As I write this, I'm thinking about what I'll put in my holiday letter this year. It has been a few years since I sent a letter, or even holiday cards. As a relatively new atheist, I've become rather frustrated at so much of the holiday nonsense and by the time this part of the year rolls around, I've just overdosed on it. While some of the holiday cheer is good, there is so much spin and packaging of ancient myths that it's hard for a rationalist like me not to feel under siege.
My first instinct is to fight back a bit and play iconoclast. The truth is important, after all. Yet, I feel some guilt trampling on people's often well meant holiday spirit in the only communication that most of my distant friends will receive from me all year. So I've figured out a compromise. I'm writing this little essay saying some of the things I wanted to say about the holidays from an atheist perspective. I've made it open to all, so perhaps more people will know the atheist perspective on Christmas. My private holiday correspondence will point to this essay with an appropriate disclaimer.
The Reason for the Season?
The first thing that needs to be addressed is the reason for the season. To properly answer the question, you have to go back a few tens of thousands of years to a time when human cultures were making the transition from being nomadic to adopting an agricultural economy. Humans at the time lacked a proper understanding of the solar system and the motions of the bodies within it. As a result, humans deified the sun and the moon as they were so obviously important to their success. The moon is important to nomadic tribes as the full moon provides light that aids in night time hunts. Worshiping the moon was seen as a way to improve the hunt and ultimately, the survival of the tribe.
With a shift to agriculture, the sun is clearly more dominant because the sun makes the crops grow. Winter must have been an especially scary time as the waning daylight meant that man had to survive for a while living on what was stored and what could be scavenged. To ease this angst, early astronomers tracked the movement of the sun and watched for the time when the days stopped shortening and began lengthening again. This yearly astronomical event is known as the winter solstice. It was difficult for early man to measure exactly, but they knew to watch for it. And they knew what it meant--the eventual return of longer days when their lives would not be so difficult. Not surprisingly, religions centered on the sun have rituals near the time of the solstice and most have resurrection myths connected to the coming renewal of spring. These simple religions were an attempt to make meaning of a cosmic and important phenomenon of the cycles of the seasons.
So, while axial tilt of the earth is the true reason for the season, we can also feel a connection with our more primal human reaction to the season, which is a sense of hope and renewal for the coming year. We can do this honestly, understanding the movement of the planets and their emotional effect on us. These are the real reasons for celebrations this time of year. These are the things that I personally try to connect to this time of year. I feel it is part of my connection to my humanity and to the planet I call home.
Atheists don't generally celebrate holidays in the original sense of the word: holy days. Gatherings of atheists this time of year generally give more than a nod to the winter solstice, but there are no rituals. On the surface, this might seem to be a shallow and nerdy response to what others may feel is the real significance of the Christmas season. In truth, it's the other way around. The meaning of the season existed aeons before any of today's religions took root. For a better understanding of these topics, I refer the reader to the works of Joseph Campbell who wrote extensively about the mythological themes that cross religions and their origins in our collective humanity.
Birth of Jesus
Christianity is the dominant religion in our culture and Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, Christianity's central figure on December 25th. There is so much mythology surrounding the nativity that it would take at least a book to fully unravel. A good compact source of information is The Christmas Story: an Overview of Christian Belief. Many of these myths are uncritically repeated this time of year. I'll hit on a few of the facts that everyone should know--especially people who call themselves followers of Christ.
The only first person "eye witness" account of Christ anywhere in existence is the Apostle Paul's encounter with Christ as a spirit-being out the desert (really not much more than a flash of light). All other accounts of Jesus/Christ are just lore from oral tradition. We know today that a large number of people have visual and auditory hallucinations, so there is no reason to believe Paul encountered anything supernatural. Again, this is the strongest evidence for Christianity--all other evidence amounts to hearsay.
Paul was quite convinced that Christ was a spirit in human shape and not a flesh-and-blood human. He considered humans to be essentially dirty and as such the human form was completely unsuitable for a god man. The first few centuries of Christianity saw a great debate about whether Christ ever existed in human form. Eventually, the side that argued for human form won out. They needed a human form to bolster the idea that Jesus suffered on the cross for our collective original sin, linking Christ to some of the main and accepted themes of Judaism. Paul knew nothing of these ideas, as they were invented later; nor did he know of most of the key events in Jesus "life" on earth for the same reason. Paul was quite sure that the crucifixion occurred in a spiritual plane, disconnected from events on Earth. Since Christians don't believe Paul's conception of Christ, they obviously think he was a liar. If he was a liar, then why should they believe anything at all about Christ, since there are no other primary sources of information?
Indeed, much of the lore surrounding Jesus was pulled in from various places. The notion of Jesus being a human from Galilee (and simultaneously Bethlehem) was probably based on a composite of a number of real people and imagined deities. Lore surrounding a divine Christ was borrowed from Mithraism, Attisism, and a host of other religions that were mixing together in the great melting pot of the Roman Empire when the legend appeared. The Jesus mythology and the Christ mythology were also eventually merged, having been previously separate. A person has to search very hard for any facet of Jesus/Christ lore that was not borrowed from earlier mythologies. These facts, combined with the 30 or so missing years of Jesus documented life would make any thinking person doubt that any part of the story is factual.
