When I'm asked, I often tell people that I'm a practising atheist, though I rarely get to explain what it means. Just an hour ago, I was standing at the Tesco checkout. A chubby elf with a slow drawl was serving me. She said something like 'Ooooh, I love it when it's busy like this...'
'I'm not feeling much fun,' I replied with a grimace as I packed away two large bottles of Apple Tango. All around me, people were bulk buying crates of booze. As a non-drinking, non-consumerist atheist, I felt very out of place...
'Oh, you don't enjoy Christmas?' asked the elf. She sounded surprised.
'I'm a practising atheist,' I replied. I hoped she'd ask what I meant. She didn't.
'I'm Christian,' she said, almost like a slow moving challenge. 'I like Christmas.'
I felt like a heel.
I didn't begrudge the elf her Christmas but the majority of people, I think, are atheist in spirit. Yet, as soon as I write that, I realise that's not entirely what I mean. A small percentage of people (only 12% in the UK in 2012) regularly attend church. I'm not sure what percentage of people would identify themselves as being 'atheists' or, as The Daily Mail would probably like to call us, 'aggressive atheists'. However, I'd be surprised if it was a figure larger than 12%.
It's why I prefer the phrase 'practising atheist'. It's not just a denial of something. It implies a conscious choice and an interest in the subject of atheism. Many of the people who claim to be atheists are, I would suggest, something other than true atheists. Their belief has yet to be properly defined in the same way that a child who hasn't been taught anything about The Holocaust cannot be termed a 'Holocaust denier'. The majority of 'atheists' are probably 'consumerists' and 'consumerism' is their Church. It's a church where the laity can (and do) distract themselves from the bigger questions of existence by playing Candy Crush or getting paralytically drunk every weekend.
Not believing in God is different to actively thinking about God's non-existence. I've never been much inclined to the former. I've always been fascinated by religion. I've probably studied more religious texts than most Christians and even if my non-belief wasn't particularly hard won, I hope it is a little more profound than casual acceptance.
Although I was baptised in the Church of England, I was never bought up to be a church goer. My family were on the periphery of such things; going only when duties to the broader family (aunts, uncles) required us to go. That said, I quite liked the church at Christmas but for pretty secular reasons. What child wouldn't get a thrill from playing with fire in the form of candles stuck in an orange? I also got to attend church with my uncle (not an uncle but better than any uncle I really had) who was a genuinely good, funny, and utterly wonderful man.
The only atheist I knew was my father but that was probably the reason I was never really an atheist in my early years. I probably rebelled a little, which was made easier because I found nearly everything about the church intriguing. I remember being a very young child and fascinated by biblical paintings. I would wonder what all that darkness and suffering meant. I enjoyed bible stories and Hollywood epics such as Ben Hur. Despite my mild Protestant upbringing, Catholicism was particularly interesting because my favourite writers, artists, and film makers were all catholic. I understood the sensibility as though it were my own. Questions of sin and damnation were so complex and appealing.
Yet, I never once believed and I've never enjoyed a single supernatural experience. I've always loved science and science has been the only thing that has ever made any sense. The more I've read, the firmer I've become in my atheism to the point that I now find myself actively preaching it as my gospel. I read atheist books and listen to atheist, humanist, and rationalist lectures. Like many atheists, I find the benefits of religion (of which there are obviously many) vastly outweighed by the problems of religion. It's easy to think that religion is generally benign when it's your local Church of England bring-and-buy sale, raising money for a hospice. It's also hard to be critical of well meaning people trying to do what they believe is good. When believers knock do on the front door, I find myself being overly kind with them. Yet I also know that you can't accept one religion without accepting all religions. Stupidity is indivisible. For every nice little lady who lives down the street and believes in God there is a right wing fundamentalist hate preacher or misguided zealot about to blow him or herself up to please their god.
It's for this reason that Christmas always troubles me. I get in a particularly ratty mood during December and it's not unusual for me to break down sobbing sometime around the end of the month because I'm so relieved that the bloody thing is over. I despise Christmas with every atom of my being. I spend the entire month having to grit my teeth and trying to keep quiet. It's the one time of the year I'm not allowed to practice my religion of choice. It's the time of the year when I become a victim of religious intolerance because, no matter how many times I tell relatives that I'm happy without a present or a card, they will still expect a present and a card. No matter how many times I ask people to save their money and buy themselves something nice, they feel obliged to buy me something. It's a battle of wills and usually my will breaks, as it did again today on Christmas Eve, and I find myself standing at a checkout, buying wrapping paper and Christmas cards and hoping the Christian on the tills will prod me hard enough for me to give her the full-on atheist treatment.
I want to tell her that I see Christmas as either the glitzy marketing for state-sponsored genocide or a psychological trick played on us by the multinational purveyors of plastic bric-a-brac. If you believe in the Christian Christmas, then you have no right to condemn people who believe in equally far-fetched beliefs that ultimately end with somebody sticking an RPG through the side of a school. If you believe in the consumerist Christmas, then subscribing to an artificial period of price inflation in order to celebrate something that you tacitly accept is a complete sham.
Of course, the common defence of Christmas is that it really has nothing to do with Christianity or religion or even consumerism. That's the excuse I hear too often. 'Oh, you have to put the effort in for the children' is something I regularly hear. Those close to me have alternative ways of saying it. 'Nobody likes Christmas but you just have to go through the motions to please people'. In other words: David, shut the hell up and stop being so bloody miserable.
Yet I'm not miserable. I don't dislike every part of Christmas. There are parts of Christmas I actually enjoy and some parts which even make a little sense.
For example, I might be a committed atheist but I quite enjoy watching the late night church service on Christmas Eve. I like listening to intelligent sermons, though I know they're founded upon utter nonsense. It's like enjoying the tales of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, whilst knowing that Middle Earth never existed. Christmas is also about enjoying being close to my loved ones, though I don't need Christmas in order to tell them how important they are to me. I don't hate buying people gifts but I do dislike advertisers telling me to do it when demand is high and prices even higher. I also don't like waiting for Christmas in order to buy a gift for somebody. I don't dislike the decorations. In fact, when people start to take down their decorations in January, I encourage people to keep them up. It seems an utterly rational thing to do when we're in the dark cold months of winter. A little festive lighting cheers everywhere up. Would any god be really so vengeful to begrudge you a little decoration when the weather's so cold? So, when everybody is back to being a miserable sod in February, I'm keeping the Christmas spirit going with a little bit of tinsel around my monitor.
So much about Christmas makes sense and improves our lives but the rest of it is so abhorrent that it makes it hard defend even the good bits. It's the irrational Christmas zeitgeist summed up in commandments that begin 'You have to...' and 'You must...' and end with 'because it's Christmas'.
If there's any lesson to be learned at Christmas, it's that you shouldn't leave it until Christmas before you're kind to people. That deeply Christian relative you don't see all the year is not much of a Christian if they only choose to ring or visit you on Christmas Eve. Forced bonhomie is no bonhomie at all. The company who allow you to finish at lunchtime on Christmas Eve is not much of a company if they also expect you to travel in to work on Christmas Eve just for three hours of desk tidying. Their generosity is nothing more than a reminder that your life is a gift they can grant back to you.
Christmas shouldn't even a time to wish people well. It should be a reminder to wish people well every day of the year. Ultimately, that's the best argument I have about being a practising atheist. I don't need gods or advertisers to remind me to be a better person. If you're a thinking, feeling rational human being, you should know that already.