forgotten someone and it's too late to get their present.

All of that too, but really go with the flow!

Have a laugh, re-connect with people, tell a few old jokes, obviously lay off the drink a bit, take more vitamin, let someone else get stressed out.

So I'd say, for me, Xmas ain't too bad, if you are thick skinned and like buying stuff for people.

Oh and there's plenty of God nonsense about too. Just ignore it.

If you really want to wind people up, remind them of the pagan/Roman roots to winter festivals, etc.

But other than that I wouldn't bother, and on the bright side at least you don't have to go to midnight mass!