Early Christianity had a big problem on its hands. Paul had preached about the return of Christ and was quite clear that it was to be during the lifetime of his disciples. See The Lowdown on God's Showdown. He even urged the faithful to stop having children as it would just complicate their lives during the transition that was about to occur! As far as we know, Christ never came back, making Paul a bona fide liar and Jesus a false messiah. Paul even said at one point that lying was a good thing if it aggrandized God (Romans 3:7)... or was that condemning lying? It's not so clear, but Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, expanded on the first interpretation. The problem of Christ's non-return is still a festering sore on Christianity. It has not been resolved, but the faithful don't care about the fatal flaws of their religion; they have faith. I call it gullibility.
To distract the faithful from the festering problem of a non-returning Christ, a miraculous birth story was invented long after his "death". The story has been embellished heavily over the years to become what we now call the nativity story. Even the original story has its problems however. Some of the confabulators worked very hard to tie Jesus' blood line back to King David, with whom the God character had made a covenant in earlier scriptures that his descendents would rule forever. Unfortunately, even the Bible tells us that David's line had stopped ruling a long time before Jesus was even thought about. God was therefore a proven liar (or a myth) and they realized it. To try to bandage this fatal wound, the story tellers worked very hard to have Jesus born in Bethlehem, which they thought they could spin as fulfilling the prophecy in the Old Testament. One problem with this is that the "prophecy" was about an earlier king (Immanuel), so the prophecy was unrelated to Jesus. (No magic here. The prediction was conveniently coined after the event occurred and attributed to an earlier time. It's like "predicting" today that World War II will occur, and then claiming the prediction took place in the earlier 1814.) Another problem is that Jesus had to have a human biological father for this prophecy to be about him. (According to the Bible, females contribute nothing.) That is the only way he could have David's blood. To drive this point home, there is a lineage from David to Jesus in the Bible. To drive the point home even more, there also is a second, conflicting lineage from David to Jesus in the Bible. If one is good, two different ones must be better! Both of these are in complete contradiction with the idea that Jesus is born of a virgin, the foundational miracle of Christianity. That myth has its roots in a Biblical transcription error where "young woman" was mistranslated to "virgin". There are probably a hundred more problems with the nativity story. I hope these facts give the reader an idea of how silly the whole thing is.
As part of the birth story, they chose late December as the date of Jesus birth so that the Catholic Church could begin co-opting the Roman Saturnalia Festival, from which we get our traditions of holiday merriment, having a big meal, and gift giving. Easter was likewise co-opted from pagan spring fertility festivals from which we get bunnies and eggs, both fertility symbols. The whole nativity story was fabricated to hoodwink more people into a growing religion. To their credit, the invention of Mary was a stroke of genius that "worked miracles" for marketing Christianity.
In case anyone is wondering why atheists have a condescending attitude toward Christians it is because very often atheists know more about Christianity than the believers. We are consistently amazed that anyone believes these ridiculous religious claims. People believe, unfortunately, because they are ignorant. Anyone relying on a church for their source of information about Christianity will be systematically misinformed. People who know the truth aren't generally converts. It is the faithful that pay the incomes of the ministers. So, they perpetuate myths among the gullible in order to eat and have power over them. They tell people that faith (gullibility) is a virtue so as to flatter the believers and perpetuate their positions.
Atheists get criticized for being humbugs about Christmas. According to some sources, we're even fighting some sort of war over it. Many of us do consider ourselves at war with ignorance and the thuggery that often goes along with it. Myths are not harmless and gullibility is not a virtue. Nothing good has ever come of them. Bergen Evans hit it on the head when he wrote in A Tale of a Tub, "For in the last analysis all tyranny rests on fraud, on getting someone to accept false assumptions, and any man who for one moment abandons or suspends the questioning spirit has for that moment betrayed humanity." Now let's look at the effects of myths and gullibility.
Peace and Good Will
One of the nicest wishes that I get in Christmas and holiday cards is the wish of peace on Earth and good will toward men. Good stuff. Very often, however, that message has been associated with some Christian image, such as the three Magi (who never existed) making their trek to see the child savoir. The implication is that somehow those sentiments have something to do with Christianity. Again, the more a person knows about Christianity, the more he might think the association is a lame attempt to improve Christianity's image--to put lipstick on the pig.
As for peace, the most horrible wars and atrocities have had religion at their core. A person who believes he is acting based on the righteousness of God will eagerly suspend human compassion. Gott mit uns. Non-believers are rationalized to be not worthy of compassion because God hates them, they lack souls, or they're supposedly working for some equally ridiculous competing supernatural concern. Religion is largely impervious to reason and it generally takes a long time for sanity to prevail.
Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are called the Abrahamic religions. They all worship one and the same tribal god of Abraham. Yahweh, God, Jehovah, and Allah are all names for the same god. You might think all of these religions are on the same side, but you'd be wrong. The various sects of these religions have been killing each-other since their beginning. Even today, most of the tension in the Middle East has at its roots the ancient religious conflicts between sects under the same god. This god's believers have aptly demonstrated that He is incompatible with peace. Likewise, I cannot square the idea of Jesus being called "the prince of peace" when so many millions of people have been killed in his name. This appellation shows an amazing amount of ignorance combined with a lack of sympathy for the victims.
As for "good will toward men," I have my doubts as well. Much of the killing in the name of God has been in concert with some equally horrible persecution. Christianity has been behind witch burnings, the Inquisition, pogroms, and many other ills. The Abrahamic religions have always subjugated women. Gays are demonized to raise money by religious demagogues. The Bible has been used to justify slavery. It does so unabashedly. There is no mention of pedophilia in the Bible, but incest with your daughter seems to be allowed. The Catholic Church has effectively run a pedophile ring for decades while none of the organizers have been brought to trial.
What good has come from our religious war with the "axis of evil"? Has our messiah president done a single good thing while he has been in power? Thanks to the "values voters," we are now known worldwide as a country that supports torture. Christians (Catholics especially) seem to think that torture is a good thing. After all, God does it, so it must be good. I've even had a well meaning Christian "friend" come to my home and threaten me with torture so that I would do the "right thing" in his eyes and believe in his nonsensical religion. Part of me wonders whether such people are just sadists looking for a way of justifying their twisted mindset. They have no evidence for their God and, at the same time, they think it's the epitome of good to torture a person for all eternity for the finite "crime" of not believing.
Many religious people have a charitable nature and do good works, but is it really charity when you expect a payout? For Christians, charity will help ensure one's reward of perpetual orgasm. Do the math. When you factor in the infinite benefit that religious people gain from "charity" work, you have to wonder why they don't give away all their belongings and wander the streets as Jesus said was the path to salvation. Christians' actions belie their claims of belief.
When the tsunami hit the Indian Ocean in December of 2004, most American's prayed. For believers, God either sought to kill those 500,000 people or He didn't care enough about them to prevent the earthquake that led to the event. Either way, directly helping these people is in direct conflict with God's obvious wishes and may jeopardize one's ticket to Heaven. So many believers chose to pray instead of providing real help. This is just another way that belief sabotages philanthropy. Of course, many religious groups were on the march after the event. Most were motivated to gain converts. Those lost interest when they couldn't proselytize to the victims. Again, who is benefiting? Where is the good will?
Science and technology have done far more philanthropy than all religions combined. In contrast, religions generally sabotage science. Religions are famous for destroying libraries, burning books, and murdering the authors that they wanted to suppress. Nearly all of our medical knowledge was gained over the objection of religion. Religions are still at it today actively sabotaging stem cell research and the teaching of evolution, the foundation of biology. While Norman Borlaug was using his knowledge of biology and evolution to create cereal grains that are credited with feeding billions of people, Mother Teresa was collecting millions of dollars for her missionary work that sadistically perpetuated the suffering of those under her care. She is quoted as saying, "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people." Much of the money she collected from this travesty of compassion went to the Catholic Church, who repaid her with a fast track to sainthood by way of a bogus "miracle." Most of her work was geared at increasing the poverty in India through promotion of higher birth rates.
Peace and goodwill derive from compassion and respect for one's fellow man, taking responsibility for one's actions, and the knowledge to make good decisions. These are the virtues that most atheists embrace under the name of Humanism or Secular Humanism. Ignorance and power trades with gods are incompatible with peace and good will. Religions are not above marketing themselves as good things, though and hiding the facts to the contrary. Caveat emptor.
I do agree with many of the religious people that the holidays have become far too commercialized. I have little new to say here except that capitalism is America's true religion and the holidays are something of a religious holiday for it, as well, with Santa as its shill. The primary capitalist myth seems to be that buying things is the path to happiness. It's just another holiday myth that needs to be debunked.
Speaking of Santa, it's clear that he's is just a training mechanism for children to become Christians. Both are based on the idea that you should be good to others in order to receive a reward from some omniscient supernatural being. It's all about hedonism gleaned from Big Brother. When children lose their innocence about Santa Claus, they are then indoctrinated into the "real" belief which is a good bit darker than the training wheels mythology. If you're not good, you don't get coal in your stocking--you get cinders as your feet. I guess it is fear that keeps people awake in church.
When you remove all of the fluff and crap from the holidays, you're not left with very much. Hope and renewal remain. A person can still feel love for his fellow man, despite mankind's limitations. One can embrace some of the fun and joyous traditions. The holiday nights are a nice change from the dreariness of winter. And the tradition of writing holiday letters isn't a bad one either. It's easy to get separated from those who have impacted you and your life. It's good to reconnect with them.
Peace and good will toward man through reason!
And if you believe, believe responsibly.