I have been involved with polyamory groups for a few years now, both in Philadelphia and Atlanta. I have met some pretty cool people through these groups, and have had some interesting discussions and learned a lot from people. But one thing I have noticed in the past, and it is true here in Atlanta as well, is that there is a very significant overlap of polyamorous people and Paganism.
Now, the term Pagan is too large to try and define here, so I will not try. But there is also a large segment of the Pagan population that is also into certain things which I, as well as many other skeptics, often refer to as Woo.
What is Woo, you ask? Woo is is chakras, vibrations, and astrology. Woo is metaphysical silliness that uses words like ‘energy’ (but not even close to it’s physics meaning) or even worse ‘energies’. Woo is the New Age, or as some call it, ‘newage’ (rhyming with ‘sewage’). It is a significant part of the new Paganism, while having little or nothing to do with pre-Christian Paganism.
And at the same time it has its own life outside of pagan communities. Some of it lives within liberal Christian communities as well. Some of it lives by itself in psychics, Tarot card readers, and in pseudo-scientific practitioners that use techniques that are proven to not be effective. Charlatans, unconsciously or deceptively, they all are. As far as all of the skeptical inquiry into such matters has so far shown, these beliefs are not justified.
In an age of Twilight, Oprah, and the liberal love of spirituality mixed with pseudoscience, it is sometimes difficult to be a skeptic without sometimes feeling cynical. There are people convinced that vaccines are dangerous, an idea which endangers people. There are people who don’t take their children to doctors, only to pray while they watch them die. And while these ideas are dangerous on a personal and societal level, Woo is downright annoying and insipid.
When people start talking about their energies merging with someone else’s energies, with their chakras opening up, crystal power, or something about their quantum Secret, I wonder how bad our educational system is in terms of preparing people for scientific literacy. I wonder how people can swallow such idiotic crap without even trying to question it skeptically.
One good book that I read recently concerning this subject is Quantum Gods by Victor Stenger. In this book, Stenger talks about such things as What the Bleep do we Know?, The Secret, cosmic consciousness, charlatan-Gurus who filch millions from credulous people, and the vast misunderstanding (and possible intentional deception by people such as Deepak Chopra) of all things ‘quantum.’
Paired with a few chapters about how physics actually works, Stenger shows how such New Age beliefs simply do not hold up to scrutiny. Real physics–science in general–is a beautiful thing that does not need to be made artificially more beautiful by adding in chakras or even prophecies (Celestine or otherwise).
Another great resource is the James Randi Educational Foundation, which offers a million dollars to anyone who can prove the reality or effectiveness of paranormal abilities. So far, nobody has won the money, even though people like Sylvia Brown and Uri Gellar are very aware of Randi and his challenge. The same goes for chakras, energies, and other New Age ideas; none have stood up to any serious scrutiny by the larger skeptic community.
And so as I navigate the world of polyamory, more so than other areas of my life, I find myself confronted with these kinds of New Age ideas. In other aspects of my life I find myself confronted by evangelical Christians, people whom are sometimes chastised by Pagans for their views while the Christians see them as Satanic. Now, the Christians I understand, even if I disagree with them about most things; they were raised in an environment that derives from an ancient book that has cultural grips on them. It is embedded in our culture and becomes part of them at a young age.
But New Age, despite its attempts to claim its ancient origins, is new. Quite frankly, I have studied some of the old Pagan traditions and found them nothing like the new religious movements such as Wicca and other communities which I have observed. And while they tend to be more liberal and open-minded about many social issues, they are muddle-headed about the nature of reality, perhaps more so than many of the fundamentalist Christians I meet.
And what is so frustrating is that because they view themselves as so open-minded, so tolerant, etc, they sometimes take criticism worse than Christians ever do. I have seen Pagans become enraged at hearing tough questions about their beliefs. Perhaps because so much of the New Age worldview encourages emotional openness, many of them are thin-skinned because their beliefs are almost never criticized, especially while they are in ear-shot. They are not as used to the criticism as more well-known beliefs, such as Christianity, might be.
But since I am told that I should keep an open mind about such things (which I do by the way), I will end this little rant with an excellent video by qualiasoup about open-mindedness.
We should keep an open mind, but not so open that our brains fall out.
The reason for the season? If you ask many a Christian this week about what the reason for all of these lights, decorated trees, Mistletoe, gift-giving and merriment is, they will inevitably say that Jesus is the reason for the season. After all, that is what this coming holiday is all about, right? Jesus’ birthday (did you remember to get him a gift?)
But the history of this holiday is much murkier than that. Today, I want to trace some of the influences on how we celebrate Christmas by taking a quick glance of the obvious pagan roots of the holiday while noticing how little it fits in with a conservative image of Christianity (more about that here). Heck, it may not even fit in well with most liberal ones.
Briefly, Christmas is the result of the Church, for hundreds of years, trying to incorporate pagan traditions into their own in order to more easily bring pagans into Christianity. By melding pagan traditions with stories about Jesus Christ, not only did it calm the pagans down by allowing them to keep their traditions, it subsequently created the Christmas we celebrate today, with little of it deriving from the Bible.
