Amol Rajan: Religious lessons of Christmas for a non-believer

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Three years ago I visited St Mary's, the 13th-century parish church of the village of Great Brington in Northamptonshire, with a heroic relative of mine called Bill Bellamy. Bill, who had served in the war and lived near the church for decades, would die from cancer 12 days later, and I knew this was the last time we would see each other.

As we walked within the beautiful, exquisitely crafted building, he went into great detail about every pew and brick and pane of glass, which he and his fellow worshippers had lovingly cultivated for so long. It was the most spiritual experience of my life, and made Great Brington the place where I, a non-believer since the age of 15, discovered how religion answers enduring human needs in a way that no political ideology or scientific treatise ever can.

Back at St Mary's this weekend, I attended midnight mass for the first time, and fastened on three of those needs: communion, transcendence, and the idea of the sacred. All three ideas, I realised as we bellowed the last chorus of O Come All Ye Faithful, appeal deeply and naturally to non-believers too.

Communion, or communal piety, draws people together in a kind of relationship fundamentally apart from those found in the material world. Through humility before God's awesome power, the community of believers express forceful solidarity. Islam is particularly effective at this instrument of egalitarianism. The faithful are united in a ritual which, partly because it seems to be coming from the sky, appears to elevate them into a new metaphysical realm. This is transcendence. Within that realm, sacred beings, which we call Gods, overcome human mortality and achieve eternal life and omniscience.

It was the last of these that caused the late Christopher Hitchens to describe faith as like living under a "celestial dictatorship", akin to North Korea. Like him, I care too much for rationality and reason to allow faith – belief without evidence – to obstruct my moral sentiments and calculations. I also think it obvious that organised religion, particularly where it is wedded to the state, is the greatest threat to civilisation on earth.

And yet it is possible for non-believers to witness religious ceremonies and crave something they have monopolised. Whether through piety or love, these rituals elevate attendees to a plane that secularism and humanism only aspire to. It turns out the real lesson of Christmas is that, despite the supposed clarity of their conviction, the irreligious often yearn for the enduring consolations of faith, knowing them to be somehow out of reach.