Richard Dawkins, Philip Pullman, Robin Ince, Dan Snow And More Reveal Their Very Atheist Christmas Plans

24/12/2015 07:31 GMT | Updated 24/12/2015 07:59 GMT

Christmas isn't just for Christians. From present-giving to spending time with the family, the winter holiday can mean a lot to atheists as well.

"I have no problem with Christmas and no desire to rain on the Christian parade," says Richard Dawkins, who loves carols, but only "real carols about Jesus... NOT fake carols about Santa or reindeer or the loathsome Jingle Bells".

"It’s a good story, despite not being true," says author Philip Pullman of the story of Jesus's birth.

"I celebrate whatever the hell I like," says comedian Kate Smurthwaite, who celebrates the season wholeheartedly despite not being religious. "We do a real traditional fest... full on Christmas everything, sprouts, crackers, silly hats, the lot."

Other atheists feel the meaning of Christmas is no longer Christian, and perhaps in fact never truly was, as the festival is built on a pagan celebration. "For me personally, what Christmas stands for isn’t important," says computer games pioneer Richard A Bartle, "I just like the fact that it stands."

The Huffington Post UK spoke to 15 notable atheists - all members of the British Humanist Association - and asked them what Christmas means to them, whether they'd go to church and if they can mark the event while staying true to their own beliefs.

richard dawkins

Richard Dawkins, biologist and writer

Do you celebrate Christmas despite being atheist?

Yes. I am happy to live in a Christian country and I was brought up in a Christian culture. Christmas means much the same to me as watching a village cricket match.

What does Christmas mean to you?

Unlike many a false caricature of an atheist, I have no problem with Christmas and no desire to rain on the Christian parade. I enjoy Christmas carols, especially when sung by a great choir like that of New College, Oxford, or King’s College, Cambridge. But only real carols about Jesus, NOT fake carols about Santa or reindeer or the loathsome “Jingle Bells".

I am faintly amused by the reflection that, even if Jesus existed (which is controversial among scholars) no scholar takes seriously the legend that he was born of a virgin in Bethlehem. That was entirely invented to fulfil misunderstood Old Testament prophecies.

What do you do on the day?

People’s stories of how they spend Christmas are never interesting. Who cares when they open their stockings or when they carve the unfortunate turkey?

Can an atheist celebrate Christmas and remain true to their own beliefs?

Yes. You might as well ask how anybody can enjoy fiction and empathise with the characters, while knowing all along that the characters aren’t real.

Would you go to church if family or friends wanted you to?

Yes. As a matter of courtesy if it means a lot to them, since it means nothing at all to me other than a little wasted time.

How do you feel about the commercial side of Christmas?

I dislike the shopkeeper-bonanza aspect of Christmas as much as any religious person does. Especially the fact that it starts months ahead of time.

philip pullman

Philip Pullman, author

What does Christmas mean to you?

Family, mostly. Children and grandchildren and presents and food and drink.

Can an atheist celebrate Christmas and remain true to their own beliefs?

Of course. What sort of miserable po-faced self-righteous prig would refuse to celebrate Christmas on the grounds that they didn’t believe in God?

What are you doing this year?

This year the family isn’t coming till the following day. My wife and I will have a quiet happy Christmas to ourselves.

Would you attend church if family or friends wanted you to?

They’ve shown no signs of it so far, but if it would make them happy, yes, of course I would.

Do you see the event as still primarily celebrating Jesus' birth?

It’s 99% commercial, counted by volume (and I mean noise as well as amount). But you can still find traces of the origin if you look hard enough. It’s a good story, despite not being true.

robin ince

Robin Ince, comedian

What does Christmas mean to you?

I like an enforced holiday, at least two days where you can't work, where there is a different kind of silence for 48 hours. The combination of lolloping walks in the countryside and slumping in chairs with a glass of ginger wine is very good for you. I am very 'pro' a time for reflection with the family.

Do you celebrate it despite being atheist?

I am not sure whether it could be elevated to "celebrate", but in terms of eating too much and presents for the children near a fir tree, yes, that all happens. For whatever reason, be they religious or secular, approaching the end of a year seems a good time to pause. I like necessary peacefulness, a few days without pointless urban pressures.

Can an atheist celebrate Christmas and remain true to their own beliefs?

I think if I was celebrating the birth of Jesus, there would be some confusion, but none of my beliefs are against holidaying, resting, gifts or spending time with family.

