At this time of year, a low, familiar bleat is invariably heard from the pulpits and vestries: Christmas has become crudely commercialised. Money, money, money has trumped Messiah, Messiah, Messiah.
This year, the first to utter this cry has been Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, warning "the spiritual values that many people rightly acknowledge at the heart of Christmas are [now] subjected to an assault of materialism". Many of us nod solemnly at this thought, before guiltily dashing out to Brent Cross to buy another DVD player, remote-control dinosaur and pair of Heelys for the kids.
I am on the side of the DVD players, the dinosaurs and the Heelys. Far better to worship Mammon - and our friends and family - than to waste our time worshipping a supernatural being for whom there is no evidence, speaking through a holy book littered with repellent ideas.
At the end of 2006, a year in which the atheist fight-back against resurgent religion finally began again, we should celebrate a nakedly materialist Christmas with glee, not guilt.
The word "materialism" has been hijacked by the religious as a stick to beat atheists with. While we are staring at the stars, they claim, you are obsessed with the squalid status symbols of life on earth. But if you return to the original understanding of materialism - articulated by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived just before Christ - it is an essential moment in the development of reason. It is the claim that all that exists is physical matter. Everything, including your thoughts, is the result of this physical matter combining, separating or rearranging in various ways. These movements have nothing to do with ghosts or Gods. They are governed by physical laws. You, me, this newspaper, everything you will ever see - it is all just matter.
This was violently resisted by the religious. The early church fathers, especially Jerome, accused Lucretius of witchcraft. But the birth of materialism cleared the way not only for modern physics, but for science itself. It prevented people from attributing recovery from illness to divine intervention, and made them investigate its material causes. Without it, there would be no germ theory of disease, no medicines, no eradication of smallpox and plague.
Today, the religious have been forced to retreat further and further into acknowledging material reality - but still the descendants of Jerome continue with their slurs, attacking the idea of a properly materialist Christmas as something base and suspect. They aren't doing this because they think there is something inherently wrong with, say, credit card debt, or parents who shunt gifts at their kids to compensate for never spending time with them.
Many atheists would agree with that. They do it because they want to guilt-trip people into returning to the non-material (i.e., the unproven), embodied in their unpleasant holy texts. (Remember their God commands parents to kill their children if they talk back to them, in Exodus 21:15, and feeds small children to bears, in Elisha 2:22.)
Why should we allow the adherents of this book - even those who somehow ignore these ugly passages - to seize our greatest annual festival, one that far predates the birth of Christ? There were winter festivals with trees and gifts on these islands long before a non-virgin gave birth in a Bethlehem stable, and there will be one long after the Judaeo-Christian God has joined Zeus, Baal and Odin in the cemetery for forgotten deities.
This year there has been an attempt by the right-wing press to import into Britain the hilarious Fox News hysteria that claims "the left is waging war on Christmas", as if we were wannabe Grinches tearing down tinsel. That's not true, but we should be trying to de-Christianise the festival, turning it into a celebration of our existing friends and relatives, rather than a fiction. There's no need to change the name to "Winterval" - just encourage people to carry on as they are, shunning the churches and turning Brent Cross, the Arndale Centre and (most importantly) the arms of their loved ones into their substitutes.
Of course, the archbishops will resist this, but they speak for a tiny, irrelevant fringe: just 7 per cent of Brits regularly attend religious services. This group has become increasingly hysterical this year, claiming they are being persecuted. The Catholic commentator Cristina Odone, for example, has claimed secularists are "the new fascists".
But in reality, the religious are still given extraordinary and undemocratic privileges. Their representatives are given seats in the House of Lords. Their ideas are protected from insult by law. They are given a vast network of state-funded centres to indoctrinate children, even though more than 70 per cent of us oppose these schools. They are allowed to commit repulsive acts of animal cruelty in the creation of halal and kosher meat. They are legally allowed to discriminate against gay men and lesbians.
Compared to all this, the best the "we are being hounded" religious hysterics can come up with is a single British Airways staff-member who was (stupidly) asked to take off her cross. That's it. They occasionally claim Richard Dawkins is hounding them, when he is in fact merely putting forward a perfectly sensible proposition: in the absence of any evidence whatsoever for a belief, we should assume it is untrue and not teach it to children as fact. For this, he has been savaged as "an ayatollah of atheism" and other preposterous claims. (You'll notice that when atheists are attacked, we do not howl that we are "offended" and demand the censorship of our opponents. We simply argue back.)
The attempt to restore religion to the heart of a fun winter festival is another attempt by this tiny religious fringe to battle against their slow eclipse across western Europe. The commercialisation and secularisation of Christmas is a sign that they are failing and flailing. The religious have always claimed that materialism is a dry, dessicated philosophy that cannot inspire anyone.
The great atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell once outlined a materialist picture of human life that seemed to reinforce this. He wrote: "Our Milky Way is a tiny fragment; within this fragment, the solar system is an infinitesimal speck, and this speck of our planet is a microscopic dot. On this dot, tiny lumps of impure carbon and water crawl about for a few years, until they are dissolved again into the elements of which they are compounded. In the life of the solar system, the period during which the existence of man will have been physically possible is a minute portion of the whole. Such is man's life viewed from the outside."
But are we then to ignore this reality and believe in a comforting fiction? Russell warned: "The search for happiness based upon untrue beliefs is neither very noble nor very glorious." And then he added, with a smile: "There is a stark joy in the unflinching perception of our true place in the world ... No man can achieve the greatness of which he is capable until he has allowed himself to see his own littleness."
Embrace your littleness, embrace the people you love - and have a very merry, very materialist Christmas.Reuse content