An Atheist at Christmas.

I love Christmas. There is all of the pagan stuff of course: trees, holly and ivy, lots of feasting, carousing and boozing; but there is also the biblical Christmas.

As an atheist, one of the things that really annoys me about believers is their intellectual laziness and lack of knowledge of the background to their own beliefs. This appears to apply at least equally in Islam (where people accept the writings of men as the word of god) but it is with the Christian religion which I am most familiar, and it is to that faith that I can best apply my own views.

“And some fell on stony ground..” This phrase comes of course from the parable of the sower, which is to found in the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke.) This is an explanation and justification of the art of allegory to represent the complex philosophical issues addressed by the  rabbinical franchise that we today call ‘Jesus.’

Basically, it can be summed up as “when people are ready, they will see the point of an allegory; on the other hand, it will be lost on the lazy and dim-witted (stony ground) and on those whose understanding is muddled by their own preoccupations (weeds and brambles).”

There are many proofs that the Christian Bible is not to be taken seriously as an historical record. For example, there is no archaeological or contemporaneous documentary evidence for the Egyptian captivity and exodus from slavery (in one of the most record-conscious civilizations ever). Likewise, there is no historical record of the  Poll Tax census described in St Luke’s Gospel which compelled Joseph and the pregnant Mary to travel  to Bethlehem where the birth would take place. 

However, it is the ‘stony ground’ approach to merely dismiss biblical authority on the grounds of its historical inaccuracy; and at the same time, it is extremely difficult for rational modern people to suspend their disbelief when confronted by the provable untruth of the ‘weeds’ of superstitious tosh.

The middle way is also the most clear-sighted: to take the advice offered in the parable of the sower and to regard the Bible and its narratives as literature and specifically as allegory.

When we take the Christmas story, we should start with its central figure, Mary, as without her, there would be no story, just as there would be no resurrection without Judas.  If we were to hear her story now, (“I was visited by an angel who made me pregnant”) any rational person would dismiss her as a schizophrenic or (most likely) a very implausible liar.

However, when we reject this shallow ‘stony ground’ interpretation, and take her status as that of a literary figure, this changes. In fact the Annunciation story of an inexperienced  young woman having an uncomprehending but transformational sexual experience with a stranger would not be out of place in the work of Leonard Cohen or William Blake. The outcome is an unplanned pregnancy, with conception inconveniently established before the wedding to Joseph.

Joseph himself is not very involved in the story. We know he is apparently is descended from King David, presumably in a branch of the royal family that has hit hard times. There is also a hilarious contradiction at this point in the story as the Gospels of Matthew and Luke try to link Jesus by descent from King David.

The absurdity is not only that they each do so through different lines, but this is also compounded by the complication of the Annunciation: we do not know who the father of the baby is, but one thing is clear is that it is definitely not Joseph. So the character Jesus is not descended from David at all. In this case, those with the ‘weeds’ of an existing agenda have got their hands on the narrative, as they seek to use it to fulfil an earlier prophecy.

But the story tell us that there is a baby, who is borne illegitimate and effectively homeless .  Whose mother is probably very young and maybe a liar or mentally ill, and whose is father no more nor less than a common working man. And who is later forced to flee as a refugee when persecuted by a genocidal dictator.

Again, and like the dismissal of Mary as mentally ill or a pathological fantasist, this can be taken as the everyday cruelty of the world. We only need to watch the news in December 2013 (or any other year) to see it on our televisions. But this again is the ‘stony ground’, shallow interpretation; likewise its elevation to the Second Coming or the birth of a god is to hijack a great narrative for a pre-existing agenda, in that case founded on the ‘weeds’ of supernatural mumbo-jumbo.

If instead we see the events around the birth as allegory, their true significance is revealed. The new baby is revered by both the common people (the shepherds) and by top scientists (the wise men.) The allegory is therefore one of the everyday miracle that birth represents: in this case taking place amongst animals and yet with universal significance (as Oscar Wilde would later say: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”)

Furthermore, the wider New Testament narrative is one that shows that the child in question, born in extreme social and political circumstances, with no advantages and many disadvantages, can go on to “work miracles” and offer leadership and light to world.  In our own times, those miracles could be medical advances which could cure cancer or prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s or MND.

And those who offer leadership and light can be born anywhere under any circumstances. Like Willy Brandt, born 100 years ago this week, illegitimate in Lübeck, Germany. Or Nelson Mandela, born  in a hut in the rural Eastern Cape, who died last week.  Every child is a potential threat to all dictators, as Herod knew.

Today, the children who can deliver these miracles are being born in the UK in need of foodbanks and homes; and in refugee camps in the Middle East. And all over the world in poverty and  obscurity, just like in the nativity story.

And the nativity is just that: a great story. (And don’t just take the word of an old atheist for it – a certain rabbi in 1st century Palestine was reported to be of the same opinion in his parable.)

If it is read as that alone, without the stony ground of cynicism or the weeds of superstition, it relates one of the great universal truths – that every birth is a miracle, every child is a treasure and all of us are born with unlimited potential.

Have a nice Christmas, everybody.Image

Willy Brandt 1913 – 1992: The European Mandela?

(Willy Brandt’s centenary is on 18th December 2013)

In one of his typically ebullient accounts of life in 1950s Greece, Patrick Leigh Fermor recalls how even the most isolated shepherds and villagers would display an acute curiosity about British politics, asking questions like “do you prefer Mr Churchill or Mr Attlee?”

