Thursday, 26 December 2013

Why an atheist celebrates Christmas

Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web and a Unitarian Universalist) invited me to present the Thought for the Day, on the BBC's Today Programme for Boxing Day 2013. The BBC overruled Sir Tim's invitation and selected an avowedly theist Unitarian minister instead. The following is the "alternative Thought for the Day" that BBC permitted me to present.

Like millions of others, here and elsewhere, my family and I celebrated Christmas yesterday. We exchanged gifts around a Christmas tree and later enjoyed a traditional feast. On Tuesday, I led a Christmas Eve service at my chapel in north London. We sang Christmas carols and we spoke of love, peace, justice, and hope.

For many listeners, my rather traditional sounding Christmas will come as something of a surprise. After all, I describe myself as an atheist, a label that disqualified me from presenting Thought for the Day.

To me though, there is no inconsistency in being an atheist and celebrating Christmas. While I don’t literally believe the stories underlying Christmas, I do very much believe in its most important messages. Christmas reminds us that hope can come at the darkest times. It reminds us of the sacredness and innocence and possibility of children - that any child - however humble their circumstances - could change the world for the better.

Christmas reminds us of the guidance of Jesus of Nazareth - who taught about accepting and loving one another despite our differences and who offered a vision of a world of economic and social justice. These are lessons that people needed to hear 2000 years ago. They are lessons we still need to hear today.

No tradition has all the answers or has a monopoly on truth and wisdom. I celebrated Christmas, and a few days ago, I looked to the winter solstice and Yule for its wisdom about connection with the natural world and its cycles. Just a few days before that, I turned to Hanukkah to raise up the lesson that oppression can be overthrown and that all people everywhere should have the chance to live in freedom.

As an atheist, I don’t believe that there is a omnipotent other who will intervene in earthly life to save us from natural dangers or to save us from our own worst impulses. It is thus because I am an atheist that I firmly believe we all need to learn and be reminded of lessons like those that come with Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Ramadan, Yom Kippur, Lent, Diwali, and many religious and nonreligious occasions. Without divine assistance, it is we who are tasked with creating an earthly paradise ourselves. Bearing such great responsibility, we need these teachings all the more.

And so, today, as many of us admire our gifts, and bask in the warmth of yesterday’s celebrations, I hope that whatever our beliefs or perspectives, we will all hear and incorporate the best of Christmas: Let us learn to love others more fully and more deeply. Let us learn to include the excluded and expand our circles of love to include them as well. And let us begin the true work of Christmas - to create a world of love, of justice and of peace for everyone.


  1. Love it Andy . . . . . . wise, wonderful words. I missed being at the Christmas Eve service with you all but was happy being home with my dogs with a raging storm blowing outside! Ha ha . . . even in Spain! :)
    This would have been an ideal Thought for the Day . . . but hey ho - I'm glad you've blogged it. It speaks the real message of Xmas which is what the world needs. Thankyou. Big hugs. Kate :)

  2. Definitely should have been broadcast! Happy Christmas - from a fellow-atheist.

  3. My husband and I celebrate Christmas every year. He's a self-professed staunch atheist, while I refuse to take a side in the debate anymore. I am a Unitarian Universalist. I now celebrate many holidays that would simply horrify my original Catholic faith leaders. Andy, keep on professing your faith and values of radical acceptance and hospitality, like you do in that wonderful Church, Unity.Apparently one visit made a very large impression on me - it's insane that you were the "alternative" thought. Shouldn't creating "a world of love, of justice, and of peace" be for everyone??Much love to everybody who reads these words, peace be with you. Love, Maria in New London, CT, US

  4. Andy, at the Christmas Eve Service at First Parish Church UU in Beverly MA, Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson told me about your atheist Thought for the Day on the BBC for Boxing Day. He knows I too am an Atheist. Way to go. Being a Secular humanist, atheist, freethinker I also believe in love, justice and peace. Keep on keeping on, and Happy New Year. (Have you read Margaret Knight's Morals Without Religion? In 1955 she wanted to go on the BCC to counter the religious talk she heard there. She presented a very sane perspective on the world. The back lash against her was great. Finally a Methodist minister said, "Ms. Knight has every right to share her views on the radio. We need to welcome her views and listen. Christianity is not a hot house flower that needs to be protected from every breeze." Years ago I was able to get a signed copy. Many other atheists have autographed it for me. Such a little thing makes me happy.). Ciao, Tony Toledo

  5. Loved it and good to find another atheist in the family

  6. As a humanist, I am saving your talk to post next Christmas. Thank you.

  7. Love it. The Christmas story is cobbled together from various Old Testament prophesies, but somehow makes a whole with a powerful message of humility and togetherness. It couldn't be more clear. Everybody's included: animals, shepherds, kings, philosophers.