Do you attend church?

Some of my family go to church, and I have no issue with singing hymns or carols, but the creaking sound of my forehead as people go to kneel and pray means that I usually avoid it.

What do you see Christmas as celebrating?

It was a celebration before it was for Jesus, and I imagine the tradition will remain even if that element fades out. It is a time of year when you can choose what you celebrate or why you holiday.

Sadly, I think it is a monstrous commercial event, and the Boxing Day sales are the most despicable element. That people have spent three months shopping, shopping, shopping for one day, and then the moment that day is over, there is a new reason to shop and people charge through the reduced coats and flat screens all over again is the worst element of all new Christmas.

Then again, despite my lack of religion, I would be quite happy for every Sunday to return to what it was when I was growing up, a day that was just a bit more about stillness with a hint of boredom.

dan snow

Dan Snow, TV presenter

"Christmas means a break. A midwinter lull. A pause for rest, rejoicing; thinking about the year past, and a chance for planning the year ahead. A time when the emails dry up, the phone stops ringing, and you can focus on family.

Of course I celebrate it. As humans have been celebrating the mid winter since pre-history. Long before Christianity we were decorating trees, eating, drinking, singing, gift giving. Christians nicked and rebranded midwinter, now we’re taking it back. I do what everyone else does, eat, drink, give and receive gifts and make merry.

Atheists can enjoy Christmas. Just as Christians co-opted pagan festivals and gods to make their feast days and saints. Life is hard and can be cruel. Why miss an opportunity to party? Diwali, Chinese New Year, Christmas, Eid, they're all great excuses to celebrate.

I’ll go to Church if I have to. I love a carol. Singing carols no more signals religiosity than humming Jay Z demonstrates support for drug taking, prostitution and violence."

a c grayling

A C Grayling, philosopher

"In my grumpy moods, Christmas means an over-long, over-eating, enforcedly social week of interruption to the business of life; in my more laid-back moments it means a way of lightening the darkest days of Winter, the solstice, festival of Jupiter, pagan celebrations of the fat time of year for our ancestors (the salted pork and harvest stores were in, there was little work to do in the fields, it was a time of stories and leisure.) That seems ok. I like giving gifts to my children.

It would be nice [at Christmas] to go for a long stroll through the city street, almost wholly empty of traffic and people, to enjoy the calm.

An atheist can't celebrate Christmas and be true to their beliefs if "celebrate" means celebrate the self-birth of a deity to save mankind from what he has made it, but if you mean give presents and be with family, why not?"

peter tatchell

Peter Tatchell, campaigner

What does Christmas mean to you?

Not being a Christian, it's just a holiday period; a chance to have good meals with friends, watch films on TV and start preparing my next human rights campaign.

Do you celebrate it despite being atheist?

No. That would be hypocrisy and a form of mental schism.

Can an atheist celebrate Christmas and remain true to their own beliefs?

An atheist can make their Christmas a non-religious celebration but cannot, in good conscience, join in the religious elements.

Would you/do you attend church on Christmas if family or friends wanted you to?

No.

Do you see the event as still primarily celebrating Jesus' birth?

Christmas is now mostly a commercialised non-religious holiday. It is far removed from the Bible story and the non-materialistic, social justice values of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount.

jim alkhalili

Jim Al-Khalili, physicist and broadcaster

"As for most people, Christmas for me has always been a fun time of year to relax, over-indulge and spend time with family – giving, sharing etc etc. The excitement of giving and receiving gifts diminished as I grew up but then was rediscovered when my own children were young.

It has nothing to do with religion for me. This is time of year celebrated culturally regardless of whether one believes in a supernatural being. Of course the Winter Solstice goes back way before Christianity and really has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth other than the mythology that christians have themselves built around it. Of course the name we call it (Christmas) has its origins in Christian theology, but secular people tend not to link the two.

Coffee is my first thing, then present opening (more restrained now that my two children are in their early twenties.) Then it’s my job to make the bacon rolls we always have, leisurely shave and shower. Then late morning is when friends come round. My wife and I sort out Christmas dinner (usually we have chicken in cider and tarragon – for some reason it’s our favourite and it’s now a tradition in the Al-Khalili household). Afternoon is usually a bracing walk along the seafront – we live in Southsea on the south coast of England. Then it’s some rubbish on TV and I usually get my laptop out. Lots of snacking and drinking going on into the evening, My brother and his family usually come round.

