Every Christmas I find myself grateful to live in a Christian-dominant community within a civilization that has been constructed by Christianity.
At this time of year the websites of atheist societies light up with grouchy complaints and arguments about Christmas. It's such a public demonstration of Christianity, and so pervasive, that it strikes militant unbelievers as an annual annoyance. Several expressions of outrage appear currently on the pages of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Dawkins being the distinguished scientist who became a famous atheist with his best-selling book, The God Delusion.
"I have been an atheist since early childhood but I might start going to church just to spite you," says one pro-Dawkins combatant in the midst of an on-line quarrel. Another complains of being compelled to participate obliquely in a holiday that holds no theological meaning for unbelievers. "You can't even wish people a happy holidays without being petty."
Elsewhere we can find atheists who report that they have always enjoyed celebrating Christmas. They cherish it as a holiday that can be enjoyed together with Christians, agnostics and outright materialists. This does not, atheists are anxious to state, make any of them hypocrites.
That does not worry me while singing carols or giving and receiving presents. I've never been a card-carrying atheist. I prefer a gentler term, unbeliever, which positions me to appreciate the value of Christianity while refusing to believe its dogma. Every Christmas I find myself grateful to live in a Christian-dominant community within a civilization that has been constructed by Christianity. This, of course, is modern Christianity, stripped of its warlike and oppressive habits.
The truth is that our society has been given its moral principles by Christianity, and those principles shape us, whether we are committed to a religion or not. Christian feelings enter in the moral air we breathe and find a comfortable home within us.
We believe we should see the welfare of others as at least as important as our own. We should treat everyone fairly. We should be ready to give an honest account of our lives. When we describe our fellow citizens as "good," we are usually saying that they follow the way of life that we have learned, consciously or not, from the pervasive Christianity around us. If we go out of our way to smooth the path of minorities, we are reflecting the same feelings.
The truth is that our society has been given its moral principles by Christianity, and those principles shape us, whether we are committed to a religion or not.
On a grander level, over almost two millennia, Western civilization's Judeo-Christian traditions have given structure and a coherent meaning to societies across Europe and the Americas. Those traditions have provided the energy, intelligence and will to evolve democracy, separate church and state, define human rights and justify freedom of speech. Christianity, as if telling us how to sort all this out, also invented the universities.
Our culture, too, derives still from the Christian tradition. Tour the great museums and you'll learn how much art owes to the church. Study music and you'll come to a similar conclusion. For many writers and even more readers, the 17th-century King James Bible remains a great moment in literary history. It was made for Christians to use, in the Church of England, but generations have found it a masterpiece of the English language. Great writers have learned from it. In one generation it was Ernest Hemingway's model and in another it was James Baldwin's.
The power of Judeo-Christian thought opened the practical imagination of the West, suggesting what wonderful ideas humans could have, and what wonderful things they could do. Northrop Frye, a Canadian Methodist minister who became one of the great literary theorists of the world, suggested the destination where all this leads: "The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in."
Robert Fulford, "Why this unbeliever is happy to celebrate Christmas." National Post, (Canada) November 26, 2017.
Reprinted with permission of Robert Fulford.
Robert Fulford has been a journalist since the summer of 1950. He writes twice a week in the National Post and contributes a monthly column about the media to Toronto Life magazine and writes for Queen's Quarterly. His most recent book is The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture. Robert Fulford is an officer of the Order of Canada and the holder of honorary degrees from six Canadian universities.Copyright © 2017 Robert Fulford
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