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Don't reduce celebrations to degraded tales

As a practising atheist, I found myself in a strange state of agreement with Trevor Phillips a few weeks ago when, as chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, he argued that all schools should have nativity plays.

Phillips correctly pointed out that there was an over-sensitivity by some people running schools to the multicultural ideal, something that saw promoting a Christian tradition as problematic in a multi-ethnic society. The idea that people from other backgrounds are offended by nativity plays, he argued, was a nonsense - and I suspect he is right.

Phillips's concern is with the decline of what he sees as a British tradition and, while not being a fan of nationalism myself, again he has a point. Even at the level of parents and grandparents sharing an experience or tradition with their children, there is something quite positive - and, well, nice - about the whole Christmas and nativity thing.

In my own son's school, there has been a nativity play of sorts in the past but, in the school's attempt to take religion out of the play, it became empty of meaning or significance.

The version I saw reduced what is (even for an atheist) a magical story about a young virgin carrying the son of God, and the search by three kings to find him, into a tale about a small boy who wanted to sing Jesus a song to help him sleep - something all the stupid adults had tried to do but failed. Eventually the little boy, who had been shunned throughout the play, got to sing his song and baby Jesus stopped crying.

Ironically, in the Eid assembly last year, a similar hollowing-out process occurred, and the Muslim celebration of Ramadan was reduced to a story about what it felt like to be hungry while fasting.

At a time when we apparently celebrate living in a multi-cultural society, it seems that, in our attempt not to offend one another, we simply end up with no culture, no meaning, no belief. Religious celebrations are reduced to mundane aspects of everyday life - the very opposite of what they used to be about.

Despite my atheism, I would much rather my children gained some sense of meaning, of humanity and, yes, even of God, from these religious celebrations than have such big events degraded and reduced to tales of crying babies and rumbling tummies.

Stuart Waiton is director of

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