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.