Book Review: The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas (various authors)

The debate comes up every year, “What do atheists do at Christmas?” Do we shun it? Do we complain to shopping centre managers demanding they remove nativity scenes because we feel repressed by them? Well, no we don’t. Though some might ignore or shun it for personal reasons, atheism is rarely (if ever) a reason in itself and this book sets out to demonstrate just why this is the case. It is a collection of essays written by prominent non-believers from the worlds of science, philosophy, journalism and entertainment all commenting on different aspects of the festive season with one thing in common – the rejection of the religious.

Because the personalities are diverse, so are the subject matters. Ed Byrne for example humorously criticises those supermarkets who start far too early – selling mince pies in August, for example, that are out of date by mid November. A little more abstract is Brian Cox’s piece on the Large Hadron Collider and the meaning of life and the beginnings of life. Ben Goldacre is here too and he offers some sobering thoughts on the power of ideas – discussing as he does – dangerous ideologies from the world of alt med, specifically AIDS denialism and the vitamin pill machine. Crackpot defrauder Derren Brown writes touchingly about kindness. There are essays on how to celebrate as a pagan, a non-practising Jew and even how you might have an environmental Christmas as green activist. There is an essay in here for everyone and the subjects are as diverse as the personalities. Some of these are funny, others are thought provoking but all are personal stories in one way or another about the meaning of Christmas to the celebrity atheist and agnostic. The volume is edited by Ariane Sherine, brainchild of the Atheist Bus Campaign.

It is very British heavy so a lot of these names are not going to be familiar to American readers – but familiarity with the personalities and their work is not really a prerequisite for understanding their essays, though it might explain why they have chosen to write about what they have each chosen to write about.

Hypersensitive religious types might be staying away but I can categorically say that there are no attacks on people’s beliefs in this book (though no doubt this book will be perceived that way by those who haven’t read it and won’t read it). It is just a collection of personal commentaries and observations that have become amongst my “must read” for the festive season; I fully intend to re-read my favourite essays every year now – if not the entire volume time permitting.

You can also buy it in good conscience that a substantial portion of the profits are going to charity (The Terrence Higgins Trust – an HIV/AIDS charity).

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