When I was Sub-Warden of New College, Oxford, I happily intoned “Benedictus benedicat”  at dinner, on much the same grounds as the late, great philosopher Sir Alfred Ayer: “I will not utter falsehoods but I have no objection to making meaningless statements.” A few years ago I was delighted to be invited to King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, by the then Provost, a dear friend and fellow atheist. I loved joining in the Carols in that breathtakingly beautiful building, and would happily read the Lesson in my own college chapel in the unlikely event that I were invited to do so. 

I suspect that much of the so-called War on Christmas (a vogue phrase in America) is driven not by atheists (as alleged by the US religious right) but by rival religions – and then not so much the rival religions themselves as by an exaggerated “respect” for them, which they may not have requested. Historically it surely was respect for rival religions that drove the American adoption of “Holidays” for “Christmas”, as in “Happy Holiday Season”, the sending of “Holiday Cards”, the piling of “Holiday Presents” around the “Holiday Tree”, stuffing the “Holiday Stocking” or the unfortunate “Holiday Turkey”, and even (though I may have imagined this one) “Father Holidays” jingling his red-nosed reindeer through the sky. I suspect that Rudolph, “Here comes Santa Claus” and the nauseating Jingle Bells were also composed specifically to downplay Christianity in an effort to pander to non-Christian religious sensitivities. Well, give me a real Christmas Carol. I am a culturally Christian atheist, living in a culturally Christian country which is – like the rest of Western Europe and even America – becoming more atheist decade by decade.


I cannot claim to like the “commercialisation of Christmas” but devout Christians hate it even more. If all the expensive presents given by people who can’t afford them to people who don’t want them were added up and sent to . . . but you know the rest, and who wants to be a Scrooge or a Grinch? The spirit of kindness, goodwill, generosity, is admirable even if sometimes misdirected. And, whether we like it or not, for most people in this country Christmas has ceased to be a commemoration of the birth of Jesus. If he existed at all, there’s no reason to think he was born in December (other than to coincide conveniently with a pagan solstice festival),  he wasn’t born in Bethlehem and he certainly wasn’t born to a virgin (both the latter two fictions were made up explicitly to fulfil Old Testament prophecies, the last one a mistranslation from Hebrew into Greek).

It’s tempting to celebrate December 25th as the birthday of Sir Isaac Newton but, although one of the greatest geniuses the world has ever known, he was not such a nice man as (at least the fictional persona of) Jesus.

Merry Christmas!


Also in German here.

Also in Polish here.