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Nativity plays

Last night I was involved in recording a segment of an edition of the regional ITV show London Calling that I'm told will be broadcast next week (by which time I will have avoided embarrassment by leaving the country). I was there as a skeptic, not an Internet commentator. But it was annoying enough that I'm going to pretend the experience is a suitable subject for net.wars.

I've said before now that in general the skeptics do not take a position on matters of faith: we think about things that can be tested and how to test them. If you want to tell me that you believe that a little pink cloud is up there guiding your way through life there really isn't much I can say. If, however, you tell me that every year that little pink cloud impregnates a virgin, we might start talking about how to test this phenomenon under proper observing conditions. The rise of the religious right in the US and the increasing fight over teaching creationism in the schools and Bush's disregard for science mean that many American skeptics are being forced to modify this long-held policy.

I was told the show would be a lively debate; it was more of a free-for-all, in which I, along with three humanists and the atheist stand-up comedian Robin Ince, found ourselves arguing about the threat to Christianity posed by the disappearance of school nativity plays. The show was fronted by a quintet of I guess bigger-league journalists and TV people: Vanessa Feltz, Eve Pollard, Nick Ferrari, a guy from the Evening Standard whose name I didn't catch. (They were all far too grand to consort in the green room with us lower-level invited guests, who were in turn kept away from the hoi polloi of the nondescript audience. Such is the role of hierarchy in television. I would point out that I, too, have a Wikipedia entry; so there.)

The bottom line of the discussion: almost everyone, be they Indian, Muslim, Christian, or Jew, loves Christmas. But – said Keith Porteous Wood, head of the National Secular Society – only 30 percent of the population celebrate it as a religious festival. For most of us, religious or agnostic, atheist or Jedi Knight, Christmas is about decorating trees, giving and receiving presents, organising travel schedules and accommodation for family members, and enjoying a lot of good food. The people who aren't doing the cooking and the airport runs may even have a pretty good time.

Of course, last night was primarily about whipping people into a frenzy. Ferrari, who does a show on LBC radio that I was previously unaware of, in particular fulminated at the moral injustice of "taking the Christ out of Christmas". Well, folks, this is the price you pay for success. Your holiday – which of course you largely stole from the pagans - has been adopted by a lot of people who do not care about your reasons for celebrating it. I'm sorry you don't get royalties for this the way Microsoft does on copies of Windows, but there it is.

One of the main guests' most important contentions: Christianity is under attack. Please. This is an idea you've imported from the US. You have not only a dominant religion but an established one. Granted, the planned reforms to the makeup of the House of Lords will remove some of the bishops. Granted, church attendance has been dropping for decades now. But a few schools deciding they live in a multicultural society is small beer. British Christians still have the Queen, the Parliament, and the country's entire structure of holidays on their side.

The claim that Christianity is the subject of attack isn't even all that sound in the US, where Christians are much shakier in their claim that "This is a Christian country". They may feel this way, sure – but so does every religious or non-religious group at one time or another. It's a good tactic, though, for fostering group bonding, a nice thing to have in an election year.

A lot of last night's complaints played on nostalgia for the way things were when they were children. Vanessa Feltz in particular hammered on this one: according to her the country is now awash in such ghastly characters as Christmas lobsters, apple pies, and so on. We're supposed to be horrified. (Apparently the apple pie character was to promote healthy eating, which sounds dire even for a school play.)

I'd bet that today's children themselves do not share their parents' horror at playing a lobster instead of a virgin miraculously impregnated by an invisible spirit. Probably Feltz was right that whatever that lobster is up to isn't as good a story or told in as attractive language as the story of the shepherds. My school didn't have nativity players that I remember, but the language of that story is engraved in my brain, too. Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis.

OK, OK, I know the show was trash. The next segment (in which I was mercifully not involved) is "Golddiggers: is marrying for money wrong – or just practical?" Faugh. I feel better now.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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Hi Wendy,

Yes, Christianity is under attack. As well it should be. People claiming to be its representatives attacked first.

I grew up in the middle of the US in the 60's and 70's. This was central Oklahoma, the heart of the bible belt, Jerry Falwell territory. Attending an Episcopal day school gave doses of religion including daily chapel, bible classes, and plentiful unsolicited advice from the school's Baptist teachers.

The teachers and headmaster did their best. However, my two most important religious concepts came from other places:

He's not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays (As a great poet said )
Religion and spirituality are two mostly independent and disconnected things

We can speak volumes on that last point. In reading your article 'Nativity plays' it sounds like it was the disconnect driving the discussion. For a few, Christmas is a spiritual event. That likely applies to less than the 30% mentioned by Keith Porteous Wood.

There is no reason for a philosophy which lives by 'Thou shalts' and 'Thou shalt nots' to tell anyone how to celebrate this (or any other) holiday. Nor do they have any business controlling a country's legal system and, god forbid, its nuclear weapons. Maybe they could make the world a more Christian place if they concentrated on the spiritual and less on the secular.

Best Regards,

I grew up in New York; I was pretty shocked the first time I went to a PTA meeting in Kentucky and discovered it was their habit to pray before each meeting. In the UK, religious observance is arguably less ostentatious than in the US - perhaps because the church is established it's less insecure.


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