Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Atheist's Guide to Christmas - reviewed by Susan Price

          I'm a cradle-atheist, with all the benefits of atheism lavished
The Atheist's Guide to Christmas
on me from birth. My mother was so anti-church that she wouldn't set foot in one, not even to see the flower displays (and she loved flowers.) We used to wonder if she was a witch, like the Plantagenet ancestress, who vanished in smoke and brimstone when finally dragged into Mass.

          My father took a more nuanced view of religion, but was still a thorough atheist. One of my brothers, never having been troubled by the slightest flicker of anything approaching religious feeling, argues that we inherited an atheist gene.
          I've known people who began life as atheists, but later found themselves drawn to one of the many only true gods or another. I can't say I've ever felt the slightest tug in that direction myself. I'm all for people believing and worshipping as they please - provided they're not harming anyone else, including their own families, and provided they never try to insist that I, or anyone else, has to believe as they do, whether we want to or not.
          This was always my beef with the Sabbath Day Observationists, who managed to get laws enacted that made Sundays miserable throughout my childhood, and for generations before me, the lemon-faced pi-jaws. If they truly believed that their god wanted them to sit in silence all day long on Sunday, staring at a blank wall, reading only the Bible and eating only dry bread - well, what was stopping them? They were entirely free to lock themselves in their houses and keep it holy. Why did they have to ensure, as far as they could, that nobody else could do anything amusing or relaxing on the one work-free day in the week?
 
Pass the vinegar
         If a fish and chip supper on Sunday means I'm going to Hell, okay. You go on your way to Heaven. Beelzebub and me will stay here and share the crispy bits.

          Belief in any god or religion has always seemed, to me, to involve a peculiar mental contortionism, a twisting of the brain to encompass several mutually impossible things before breakfast - and every other meal too. If you can manage that, and enjoy it, then fill your boots - but please, leave everybody else's boots alone.

          Given all this, I was slightly surprised to find that The Atheist's Guide to Christmas really wasn't for me. I would have thought it was written for me... But no, 'fraid not.  As I read it, I realised that its ideal reader is someone who was raised religious, but lost their belief. (Perhaps like my friend, the paramedic, who was a believer when he qualified but then saw so many terrible, senseless things that, in a few years, he lost every shred of faith.)
          The essays in the book make it clear that many of the writers have a nostalgia for their lost faith, feel a bit defensive about their lack of belief, or are pestered by still religious relatives who want to drag them back into the fold. (It seems that even 'Arch-Atheist' Richard Dawkins is in this group.)
Ariane Sherin and the Arch-A in front of the atheist bus
           Many of the pieces in the book are funny - several are written by atheist comedians - and I enjoyed them. Some essays are biographical, and I found them interesting and entertaining. Many reminded me that there are still places in the world - large areas of America for one - where it's sincerely believed that atheists are monstrous, evil people, incapable of behaving with even the most basic morality because they don't fear God and Hell-fire. (I remember a young Islamic friend being taken aback on discovering that I was atheist. When I asked her why she was so surprised, she said that I seemed such a nice person. Appearances, eh? They're so deceptive.)
          This notion that atheism and morality are incompatible is very odd, given that a 'morality' which is simply a fear of punishment or hope of reward is no morality at all.
          'Morality' is what you believe to be right and hold to, regardless of whether you will be rewarded for it or not - and an atheist decides what is right and what is wrong based on reason and compassion, not promises of reward in the after-life, or dogma based on what was good for society 2000 years ago or more.
          Atheistical morality is not faultless - what is? - but personally, I much prefer it to a creed based on what any 'God' says. At least atheists debate morality. 'Because God says so,' closes down all discussion.

          Where the Atheist's Guide really lost me (bored me, if I'm honest) was when it put forward serious arguments for atheism. It was like being a fish, reading polemics about water being a good thing. Well, you don't say?
          Nor was I excited by the pieces priming me with answers for God-bothering relatives. Don't need them; don't have any. If I did, I think I would just tell them to shut their gobs and go away. It's quicker and more likely to succeed.
          I don't need the answers for door-stepping God-botherers because they get short-shrift these days - though I never discriminate on religious grounds. Double-glazing salesmen, Avon Ladies, canvassers and similar pests get the same treatment. I decided some years ago that if they're entitled to disturb me, then I'm entitled to spoil their day right back. I am a grumpy old atheist.

          The truth is, oddly, as a cradle-atheist, I'm not really the audience this book needs. 
          If you were born and raised religious but have realised that you don't believe any of it any more, yet you feel, vaguely, uneasily, that perhaps you should...
          Or if you're wondering how you're going to explain it to your religious family...
          Or if you're feeling a bit lonely and would like to know that there are other atheists in the world - Well then, this may be one of the best books you've ever bought.

          And, sorry, I've been trying to resist, but I have to say it - 'There's probably no God?' And they call themselves atheists?
          And 'worry'? I worry about quite a few things, but can't remember the last time I even fretted slightly about whether or not there's a god.
         No, I am really, really not the ideal reader for this book.
         


          All proceeds to the Terrance Higgins' Trust.