Tuesday, December 13, 2011
An Atheist at Christmas
The timing of this post is perhaps a bit odd, given that I just devoted an entire post to stories of alcohol-infused egg nog and photos of my Christmas tree, but this is a thought that's been weighing on my mind lately, so I thought I'd try to get it down in a post. Before I get into any talk about religion, I want to add the disclaimer that I don't want to offend anyone with what I write here. I recognize that these are my own personal beliefs, not necessarily the "truth", and that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. I don't mean for this post to be disrespectful in any way towards people who do believe in God.
This year marks the first Christmas that I've considered myself to be an atheist. For decades, probably since I was seven or eight and heard the term for the first time, I've always thought of myself as an agnostic. I never felt that I could know whether there was or wasn't a God with any sort of certainty, so agnosticism to me was a comfortable state of non-belief. As I've gotten older, however, my beliefs about life and the universe have tipped further and further towards the atheist side of the scale. Medicine in particular has done this; through my training, I've been witness to incredible unfairness and suffering that, to me, isn't consistent with the idea of a compassionate supreme being.
The tipping point for me came while reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins while on holidays in Hawaii earlier this year. (Because apparently I'm incapable of reading light, mindless books, even when surrounded by some of the most amazing natural beauty in the world.) I won't get into the relative merits or flaws of the book (there are 1751 customer reviews that address them if you're interested), but what struck me about the book was Dawkins's comparison between a belief in God (or belief that there isn't a God) and a belief in a scientific theory. To paraphrase badly, Dawkins says that a person will claim a belief in a scientific theory not because they know with 100% certainty that it's true, but rather because they feel that the balance of evidence is strongly in favour of that theory. Similarly with atheism, a person doesn't have to "know" that there isn't a God to be an atheist, but simply needs to feel that the balance of evidence is strongly in favour of there not being a God. Reading that, and believing that the balance of evidence was towards there not being a God, was enough for me to switch from calling myself an agnostic to calling myself an atheist.
All of which is a long way of getting to my point about being an atheist at Christmas. Being an agnostic at Christmas wasn't all that hard, because even though I wasn't convinced about the religious significance of the holiday, I was still open to the possibility that it was true. I could still go to church and sing Christmas carols and participate in the holiday with some spiritual meaning behind what I was doing. But as an atheist, that's gone. Suddenly a holiday that I've celebrated my entire life feels devoid of any meaning to me. In some ways, I feel like a fraud to be celebrating the holiday at all; it's as if Christmas isn't really mine to celebrate anymore.
Surprisingly, to me at least, this feels like a huge loss. Christmas has always been one of the most magical times of the year for me - a time of sparkling lights and favourite homemade treats and endless visiting with family. And while none of the external aspects of Christmas have changed, the internal purpose and feeling behind it has. I wish in some ways that I could rewind time, unread The God Delusion and unsee the suffering of my patients, so that I could go back to a point in time when I still wasn't convinced that God existed, but I also wasn't convinced that God didn't exist*.
Heck...while we're at it, I'd like to rewind to a point in time when my Dad was still alive. Because to me, nothing epitomized Christmas more than sitting next to my Dad on the couch, egg nog in hand, as he put the scratchy John Lennon album on the record player and played Happy Christmas (War Is Over) for the first time of the holiday season.
Happy Christmas Dad.
*I realize that this is one of the most awkward sentences ever written. It sounded good in my head when I wrote it, and now I can't come up with a better way of phrasing it. Hopefully you'll forgive me and my tired brain for such terrible writing.