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Arthur Cockfield is a professor at Queen's University Faculty of Law

As an atheist, I have to admit that I have not always had a stellar relationship with Jesus. Still, as much of the world sets to celebrate his alleged birth on Dec. 25, I will also reflect on this icon and the lasting and positive impression he's had on my heritage and value system.

I understand this is heresy. In the faith of New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, the very thought of giving Jesus his due is a sacrilege deserving ridicule and rejection. It would be seen as a thought crime worthy of excommunication from the community of atheists (assuming there even is such a community).

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But if nothing else, atheism is a belief predicated on rational thought. Rationally, as a "secular Christian," I see much to celebrate about the birth of the Lord of Lords. Christ's life stands as a template for acceptance, tolerance and generosity.

In particular, the many acts attributed to Christ during his lifetime continue to serve as a powerful guide to tolerance and decency. How he touched and healed lepers – individuals who were widely viewed at the time as being cursed by God. How he showed compassion for other outcasts and sinners such as prostitutes.

As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, Christianity mandates that we must love our neighbour as we love ourselves. He noted that this is one of the great secrets of the Bible: If one acts as if he or she loves others, then one in fact will come to love them.

Indeed, I like to think there was a historical Jesus; that a real-life rabbi wandered out to the desert, returned with a radical vision for his brothers and sisters and performed great acts of charity and self-sacrifice. I believe that he was real, if not divine. Whatever the reality, the Christian narrative of redemption and grace continues to resonate throughout much of Western culture.

This influence flows from the teachings of Christ that ultimately inspired 17th-century European intellectuals to provide the moral foundation for the political philosophy of liberalism. These thinkers based their views on the "natural" rights bestowed by a Christian God. Contemporary views on the need for the rule of law, democracy and human rights are mainly a secular reconstruction of these older views.

Consider the writings of John Locke, who argued that, because God created us all equal, we each enjoy the right to our own personhoods and that only through democracy – the consent of the governed – can this right be protected. Locke and other Christian thinkers promoted a revolutionary political doctrine: It is the moral duty of every Christian to rebel against any ruler who would deny these God-given rights. Modern atheists and others ultimately benefited from liberalism and the freedoms afforded them by a secular humanist society, including the right to observe (or not) any religious practices they wish.

This holiday season I will rejoice in the birth of an iconic figure – not just because of the beauty and joy he brings to my Christian neighbours, but because of the sense of fairness and decency he brings to our world. True believers owe Jesus a profound spiritual debt; we all owe him an intellectual debt. I suspect that's a sentiment Jesus and I could agree on – whether the mythic stories surrounding His birth are true or not.

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