Can an Atheist Believe in Christmas?

December 16, 2006

Source: The Dallas Morning News/New York Times News Service

If last holiday season charitably could have been described as the war-on-Christmas Christmas - with Bill O'Reilly of Fox News declaring war on the warriors and others declaring war on him - maybe it's not such a stretch to think of this year's prevalent yuletide theme as the war-on-Christ Christmas.

And not just Christ by himself, of course. Also God and Allah and every other version of an omnipotent, unseen deity who inspires annual celebrations, love, obedience and occasional fanaticism among untold millions.

At least such a theme is the message that book buyers seem to be sending. "The God Delusion," a jeremiad against religious belief by Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist at Oxford, reached No. 4 on the New York Times best-seller list recently and sits at No. 6 a week before Christmas. "Letter to a Christian Nation," another spirited defense of atheism, by its American standard-bearer, Sam Harris, reached No. 6 in October. He wrote a previous best seller, "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason."

In the current issue of the New Republic, the critic James Wood delves into both books and lays out his personal development as a nonbeliever, beginning at 15 and including the requisite reading of Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian" - a revelation, he writes, "like seeing someone in the nude, for the first time."

With all this high-profile atheism in mind, it might come as something of a surprise to learn what sort of tree Harris has sitting in his living room right now. Let's just say that it is not a ficus, that it tapers to a little peak practically begging for a star and that it is currently sporting some lovely ornaments on its branches.