The New Testament is all about Jesus. Jesus did this, that, and some other things and some people wrote about them. One of those things was being born (supposedly). And in this being born some people came, bringing gifts, and then years of apparent nothing before he was much older and wiser (and, apparently, he was God)
But when did this happen? The bottom line is that we do not know. What we do know is that it did not happen on the date December 25th (or any corollary date of another calendar), not even likely that time of year. Scholars simply do not know, because the records that we have are not clear about when this event would have happened, if it ever did happen. Most guesses seem to think that the Spring was much more likely, and some dates such as March 28th, May 20th, and even September 11th exist as guesses.
Concerning what year Jesus was born, we are not clear either . The Catholic Church is even clear that the date probably did not happen in the year 1 AD (or the year 0, for that matter). The bottom line is that nobody is sure of what Jesus’ birthday is, let alone how old he is exactly. I guess it really doesn’t matter. The idea is that we set a day aside (sorry, a month aside) to celebrate this event. The important thing is that we have a time of year where we can celebrate good Christian things, right?
Back in Roman days, they had their own festivals. For a week at the end of the year, starting on December 17th, the Empire would start their Saturnalia festivities. During this week, and among other activities, Romans would choose an “enemy of the Roman people,” whom they would feed, pleasure, and generally fatten them up…for the kill. Literally! They would murder them at the end of the festivities as the representation of evil or the “Lord of Misrule.” It was sort of like the old scapegoat idea from the ancient Jews. Now we are starting to see how it connects to Jesus, right?
See, the problem is that when, in the 4th century, the Roman Empire officially accepted and then adopted Christianity as the religion of Rome, not everyone was happy about it. See, in addition to the fattening up and killing of some (probably) innocent person, there was also sexual license (sometimes meaning rape) and other merriment going on that week of Saturnalia which people seemed to like.
Thus, it was decided that in order to keep the (pagan) people happy, Christians were permitted to continue celebrating Saturnalia and to make the last day of the festival, December 25th, as the birthday of Jesus. Never mind that Mithra already had a birthday on that date, and that it looked like Jesus had already stolen a bunch of things from this older pagan god (such as being the mediator between god and man, being the way to obtain immortality, came to save humanity from evil, etc), because Jesus Christ was trendy while Mithra was sooo 6th century BC.
Get with the times, man!
Is the Sun invincible?
Speaking of Mithra….
See, those pagans, with their silly beliefs, had this idea that around the end of December the days suddenly started getting longer. Many stories likened this to the sun dying throughout the year, and for a few days it just seemed to be that the days stopped getting shorter and then, in turn, longer again. This was seen as a cause for celebration that the sun will not die and the next year will come after all. That’s a good thing, according to ancient pagans.
Mithra has many stories associated with him. His association with the sun is well-known, especially by the ancient pagans (who might be around still, since Mithra was supposed to provide immortality as well as save them from evil). So one of the important days for those that followed the Mithraic rituals was December 25th, the dies natalis solis invicti, or ‘the birthday of the invincible sun.’ Due to the existing pagan holiday and the Church’s desire to incorporate pagan people into the Christian world, Jesus’ birthday was associated with this date during the 4th century.
Santa knows if you have been naughty or Nicaea
The 4th century was a pivotal time for the development of Christianity. In 325 CE, after Constantine solidified his control of the Roman Empire at the battle of Milvian Bridge (313 CE), Constantine wanted to make sure that his Empire would have a central and official Church that could be a solidifying force for the people throughout. To do so, he would have to settle the various disputes between the churches. Thus he convened the Council of Nicaea in 325.
Besides voting on which books to include into the canonical Bible, the council created the Nicene Creed, which defined the orthodox teachings about who Jesus was, what happened to him, etc. Up for grabs was whether Jesus was a man, the son of God, or God himself. Athanasius’ view won out over others, such as Arius who was considered a heretic afterward. But we are straying from the point.
One of the senior Bishops who attended this council was the Bishop of Myra, who was born Nicholas of Parara, Turkey (270-346 CE). He was a popular and influential Bishop who had followers for many centuries after his death. In the 11th century his bones, considered holy relics, were moved to Bari, Italy. During this time the relics, as well as Nicholas’ image and persona, was associated with a pagan goddess called Pasqua Epiphania, who was known for leaving gifts in children’s stockings according to legend.
Eventually, people would start to give gifts to each other on January 6th, which was the date of Nicholas’ death. This tradition spread to the Germanic and Celtic people later, who further associated the image of Bishop Nicholas with their god Wodon (where we get the word ‘Wednesday’). Wodon had a long white beard and rode a horse through the heavens in autumn, according to the mythology.
Eventually the Catholic Church, in its continued attempts to integrate pagans into the Church, adopted the Nicholas cult into official Catholic tradition. They changed the date of the traditions of gift-giving and so forth to December 25th to coincide with the changed accepted date of Jesus’ birth.
During the 19th century Nicholas became Saint Nicholas. The imagery of the god Wodon with Saint Nick had already taken root throughout much of Europe. But in 1809, with Washington Irving’s Knicherbocker History, we see (satirically) a reference to this image of Saint Nicholas as the Wodon-like, flying-horse riding, white-bearded man who was referred to as Santa Claus, which was the Dutch name of this derived image.
