Getting Richard Dawkins for Christmas might seem to lack a certain sentiment, but the big book of The God Delusion isn't bad holiday reading. Dawkins is still the energiser bunny of atheism, but he writes beautifully and argues conscientiously.
I was amazed to learn the way a "mere word game" such as the ontological argument has been wielded by fine minds as a proof of God's existence (short version: if we can conceive of God, then God exists).
I really liked Dawkins' wife's contribution to a discussion about the Argument from Beauty (or the divine inspiration of great art): yes, Bach, Michaelangelo and Raphael made great beauty in the service of the church, but: "what if … Shakespeare had been obliged to work on commissions from the Church? We'd surely have lost Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth."
Dawkins is really a bit of a snob, but I'm very comfortable with his positive point: that it is quite rational to be awestruck by the scale, complexity and mystery of the universe, and that nature is a better fit for awe than the gods of men's doctrine, and, more so, than the tawdry men who claim God's agency on earth.
(Doctrine can get you some bad places. Witness the Catholic Church's latest jape: refusing to bury a longtime sufferer of muscular dystrophy who convinced his doctor that, in light of his having spent two decades paralysed and the past five years unable to even breathe on his own, the machines should be mercifully switched off. You might argue that 60 year-old Piergiorgio Welby had no call to be serviced by a church whose rulebook he flouted, but really, where is the love?)
I've written elsewhere about how nature tends to crowd out God in New Zealand's holy days, drawing on Keith Sinclair's 1986 book about New Zealand identity, A Destiny Apart in the introduction to the Great New Zealand Argument book:
Anzac Day, a day named to commemorate not just the sacrifice of New Zealanders in the first world war, but all the fallen, found purchase where a general day of national pride could not. And, said Sinclair, it was not an affair of the church. The Dawn Service "might, indeed, have been some pagan ceremony" and the memorials to the fallen eschewed the cross in favour of cenotaphs and symbols that looked back to ancient Greece and Egypt.
Few New Zealanders would readily identify themselves as pagans, of course. But the derived adjective of the original Latin "paganus" means "rustic" or "of the country", and many more of us would answer to that. We can far more comfortably define ourselves through the land and the sea than through churches at which we have historically been indifferent attenders.
Christmas in New Zealand, by the same token, is a largely secular family festival that functions as a gateway to nature (and away from a degree of material care - there's no intrinsic reason we should feel so much more relaxed on Boxing Day than Christmas Eve, but nearly everybody does - we work ourselves up to the release). Such spiritual significance of place was the binding theme of the highly enjoyable Outrageous Fortune: The Movie on Boxing Day. Even if we do not all have a Tutaekuri Bay to which to run, we go there in our minds.
(Reassuringly, other themes included male genital injury, boozing and girl-wrestling. And "tutaekuri" means dog shit in te reo.)
I'm not entirely unburdened at the moment - I should probably do some invoicing this morning, and there are leftover jobs I don't want to think about - but I got out on my bike on Boxing Day (and made more casual work of that nasty little return slope up to Carrington Road on the northwestern cycle path than the bloke I passed on the way down), I have the distinctly secular pleasure of being bought lunch at Prego later today, and our family will be conducting barbecue worship with the Slack-Beanlands tomorrow.
I'm figuring we'll head up and see friends in Matakana in the first couple of days of the new year, and at some point I'd like to be standing on a beach on a clear night. Fifteen years ago, having just come back to New Zealand to settle, I excused myself for a solitary walk down a South Island beach at night, had a quiet toke, looked upwards - and was awestruck.
It wasn't simply that there were so many stars - although after five years in London I think I'd forgotten there were so many - but the sudden, clear sense that the stars were not simply painted on the inside of an equidistant dome, but lay throughout a vast, deep space. I could see I was both impossibly small, and part of something impossibly big. And it was beautiful.
PS: On which tip, please be filing reports for our Holiday Stories forum.