The great faiths continue to provide a moral compass in cynical times
Kevin Rafferty finds solace in his faith as a foil to the consumer age
Christmas has come and Christmas has gone, but did anybody notice? That may be a silly thing to claim. We could not fail to notice the endlessly tinkling muzak playing in shopping malls worldwide, jabbering about angels singing on high, mummy kissing Santa Claus, and flying reindeer and other unlikely UFOs.
Most places in the world celebrate the Christmas holiday with parties and presents. But fewer and fewer people believe in the Christ in Christmas, the fairy story of the birth of a God-child in an outhouse. So why not accept the reality and enjoy a winter holiday break of feasting and fun, as the pagans did before Christians hijacked the festival?
Hong Kong, "Asia's world city", has shown the rest of the world the way in calling the period from November 23 until New Year's Day "WinterFest". The Tourism Board genuflects towards Christianity without mentioning Christ, claiming that its celebration offers "a unique spin on Christmas festivities". Its bottom-line message is plain - "in keeping with Hong Kong WinterFest tradition, shop, eat, drink and be merry".
We should not be surprised by Hong Kong's strident secular leadership. It is seventh in the world in terms of unbelief, according to international surveys: only 22 per cent of the population say that religion has any part to play in their daily lives. Estonia is in the lead with only 14 per cent for whom religion is important.
Why not be honest, and in this secular age accept that life is for the living and ditch the fairy tales of extraterrestrial powers or a new life beyond the grave? Increasingly, people everywhere are shrugging off the superstition of religion.
Even in the Catholic Church, the central bastion of Christianity, hundreds of thousands of men have left the priesthood. Others have been caught in the terrible scandal and sin of abusing children. Catholic worshippers, especially in the West, have been deserting in droves. How many of the 1.2 billion baptised Catholics are actually regular church-goers? At best, a third, or 400 million.
As if to underline the lack of faith even among the remaining believers, Pope Benedict in his Christmas homily pleaded with Christians to make space for God in their lives. If practising Christians have no room for God, He does not have much future among humanity.
But hold on: is Hong Kong moving too fast and too far? Putting its faith in money is already exacerbating a terrible divide between those who have and those who are squeezed to the margins.
If you want to see the impact of money on a godless society, look across to the mainland, where corruption is rife and the Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, rose to an incredible 0.61 in 2010, according to a respected recent Chinese survey.
The savage irony is that China's miraculous economic growth has undermined what was undoubtedly a highly moral system - communism. Yet the rulers in Beijing are fearful of religion, especially Christianity, perhaps with good reason.
Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the Commonwealth, bravely makes the argument for organised religion, claiming that religion is a great survivor. "Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums," says Sacks. He claims that the great religions offer the moral compass, including altruism, that allows communities to be built and society to survive the destructionist tendencies of the consumer age.
In an article in the Financial Times this month, Pope Benedict wrote that Christians are committed to fight against poverty and work for a more equitable sharing of the earth's resources out of a concern for the "supreme dignity of every human being, created in God's image… The belief in the transcendent destiny of every human being gives urgency to the task of promoting peace and justice for all."
As a cradle Christian, I applaud the pope's vision in the tradition of Isaiah and the other prophets. But, even according to the Christian accounts, the God who came down to Earth as a weak baby as an act of love for humans was rejected and despised by the civil powers. He responded by giving His life, an act of supreme love for humans. No wonder there is little place for Him in WinterFest.
Kevin Rafferty was editor of The Universe, the best-selling Catholic newspaper in English