Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Atheist's Guide to Christmas edited by Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers

The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas
Edited by Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers

I meant to have this review up by Christmas Eve. Christmas Day, at the latest. The thing is, I was busy celebrating . . . Christmas. I’m married to a Buddhist, my children aren’t baptized and I haven’t attended a church service (apart from weddings and funerals) since I was eight years old. Still, we celebrate. I don’t know if there’s an afterlife, or if “ghosts” are bends in time during a quantum mechanical hiccup. I don’t know if Jesus was the Son of God or if he was a philosopher of his time whose ideas spread. Still, we celebrate. Call it force of habit due to my upbringing, call it “commercialization” of a “sacred” day, but I don’t see any problem in us enjoying the holiday. The way the modern world celebrates Christmas is such a hodgepodge of other historical winter holidays that anyone should be allowed to participate.

Besides, who doesn’t like presents? An excuse to eat and drink a lot? Time with family? Okay, maybe time with family isn’t always a selling point, but that’s where the food and drink help. Once you fall into a meat and alcohol-induced coma, the cold weather and crazy sister don’t seem as bad.

For my part I think the idea of a bit of time off, which we devote to those we care about, and to whom we give tokens of our love and thoughtfulness, is a good thing. A gift that is really well chosen shows how one has thought about the intended recipient and put to work one’s understanding of him or her, and one’s affection. To take time to think about such a gift, and then to find and buy it or even to make it, is a real mark of love. To set aside a dedicated time to be with people for whom one has deep feelings, time specifically for them and for the nourishing of one’s relationship with them, is both a fine and necessary act. So having a season in which we do these things is good, a genuine component of the overall good of life.
— A.C. Grayling, “A Happy Christmas”

Comprised of essays from 42 contributors (yes, that’s a deliberate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference on the editors’ part), The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas covers everything from scientific and historical thoughts regarding the holiday, to losses of faith and personal stories. Peppered with humor, it’s a quick, entertaining read. Probably what I enjoyed most about it was its reasoned, un-snarky approach to the subject matter. At no point does it devolve into petulant student arguments against religion, which are as bad as angry chuch-going judgements.

My first encounter with religion was when I was six years old. At school one day, my teacher informed me that I couldn’t be in the Christmas Nativity play because I wasn’t the “right religion.” I remember returning home, crying, devestated that all my friends were going to be having fun in rehearsals, and I would be left alone without their company at break time. And, more importantly — to a six-year-old wannabe actress — I would miss out on the fame and stardom from acting in the play, which was to be performed in front of the entire school. Not to mention not receiving the free sweets used as bribes by the staff for good behavior. I’d do anything for a strawberry cream, me.”
— Zoe Margolis, “Hark the Herald Villagers Sing

I’ll admit I did a bit of a double take when I saw the editor name “Stephanie Meyers,” which is so close to Mormon author Stephanie Meyer of Twilight, that I read her back cover bio first. She’s a New York book editor who is “an avid believer in receiving presents, decorating trees, and making the most of post-holiday sales.” She’s probably also sick of being confused with a vampire book that needs major editorial assistance.

The other editor, Robin Harvie, resides in London, and as such, the book is fairly evenly divided between United Kingdom writers and American ones. Though we share a language in the same way Spain and Cuba do, our way of celebrating Christmas does differ. The UK writers make mention of the Boxing Day buffet, whereas I think here we just refer to it as “the day we can’t believe we’re still gorging ourselves with leftovers.”

Somewhat predictably, I liked the bits from the British comedians the best. In Charlie Brooker’s essay “If God Existed, Would He Have a Sense of Humor?” I absolutely laughed out loud while reading the opening paragraph:

By any standards, God is a cooly uninvolved sort of character, content to sit back and watch as mankind has one bucket of peril after another tipped over its colletcive head. He witnesses deaths, disasters, wars, diseases, and the continued existence of Razorlight and doesn’t lift a finger to help, except to whisper murderous instructions into the mind’s ear of the occasional insane truck driver.

I hate Razorlight. Johnny Borrell can sod right off. Smug hipster bastard.

If anything, I’m faithful to the Church of Rock n Roll. I’ve said before that there is something otherworldly about a great song, as though it was pulled from the ether by magic -- That certain musicians seem to act as shamans in the way that they are able to write. Sometimes there seems to be no other explanation. More than one writer in the book mentions that, despite their atheism, they still quite like Christmas songs and some, like Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon, still attend Christmas church service for the music.

So while I may be a spiritual fence-sitter, I quite enjoyed The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, and its content is varied enough to provide some intellectual fodder for most everyone, save the super-religious who won’t hear otherwise. It’s not an attack, just another way of thinking. Though we may be past Christmas now, I think it’s still a worthwhile winter read.

Full disclosure: This book was sent to me by Harper Perennial for review purposes. I thank them for the continued reading material and will continue to be fair in my reviews.

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