Michael is a recently lapsed Jehovah’s Witness living in my block of flats at the end of the corridor. Since he split from his wife of five years, he’s been dabbling in Anglicanism which, from his description, sounds less like a faith than a hobby. He tried Catholicism first, but found the hymns grim and the sermons hard on his knees.
Now, as before, Michael is an affable guy, though he is still affable a little too frequently.
So, there’s the knock at my door on a Saturday afternoon. Luckily, Anglicanism isn’t the only new thing Michael is trying; he has, in each hand, a cold beer. The kind of cold that sticks to the palms of your hands. If only he’d thought of this technique when he was trying to covertly slip Watchtower magazines on to my coffee table.
In fold-out chairs, our feet up on the balcony rail, I feel the deep, dull satisfaction of heterosexual male bonding. Tedious, yes. But comforting too.
Somehow we land on that old conversation about the commercialisation of Christmas.
“Are you trying to save me again, Mike?”
“I’m not! It’s just ... since when is it all about the gifts?”
Feeling the yawn coming on, I suggest that it might have started with frankincense, myrrh and gold.
“Surely the three kings could’ve just given Baby Jesus a nice homemade Christmas card,” I say.
Michael laughs and I feel very hip and edgy.
“If Jesus were around today,” I continue, “do you think he’d wear Crocs? They are, after all, holey.”
Michael stares me down and I know that I’ve crossed the line by suggesting that the Son of God would wear plastic shoes.
Then he mumbles: “There’s nobody more religious than an atheist.”
He has a point. And we’re only getting more religious.
It’s been a good year for the Smartypants Squad. With Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, we have the kinds of books we can tuck under our arms, as snug and as obvious as Bibles while we wander about airports looking for converts. This past year, I’ve even found a couple. Now, I’m busying myself by putting the X back into Xmas.
But I’ve hit a couple of wobbles. Two things are testing my faith.
One, there’s something quite ugly about the new atheism. It carries a petty, childish tone. Every sentence of Dawkins’s big red book seems to end with an implied, “Ha!”, “I told you so!” or “So there!”
Two, there’s something quite appealing about that old time religion. That thing is ... denial. And denial isn’t all that bad.
Seems to me that religion is one way of denying our animal nature, of thinking ourselves beyond our biology and beyond the obvious.
It’s obvious, looking at a dead body and observing the disintegration that follows death, that the human being that was, is no more. But, we imagine something beyond that.
It’s obvious, looking at the way human beings are built, that we cannot fly. But, we imagine something beyond that too.
Both the invention of an imagined afterlife and the invention of human flight began, I believe, with a still moment of “What if?”
Sure, we believe a lot of things that are untrue. Religious nuts and atheistic nuts alike have waged wars and been nuisances at dinner parties as a result of their mad convictions. But this species also routinely makes wild dreams real by the sheer will of that same unreasonable human imagination.
We defy our physiology and demand that we will fly, not only as far and as high and as fast as birds, but all the way to the moon and beyond. We bake cakes, whip cream, pick cherries and imagine that they might all go well together. And, yes, we dream up rain dances and elephant gods and men in the sky who part seas and write books. We cling to them beyond their usefulness too. But, hey, who’s perfect?
So, here’s a thought. More than that, an atheist’s Christmas wish: let’s be less snotty. Let’s do better than “So there!” and “I told you so!” If we think a scientific view of the universe is useful for any reason other than being able to feel superior, then we need to spend less time snuffing dreams out and more time inviting people to dream bigger.
Carl Sagan described our planet as “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. There are pictures taken from space of that mote of dust; our mote of dust stranded in a vastness almost completely unknown to us. And to see such a picture is to realise that the idea of an ark filled with all the earth’s animals, two-by-two, for all its human poetry, is just not big enough.
Being such a finite, tiny part of something so infinite is not meaningless. It’s just meaningful in a way larger than religion has ever imagined.
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