In a similar manner, in the mid-1970s, I found myself with a German friend in a Turkish roadside café being asked whether Willy Brandt or Helmut Schmidt was the better Chancellor of then West Germany.  The German friend replied instantly: “Schmidt will be better for business, Willy Brandt was better for the people.”

The excellent website of the Willy Brandt Foundation shows four photographs of Brandt from different times of his remarkable life.

The first is as young man in exile in Norway in 1937, where he had fled from the Nazis. He worked in the resistance both in Norway and undercover in Germany. During his later political career in post-war West  Germany, he was criticised for doing so  and for taking Norwegian citizenship.

The second picture shows Brandt in 1958 as the transformational Mayor of West Berlin. During his terms of office (to 1966) tens of thousands of homes were built and the entire modern infrastructure of the city was put into place.

He also embodied the spirit of West Berlin as an island of social democracy surrounded by Stalinism. This included not only accompanying John F. Kennedy on his famous visit in 1961, but also demanding of the President that West Berlin needed not just words but also political action to resist the Soviet Union and its East German client state.

The third picture shows Willy Brandt as the first Social Democrat Chancellor of West Germany. His time in office from 1969-74 was marked by a blizzard of legislation which brought about widespread progress and reform in domestic  policy including health, education, social security, housing and infrastructure, planning and urban and rural development. His will and ability to force through such a radical programme also earned him, at least tacitly, the support of much of the Extra Parliamentary Opposition (APO), and further isolated extreme elements like the Rote-Armee-Fraktion (RAF).

As Chancellor , Brandt also stood up to the internal lobby of ethnic Germans displaced from eastern Europe after WW2, making it clear that the future for Germany would be east of the Rhine and west of the Oder-Neiße-Line, with no expansionary ambitions on its neighbours.

With this established, he set out on his mission of the new Ostpolitik, leading the way in blunting the threats of the Cold War, despite his country being under continued partition and partial occupation by the USSR. His achievements in east-west diplomacy earned Willy Brandt the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 (at which time it had not been devalued by later awards such as those to Henry Kissinger and “Mother” Theresa)

This same third picture shows Brandt in his truly iconic status:  the German Chancellor kneeling in penance at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial in 1970. The “Warschauer Kniefall” was his spontaneous gesture after which nothing was ever the same again, as the head of the West German government sought atonement for the crimes which his countrymen and women had committed.

Brandt himself was one of those individuals whose exile and resistance had proven that the first victims of the Nazis were Germans, so he bore no personal guilt, but he had the vast personal courage to bear the dreadful weight of his country’s shame if it would help to build a new common future in Europe.

Willy Brandt lost the Chancellorship in 1974 following the discovery of infiltration of his closest circles by the East German Stasi. There had also been persistent rumours of heavy drinking and womanising.

Brandt admitted on stepping down that he was exhausted and had run out of political steam, but on his recovery, he took on a new lease of life as he turned to north-south issues with the same vigour as he had addressed the east-west question.

He headed the Independent Commission for International Developmental Issues, and produced the Brandt Report in 1980, which called for drastic changes in the global attitude towards development in the Third World. His conclusion was:

“Could we not begin to lay the basis for that new community with reasonable relations among all people and nations, and to build a world in which sharing, justice, freedom and peace might prevail?”(1983)

The final photo is of Willy Brandt celebrating the reunification of Berlin (and Germany) in 1989. Elderly, frail and at the same time seemingly indestructible, he lived to see at last the end of totalitarianism in Germany, and his beloved Germany reunited and at peace with itself and its neighbours.  In disagreement with his colleagues in the SPD, he had supported an immediate reunification rather than a gradual assimilation of the former GDR: it is possible that he was impatient for this to happen in his own lifetime.

If so, he was successful. No-one has ever achieved so much for Germany, and or possibly for any country in Europe.

18th December 2013 marks the centenary of Willy Brandt’s birth, which made him only five years older than Nelson Mandela, whom he predeceased by 11 years, having died in October 1992. Since Mandela’s death, there have been various comparisons with his life and achievements,  but it is genuinely worth arguing that in some ways, Willy Brandt was his European equivalent.

Like Mandela, Brandt had been an undercover freedom fighter against racist right-wing oppression. He was a democrat, and a symbol of reconciliation and peace. He fought all of his life for social justice based on unity and solidarity. He was a beacon of progress for his country and his continent.

Very few such men come along in history, who change the world for the better.  One of these in the 20th century was Nelson Mandela, another was Willy Brandt.


For further accounts of Willy Brandt’s life see the following: (an unusually comprehensive wiki biography)

Anagramgate: what are they hiding?

Much civil service time has been expended on the mammoth publication which is the Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence. However, a little more care might have been taken in checking the title “Scotland’s Future”.
It is sometimes the case in epic drafting exercises that bored or mischievous scribes have a bit of fun, and add a few extras. One of the most noteworthy examples is in the King James Bible, more precisely in Psalm 46. If you take the 46th word from the beginning, it is “shake” and the 46th word from the end is “spear.”
As this was probably written in the year of Shakespeare’s 46th birthday, it is clear that a crafty hand was at work subverting the text into an acrostic joke for their own purpose of wishing their literary colleague many happy returns.
In the same way, crossword fans everywhere will not have missed that “Scotland’s Future” is an anagram of “Fraudulent Costs.” Again, this is surely no coincidence. In fact, it looks suspiciously like the civil servants have smuggled in their own verdict. Heads may roll at Holyrood soon.