Some Christians are annoyed by the presence of atheists at Christmas services. ‘If they don’t believe in God,’ they ask ‘then why do they come? They’re hypocrites, standing awkwardly at the back and hoping we won’t notice them. This is one of the most important events in the Christian calendar and it’s being treated as a concert – they’re only here for the music and lights.’ On the other hand, many Christians don’t just tolerate non-Christians at these events, they positively encourage them to come along.
Pascal on going through the motions
The philosopher Blaise Pascal’s thinking on religious belief suggests one reason why. Pascal thought that while there might not be convincing evidence or arguments for God’s existence, nevertheless it is sensible to make oneself believe in God. Why? Pascal suggests we approach belief God as a wager, and that we calculate how to bet by looking at what we stand to win or lose.
First, suppose we believe that God exists. And suppose we are wrong: there is no God. Then we have lost very little (not much more than a lie in on Sunday morning while we go to church). If there is a God, on the other hand, then the pay off is huge: we receive eternal life.
Now suppose we bet the other way: we believe there is no God. If we are correct, then we gain little (little more than that Sunday morning lie in). On the other hand, if we don’t believe and there is a God, then our loss is huge: we face eternal damnation.
So you can see, argues Pascal, that belief in God is the best bet. Belief in God costs us little, and if we win we win big. Fail to believe and while you might gain a little, you risk losing a great deal. So it’s sensible to believe.
But what if we find ourselves unable to believe? What if, try as we might, belief eludes us? What are we to do then?
Pascal suggests the solution is to act as if one believes. Play out the rituals of belief: attend church, kneel and say the prayers, and so on. Go through the motions. Eventually, Pascal suggests, belief will follow. Acting is if you have a belief will eventually cause you to have the belief itself.
But then, whether or not they believe we should approach belief as a wager (and that does seem a rather cynical attitude to take towards religious belief), many Christians might agree with Pascal that, if they can at least get atheists to enter church and go through the motions of belief, there is a good chance that many will end up acquiring the beliefs themselves. If we want to convert atheists, Christians may reason, then we should encourage them to show up and join in at Christmas time.
Frazer and Wittgenstein on the role of ritual
Still, for someone who doesn’t yet believe in God, mustn’t religious ritual and prayer must seem rather pointless and empty exercises? What’s the point of singing God’s praises if we think he doesn’t exist? Why bother praying if we suppose no one is listening?
But perhaps even an atheist might still gain from the religious rituals and prayers associated with Christmas. Some of the philosopher Wittgenstein’s remarks on religious belief are suggestive here. The remarks I have in mind concern the mythologist Sir James Frazer’s investigation in to magical thinking, The Golden Bough. Frazer argues that the magical thinking of ‘primitive’ people really constitutes a naive theory about how the universe operates. Take, for example, a tribesman who ritualistically pushes a knife into an effigy of his enemy. Does this tribesman believe his knife will have an effect on his adversary? Does he believe that by stabbing the doll he may cause his enemy to die? Frazer answers ‘yes’. The tribesman performs this ritual because he believes in what Frazer calls the law of similarity: he believes that like produces like, and that effects resemble their causes. Of course, scientific sophisticates like ourselves know better. But many ‘primitive’ cultures go through a stage in which they believe it. They attempt to achieve an end by imitating what they desire. This, according to Frazer, explains why people sprinkle water on the ground to make the rain fall, push knives into effigies to kill their enemies, and enact successful hunting scenes (with people dressing up as the animals, etc.) before they embark on a real hunt. They believe that, by imitating what they desire, they can cause it to become a reality.
It appears that the ancient Scandinavian custom of burning Yule logs (which has since become incorporated into Christmas tradition) also fits Frazer’s account of magical thinking. In the depths of winter, the Scandinavian pagans feared the sun would not return in the Spring, and apparently believed that by ritually burning a log (which is, like the sun, warm and bright) they could magically make the sun return warm and bright.
Wittgenstein rejects Frazer’s explanation of all this doll-stabbing, water-sprinkling and hunt-enactment. According to Wittgenstein, the tribesman who pushes a knife into an effigy of his enemy doesn’t really believe that he may thereby cause his enemy’s death. He doesn’t believe the law of similarity. After all, says Wittgenstein,
[t]he same savage who, apparently in order to kill an enemy, sticks a knife through a picture of him, really does build his hut of wood and cuts his arrow with skill and not in effigy. (RFGB 4)
This is a telling criticism. If the tribesman truly believed in the law of similarity, as Frazer suggests, then he would also build his hut in effigy, expecting a full-size hut magically to appear. But he has no such expectation. So why, then, does he push the knife into the effigy? Not because he genuinely expects some practical result. In fact, this sort of ritualistic behaviour is not really ‘primitive’ at all, in the sense that it is something we have left behind. Wittgenstein points out that, no matter how scientifically sophisticated we are, we still engage in it: we kiss images of the ones we love, we tear up photos of those we hate, and so on. But why?
