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.