In 1822, Dr. Clement Moore wrote a poem, partially based upon Irving’s book, called A visit from St. Nicholas which goes something like this:
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
It was here that we see the image of Santa Clause appear, with his blending of images from Wodon, Pasqua Epiphania, and other images such as the replacement of Wodon’s horse with eight flying reindeer. This is a poem we still listen to this time of year, but very few of us know where the images come from.
Later, with the drawings of Thomas Nast, who invented the ideas of elves, the North Pole, and his list of naughty and nice children, the image comes closer to our own. It was not until 1931, when Coca Cola developed the red suit (to match their red labels), that the Santa we know today come to be.
The evolution from influential Bishop to red-suited jolly man with elves came over 1500 years. And it was the efforts of the secular marketing industry that sealed it for us. Thus, the images of Santa, the central image of Christmas today in many ways, is entirely based upon mixed pagan folklore and consumerist imagery.
Jews and Christmas
Jews did not start celebrating Hanukkah as a major holiday until relatively recently. This was probably due, at least in part, to the fact that they had no Christmas to celebrate and wanted a party of their own. And they beat out the Roman’s week long celebration of Saturnalia by upping the ante to eight days. Competitive and innovative, the Jewish people can be quite often.
But Christmas has not always been a time for Jews to have a nice day off to do whatever they do on December 25th now. In the past, Jews were often harassed, humiliated, their property destroyed, and in some cases they were even killed.
In 1466, Pope Paul II made the Jews run naked through the town. In the 18th and 19th centuries many forms of anti-Jewish sentiment prevailed. In 1881 in Warsaw, Poland 12 Jews were killed, many more maimed, and property destroyed. Christmas was a time for fear throughout much of Europe for Jews. Anti-Jewishness runs deep in Christian history, and a lot of it was expressed during Christmas time.
In a post-NAZI era, we often forget that the hate of Jews was rampant in the Christian world. We forget that ghettos, stereotypes, and false ideas about Jews killing and eating Christian babies were common. And with heightened emotions, pressures, and so forth that still exist around this time of year someone had to be blamed. It was often the Jews who felt the brunt of that.
So, what about the Trees and such?
Decorating trees was also a part of pagan tradition. The Ashiera cult was known for decorating, painting, and otherwise displaying trees as part of their worship. This was even known to that ancient prophet Jeremiah, who wrote thus about it:
10:1 Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:
10:2 Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
10:3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
10:4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.
10:5 They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.
But in a further attempt to placate the Germanic pagans, this tradition was largely adopted by Christians and has become part of our celebrations. Some Christians are aware of the verses from Jeremiah quoted above, but most either don’t care or claim that Jeremiah is not actually talking about Christmas trees. Well, technically he wasn’t, but he was talking about a similar pagan tradition that did ultimately inspire Christmas trees. A few Christians don’t put up Christmas trees for this reason.
Some Christians, due to the pagan influenced nature of the holiday, don’t celebrate Christmas at all. In Massachusetts, from 1659-1681 for example, Christmas was banned by the Puritans. So much for the traditional American holiday being part of what America is all about. I guess the Puritans didn’t know anything about traditional America. Of course many Christians celebrated anyway, despite Puritanical views. Thus, our traditional holiday is still strong.
So, the next time you are under some Mistletoe, (derived from the pagan story of Baldar, who was killed by Hoder with a Mistletoe arrow while fighting over some apparently hot chick named Nanna), remember that we kiss under it because of the sexual license of the old Roman Saturnalia. But, remember also that Mistletoe was a sacrificial poison used by Druids in order to perform human sacrifices. I know that makes me want to do some kissing!
It’s just a fun tradition!
I know. I get that it is no longer about these old pagan traditions, at least not for most people. I also know that for most people it is not about Jesus. This should make sense since it’s association with Jesus is shaky anyway.
I know people like pretty trees, lights (not to mention Yule logs), and good food with people they love. All of this is great, and I would not ask anyone to stop celebrating. I love to celebrate. My personal view is that there is little of meaning in the holiday itself that I want to be a part of. I am all about getting together, eating good food, etc., and so I like the parties and gatherings that happen this time of year.
But I don’t say “merry Christmas” because it is not the holiday I am celebrating but rather life in general. It is not the day that makes me want to do these things, it is just my nature that does.
Nor do I write “X-mas.” The reason is that the “X” is not supposed to take Christ out and make it secular. The “X” is one of the oldest symbols of Christ. The ancient Christians would write the “X”, which is how the Greeks wrote the letter “chi” which Christ starts with in Greek, to symbolize their Christianity. The common symbol of Jesus from early on, which is still used, is the Chi-Rho symbol, which is an expansion of the simple “X” first used.
Thus X-mas is not an atheist or generally secular creation to get Christ out of Christmas. It is a reference to an ancient Christian symbol, and is thus more likely to take the pagan Santa out of Christmas. But either way, Pagan or Christian, Christmas does not suit me. I prefer not to participate in the rituals and so forth. You do what you like, and enjoy however you do it.
