Sunday, December 23, 2007

Let's Put the P Back in Xmas

For two millennia, Christianity has had a lock on December 25, denoting this day as “Christmas”, the celebration of Christ’s birthday. And of course many of us non-Christians, atheists included, do partake of the Christmas traditions. But celebrations of December 25 has pagan origins dating from ancient times. For untold centuries, the winter solstice was marked by celebrations of the time when the Sun finally turned the tide in its battle with night, offering the promise of a return to the long, warm days of Spring and Summer. The Romans called the winter solstice “Sol Invictus”- the Undefeated Sun.

The Romans celebrated the anticipation of the return of Spring -and the birthday of the sun god Mithra- with a festival ending on December 25 (then believed to be the year’s shortest day) called Saturnalia, after the god of agriculture. Saturnalia was a joyous occasion filled with lusty pursuits such as feasting, drinking, and fornication. Certainly a somewhat different event than our present-day fairly sedate, religious, and family-oriented Christmas!

So how did this pagan celebration of the winter solstice get translated into a celebration of Christ’s birth? Christ’s birthdate is not mentioned in the Bible, and is thus unknown. So the early Christian church arbitrarily decided to denote December 25 as Christ’s birthday.

This was a very smart, pre-Madison Avenue PR move by the church. Paganism was a major rival of early Christianity, and the winter solstice was a widespread and beloved occasion for celebration. So the church’s choice of December 25 permitted an entrenched old Pagan tradition to continue, but transformed into a new Christian tradition. And it probably seemed quite natural to transform the universal human joy at the return of the life-giving Sun, into joy at the birth of a Son who was the Saviour of humanity. Thus the Christian church managed to turn bawdy Saturnalia into the pious Christ’s mass, Christmas.

But many of the most beloved trappings of our present-day Christmas celebrations come directly from these age-old pagan winter solstice traditions- the spirit of kindness towards friends and strangers, the wassail punch (very similar to the Roman drink calda), kissing under the mistletoe (from ancient Scandinavia), the Advent Wreath (from the pagan fire wheel symbolizing life), and the age-old Celtic Yule log. And of course our traditional Christmas tree is simply a continuation of an ancient pagan tradition of bringing bits of greenery into the house to celebrate the winter solstice.

So let’s take December 25 back from the Christians, and restore it to its wonderful Pagan traditions. For starters, I offer the modest proposal that we remove the X from Xmas, and rename this day Pmas.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

An Atheist's Prayer

I think that to many of us, atheism represents a profound belief rather than a certainty. For me at least, both as a thinking person and a scientist, any such rigid conviction would be almost as abhorrent as religious dogmatism. We have to consider the possibility that any particular theory of the universe- ours included- is flawed, or even just plain false (string theory is a good candidate for the latter). As the astronomer Carl Sagan said, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." So we can’t be completely certain that the universe was neither created nor is ruled over by some kind of supernatural being. This means, unfortunately, that deists might, in spite of themselves, possibly be right about the existence of a god(s).

But if we atheists did get this wrong, there is surely no reason to conclude that any organized religion got it right. What are the odds that any particular superstitious club, in our very ordinary little dot of space, happened upon the correct description of this all-powerful ruler of the universe? Probably about equal to the infinitesimal odds given in Matthew 19:24 of a rich man getting into heaven. It seems far more likely that any such “god(s)” would bear little or no resemblance whatsoever to any gods envisioned by any religions past or present.

The prayer below, addressed “to whom it may concern”, explores the possibility that atheism/humanism might have gotten this one wrong:

An Atheist’s Prayer

Bless my family and me,

Whatever organizing force there may be in the World;

Whatever abiding spirit may have escaped the crushing randomness of the Universe;

Whatever God-like being, capable of ascribing meaning to life and the world,

I might have over-looked in the arrogant certainty of my atheism.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Matthew's Jesus

When I heard about Mel Gibson’s 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ”, I decided to read the Book of Matthew as background info. I obtained (okay, actually bought) the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, to be sure I got the most accurate translation of Matthew (although the authenticity of any current version of the Bible is at best questionable). Yes, Matthew does quote some beautiful sayings of Jesus. But I found the overall description of Jesus in Matthew pretty distasteful.

