Taking a cracker at God

by Michele A'Court / 26 December, 2009
An athiest's eye view of Christmas.

Back in June 2008, UK comedian and Guardian columnist Ariane Sherine found herself unsettled by religious advertisements on the side of London buses that indirectly threatened all non-Christians with eternal torment in hell. Public transport was bad enough, she felt, without this additional annoyance to those who subscribed to one of the world's other 4000 belief systems or to those, like her, who subscribed to none at all.

A couple of thought-pieces on the subject later and what started as a bit of a joke turned into a successful campaign. Sherine proposed raising money through public donation to adorn a handful of London buses with the cheery alternative, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Hoping to reach £5500 (NZ$12,600) - with a promised top-up from high-profile scientist and atheist Professor Richard Dawkins - Sherine and supporters raised more than £100,000 (NZ$230,000) in the first four days, enough for 800 buses all over the UK.

And now on the back of that support for an atheist point of view, there's a book - not about the campaign (you have to wait till page 277 for an insider scoop) but a collection of essays from rationalists, humanists, atheists and other Godless heathens about their attitudes to, and experiences of, Christmas.

Forty-two writers, scientists, cartoonists, comedians and other secular thinkers contribute, each identified neatly with handy biographies at the back of the book. Some names we recognise: the aforementioned Dawkins, illusionist Derren Brown, sometime-Kiwi Kapka Kassabova and comics who have visited here such as Josie Long and Ed Byrne. More names will be recognisable to anyone familiar with British TV, newspapers or magazines.

Given that what they have in common is not a shared belief but the absence of it, they come at Christmas from a range of angles. Some were raised "not-Christian" or "not-Jewish", while others grew up in secular households. Some hate Christmas and others adore it.

There are musings on the historical roots of our Christmas celebrations, practical tips for getting through it, reflections on great moments in atheism, a deeper discussion of humanist philosophy and a cele-bration of the wonders of science.

As a collection, the book is (forgive the religious metaphor) something of a curate's egg, beginning with so much whimsy and whining it had me wondering if the rationalist mind lacked sufficient imagination to write a good story.

Which is, happily, an idea thoroughly investigated halfway through the book in a delightful essay on why you can't make atheist movies. But even before this you can be persuaded that, as well as containing some cheap stocking-fillers, there are some big, meaningful, worthwhile gifts wrapped up in here.

Physicist Simon Singh's description of the Big Bang reveals more magic and engenders more awe than any nativity story, and an essay on the Large Hadron Collider made me feel for a thrilling 10 minutes that I actually understood how it works and why.

There are philosophical pieces from people who think hard about morality and the meaning of life precisely because they don't have a prescribed belief system. A life based on reason rather than faith, it seems, leads to an evolving morality about kindness and being your best self. At least one essay - Charlie Brooker pondering whether God would have a sense of humour - made my toes tingle and my hair stand on end as I wept an uplifted tear.

The book assumes an atheist reader, or at least an intelligent and open-minded one - which they would argue is the ?same thing. If there is any message, it's that being not-Christian shouldn't hamper your ability to enjoy the season, should you wish to, given that so?much of what we call Christmas is a pagan pastiche. And what you're left ?with is the sense that a world without God is not a world without magic or wonder.

As a final act of humanism, writers' profits have been donated to the Terrence Higgins Trust, the leading UK HIV and sexual health charity.

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