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Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers – The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas

December 22, 2010


155. The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas edited by Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers (2010 – US edition)

Length: 308 pages

Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays, (mostly) Humor

Started: 12 December 2010
Finished: 15 December 2010

Where did it come from? From the publishers for review.
Why do I have it? I don’t talk about religion around these parts much (if ever), since it’s rarely relevant to the books I’m reading, but I’ve been an atheist-leaning agnostic for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been celebrating (and loving) Christmas for a lot longer than that, so this seemed like a good fit.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 10 December 2010.

Don’t know what to buy
for your godless heathen friends
this Christmas? This book!

Summary: Just because you don’t believe in Christ, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a very merry Christmas. That’s the position taken by The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, a collection of forty-two* short pieces that is the outgrowth of the Atheist Bus Campaign, a project in which buses in the UK sported ads that read “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” (*Douglas Adams reference fully intentional.) The essays are divided into six sections: stories, science, how to, philosophy, arts, and events, and touch on everything from Christmas dinner to traditional Christmas hymns, the star of Bethlehem, the best use of Christmas decorations, what to get your favorite atheist for Christmas, and how to get into the holiday spirit even when you don’t believe in the Holy Spirit. All in all, the essayists in this book take Paul Krassner’s suggestion for the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not take thyself too goddamned seriously.”

Review: The introduction to this book starts off brilliantly. Any book that starts with a Douglas Adams reference is likely to get high marks from me, I was laughing out loud by the second paragraph, and was fully ready to believe the editors when they promised funny, insightful, Christmas-themed essays that were “safe to leave around your grandmother.”

And, for the most part, that’s what they delivered. Large chunks of this book were really well done, and there were spots that I would go so far as to call brilliant. If I tried to type up every passage that made me laugh, we’d be here until Easter (or the spring equinox, take your pick.) For example, while I got a good chuckle out of Catie Wilkins’s observation that “anyone who says it [the Christmas story] is the greatest story ever told clearly hasn’t read Watchmen“, Jennifer McCreight’s suggestion that you buy the atheists on your gift list “grayscale crayons, to represent how atheists view a bleak world devoid of divine purpose and meaning” had me roaring with laughter. (Don’t even get me started on the diagram illustrating the accessories that come with Atheist Barbie.)

And amidst all of the funny business, there were some really good insights about Christmas, and some – dare I say, inspirational – sections about celebrating the holiday with love, joy, goodwill towards men, and a sense of reverence towards something bigger than ourselves. I particularly liked Simon Singh’s suggestion of using Christmas to celebrate not the birth of Christ, but the birth of the universe (hey, the Big Bang could have happened on 25 December, 13.7 billion BCE), by taking a minute to listen to white noise on the radio, which includes traces of cosmic radiation that’s been around since the beginning. I also appreciated Mitch Benn’s more tongue-in-cheek point that “if only practicing Christians can use the word “Christmas,” then only Vikings can use the word “Thursday.””

Unfortunately, and somewhat obviously, being an atheist does not automatically make one a brilliant essayist. (If only.) There’s a distinct sense that some of the contributers were picked for their (lack of) beliefs rather than their writing ability or comedic chops, and some of the essays lose the thread a little bit. They’re in the minority, but a number of the essays read like extended arguments in favor of atheism, which – to use a rather ironic metaphor – is a serious case of preaching to the choir. We’re reading this book; we’re already convinced. There’s also a rather larger subsection of essays that touch on Christmas only glancingly, and a few not at all. They’re not bad in and of themselves, but I wish the editors had stepped in with a little more direction: if I’m reading a book about Christmas, I actually want to be reading about Christmas, y’know?