In Matthew, particularly in the early part, Jesus comes across as a sort of Wizard of Oz, using magic healing to convince the many doubters that he truly is the Messiah. By my count, Jesus heals or brings back to life 13 individuals. Then, to really drive home his miraculous abilities, Jesus performs at least five large-scale healings (e.g., 4:23, “He went all about Galilee…. healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.”). But Jesus’ “healing” was conditional on belief- he wouldn’t heal the Cananite woman’s daughter till she had professed her great faith (15:21ff). Under those terms, you better believe! And of course Jesus also performs other kinds of magic tricks, including amplifying the loaves and fishes (14:16ff), and walking on water (14:22).

Matthew’s Jesus reminds me of an old-style Atlantic City Boardwalk auctioneer, saying to the crowd: “Still not convinced? Tell you what I’m gonna do,” and then producing other baubles and gewgaws to amaze and confuse them. How could anyone resist the word of someone apparently possessing such broad miraculous powers? But if the multitudes had believed, as we atheists do, that Jesus’ “miracles” were at best magic tricks, it seems highly doubtful that they would have believed his claim to be the Son of God.

Another aspect of Jesus beside the miracles described in this Book rankles me. Early on, Jesus tells his future disciples to just drop everything and follow him (4:18ff). So off the guys go discipling with Jesus, leaving nobody to support their wives and children. In fact, Jesus cruelly forces his followers to choose between him and their families, saying things like “I have come to set a man against his father…” (10:35), and “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…” (10:37). So much for Christian family values!

Well, it was worth reading Matthew to get this information directly from the source. But after reading reviews describing Mel Gibson's movie as a homoerotically violent piece of work, I never did go see the damned thing.

Monday, November 26, 2007

It's Kind of Sad Being an Atheist

Declaring oneself an atheist is, by itself, a purely negative statement. Being atheists means that, in the absence of some proof that a god(s) rules the universe, we don’t believe in any such god(s). We of course feel forced to define ourselves this way in a country where roughly 85% of the population believes literally in heaven and miracles.

But “atheist” is still an uncomfortable designation, since we don’t want to define ourselves solely on the basis of a negative belief. So what are we to do? The answer is not at all obvious. Many of us (including me) consider ourselves to be secular humanists. This means to me that we hold the same beliefs as any right-thinking liberal person: love, appreciation of the beauty of the earth and of cultural human endeavors, and the rights of all people to have access to a happy and fulfilling life. In the atheist Thomas Jefferson’s ringing phrase in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,…” (Yes, the rest of that sentence unfortunately mentions “their Creator”, but the impact of the “self-evident” phrase is not lessened thereby).

A movement called The Brights ( has proposed a solution to this quandary. I feel sympathetic to their statement of principles, but personally find it still too undifferentiated. Perhaps we atheists should extend our self-designation slightly to something like: Atheists Who Also Seek to Live Full, Loving, and Generous Lives. Too long a name, of course, but maybe a start.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Night and Day

(with apologies to Cole Porter)

Night and Day, You made neither one.
Without You we have both the moon and the afternoon sun.
People search both near and far,
For a god, whatever You are,
They think of you night and day.
Day and night, why is it so,
That this longing for You follows wherever they go?
In the roaring preacher's boom,
in the darkness of a lonely room,
They think of you night and day.
Night and day, it really gets to me,
there's an oh, such a bilious anger
burning inside of me.
And its torment won't be through
‘til it’s clear the world does move along without any You,
day and night, night and day.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The God Assumption and the (n) Principles of Atheism

About 100 years ago, the great French scientist and mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace created the first correct theory of the nebular origin of the solar system. The Emperor Napoleon heard about Laplace's theory, and said to him: "M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator." Laplace’s delicious reply to Napoleon was: “Sire, I did not need to make such an assumption”.

My appreciation of Laplace’s blunt response to Napoleon prompted me to start a list of Principles of Atheism. Other such lists already exist, and mine is certainly incomplete. So input from readers of this blog would be greatly appreciated.

1. In the spirit of Laplace, we have no need for a God/Creator assumption, nor any reason to make any such hypothesis.

2. All theist religions, whether living (e.g., Christianity), marginal (Zoroastrianism, etc.) or dead (Norse mythology, etc.), represent equally primitive superstitions. There's really no reason to believe in any of them. You seen one god(s), you seen them all.

3. As I discussed in my previous blog, no miracles are allowed anywhere in the universe, including of course here on Earth. Miracles break physical laws, and are therefore no fair.