Burning in effigy. Kissing the picture of a loved one. This is obviously not based on a belief that it will have a definite effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at some satisfaction and it achieves it. Or rather, it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied. (RFGB 4)
The reason we kiss images, tear up photographs, throw darts at images of political leaders and so on, is not that we suppose our actions will have a real effect on the people these images represent (if they did, then Margaret Thatcher, a favourite dartboard pin up of the 80s, should now be peppered with tiny holes). We do what we do because of the emotional value it has for us. Such actions can console us. They can make us more resolute. They can inspire us.
Wittgenstein would not doubt say the same about Yule log burning. It is not that the Scandanavians actually believed that, by burning a log, they could cause the sun to return. They burnt the log because of the effect it has on them. It touches something deep within them: they burn the log and then, as Wittgenstein puts it, ‘feel satisfied’. That is why the practice continues even today.
The magical and spiritual
So such symbolic and ritualistic actions can have great emotional value, whether or not we believe in their practical efficacy or the literal truth of the doctrines associated with them. They are, arguably, an important part of being human, giving us the opportunity to express deeply felt emotions that would otherwise remain stifled. It is not a stretch, I think, to say that they put us in touch with our spiritual side.
In the West, the great established religions once provided the framework within which such ritualistic activity took place. As religion has declined, that opportunity has been lost. The magical and spiritual side of our emotional nature has been suppressed and forgotten. Many would say that is a good thing. It shows that we are ‘progressing’: that we are becoming more scientific and rational. But is this necessarily progress? If Wittgenstein is correct, ritualistic behaviour is part of our nature. It is not something we can leave behind. Try to suppress it and, I suspect, it will simply re-emerge in a different form. One of the reasons why New Age religions and cults are booming is that they offer to reconnect us with this side of our emotional nature.
If Wittgenstein is right, we can derive emotional benefit from rituals and other symbolic actions whether or not we believe in their actual effectiveneness. As I say, a contemporary Scandanavian might be deeply moved, in even a spiritual way, by the burning of a Yule log, despite the fact that they do not for a moment think that the log is actually going to have any effect on the sun. The ritual may still help to forge a strong emotional link between them and the natural world around them, reminding them of the cyclic nature of the world, and of life and death.
But then, if Wittgenstein is correct, perhaps even an atheist might gain some spiritual value from going through the religious rituals associated with Christmas. For example, they might derive real comfort from kneeling with the rest of the congregation and praying for peace, even if they think there is no God to answer their prayers and that prayer can have no real effect. They may still leave the service moved and uplifted. The spiritual side of their nature may still be engaged.
A sense of community
We have seen that there may be emotional and spiritual value to be gained from the rituals and traditions surrounding Christmas, whether or not we happen to be Christian. But there is another reason why non-believers might gain from these traditions. They offer one of the few opportunities we have left to come together as a community. They give us a sense of solidarity with our fellow man, a sense of belonging, as the philosopher Peter Singer points out.
Although I am firmly non-religious, and lack even a Christian family background, when I stand with the other parents at the Carol Night held by my children’s school….the effect of everyone singing together can lead to a strong emotional response that makes me feel the importance of being part of that community.
I suspect it is not a fondness for candles and carol music, but this ‘strong emotional response’ combined with the emotional value of ritual that explains why many non-Christians find themselves drawn to church at Christmas time.
Many argue that it is the loss of such traditions and the sense of community and belonging they help engender that’s responsible for the ‘moral malaise’ that, it’s alleged, is consuming society. But if this is true, then perhaps we should encourage people to involve themselves in these traditional, communal events, whether or not they happen to be specifically Christian. By involving themselves in the rituals and traditions of Christmas individuals may still, like Peter Singer, get a real sense of belonging and solidarity with their wider community.
