Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time. - Marcellus, Hamlet, Act I, scene 1
For those of you who struggle with Shakespeare, what Marcellus, one of Elsinore's castle guards, is saying is that the Christmas season is so holy that evil has no power during that time.
Of course, since I'm an atheist, I absolutely hate this part of the play. Anything that mentions Jesus or praises him is something that I instantly detest. If I sneeze and people say, "God bless you!" I tell them to go screw themselves and take their savior-on-a-stick and shove it. I also refer to Thursday as "Day 5", because I don't want to acknowledge Thor, the God of Thunder. (Thankfully, Heimdall doesn't have a day named after him, because he really sucks.)
All right, the above paragraph is totally ridiculous (except for the Heimdall thing). In all honesty, that particular passage in Hamlet is one of my favorites. And even though I think that Jack Lemmon tends to stand out like a sore thumb in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, I love the way he delivers that particular line. It really doesn't have much to do with the story, and most versions would no doubt cut it out. However, it's just a beautiful little piece of poetry that works just fine on its own.
The truth is, I happen to like a lot of religious expressions. I love the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus' advice to not worry about tomorrow, as tomorrow will have its own things to worry about, is something that I really take to heart as I tend to be a worrier. Aside from that, I have a lot of religious music that I care for a great deal. Some of them include U2's "In God's Country", Al Green's "God is Standing By" and "That's Enough" by Johnny Cash. (That's one where he sings that he's got Jesus, and "that's enough" for him.) There are also some instrumental pieces that have been inspired by religion that I like. While I'm not well-versed enough with classical music, there's no doubt that some of the pieces that I like are religiously-inspired. I do know though that John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" is a testament to his faith in God.
The bottom line is that to truly appreciate these things, you have to understand the feelings of faith behind them. Now, I realize that there might be some people who would read this and think to themselves, "Ah ha! This is no doubt proof that deep down inside, he really DOES believe!" Well, whether I believe in God or not has little to do with whether He exists or not, but I don't think that I need to share the faith of these artists in order to appreciate what they have done. After all, while I don't believe that any gods are real, I do believe that the feelings that inspire religious faith are definitely very real. And that's something that while I don't share, I do understand. These artists have all had a sense of the sublime. For them, that sense comes from their belief in a god. For me, that sense comes from elsewhere (see my 12/30/08 entry for more on that).
I should also point out that in order to appreciate The Iliad and The Odyssey, you have to have an appreciation for how Ancient Greeks viewed their gods. And to appreciate Siddhartha, you need to have a feeling for Buddhism.