I know, I’m not a pagan, but I do sort of like the idea of celebrating astronomically-inspired holidays. They are so much more preferable to those holidays that copied off of the pagan ones. You now, like Christmas.
So, what do atheists do on December 25th? Well, that all depends. Many, probably most, celebrate Christmas with their families. Christmas has become, after all, a secular holiday here in the United States, so why shouldn’t they if that’s what they enjoy?
Some do the old Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food, catch a movie, or just relax with a day off. I have done this myself with some Jewish friends in the past.
Some atheists work on this day so that their Christian co-workers can have the day off. That’s nice of them. Plus they might get paid extra for working on a holiday. Bonus!
So, what do I do? Well, I have traditionally spent Christmas with my family, but I have never really liked the holiday that much. I am not a fan of the consumerism, awkward family gatherings, and I am certainly not Christian. I’m not even convinced that Jesus was a historical figure, let alone believing the mythology about his birth.
So Christmas is not a big deal for me, and I stopped celebrating some years back. I insisted that people don’t give me gifts either, because I felt hypocritical taking gifts on a holiday that I didn’t want to celebrate. My parents still do get me something, but to a lesser extent than they did when I was younger.
But this year, I will be participating in something new. My girlfriend and I will be be going to my friend Brian Sapient‘s house to celebrate the annual ChristMyAss festivities. Yes, that’s right folks, that’s Sapient of the Rational Response Squad.
Since I moved out of the Philadelphia area, I have not been able to see Brian or many others from my home town, but come the holidays I will be back in Philly. And while I am there, I’ll be live on webcam (no, not that kind of live on webcam, pervs…) for your viewing and listening pleasure.
Stop by early for some chat, music, and introductions, and stay later for the same. Brian, Seana, and I will be on from 6-9, then we will commit ourselves to a few drinks and hanging out. I wonder if bars will be open in his area. It will be Friday night….
I hope to see you there. What else do you have to do on a Friday evening in late December?
The Golden Rule, with its various incarnations, permeates religious thought. And while it can be formulated in many ways, the most common way to express it essentially states that you should treat others as you would want to be treated. It emits an attempt at fairness in action, making sure that one does not make a double-standard by making exceptions for yourself that you don’t allow for others.
Fair enough. And while I think that the Golden Rule is best said when it attempts to treat others as they wish to be treated, due to the fact that what I want is not necessarily what others want, I think that this is often problematic because we do not know what others want. We could ask what people want, I suppose, but the practical application of this is insurmountable on a societal scale.
I think that the general idea is to act such that those actions create a world that is consistent with our desires, while keeping in mind the desires of others and their ideal worlds. Thus, as a general rule, to act in such a way that would be consistent with a desired world which is created by those types of actions is a good place to start. Figuring out an ideal world that we can all agree on is probably the biggest problem.
And so what do we, the new atheists, do? (And yes, I still dislike the term). Our criticisms are not always appreciated by other people, especially strongly religious ones. We try to speak out in order to be able to gain acceptance in culture, to stop theocratic intrusions into government policies, and to make sure that theology stays away from science so that we can continue the process of understanding unimpeded by silly mythology (i.e. creationism) and other superstitions.
But are new atheists following the Golden Rule? Should we follow the Golden Rule? Are faitheists and other critics of the new atheists following the Golden Rule?
Skepticism and Atheism
Not all atheists are skeptics, nor are all skeptics atheists. I agree with people such as Matt Dillahunty, that to be a skeptic should lead a person to be an atheist. Why? Because I don’t think there is any evidence to believe in any gods, and without evidence in such things, one has no cause for a belief in any gods. Thus to be skeptical concerning the question of gods, without sufficient evidence to believe in them, must lead to atheism as the only reasonable conclusion. As soon as there is evidence, then a skeptic has to address that evidence. But there is no good evidence that I know of, and I have been looking.
Skeptics, at least “real skeptics” (I’m being playful, not trying to drag in a “true Scotsman”), encourage criticism of all kinds of beliefs. Skeptics are all about the evidence, use of rationality to address that evidence, and accepting as true what the evidence points to.
As an implication of this, I think that skepticism would desire a world where open debate, conversation, and challenges to beliefs would be encouraged. A world where all of the data is explored, all sacred cows inspected, and people are encouraged to have a real desire to know what is true and not just what is preferable or easy. This is antithetical to faith, by definition, and is what the current public atheism is all about, at least concerning the questions of religion, gods, and faith. The criticisms of religion are ancient, in many cases. These ideas being promulgated is what is new, and religious people are not used to hearing these ideas.
Another, hopefully obvious, implication of being a skeptic is that a person should be open to have their own beliefs challenged. Thus, when the superlatively respected skeptic James Randi wrote this piece the other day about Global Warming, he was appropriately challenged by various people in the skeptical and atheist community. And while his point may be valid (or not), he is willing to accept the criticism and respond to them, rather than claim persecution as many Christians often do when criticized in the same way. I would think that Randi encourages the challenges in general, even if he may not have liked some of them specifically (As his follow-up seems to imply). The bottom line is that when skeptics make claims, hold beliefs, or sign on to something, they should be willing to accept criticism when it comes their way.
These implications are an essential part of a skeptical worldview. It is how we want to live, the kind of world we want to live in, and how we think one should act with other people.
Therefore, when the new atheists, insofar as they are also skeptics (and many of the leading atheist speakers and writers at least attempt skepticism), offer public criticism of religion, faith, etc, they are following the rule of treating others as they want to be treated. They are acting in such a way that is consistent with creating a desired world that the actions they make will create.
I want a world where people’s beliefs are challenged when such criticism is warranted. I want a world that is not simply based upon faith, but rather evidence, reason, and an attitude of curiosity. I want to help create an environment where skeptical inquiry is supported by people rather than blind (or at least partially obscured) faith. And I know that many of my fellow atheists share this desire, and so we are simply following what we think the right thing to do is, according to the very “Golden” rule that religions share.
So, if there is a problem with the actions of atheists these days, then the problem is with the rule itself, not with our actions.
But wait, didn’t I say that I liked the other formulation of the Golden Rule better?
I said, above, that I prefer the idea that one should treat others as they want to be treated, and not merely as how I want to be treated myself. I said that the issue was that I didn’t know how others wanted to be treated all of the time, creating a practical problem with implementing the idea, not a problem with the idea itself. I also stated that this will lead to inevitable conflicts of opinion about what kind of world we want to live in.
We know that many religious people tell atheists that they do not want us speaking out. They don’t want our billboards, our books, or in many cases they don’t even want us (to exist). Now, if they are willing to lay down their arms, then they might have a point. And many religious groups do not proselytize, advertise, or otherwise bother the public. But the simple fact is that religion is part of pur culture and public life, and so to demand that atheists keep quiet is a double standard, violating the very essence of the Golden Rule itself. We have as much of a right to speak publicly about our lack of beliefs (as well as whatever actual beliefs we hold in addition to that lack) as theists do. It does not even matter if the United States were a Christian nation (which it is not), because that would not take away our freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of opinion.
To simply capitulate to some religious people’s desires to not have us vocal, they further create a double standard when they don’t treat us as we want to be treated; to be allowed to speak publicly if we want to. The result is the collapse of the rule. They want to be left alone by us, we want to have a dialogue in the public square where they are, and both cannot be attained. Some compromise must be reached.
Atheists do not, and should not, disrupt private worship. Atheists do not, and should not, take god away from people’s lives, mostly because we could not possibly do so anyway. And despite the mythology by many in the religious community, we are not taking their god out of the public square or schools. We are only arguing and working towards government neutrality concerning religious ideas. The government should be secular (which is not the same as atheistic). Do what you want privately, just don’t expect the government or it employees to condone or lead those activities.
Religious groups should not tell atheists that they cannot advertise on billboards. They have a right to be offended. They should not claim that their faith is beyond criticism out of some misplaced desire for respect. They have to keep in mind that if they do bring their beliefs to the public square, they have to accept the criticism along with the conversions. If they want to recruit new members, they have to accept that potential new members might offer that very criticism. And if they want to write books, then they have to accept that we will write books as well.
And, of course, most do except these rules, even if they do so unhappily. That’s fine, because here we have the right to pursue happiness, not necessarily to be happy.
What I find fascinating is the idea that this criticism is itself is bad. The idea that we should not criticize is worthy of criticism itself; why is criticism bad? Isn’t the idea that criticism is bad a kind of criticism? What if I am offended by that opinion? What if my strong belief is that criticism is good, and the accomodationist or faitheist critic of my criticism is violating my rights and tastes? Perhaps they should shut up. No, I don’t believe that. They should, I think, re-examine their assumptions and reasoning, however.
I am doing unto others what I would want done unto me. The believers who want us to shut up are just protecting their beliefs from scrutiny. Those faitheists who say I should not criticize are not following this Golden Rule, violating it because they don’t want their own beliefs, the idea that people should not criticize certain things, to be criticized . They might see some hurt feelings if we keep this up while making them look bad, while hiding beneath our shadow, to the rest of our culture.
No. They are doing a good job of looking bad without our help.
New atheists. That is what we are called by some. I find the label somewhat misguided, but I understand why it is applied.
Many people are not used to hearing about atheism, challenges to faith, etc. It is new to them. They may know atheists, and likely do not know that those people are atheists, but they may know that they don’t attend a church or participate in any faith. Many people, atheists included (but don’t call them that!) prefer a reverential approach to their believing neighbors. They don’t bring it up because they don’t really care or they find it distasteful.
And so when they see us, the “new atheists,”TM they view our criticism and challenges as overly aggressive in our tone and approach. They view these aggressive tactics as hurting our cause in society by pushing people away rather than trying to be their friends. I don’t see evidence for this harm. I see theists becoming defensive because they are not used to the criticism. I see their coddled status being taken away, and they don’t like it.
Why shouldn’t we be critical? Religion does cause harm. Faith, belief without or in spite of evidence to the contrary, is largely responsible for the anti-intellectual and anti-scientific fervor that exists in various cultures, particularly our own American culture.
But those faitheists and accomodationists will continue to claim that religion is good in many ways and that we are being too harsh in denouncing religion wholesale. I agree. I think that there are aspects of religion and religious culture that are good. Religion can be good; it helps people in need, supplies hope, and it provides a basis for teaching morality. Or at least one kind of morality or another.
Yes, religion can do these things, but I see no reason why only religion of faith can do these things. A religion of faith? Why add that qualifier, you may ask. Well, first of all not all religious people necessarily have faith, depending on your definition of faith. Further, not all people that have faith necessarily have a religion. Religion is…well, religion is complicated. I will not try to define this term here, but I want to address it in a tangential way.
The Religious Instinct
There are sets of emotions, behaviors, and dispositions that tend towards ‘religious’ behavior. It can include rituals, music, states of mind, etc. But this is an expression of a more general psychological disposition that we all, or at least the vast majority of us, share. It is expressed through music, poetry, the fine arts, and perhaps even philosophy. It is an expression of those experiences internal to each of us that feels like it is coming from somewhere…else.
It is sublime, beautiful, and it has its own subtle rules and constraints that we can apprehend in rarer states of mind. When one is enthralled in an ecstatic moment, there is a kind of flowing of emotion, meaning, and beauty that seems to transcend us. It doesn’t actually transcend us, but it gives the sensation of transcendence.
As a writer, I know this well. There are time when, in writing, I find myself almost transported and feel as if the words are coming through me, as if I were but a conduit for some ideas. I understand the concept of inspiration. I know why people think that God works through them because I feel that experience myself.
So, why am I an atheist then?
Well, because when I’m in that state of mind, I’m being creative. I’m using natural tools of my brain to create, understand, and communicate. I am not being methodical, careful, nor remotely scientific. That is, I am not concerned with what is true in these moments, even if at some of these moments I may get the delusional idea that there is more truth there than in cold, rational, analysis.
Beauty is truth, and truth beauty?
There is a sense where the moments of beauty and poetry that overcome me seem to reveal a kind of truth. It feels as if the universe has opened up to me and given me a slice of something that my rational mind was unable to find. And sometimes, upon further reflection, I find that it may have found a bit of truth before unseen. But that is the important part of that; upon further reflection.
Because how many times have ideas or thoughts from inspiration turned out to be duds? Most of the time, some if the time? Always? I suppose it depends. But it is upon sober, rational reflection that we will find whether or not the moment of inspiration has given us gold. The reason is that there is a difference in approach. The moments of beauty, sublimity, and transcendence are the result of our brain doing what it does, not as it can be trained to do.
And I’m glad that this part of our minds exist because it is from these ecstasies and sublimities that we create. Not discover, elucidate, or comprehend, but create.
The aspects of our minds that find revelation, communicate with the spirits, or attain a slice of heaven are the same parts that write novels, create sculpture, and write poetry. In this mode of thought there is a freedom of form, expression, and a lack of criticism. Yes, that’s it; a lack of criticism!
Not that we can’t look at two creations and judge one or the other more or less beautiful (or at least argue about why we think one is more beautiful), but that one looked on its own not criticized in relation to the world, generally. It is not pointed at and said that the thing does not appear to be like anything else that is real. A sculpture of a dragon is not looked at and scolded for not representing a real animal. A poet is not criticized for not representing a real conversation or speech. A theologian is not criticized for not representing the universe as it really is. That’s not the point, right?
Well, if you talk to Karen Armstrong, you may get such a response. But the fact is that theologians, most of them anyway, do claim that they are describing reality. They are not merely creating, they claim. They are talking about not only truth, but Truth.
But where do these truths come from? Revelation, communion with a deity, book (which ultimately go back to revelation or some claimed historical event), etc. They come from the mind, and many of them from ancient minds not trained in the meticulous rational skills which would be necessary to analyze these experiences.
When theologians tackle these issues, whether today or the ancient theologians that dealt with these religious beliefs, they only apply rational thinking to keep the stories internally consistent while forgetting that the person who first experienced the idea was as fallible as you or I in determining truth from these internal experiences of ecstacy and transcendence.
If we want to discover what is real, we need to be meticulous. We need to check assumptions, use empirical methods, and try to devise a way to prove our idea wrong. And so long as we cannot prove it wrong and the evidence supports the idea, then we provisionally hold our hypothesis as true. The longer it withstands scrutiny, the more it becomes a theory. Not just some guess or inspiration, but an idea that stands up against attempts to knock it down. In other words, we need to use the scientific method.
Does this sound like what poets do? How about novelists? How about theologians? ‘Well, of course not,’ they will say. ‘These things are not subject to empirical study.’ Really? Why not? ‘Well, it takes away from the beauty; science cannot explain beauty.’
Perhaps not. Or perhaps it can. That is not what is at issue. What is at issue is that our minds are capable of different kinds of thought. Some of our mental capabilities provide for us this ‘religious instinct’ that we are all familiar with to some extent. But this instinct is part of our creativity, and is only tangentially helpful in a pursuit of truth. Our creative powers may, occasionally, provide us with insights into a new way of thinking about a problem, but once we have the idea we must switch to using our learned critical skills on to test the idea. We cannot just dream and create answers to real world problems, we have to criticize them.
Our creative powers which provide us with the transcendent experiences, sublime emotions, and inspiring ideas are a great tool for the creative process, but not for attaining truth. If we want to know what is real, we need to be critical, meticulous. and scientific.
Religion claims to have truth; it claims it knows something about what is real. By being critical of those claims and the methods by which those claims are attained, atheists (‘new’ or not) are not being disrespectful. Anyone who claims to have the truth and who subsequently calls criticism of their methods or conclusions disrespectful is either insecure about their position or does not understand how to think critically.
In many cases, it is both.
So yes, the parts of our mind that religion uses; the creative, transcendent, and sublime aspects of us that supply us with beauty, love, and all of those wonderful things are great. So, if that is all that religion is, then there is not much of an argument. That is, if the vague and meaningless God of theologians like Karen Armstrong is all that religion provides–a thing that need not even exist to be important–then religion is simply a nice story with which I can have little quarrel.
But if religion also deals with what is true, at least in the same use of ‘true’ as we mean when we say something is real, then criticism is warranted. I may find many aspects of religious practices to be beautiful, but I don’t think they are true. And that is what is at issue. If those artistic expressions that come from creative people–mythology, morality stories, and the like–are not intended to be literally true, then they are just stories we can enjoy on their own merit. But this is not the case. Christianity, Islam, etc are believed to be actually true and real, not just stories.
Anything that is proposed as the truth in society of culture is open for criticism. To actually step forward and do so is the responsibility of a citizen who cares about the truth, reality, etc. To postulate a story about the universe as true and then remove it from the realm of critical analysis, or to not at least try to validate it oneself while having faith in it is not strength nor reverent behavior, but weakness.
Allowing ourselves to be swallowed up by stories birthed in the ecstatic moments of artistic creativity and then to claim it to be true is not clear thinking. We need to train ourselves to be better thinkers and to accept criticism or to get used to feeling disrespected.
Respect is not warranted when art is presented as truth. The truth, as the Vorlons say, points to itself. It does not need us to create it.
Over the last few years I have noticed, every time Thanksgiving comes around, this issue arise. It arises in different places, with slightly different issues, but it arises nonetheless. For those of you that don’t know what I’m talking about, allow me to induct you into some crazy:
Now, I do not wish to hold up Bill O’Reilly as the standard here, but this is a fight he picks and he speaks for a fair amount of people. O’Reilly and others on that side (pdf) of this issue seem to think that those of us on the other side want to take away people’s holidays. Why would we want to do that?
Let’s use a couple of recent examples.
In West Chester, PA, there is some trouble getting a “Tree of Knowledge” erected next to the courthouse. They city could not legally prevent the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia from putting it up, so they had to capitulate, although reluctantly. Thank the FSM for the law forcing people to be fair. We’ll see what happens next, as the last I heard a creche was put in the only spot the tree easily fit. Updates to come….
In Chambersburg PA, right in the center of town, is a little public space. Carl Silverman, a man I have met several times, is a member of PA Nonbelievers (PAN), an organization I have worked with several times, but am not a member of myself. Chambersburg seems to understand that if they can allow something like a Christmas decoration–say a creche–to be displayed on public ground then another group can put up a display of their own. There are a bunch of details (and if you wan them you can find them here, here, and here (don’t forget the comments from those loving Christians on that last one). The bottom line is that the city didn’t just reject the display from PAN, knowing that would be egregiously illegal (it is good that they were aware enough for that), but instead said that no display from anyone would be allowed. Whether PAN will sue due to viewpoint discrimination or not is to be seen.
But I don’t want to dig into these particular issues any more, while I did want to mention then because they are timely and relevant. What I wish to explore is the issue itself in the larger view. Why are Christians so touchy about other displays going up (and not all are, certainly), and why do other people wish to put up their other displays when it is Christmas time?
Well, that’s it right there; it is not Christmas time. As I write this, it is barely December, let alone December 25th. And during the next several weeks we will see many holidays. There will be that Jewish one, that one based upon African traditions, and then there is that one on the 25th, you know, Mithras’ birthday. Oh, right, Jesus’ birthday too (although even Christians should know that it is likely not his real birthday, if he ever had one). I get Jesus and Mithra mixed up all the time.
So, this is not the Christmas season, then; at least not wholly. It is the end of the Fall season (here above the equator anyway), and it is a time when, symbolically, the world dies and, for a few days, there is a transition from the days getting shorter to the days getting longer. That is, the return of light into the world, the coming of the Son (I meant to type the ‘sun’, of course) into the world, which has been celebrated by many cultures for millennia as a time of year of transition with the various mythologies that accompany the seasonal changes. Christianity is no different.
This time of year is for mythologies of the returning light into the world, and thus a good time of year to have holidays, celebrations, and so forth to keep up our spirits (or a time to find ways to increase the appropriate hormones and neurotransmitters to make us feel happy) in the colder and darker time of year. For this primarily Christian culture (notice how I didn’t say ‘nation’?) it would then be expected that part of our traditional practice would be to do things like put up nativity scenes, Santas, or Christmas trees, despite what Jeremiah says:
10:1 Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:
10:2 Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
10:3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
10:4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.