The only other thing that bugged me about this book was that more than a few of the authors seemed to take great pleasure in slagging off on agnostics as being wishy-washy wafflers who are unable to make up their minds, when in fact, the scientific method that everyone is so fond of says that it’s impossible to prove a negative (i.e. the non-existence of God) – hence the “probably” in the Atheist Bus Campaign slogan that was the jumping off point for this entire book. It’s undoubtedly one of my personal hot-buttons, but I get tired of agnostics getting picked on just for daring to suspect that human beings might not yet have all the answers. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Whether you’re a hard-line atheist or a secular humanist, if your reaction to the “reason for the season” folks is to start talking about fourth century priests co-opting the druidic winter solstice celebrations in order to encourage converts, then you’ll find something in The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas to hold your interest, make you laugh, and help you have a very Merry Christmas indeed.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Quotes:

There are those who argue that science removes the majesty from the universe by demystifying it. My reply is that the scientific creation story has even more going for it than the virtue that it is most likely correct, at least in its broad sweep. It teaches us that we are part of nature, built of the same stuff as stars, planets, asteroids, and comets. Our protons and neutrons have been around since the earliest times, glued together into heavy elements in the nuclear furnaces of long-dead ancient suns, blasted out into the universe and resculpted from diffuse interstellar dust clouds by the gentle hand of gravity. We are colonies of particles that have learned to think; every human is a grand natural structure, an emergent form permitted to exist by the laws of nature and realized by a stream of coincidence and causality. When the patterns of atoms known as you ceases to be, the building blocks will return to the voids of space, and in a billion years or more they may take their place in another structure so beautiful that a future mind may perceive it to be the work of a god. –p. 92

Another “decoration” I’ve seen was bolted to a bungalow and had Father Christmas going up and down a tasteless, flashing ladder. Duh. Santa doesn’t need a ladder, does he? For one thing, he’s magic, and for another – it’s a bungalow. All Santa would need to do is stand on the wheelie bin and use a drainpipe for purchase. There’s certainly little point in his carting a bloody great ladder around. It’s completely unrealistic. –p. 136

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Welcome to The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, the atheist book it’s safe to leave around your grandmother.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 67: ““So God – the same God who made the world and was kitted out with enough nous to dive in and leave Einstein gasping at the shallow end…”” – mind or intellect.
    .
  • p. 173: “Christianity, a young and syncretistic religion drawing elements from many other faiths and superstitions that antedate it, is no different.” – the attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion.
    .
  • p. 252: “Bus spotting – long the preserve of bespectacled cagoule-wearers wielding spiral-bound notepads – was now a genuinely tantalizing prospect for atheists across the country.” – a lightweight usually knee-length type of anorak.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. December 22, 2010 7:32 am

    Hahah, this sounds funny, I wish I’d known about it slightly earlier in the season. Of course, I always know what to get my godless heathen friends for Christmas, but I can think of at least one person who would have gotten a big kick out of this.

    • December 23, 2010 2:22 pm

      Jenny – Yeah, I wish I could have gotten this review out a little bit earlier, but the timing sadly just didn’t work out. Maybe next year!

  2. December 22, 2010 10:15 am

    zomg I want this book. it’s the perfect thing for me and my heathen, atheist, nonchristian friends to read and laugh with as we inhale take out chinese on christmas.

    • December 23, 2010 2:23 pm

      Redhead – Absolutely! A fine and longstanding Christmas tradition, Chinese food!

  3. December 22, 2010 11:24 am

    This does sound interesting. I think Christmas has become a secular holiday, even for the most religious people out there.

    • December 23, 2010 2:23 pm

      bermudaonion – It really has, which I’m sure is what’s motivating the very vocal “Reason for the Season” backlash.

  4. December 22, 2010 6:48 pm

    Oh, I want this one. My reaction is always “the Christians stole Yule right out from under us”. Thanks for the review, Nicki!

  5. December 22, 2010 6:55 pm

    It’s too bad about the anti-agnostic essays, but I still want this so badly!

    • December 23, 2010 2:24 pm

      Nymeth – There was really only one essay that was actually about agnosticism, but several of the others would just slide in snippy little remarks that I thought were pretty uncalled for.

  6. December 26, 2010 8:28 pm

    I just buy my godless heathen friends gifts like everyone else. LOL But, this sounds like an interesting read.

    • January 2, 2011 4:30 pm

      Nancy – Heh, and I’m sure your godless heathen friends appreciate the gifts just as much. :)

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