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Cultural Christianity?

Richard DawkinsSue Blackmore comments on a debate from last year over whether or not it is consistent for non-Christians, especially Atheists, to attend things like Christmas Carol services. The rumpus was caused by Richard Dawkins admission that he was going to go Carol singing, and the protestations of Christians against the notorious atheists doing so. She asks her readership what she should do; to sing or not to sing?

Dr. Blackmore wonders about differing perceptions of carols, from the innocent and relatively irreligious “Holly and the Ivy” to the ramifications of singing of Jesus “no crying he makes”. Far be it from me to rain on anyone’s parade but I would rather choke than listen to “Away in a manger”. I love Christmas carols; I have CDs of Christmas carols from some of the finest choirs in Western Europe – but please, no more of that song!

Perhaps Sue should refrain from attending simply on the basis of taste.

On the wider issue, I sympathise with the notion of cultural Christianity. So many of us were brought up, baptised, confirmed and communed (?) in one of the Christian denominations. We may have no faith in them, regarding them as quaint fairy stories or vulgar, dangerous hypocritical centres for extraordinarily reactionary politics – but there are some aspects which cause us nostalgia.

Christmas carols are one such: I hated going to mass, which was just one series of obsequies after another, but many fine pieces of music are Christmas carols. It is not hypocritical in the slightest to enjoy them.

Albert Mohler comments that, “The thought of Richard Dawkins singing any carols with explicit Christian content is difficult to hold — unless the Oxford professor intends to sing of a faith he does not profess.” I have to ask, why wouldn’t we sing about a faith we don’t profess? It’s no different from reading Tolkien because the writing is masterful, or watching fantasy or sci-fi films or singing certain nursery rhymes to our children.

Singing a song doesn’t require one’s heartfelt belief in every aspect of what the author is trying to celebrate. We might sing along to modern pop songs and consider the lyrics to be meaningless trash (which they are, in the case of most modern dance, enunciated by vaguely mechanic Germanic women). I think it’s utterly silly to have any hang-ups about singing Christmas carols.

The cultural aspect to Christianity is independent of Christianity itself, and if you removed Christianity entirely, something similar would continue to exist: a celebration where people get together and go out singing. Indeed the ‘carol’ was a type of popular music long before it has the established religious connections of today, so why not go out and sing along? The lyrics don’t mean anything.

As that advert said, “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and go enjoy your life.”

(Incidentally, I have to publish the following link, to claim my blog at Technorati, so pay no notice: Technorati Profile)

Categories: General Politics, Religion
  1. December 23, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    Indeed – you don’t have to be Christian to appreciate Christian architecture or art either, it doesn’t stop being beautiful because its makers were deluded.

    Out of interest, at what point do you think this stops being the case? I mean, I figure beautiful hymns aren’t that different from beautiful carols, and sometimes church sermons are actually interesting or largely true. And plenty of people get married in Churches without being christian. I would tend to see that last as the turning-point because marriage is, according to Christianity, a sacrament, i.e. a really really important religious moment, like baptism.

  2. December 23, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    The only thing I particularly object to about Christianity are the prescriptions for daily living and the underlying doctrine which sustains them. That’s where I draw the line; everything else is simply cultural frippery.

  3. December 23, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    Fair point. I was also wondering if you’d mind my putting TCF on the blogroll at the blog I’ve set up? (I’m Luke from Oxford Secsoc, if you remember me, and I’ve been reading the blog here for a while).

  4. December 23, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    Yes I know you Luke! I have you added to facebook remember?

    And of course feel free to add TCF to the blogroll. I’ll take a read over your own site in a while, see what sort of stuff you write. If you write things that would be suitable for this blog, you should feel free to create an account here and we might publish your stuff. Just if you like.

  5. December 23, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    Cool, sounds good.

  6. December 24, 2008 at 8:45 am

    On my Facebook account profile I describe myself under the religion section as ‘beginnner’.

    I go to church quite often nowadays and while not ‘touched by faith’, I’m at least prepared to countenance the idea that some of the stuff set out in Christian teachings, if taken in appropriate context and with the intolerant bits-from-another-time stripped out, can provide a useful ethical framework – hard work, commitment to others, setting aside time for reflection if you’ve got it, none of these are bad things in themselves. I think there may be plenty of people like me, who may not articulate it like this but go to church ‘cos they get something secularly quite useful out of it.

    Sure, I understand all the ‘opium of the people’ stuff, but I think a modern church with modern values of tolerance but anger at injustice (like those of two of my mates who are also vicars) can overall be a force for good change rather than an opiate.

    I also really like some of the hymns.

  7. December 24, 2008 at 9:12 am

    I was going to say that, though an agnostic, I’m a cultural Catholic – but then the Emperor comes out with “save the rainforests from the gays” and I just can’t bring myself to say it…

    Incidentally, the opiate of the people line was not “oh, look how the ruling class drugs the workers with religion” but rather an observation that working people very often use their religious beliefs and practices as a way of easing stress. Churches provide a kind of extended family, and a sense of community something that people desire.

  8. December 24, 2008 at 9:47 am

    Fair point about the opium. though its’ not a big leap of logic to then say ‘but wokring people wouldn’t be so stressed if they weren’t being oppressed…..’

    The other thing I was going to say, but forgot, was how the slighlty bum deal that Christianity gets as purveyor of wild and unfulfilled dreams in return for a life of humility and status quo abiding, was brought home to me not too long ago; I told my sister that I sometimes take the kids to church mostly so they can play with thier mates at the back but also because it’s a cultural experience that might benefit them.

    ‘I don’t know how you can live with yourself’ said the sister. ‘Exposing them to all that hypocritical shite….. Anyway, we’re going to MacDonalds for tea, you want to come?’

  9. December 24, 2008 at 11:34 am

    I would never take my children to church. I spent years being forced to go to church and I would simply not inflict that upon another child. I won’t force them to go to a Catholic school either. I don’t want them growing up in a Christian milieu because by and large, Christians are indeed hypocrites.

    I enjoy carol services, and I go to Remembrance Sunday mass – but these are the points of Christianity where the secular collides with the religious and can’t be extricated. I have no sympathy with the ‘ethical framework’ of Christianity and by and large, I think it’s a pretty hodgepodge lot which we should get rid of rather than salvage anything.

    Of course that’s not to say that I don’t recognize how things like liberation and revolutionary theologies have helped to provide a counter-hegemonic framework for socialism to organize against capitalism. Indeed our own English Revolution demonstrates that – but the change to full capitalism opened the space for a much greater consciousness.

    It’s my belief that that is what we should pursue, especially when we consider just how weighted the ideological terrain of religion is in favour of our opponents.

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