The ‘strong emotional response’ of which Singer speaks, combined with the emotional power of magical ritual and symbolism, combine to form a highly intoxicating brew. Almost all of us have felt its power at some time or other. I remember that, as I small boy, I was emotionally almost overwhelmed by a baptismal service: being surrounded by my entire family, the collective singing, the rituals and the setting all combined to produce experience as intense as any I have felt since.
I have explained how these powerful emotional tools might be used positively: by giving us a sense of solidarity with others and an opportunity to express deeply felt emotions. But let’s not forget that these are tools that can also be used for evil: to inspire not love, but fear and hatred, especially towards those who do not fall within the charmed circle of our community. In the wrong hands – in the hands of a malevolent religious leader, for example – these tools become terrible and fearsome weapons. If we are going to encourage their use, let’s make very, very sure they’re used responsibly.
Christmas and the pagans
Sometimes, midway through a carol service or midnight mass, congregations are reminded from the pulpit not to forget the real meaning of Christmas. At this point there is usually some awkward staring at hands and shuffling of feet from the atheists, for of course it is generally assumed that the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas must be a specifically Christian meaning, a meaning presumably lost on the unbelievers at the back.
We can all agree, of course, that the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas does not reside in the commercial racket that has largely taken over our festivities. But is the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas specifically Christian?
It’s occasionally suggested that it is actually the Christians who are the interlopers at a mid-winter festival with its roots in the great pre-Christian pagan religious cults. In Christ’s time, the birth of many more or less interchangeable pagan god-men was widely celebrated on the 25th December, including Dionysus (in Greece), Osiris (in Egypt), Mithras (in Persia) and Bacchus (in Italy). The significance of December 25th is that it at one time marked the winter solstice: the shortest day, the point at which the sun is born again for another year (the solstice is slowly drifting forward, by the way, and now falls on the 21st of December). Incidentally, all the pre-Christian god-men listed above were also miraculously born of virgin mothers. So was Buddha, who also pre-dates Christ, and it was believed was divinely conceived in the womb of the virgin Maya. Buddha’s birthday? The 25th December. The Scandinavians also celebrated the 25th of December as the birthday of Freyr, the son of their supreme god, Odin.
Now there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that Jesus was born on the 25th December, or even in winter for that matter. The decision to mark his birth on that date was made several hundred years after his death. That choice of the 25th December was very probably influenced by its solar and religious significance. “So the Christians”, some non-Christians complain, “like the Grinch, stole Christmas. They stole it from the pagans. If Christmas has a real meaning, it’s essentially pagan.”
But while Christmas undoubtedly does owe something to pre-Christian pagan traditions, and some of its trappings may be borrowed from them (as I mentioned earlier, Yule logs are pagan), that doesn’t make Christmas itself pagan. After all, almost every tradition borrows from earlier traditions in various ways. Christmas is not unique in that respect. Yale University’s traditions owe something to Oxford’s. That doesn’t make Yale Oxford.
Christmas for everyone?
If the real meaning of Christmas is not pagan, then what is it?
There is no consensus about that, even among Christians. For some, it involves believing in the literal truth of the nativity story: Jesus really was divinely conceived and born of a virgin.
There really was a star, three kings, gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and so on.
However, many Christians no longer take this story literally, at least not in all its details. Some have even been known to question the virgin birth. But if these details are removed, what is left?
Still a great deal, of course. Christmas might still be understood as a celebration of the existence of God and his offer of salvation. Again, these claims might all be understood literally. But, again, there are Christians who view even ‘God’ talk as essentially metaphorical.
The residual meaning upon which almost all Christians agree is that Christmas is a celebration of peace and love, and a time to think of others, especially those less fortunate. It is a time at which we come together, at which we feel solidarity and empathy with the rest of humanity. But of course these are values and aspirations that can be shared by non-Christians too. Much of the true meaning of Christmas is open to everyone, whatever their religious beliefs.
Traditionalists may be horrified at that suggestion that we, in effect, make the Christianity an optional Christmas extra. Isn’t this an example of pick-n-mix religion? We take the bits we like (the ‘Christmas spirit’ of peace and generosity, the coming together of the community, and so on) and discard the rest (the truth claims of the Bible, the existence of God)? But Christmas always was a pick-n-mix event. Its traditions, beliefs and customs are in many cases borrowed.
Christmas has an appeal which reaches far beyond the specifically Christian. In an age when religion increasingly divides us rather than unites us, perhaps there’s a case to be made for thinking of our great winter festival, not as specifically a Christian event, but as one of the last traditions in which we can all participate, whatever our beliefs.
From The Xmas Files