a testimony by an athiest

Atheists should rejoice in Christian tolerance (at least at Christmas)

By Simon Heffer

Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 22/12/2007


We atheists are supposed to feel bad about Christmas. After all, what is it to do with us? All the present-swapping, drinking and over-eating is merely taking advantage of someone else’s festival, isn’t it?

I have always had my doubts about that analysis, all the more so since the Archbishop of Canterbury this week refined the Christmas story as “legend”.

I start to wonder whether I am any more of an atheist than he is. Of course, one can quite easily believe in God but not in the Christian miracles.

This was quite a popular way of looking at things among German philosophers in the age before Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and it even had its adherents here.

But when the country’s most senior prelate tells me that aspects of Christianity are simply “legend”, I wonder what that faith – and, of course, Christmas itself – must be about.

After all, if the Christmas story is legend, then what is to be said about the rest of Christ’s life? Are the miracles legend, too? I am no theologian, but it would seem to me that, if they aren’t, then one of the main bases of Christian faith sustains something of a blow.

For atheists who, like me, are happy to live in a country whose culture is shaped by Christianity, this poses no problem.

For us, Christianity is not a question of faith. It is a part of our way of life now, not least because it has been such a pervasive one since St Augustine turned up here more than 1,400 years ago.

Whether we believe or not, our country is what it is because of Christianity. And at this season perhaps more than at any other time, we should reflect on our culture, the part it plays in our lives, and the threat it is under.

For it does face two considerable threats. They are related. One, happily, is on the wane: the other, miserably, is on the rise.

The first is the cancer of multiculturalism, a creed subscribed to by ignorant politicians of all parties over the past 30 or 40 years but now discredited, not least by some of those whom it was meant to serve.

The second is militant Islam, whose tentacles are burying themselves deep into our society, challenging not merely our way of life but also our historic – and profoundly Christian – reputation for tolerance.

It behoves all of us who for whatever reason are not practising Christians to uphold not merely the abstract and metaphorical place of Christianity in our country, but also to defend the freedom of worship of those who wish to be Christian and to put that faith at the heart of their lives.

Oddly enough, I have felt in recent years that some of us atheists, or members of other religions, are better at doing this than some quite senior members of the Established Church itself.

Quite clearly, I have always felt that much of Christian doctrine is, at best, equivocal in its force, so I can see why certain clerics come to that view as well. I just happen to think it is not their place to say so.

Our Head of State is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. That Church is established and therefore has close links with government.

More than that, at the heart of every parish in our ancient country there is a Christian church. The Church underpins many of our state schools, most of our public schools, our older universities, many charities.

It has a commanding place in our architectural, musical, artistic and literary achievement. In short, it has been in at the birth of many of the institutions that have not just improved our standard of civilisation, but brought about the way we live.

Even in this secular age that remains inescapable. It is why some of us, while we do not believe, have no hostility to the Christian Church, for in some respects it is still our mother.

That is my excuse for joining in at its festivals, and for seeking to protect it as best I can against those who would attack it. Happy Christmas!


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