Now, whether or not this is actually saying to not have decorated trees to celebrate Christmas is open to interpretation, especially since Jeremiah wrote before Jesus was ever thought up and thus before O’Reilly and his cohorts started their ramblings. Personally, I don’t care if that is what the character “God” is saying in the Bible or not, because I don’t think he is a real thing. But if Christians are trying to be consistent…
The bottom line here is that I understand why the tradition became to emphasize (to the point of exclusivity, it seems) Christmas during the time between Thanksgiving and New Years in the United States. The cultural tradition of the United States has been predominantly Christian, and this religious identification has informed the secular traditions as time marched on. The image of Santa Clause, derived from an historical character from Christianity, eventually became a secular symbol of gift-giving and all of that. That is, it’s derived from Christian traditions and became something secular. Just like this season as a whole.
But in the meantime, with the influx of Jews, neo-Pagans, etc as well as the increase in secular communities, Christians-in-name-only, and even atheists, the culture became more diverse than it’s origin. As a result this time of year includes holidays for many people of various faiths and even celebrations for people with non at all (such as Human Light). It has become a time of year that includes multitudes of attitudes, a variety of piety, and a party of parties.
So, when people started saying “happy holidays” rather than “merry Christmas,” it was a natural progression of culture. It does not make sense to say “merry Christmas” to someone, especially if you don’t know them, because you don’t know what holiday they celebrate (or if they celebrate any at all). It is not a means of removing Christmas, but a courtesy in a culture that recognizes that Christmas is not the only game in town. Bill O’Reilly says that saying “happy holidays” is offensive, while he’s missing the point that saying “merry Christmas” to some people is offensive. He just does not get it.
Christmas is the reason for the season, but only in a very narrow and historical way, a way that already is colored in secular images even before the other religious traditions stepped in. This ‘Christian’ culture is what is dominantly responsible for how Americans celebrate during this time of year. But most of the season is pure consumerism (and the economy says thankya) and belongs to snowmen, Santa, and some reindeer. I guess they were Jesus’ pets of something.
Those who wish to celebrate Christmas in their personal and religious manner, can. I nor any other defender of the wall of separation between church and state (which, while not in the Constitution is implied in the Bill of Rights, and even if it were not it is still a fair and wise idea for both religious and non-religious) will take away your ability to worship or celebrate as you wish. All we ask is that when you bring your celebration into the public squares of our towns, you either allow others to join in or step back respectfully.
So Christians, nominal or not, this is not your time of year. You can have it along with all of us, but you cannot own it. You do not get special privileges simply because you are the majority. You cannot say that we are taking away anything from you while you are, in the same breath, taking something away from others. You cannot demand to put up your creche while demanding that atheists, Pagans, etc take away their displays. There will be no double standard here, if you wish to be fair.
And if you do not wish to be fair because you believe that it is your season and that your holiday is more special because it is the truth, well then you are an imbecile. You are allowed your idiocy, but you are not allowed to demand that it is simply accepted in the public realm.
This is not your country nor your time of year. Space and time belong to all of us, so carve out yours and practice as you wish. But when you come out of your homes, churches, etc and demand that the space we cohabit follows your rules, you are overstepping your boundaries as if you were to tell other people how to dress (like many Muslims do to women). The false idea of the United States being a Christian nation is being stretched into a view that this time of the year is a Christian time of year.
It is not.
A war on Christmas is not a war, it is a public admittance that Christianity is not the only game in town. And some people don’t like this particular competition. They have grown up with emotional ties to the images of Santa, Jesus, and trees decorated with lights and other things. They are comfortable with that images which are with them from childhood.
Putting up something different, especially if it is derived from people who may not even be Christian, is scary because is disrupts the tradition and interrupts their obliviousness to the harshness of the world for many people They wish to bury their head in the sands of tradition, and when reality pulls it out, they look like reindeer-in-headlights as they try to adjust to the fact that their illusion of cultural exclusivity of this space and time is just that; an illusion. And they don’t like it. It feels like their joy, their childhood, and their identity is being taken away. When in reality space and time for other views is simply being made along side theirs.
What they do not understand is that this new display is meaningful to other people, and that their creche and their tree may be disliked by others in the same way that they new sign may bother them. And because we, the non-Christians, are the minority we have just gotten used to shutting up about it and just dealing with it. You, spoiled and rotten traditionalists that you are, have had your way all this time and have not had to deal with seeing things you disagree with in your town and so now you whine.
Grow up. You can’t have it all your way.
Our culture has changed and your old myth about the Christian nation and Christian time of year is dying. You are like children that, for the first time, are beginning to realize that you can’t have everything you want. You are beginning to realize that your demands and tantrums will not be heeded to by strangers on the street. You have left the comforting home of believing the world is yours, and are realizing that your traditionalist and conservative worldview are in a public square with others, and that you are only whining for the competition to go away so you can have what you are used to.
Well, guess what; I’m used to something else, she’s used to something even different, and that other guys thinks that all of us are crazy. Tradition is relative, my friend. Yours is not special any longer. Now share the world or go home to mommy and daddy (or to your church) where you don’t have to share, and live in your imaginary world of Christian dominance of space and time.