Jesus was not born on 25 December (no one knows when he was born) and the commercial aspects is something I ignore. Surely the real reason for celebrating Christmas (and no reason why we shouldn't stick with the religious origins of the name) is that it is embedded in our culture like any other shared occasion that society in the West celebrates. We need a time to relax, unwind, spend time with nearest and dearest. If those who are religiously Christian (a minority in the UK) want to associate it with what is written in their Holy Book then that is absolutely fine. Quaint, but fine with me."

janet whitaker

Baroness Janet Whitaker, Labour politician

"Christmas is our national festival and a Christian occasion bolted on to a pagan past event. I join in the celebrations of others and did it for my family when the children were young. I think children benefit from knowing about national events.

I would rather not go to Church, but if they asked, I would , on the explicit basis that I did not have a faith and would not take part in the Christian rituals or say prayers. I must admit to enjoying singing carols."

julian baggini

Julian Baggini, philosopher

What does Christmas mean to you?

A welcome mid-winter break, special seasonal food, unwelcome family politics, consumerist excess

Do you celebrate it despite being atheist?

Yes. It is as a matter of simple empirical fact a cultural holiday first now and a religious one only secondly. It is no more strange for atheists to celebrate it than for the majority of Britons, who are not strongly Christian but agnostic or vaguely spiritual.

Can an atheist celebrate Christmas and remain true to their own beliefs?

Of course. Culturally and historically speaking, Christmas sits on the older festival of Yule. This for us is the "meaning" of Christmas, although we will actually have a glass of mulled cider on the day of the Solstice itself, a little earlier. It is appropriate for atheists to mark the turning of the seasons, the natural cycles of life, and to give thanks for another year on Earth.

Would you attend church on Christmas?

I would have no problem with that. Many vicars don't believe all that nonsense in the manger either.

baroness doreen massey

Baroness Doreen Massey, Labour peer

"Christmas is the one time of the year when most people I know are not working so it is a good time to get together with family and friends. We also see grandchildren in the US. It is lovely to have children around at Christmas.

We do all the traditional things - big lunch with turkey (not loaf for me, as I am a vegetarian - but a fancy one), pudding etc. Presents under the tree, singing " The twelve days of Christmas" with everyone having a part - including small people, watching "The Snowman". We do not attend church. We have in the past for the music and carols.

In short, it is a time for indulgences and family events."

jonathan meades

Jonathan Meades, writer and filmmaker

What does Christmas mean to you?

Fighting dyspepsia, sloth and gruesome expressions of bonhomie.

Do you celebrate it?

I do not celebrate hackneyed myths of any sort. We'll go to the geological marvel of Ile Maire on the edge of Marseiile.

Can an atheist celebrate Christmas?

Should you be so inclined you can drink yourself into a coma and give or receive unwanted presents without having to believe in fairy tales.

nick ross

Nick Ross, TV presenter

Do you celebrate Christmas?

Yes, and why not? Christmas is really saluting the northern European winter solstice. Even archbishops don’t pretend there is any evidence that Jesus was born on 25th December or that Bethlehem was festooned with evergreen trees and mistletoe. Christians borrowed the winter solstice just as I do, and as so many of different faiths do – which is why Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and others join in what has become a national, and international, festivity.

What do you do on the day?

The same as most other people unless they live in social isolation (as many sadly do): with visits to and from friends in the days surrounding Christmas and marking the day itself with present-opening and with a traditional feast - about which our omnivorous family has a traditional argument about whether the roast should be goose, turkey, duck or beef.

Would you go to church on Christmas if family or friends wanted you to?

Yes, since nor does my lack of belief mean I want to insult friends who do believe, provided they are on the benign side of the religious spectrum. Long church services bore me and some sermons are sanctimonious but frankly I love the great British carols (they say that Christians have all the best songs which I’m happy to sing lustily and badly), and I am fond of Church of England weddings, especially if they’re held in bucolic churches.

virginia

Virginia Ironside, writer and agony aunt

What does Christmas mean to you?

A version of a pagan celebration enjoyed mostly by young children.

Do you celebrate it despite being atheist?

Yes, it’s part of my cultural heritage. I enjoy it in the same way as I enjoy Green Man ceremonies or Guy Fawkes or any cxcuse for a party. I also feel it’s always good for families to have an occasion to assemble together

Do you see the event as still primarily celebrating Jesus' birth?

