IT'S A CLICHÉ to talk about the commercialization of the holidays, with tinsel, parties and markdowns stripping the spiritual season of its true meaning.

And while that's true to a point, I can more easily accept the crass over the crèche than stomach the other end of the spectrum: The chic denial that there's any reason to celebrate.

Because even those who are standing in line with last-minute purchases (mentally calculating a Chapter 11 filing in January) acknowledge that Dec. 25 marks a solemn moment in the course of humanity: the birth of Jesus.

If they overdo it on the gift wrapping, at least they understand that the fundamental and most precious gift of all is the one they cannot see.

Sadly, there are others whose narrow and self-centered vision of the world prevents them from rejoicing in that invisible gift, that special grace that comes from the stars, or the Bible, or the transcendent spark that defies explanation, and DNA.

Call them atheists, agnostics or seculars. They quarrel among themselves about terminology, trying to find paper-thin layers of distinction in their godless philosophies. But they are all fundamentally the same, joined by an aversion to religion in particular, and any faith in general.

Christmas is a season they detest because it reflects a joyous celebration of the divine that society, for all of its materialism and flaws, is unwilling to abandon. They hate the fact that so many are willing to give God (or Yahweh, or Allah, or Buddha) the benefit of the doubt.

Lately, they've become very vocal. More disturbing, they seem to have entered the mainstream.

It wasn't always thus. Atheism was usually considered a kooky aberration. With some notable exceptions like Madalyn Murray O'Hair, founder of the American Atheists, most 20th-century unbelievers weren't that aggressive. Most were content to practice their nonfaith in silence, resigned to the fact the vast majority of fellow Americans didn't reject the idea of God. They were able to celebrate some court victories, including one right in our own back yard (Abington v. Schempp, which prohibited sanctioned prayer in public schools). But they were more of an oddity than a social force.

Then they got their mojo, and started to use some new tactics. They became more media-savvy, and

plugged into society's increasing disaffection with organized religion. They started defining religion as inherently discriminatory, disrespectful of women and minorities. They argued that it pandered to the slow-witted, those who supplanted reason and logic with fairy tales.

If you listen to the famous trio of (Christopher) Hitchens, (Sam) Harris and (Richard) Dawkins, who've made a lot of money writing books about how much damage the God "myth" has done to society, you'll hear them painting people of faith as bigots and exploiting some people's disagreement by equating those beliefs with faith in general.

That's dishonest. They ignore the fact that every movement has its radicals, like Torquemada during the Spanish Inquisition and the abolitionist John Brown, while declaring that all of us who believe in a power greater than ourselves have that blood on our hands.

But what these neo-atheists fail to do is acknowledge that carnage and bloodshed are just as likely to occur in regimes in which people of faith are persecuted. In "When Atheism Becomes Religion," Chris Hedges writes: "The victims of the death camps... the tens of millions who died in the Soviet Gulags, or those millions of innocents maimed and killed in Vietnam... and a host of other wars, know the awful truth, 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves . . . .' "

It isn't religion that kills and oppresses, but the human beings who manipulate their idea of faith for selfish purposes. The "Allah" who cheers as men fly planes into buildings and the "God" who smiles on people who kill abortionists exist only in the minds of those who refuse to believe that existence does not end with our last breath.

AND THAT'S why they especially hate Christmas, the quintessential time of hope. As Hedges writes, "The question is not whether God exists. It is whether we contemplate or are utterly indifferent to the transcendent... that which cannot be measured or quantified, that which lies beyond the reach of rational deduction. We all encounter this aspect of existence in love, beauty, alienation, loneliness, suffering, good, evil and the reality of death... religion is our finite, flawed, imperfect expression of the infinite."

And whether found in a manger, or in the recesses of our own hopeful hearts, it is a force more powerful than any skeptic's jeer.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer.