In a recent article published in The Guardian, columnist Polly Toynbee wrote an article entitled ‘Christmas comes with good cheer. The tragedy is the religious baggage.’ This ‘culturally-Christian-but-actually-atheist’ commentator argued that much of religious tradition was ‘loathsome,’ that we should shed religious belief, and celebrate the decline of any kind of faith system that expects ‘anything beyond this earth.’ Religion, she affirmed, is holding our society back in many ways, and by shedding this ‘baggage,’ especially at Christmas time, we can prevent much suffering. I believe the opposite is true – that the decline of religion is the cause of many of the problems we face today, and not the solution.
Most people in the United Kingdom are no longer Christian. In the 2021 census, those identifying as Christian declined from 59% to 46% over the past decade. Eight million people ticked the box ‘no religion,’ and the reality is that many more consider themselves culturally Christian, without feeling any kind of real religious affiliation, or connection with God.
And now we’re at Christmas. A time that is romanticised by films and popular media, a time where the imaginations of children run wild with thoughts of reindeer, gifts and magical men climbing through chimneys. A time when families get together, sometimes for the only time in the year. In the United Kingdom, this time provides people with a way of getting through the bitter cold of mid-winter, the early darkness of December, and the last days of an exhausting year.
Christmas has changed though, with the increasingly atheistic attitudes of the population. Midnight mass on Christmas day is poorly attended, Biblical stories rarely told in the home, the emphasis on moral virtues replaced by a desperation to buy gifts and consume in the holiday sales. While some individuals, such as Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, celebrate the decline of ‘religious baggage’ associated with Christmas, many ordinary people struggle with the material obligations that the occasion demands. According to recent research, around 1 in 5 people in the UK report that ‘Christmas is pure stress for me.’ Those of us who work in mental health often find an uptick in breakdowns and distress. Around 40% of those polled also agreed with the statement that ‘There are too many expectations linked to Christmas.’ A 2019 YouGov poll showed similar sentiments, with a third of those surveyed reporting that they either were apathetic (16%) or actively disliked (15%) Christmas. Those who were less religious were more likely to have apathetic or negative attitudes.
Why, then, does Christmas come with such a backlash? Other religious festivals, such as the Muslim celebrations of Eid, have not been found to be similarly associated with ‘pure stress,’ or unreasonably high expectations. One reason may well be that religion, and spirituality, are still alive and active with other such festivals. Christmas, however, has become dominated with worldly anxieties such as gift buying, tree construction, food and alcohol. Furthermore, while such stresses abound, the decline in religion means that none of these acts are conducted with any higher purpose in mind.
What is the fundamental Christmas message? It is that of hospitality – a pregnant woman requiring a place to stay in a foreign land. It is of the birth of a child who would become a man of peace, preaching about the importance of prayer and establishing a connection with God. Though as a Muslim belonging to the Ahmadiyya Community, I do not believe in modern Christian doctrines such as resurrection from the dead, atonement, and original sin, I certainly do share a deep love for Jesus, peace be upon him, and regard him as a revered Prophet of God. Ironically, though Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, Jesus himself warned precisely against the type of festivities that we celebrate today. He was well-known for the ‘cleansing of the temple’ incident, whereby he expelled the merchants and traders from the place of worship, accusing them of using religion purely as a form of business — to make money rather than to fulfill the higher purpose that faith demands. This, indeed, was the entire purpose of Jesus’ coming – to inculcate belief in a living God among a society who had become hard-hearted and materialistic.
Today, instead of truly honouring Jesus, our societies go on a spending rampage, thinking only of the consumerism that our capitalistic cultures have brainwashed us into. During the Christmas period, advertisers spend an estimated £7.9 billion on advertising. In 2021, they spent an extra £1 billion more on marketing than they did the year before. We may dispose of ‘religious baggage,’ but that does not make us more liberated. Rather in our secular, atheistic ‘freedoms,’ we are preyed upon more and more by cooperations, advertisers, and online sales. We believe that we have escaped the ‘brainwashing’ of religion, but in its place we are brainwashed by forces far more pernicious.
The damage wreaked by the decline of religion is plain for all to see. In the absence of studying the life of Jesus Christ, the circumstances of his birth, and the message he, and other Prophets of God brought, we are left with immorality in all strata of our society. Instead of being hospitable guests, we fly our asylum seekers to Rwanda. Instead of honouring human lives, we glorify the practice of euthanasia. Instead of being grateful for what God has bestowed upon us, we wage endless wars for the purposes of increasing our dominion upon the world.
When religious morality is thrown to the wind, no morality remains. All that is left are our own egos and desires, unrestrained, unrestricted. And all that is left of Christmas is a hollow, consumerist occasion, neither celebrating anything of real value, nor teaching us any life lessons. Sure, families connect, and that is valuable. But perhaps a bit more moral instruction would mean that this family connection isn’t such an exception in the annual calendar? And perhaps we need to remember the true message of Jesus: that to be contented we must give up the world for something higher than ourselves — a living God — while spending our days trying to improve society. As it stands, wars continue to rage around the world, inequalities worsen day by day, and we continue to become more and more depressed and anxious.
We may think that ‘religious baggage’ is a burden, while in reality religion can bear our burdens, and provide us with hope in a world of trial and uncertainty. The names of the Prophets of God, such as Jesus, live on for thousands of years because their lessons were so powerful, so poignant. Following these lessons as a society can make us more moral, more compassionate, more liberated. Forgetting them, and treating occasions like Christmas purely as a hedonistic, consumerist event, is a sure way to misery.
Christmas comes with good cheer, so enjoy it. But know that it comes with religious messages, which we should remember, reflect upon, and understand.