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Tree of Knowledge Event December 1st in West Chester, PA, with some historical context. November 15, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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It’s beginning to look a lot like…Discrimination?

Margaret Downey helping to decorate the Tree of Knowledge in 2008

Over the least few years, the Freethought Society, led by Margaret Downey, has been involved in an effort to include atheists, humanists, and other secular people in the public holiday display area of the West Chester courthouse.  It is this very courthouse that, in early 2002, I first met Margaret Downey during the court case of whether the 10 Commandment plaque  would remain displayed there.  It still remains in place, due to it being historical since it was on the wall for 80 years.  In other words, nobody complained for many years and so it became a part of the building’s history.  What I learned from this was to complain more about violations of the church/state separation, so that this squirmy legal reasoning cannot become valid.

Starting in 2007, The Freethought Society has tried to maintain seasonal inclusion by participating in the placing of holiday displays on the court grounds, and for some years we were allowed to participate in the mostly conservative county.   The tree’s lights were vandalized a few times that first year, but it ultimately remained and the new tradition was continued the next couple of years.  In 2009, some interviews sprung up about the event, which include some video about how the tree was decorated and a little more about the history of the idea.

2010 Human Tree of Knowledge

But then in 2010, the Commissioners rejected the request to be included in the displays, and so Margaret got to work on an alternative plan; a human Tree of Knowledge, which doubled as a protest and momentary display.  The same thing happened in 2011, and now in 2012 we are left in the same situation.  The Commissioners still refuse to allow a Tree of Knowledge on the courthouse grounds, while still including the traditional Christmas and Hanukkah displays.

So, because of this continuing discrimination in West Chester, PA, Margaret Downey and many members and friends of the Freethought Society will be gathering on Saturday, December 1st 2012 in order to create a human Tree of Knowledge.  The courthouse is in the middle of West Chester, at 2 High Street, and the event will start at 3:00 PM.  

I plan on being there, and we would love to see as many people as possible come out to show your support for a great organization and to protest a discriminatory decision by the West Chester Commissioners.

Holiday warfare November 27, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
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Ugh, I really get annoyed by this time of year.  I’m referring to the time after Thanksgiving and right up until the New Year’s celebrations.  You know, the last month of Fall, when winter descends upon us, the days get shortest, and for some reason people do a lot of shopping?  You know…Christmas time.  Oh, do I mean the holidays? Yeah, whatever.

I get annoyed by the consumerism, the obligatory gift-giving that commences at the culmination of the season, and the false expectation of joy that permeates it all.  Yeah, I know, hum bug or someshit.

And now on top of it is the ideas of a war on Christmas.  You know, the cultural conversation about “holidays” rather than “Christmas.”  The privileged status of the Christian/secular Christmas becomes annoying to those of us who don’t like the tattered remains of the religious holiday (which is ultimately pagan anyway) nor the secular outgrowth of that tradition.  Many people, like myself (and my acquaintance Tom Flynn), just feel that the day or so holiday should not be stretched into a month.

But, then there are the parties.  Parties where people drink more eggnog than they should.  Parties where you get to sometimes see another side of your co-workers than you do the rest of the year.  Parties where friends and family who live far away some times come around.  Parties with cookies, candy, warm drinks and various levels of tacky holiday decorations which are both colorful, lively, and (at least to me) hideous.  It’s like the best and worst aspects of our culture become magnified.

No, I think that is precisely it.  Our culture begins to express itself more loudly and the imperfections and relative awesomeness becomes pronounced.  It’s like all the things that bubble under the surface become overt, taking life and becoming part of the common conversation.  Where differences and intimacies are usually subdued in the name of pragmatism and rote behavior, something about this time of year trips up the conventionality of every day life and both exposes our differences via the culture wars and allows us to act more warmly towards each other.  Perhaps its the opening up to each other which exposes those differences.  Either way, it is what happens.

Of course, there are still people who quietly endure under the threat of this exposure.  Men and women, boys and girls, who sit at dinner with family and quietly disbelieve in the grace or sermon being recited.  Polite smiles despite sitting a few feet from a family member, co-worker, or religious leader who is hated, feared, or perhaps merely tolerated.  There are emotions of desperation which come closer to the surface, felt more severely due to the presence of people and rituals which cause false intimacy and bring together the people who you usually do not associate with.

But for many others it becomes a time to enumerate, elucidate, and explore the differences, disagreements, and values which either adhere or rip apart our society.  It becomes a time to expose the privilege of religious majority, to become closer to those with whom we share values and history, and to quite literally gather for warmth created by both said intimacy and the friction of those differences.

It is a powderkeg of our culture, bring closer to the surface all of our various interactions with each other.  It exposes the cracks in our culture or, for some, heals some of those cracks.  It is a strange brew on inauthentic pretending and rubbing together of wounds and scabs which leads to a meta-level authenticity which is so rare in our culture.

It is a thing worth more study.

I sort of like this time of year.

The War on Christmas December 1, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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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…

Just sayin’

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.

Happy Holidays