Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Saturday, December 22, 2007

An Atheist's Christmas Carol

Libby Purves recently wrote in the Times:
Richard Dawkins, Prophet of Atheism, has said in a BBC interview that he is not against “cultural” Christianity and “Yes, I like singing carols along with everyone else”. Which raises enough tantalising philosophical and ethical questions to keep us going till Christmas Eve. Dawkins sings carols? Does he sing all the words? Does he boom out lines about herald angels, holy nights, the tender Lamb promised from eternal years?


But if you loudly and repeatedly make a career of denying any possibility at all of the reality of God, how honest is it to sing? How easy to reconcile? How insulting to those who mean every word of it?
Tantalizing, indeed. The veneer of hypocrisy seems to have been too attractive for Ms. Purves to let alone- though I daresay she, being both deist and carol-singer alike, may also be engaging in some cultural self-flagellation. The draw is obvious: the Great Atheist, the man who trumpets religion's flaws the world over, pauses at Christmastime to sing a few bars of "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing." If there's anything that titillates our interest more than hypocrisy, I'm not aware of it (although adding sex to the equation usually tips it past the boiling point, as the Spears family knows all too well).

But as with most outbursts of (false?) shock, this belies both a woeful ignorance of the accused, as well as a pathetically facile view of the cultural context. Dawkins has long voiced his support for the continuation of religion as a cultural curiosity, preserved in museums for edutainment purposes, much as we've done for the ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman religions. Would Ms. Purves think us ethically and philosophically out-of-bounds for watching "The Mummy Returns," even though we didn't really accept the mystical power of the Book of the Dead? Or does the Disney film "Hercules" promote rampant hypocrisy amongst our youth? It would be another thing entirely if Ms. Purves discovered Dawkins teaching Sunday School in some back-alley or basement, and snapped pictures of him as he desperately tried to hide the felt-board Jesus in his hand. But if she thinks that catching him with a carol in his mouth will shame him or inflame us, Ms. Purves clearly doesn't know Dick.

Nor does she know much about Christmas. At the risk of enraging the Christian Christmas Warriors out there, this season isn't exactly a high-water mark of Christian theology. The well-informed need no instruction on this, but the primary contribution of Christianity to Christmas is the name alone- virtually everything else about the holiday comes from other sources. The foundational, of course, is the winter solstice, celebrated by virtually all northern hemisphere cultures in antiquity (and, not coincidentally, which is occurring today). From that humble (yet important) beginning, we have Brumalia, with its feasting and merry-making; Saturnalia, with its gift-giving and social reversals; Natalis Solis Invicti, which set the date on December 25th and linked it with the birth of a god; Yule, which brought the Christmas tree, holly, mistletoe, and most of Santa Claus. Each of these are thoroughly pagan, and yet without any of them, Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas. In fact, if one wanted to be annoyingly picky about it (and one does, I'm sure), it could be argued that Christmas was stolen by the Christians, and that celebrating the holiday as a non-Christian is simply reclaiming its proper heritage.

But the Christians did write some lovely songs, didn't they? Of course they did- music is a key component to any celebration, and after Christmas was co-opted there were many theologically-oriented songs written. Some songs were co-opted as well, as "Greensleeves" became "What Child is This?" Others have mixed parentage: "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" was written by the proto-Methodist Charles Wesley, but the melody was written by Felix Mendelssohn, a Jew. Ultimately, of course, these songs represent a sampling of the best human musical talents throughout history, which anyone can be proud of, no matter their religious orientation. The music for "Cantique de Noël" (O Holy Night) was written by the 19th century French composer Adolphe Adam, and is my absolute favorite. The lyrics never were much of an interest to me- even as a Christian, one of my favorite versions of the song was as a French horn quartet, performed by the Canadian Brass. And my absolute favorite version (which can sometimes bring me to tears) is sung by Eric Cartman, featured below.

It's a true atheist's Christmas carol. Best wishes to you and yours, and I hope you enjoy whatever holiday you use to mark the winter's solstice.

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At 12/22/2007 1:58 PM, Blogger Fake declaimed...

"doesn't know Dick"

Heh, heh. Actually, I think that joke belongs to Jon Stewart.

At 12/23/2007 9:13 AM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

Dick jokes belong to everyone. ;)

At 12/24/2007 4:40 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

"...the tender Lamb promised from eternal years?"

Was there a promise of mint jelly too?

I know and sing all the words to "Gilligan's Island", knowing full well that it's imaginary. Ditto for "Gigantor!" What's the diff?

"Joy to the world,
The false overlord has come.
Let earth receive the clerics!
Let every brain
Prepare to be bam-bo-o-zled,
And lose that self-esteem,
And lose that self-esteem,
You are evil and wor-urthless without our God!"

That's my atheist Christmas carol. Merry table-scraps to all you other expendable riff-raff, and to the uncaring elite, "Get stuffed!"

At 12/26/2007 12:38 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

I just wanted to provide a link to the best version of O Holy Night, hands down. Enjoy:



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