Die Leere von Weihnachten, or The Emptiness of Christmas. Why write it in German? Because my wife Elizabeth was helped to die in a country where all about her were speaking German, and because I am deeply grateful, as I know Elizabeth was, for the generosity and humanity of the Swiss who made this possible. She died there mainly because Christians in Canada continue to obstruct change in the law which would enable people to ask for assistance in dying here in Canada. And she died much earlier than she would have, had the opportunity been available here for her to die in a way of her own choosing.
So, when I read something like Ian Hunter’s empty claim that without Christianity (or some other equally inane set of religious beliefs) we are left without meaning, purpose, goals, direction or hope — and after I had managed to keep my breakfast down – I got angry. I got angry at the lazy assumption that religion is about meaning, purpose, goals, direction and hope. It isn’t. It’s about control, power, intrusion in and interference with the lives of others, in order to give oneself some sense of meaning, purpose, goals, direction and hope.
The attack on those who do not share belief is an essential part of religious meaning and purpose. Since there is no basis on which to found one’s beliefs, it is important to attack those who do not believe. This gives the illusion of substance. This is evident throughout the New Testament, for example, as well as throughout the Qu’ran. Both scriptures (‘sacred’ texts) use the condemnation of and threats to those who do not believe as a way of shoring up the faith of believers. (For more on the function of attack and proselytising in strengthening faith, see Festsinger, Riecken, and Schachter, When Prophecy Fails.)
Unable to support the beliefs so casually assumed throughout the obligatory celebration of the significance of Christmas, Hunter therefore goes onto the offensive instead, and attacks those who do not share his beliefs – a number that is steadily increasing, as he points out. And then, at the end, he tells us, from a poem from Betjeman, that underneath all the tinselly superficiality of Christmas,
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
“When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines agnosticism as the belief that nothing beyond material phenomena can be known.
Given that definition, agnosticism is an oxymoron. It refutes itself. If nothing about religion can reliably be known, then it cannot be known whether anything about religion can reliably be known. If it is impossible to decide the truth or falsity of religious claims, then it is impossible to decide whether agnosticism is a preferable religious claim to even the narrowest or most fanatical religious prejudice.
But this is just logic-chopping, and not very good logic-chopping at that. The definition, after all, merely says that nothing beyond material phenomena can be reliably known. Hunter turns this into the claim that nothing about religion can be reliably known, but this is not true. We know a lot about religion. Indeed, the recent scientific study of religion has produced a vast amount of knowledge about religion. All that the OED definiton says is that we cannot reliably know about the objects of religion, if those objects transcend material phenomena, that is, the world that we can know by our senses. Agnosticism, in this situation, is not a religious claim at all. It is just a refusal to accept beliefs that cannot be reliably shown to have any chance of being true.
Christmas really is empty. This, by the way, is what Dickens’ famous story A Christmas Carol is all about. It’s really Dickens’ protest against the emptiness of Christmas, die Leere von Weihnachten. Christmas really is a humbug, as old Scrooge said, a way to pick his pocket every 25th of December. The prisons and workhouses are busy the rest of the year. Only on that one day do people really consider the sufferings of the less fortunate. If Christmas were to have any meaning at all — Dickens suggests – it had to apply to all the days of the year, not just to the tinsel and the brittle joy of just one day.