And Is It True?

What Mr. Hume said. (And Heather, too.) Whether believers are healthier, better behaved, better citizens, less likely to establish totalitarian dictatorships, and all the rest, are shadow questions. I think the ground where all of us on this site stand is, that supernaturalist claims are, as best our judgments can determine, extremely unlikely to be true; and further that the propensities to make such claims and believe in them have rather obvious origins in natural phenomena well documented by psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists. We agree with William James that it is an intellectual sin to believe in something for which there is insufficient evidence.

Since we’re heading into the Christmas season, here is John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas.”

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare —
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

It’s a lovely poem — I find Betjeman irresistible in most of his moods. The answer to the question asked in lines 31 and 37, however, is “No.”

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