The Atheist's Guide to Christmas

Joanne Savage finds the godless full of festive cheer

Widely regarded as po-faced, pompous naysayers and joyless rationalists denying the possibility of a harp-filled heaven, us atheists get a bad press. We’re seen as in league with Richard Dawkins – a man whose intellectual arrogance is enough to send agnostics to bite the altar rails. And we have to deal with the pharisaic pride of evangelical Christians, not throttling them as they gleefully remind us that the price of apostasy is pitchforks.

In the facile logic of the cultural consciousness, atheism seems to be equated with amorality, intellectual elitism and miserable blighter-ism. People wonder what these curmudgeonly atheists do at Christmas, the words to 'Away in a Manger' sticking in their heathen throats. But why shouldn’t atheists be rocking around the Christmas tree? What about that festivus for the rest of us?

The Aethist's Guide to ChristmasContrary to popular belief, the godless do not have horns and do believe in kindness, concern for others and helping old ladies cross the road. Our position is loosely that, since there is no Almighty able to look after us and intervene on our behalf, we must take responsibility for ourselves and live by the moral code we know in our heads and hearts to be right.

We think death is the final curtain call for consciousness. Life as we know it, as it is lived day to day, is all there is and all we can hope for. We are alone in the universe and existence is brief and dicey – it’s up to us to make the most of it. Since there’ll be no recompense for our sufferings in the hereafter, pass the brandy and pudding.

The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas offers the humorous musings of 42 atheists on the festive theme. There are stories of awkward childhood nativity plays and the pagan origins of December 25 as a day of eating, drinking, dancing and light in the depths of winter. Plenty of atheist frustration at being misunderstood and misrepresented is met with plenty of Christmas cheer – the godless love sitting down to a turkey dinner with the ones they love as much as the next Christian.

Prestigious contributors include atheist par excellence and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins himself, scientist Adam Rutherford, philosopher AC Grayling, comedian Ed Byrne, Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker and illusionist Derren Brown. The collection, edited by Ariane Sherine, includes tips on finding the best Christmas comedy, getting on with dissident relatives as the sherry flows, surviving the consumerist madness and 'Jingle Bells' overload of shopping centres across the country and a Non-Aggressive Atheism Pop Quiz.

There are funny entries in the collection and some great writing, but the annoying sense of atheistic smugness does surface where contributors poke fun at the atavistic irrationality of religious belief, congratulating themselves for being on the ‘cool’ side of science and fact. When atheists slap down believers for being fanciful they are just as annoying as Jehovah’s witnesses preaching on your doorstep.

Science may verify evolution and expose the myth of creationism, but it has no more weight than conjecture when it comes to the fundamental question of the existence of God. None of us are qualified to be smug because, most obviously, none of us can know with empirical/factual certainty whether or not God exists until we’re past communication and oxygen anyway.

But aside from the odd foray into belief bashing, The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is a spirited, witty collection of pop philosophical takes on the season, ruminations on the non-existent Almighty and the increasing irreligiousness of Yuletide.

One of the strongest contributions is Charlie Brooker’s 'If God Existed, Would He Have a Sense of Humour'? Despite the cruelty, suffering and injustice that predominates on this mortal coil, Brooker can see that human existence is redeemed by butterflies, biscuits, fun fairs and most importantly, laughter. When you throw your head back and clutch your sides in a belly laugh, writes Brooker, you are immortal. Laughter is as sacred and miraculous as it gets.

Atheists don’t do God, but we most definitely do laughter. If it’s the season to be merry there’s no reason why we shouldn’t strap on a pair of antlers and dance to 'Santa Baby' too.

The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is published by Friday Books. Follow the link to watch an video with editor Ariane Sherine.