Apart from carols, Jesus’s birth rather passes me by. It’s not an either-or-situation – either commercial or believable. It’s a family event, a cultural festival and as I’ve celebrated it since childhood it has all sorts of family associations for me and none of them happen to be associated with Jesus.

richard a bartle

Richard A. Bartle, professor and video game pioneer

Do you celebrate it despite being atheist?

“Celebrate” isn’t the right word. I like it, sure, but I don’t celebrate it. I treat it as a mid-winter festival to give us something to look forward to in the dark days of winter (which doesn’t work in the southern hemisphere, but I don’t live in the southern hemisphere). If it weren’t Christmas, it would be New Year’s Day or the solstice or something else around now. I certainly get into the spirit of Christmas, but I don’t “celebrate” it.

What does Christmas mean to you?

It means time off work, a chance to relax, lots of food, getting to see my relatives, some highly-anticipated TV specials, irritating music in shops, decorations, a reduced chance of finding a parking space when I go anywhere, colourful lights, tradition and presents: lots of presents.

Can an atheist celebrate Christmas and remain true to their own beliefs?

Again, that word “celebrate”. Maybe it means something different in American, but to me it’s like asking “Do you celebrate Hallowe’en?” or “Do you celebrate Valentine’s Day?”. I might take part, but celebrate? I don’t see that any atheist is going to celebrate it as Christmas. They may celebrate for other reasons – it does a great job of weakening the hegemony of Christianity, for example – but if they’re celebrating it for birth-of-the-son-of-God reasons well that would seem to me to be incompatible with a lack of belief in God.

Would you attend church?

No. When it comes to services, I would only go for a christening, wedding or funeral. I would go for those, though, because although I don’t believe in a supernatural deity myself, that doesn’t mean I’m going to be petulant about it just because of the venue for important life events that others invite me to share with them.

I do visit churches several times a year, as it happens, but it’s almost invariably only when I have a free day in a new city and go off doing the touristy thing (I like going up the towers for the view). The same applies to mosques, temples and other interesting old buildings that have free access to members of the public.

People just like a winter festival because otherwise it’s a miserable time of year, and they’ll repurpose the concept to fit whatever the current social circumstances favour. Thanks to education, people are more likely to think for themselves these days, so the number of followers of religions is dropping (more so in Europe than the USA) as individuals level up. It’s not going to affect Christmas any time soon, though. Sure, if calling it a celebration of the birth of a major religious figure works for you, go for it; if your own faith is waning then blame commercialisation, it’s a great target. Just be glad that you get the choice.

For me personally, what Christmas stands for isn’t important. I just like the fact that it stands.

kate

Kate Smurthwaite, comedian

What does Christmas mean to you?

As a comedian it's a few days off, there's very few gigs run between Christmas and New Years Eve so it's a great time to take a break.

Do you celebrate it?

Yes. Of course. I celebrate whatever the hell I like. It's religions that tell people what they can and can't do - not atheism. If I want to go to church, then mosque, then temple, I can. I can do what I like.

What do you do?

When I was a kid I didn't much enjoy Christmas, I always felt a bit cooped up, family arguments, etc. and in my 20s I often took the opportunity to go travelling and spent Christmases in places like Vietnam and Thailand.

Now I have my own self-assembled family and we do a real traditional fest, stockings and scrambled eggs and champagne for breakfast (someone has usually given me a bottle at some point during the year), then get the turkey in the oven and open pressies. Full on Christmas everything, sprouts, crackers, silly hats, the lot. No Queens speech (I'm also a republican) but board games, maybe a stroll, festive TV.

Would you attend church on Christmas if family or friends wanted you to?

I don't have the sort of (self-assembled) family that would ask me to. But I do go to carol singing events sometimes, if I want to. Jonathan Cohen's at the Royal Albert Hall, and my club has a lovely carol night too.

Do you see the event as still primarily celebrating Jesus' birth? Or is it more of a commercial event?

It's a pagan festival. Yule. It long predates Jesus. Aside from the name there's almost nothing about Christmas that has anything to do with Christianity. Did the wise men bring a partridge in a pear tree? Did the Angel Gabriel say anything about hanging up a big sock? But it's ok Christians, us godless heathens warmly welcome you to celebrate our festival with us...

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