4. We atheists have no holy book preaching that non-believers either should be killed, and/or face eternal damnation. So, as humanists, we are at least as kind and generous to our fellow humans as are members of any organized superstitious group.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Miracles, Science, and Fundamentalism

As an atheist, I am of course very uncomfortable with any religion that believes in a supernatural being. And as a scientist, a belief in miracles really drives me up the wall. A central tenet of science is that a fundamental, probably unchanging, set of physical laws has governed the entire Universe since just after the Big Bang. And no exceptions whatsoever are permitted! So you can’t get around inconvenient physics that regulates important events like death and the future just by calling in a favor from your favorite diety. And yet miracles are part of the fundamental (pun intended) fabric of at least three of the current major world religions- Christianity, Hinduism, and Judaism.

Although organized religion leaves a bad taste in my mouth, I find that I can in some sense respect the conservative fundamentalists of any religion. These conservatives by God hold unequivocally to their ancient beliefs, be it Christianity’s virgin birth and transubstantiation (tantamount to cannibalism!), the parting of the water by Moses, etc. On the other hand, I hold little respect for the modern religious revisionists who say something like “We modern (name-your-religion)ists don’t really believe any longer that stories of miracles in the Bible (old or new), Koran, etc. should be taken literally- we now think these stories should be viewed as parables.” But if you take away the miracles in Christianity, I think you’re left with a pretty vacuous religion. Just think of The Book of Matthew, loaded with situations where Jesus had to pull off magic “miracles” to prove he really was the expected saviour.

So as religions go, I prefer one that sticks to its guns about its supernatural beliefs, and essentially says to the world (including all other religions): “One of us is going to hell, and it sure as hell ain’t us.” This type of religion steadfastly maintains its unadulterated beliefs, and doesn’t “cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions” (Lillian Hellman, letter to House Un-American Activities Committee, 1952). Such a fundamentalist religion, although sorely misguided about God (and often also about Science), at least represents a worthy adversary of atheism.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and Atheism

When my son was about 16, he asked me if I was sure that God doesn’t exist. I replied that I was not absolutely certain about this; but that I was also not absolutely certain that no far-off planet is continuously orbited by purple pigs wearing pink tutus. With no evidence for either God or the purple pigs, both seemed to me equally unlikely.

Theists believe, based on faith, that God is everywhere, including our bodies and minds. Can we atheists ever believe in the presence within us of something(s) that we not only can’t detect, but is not even a constituent of our physical bodies? Dark matter and dark energy are good candidates for just such entities. The normal matter-energy in the universe (our bodies and everything else we can detect) is a tiny fraction (c. 4%) of the total matter-energy. The rest is about 23% dark (no interaction with light) matter and 73% dark energy (which pushes the universe to expand). Both dark matter and dark energy permeate our galaxy and hence us, but have no apparent physical effects on us. So if these entities don’t directly affect us, why should we believe in them? Because recent astrophysical observations of the universe have yielded strong evidence for the existence of both dark matter and dark energy. If equally good evidence for either God or the purple pigs were produced, then I would believe in either (or both) of them.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Proof that Richard Dawkins is God

The “proofs” of the existence of God are both fun and funny. It’s not easy to choose the most amusing one, but one of my favorites is the Ontological Argument. Since St. Anselm proposed it in 1078, this argument has often been restated. Descartes provided a concise statement of one version of this pretty devious and murky proof (

1. I have an idea of a supremely perfect being, i.e., a being having all perfections.

2. Necessary existence is a perfection.

3. Therefore, a supremely perfect being exists.

This argument (and others for God’s existence) has been discussed recently by Richard Dawkins in his excellent book The God Delusion (pp. 8O ff). So I would like to present my own devious ontological proof that Dawkins himself is God. I realize my proof contains logical holes, but probably no more than any of the proofs for the existence of a god(s):

1. Dawkins has shown that God is a delusion.

2. But if God did exist, he/she would be the most supremely perfect being.

3. By #2 in the Descartes proof above, existence is a prerequisite for perfection, so God comes up short on that score.

4. But If God did exist, he could certainly sway many minds.

5. In his books, Dawkins has swayed many minds.

6. Since Dawkins clearly both does mind-swaying and exists, he is more perfect than God, and so must actually be God.