Saturday, January 3, 2009

Merry Christmas


Yes, Merry Christmas. My usage of this phrase, as an atheist, may confuse theists and atheists alike. But I see no problem. Some people say "happy holidays". I am unsure whether this is due to an aversion to mentioning Jesus, or merely a desire to be politically correct; I am guessing either could be true depending on who says it. This doesn't seem to get anywhere if you're trying to endorse secularism, as "holidays" means "holy days". That's not what it means now, my fellow secularists may argue. Well, "Merry Christmas," when I say it, doesn't mean "Celebrate the birth of Jesus!" any more than I use "good-bye" to mean "God be with you", for which it is a contraction. I hang Halloween decorations, and so do you, be you secularist or theocrat, without any belief that they ward off evil spirits, as the originators of this tradition did.

While I'm at it, I note the absurdity of the politically correct who sing Chanukkah songs at Christmas time, but do not notice, let alone make any cultural concessions to, any other Jewish holiday. Chanukkah is a minor holiday. If you want your confused, uninformed, liberal "tolerance" to at least make a small amount of sense, then make a cultural nod to Passover, or to Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, at the appropriate time of year. Do you even know when the High Holy Days are? No? I find something condescending and hypocritical in this observation of Chanukkah by Christians.

But getting back to Jesusmas, I could celebrate the birth of Jesus if I so chose, I suppose. Peace on earth, goodwill towards men, is a nice enough sentiment, even if alleged miracles and fulfillment of prophecy is rubbish. Jesus had some good teachings on offer. Morally, as Dawkins points out, he was probably far ahead of his time. Personally, I'd probably rather celebrate the birth of Bertrand Russell, but I wouldn't be expecting many to join me. But the fact is, I enjoy the giving and receiving of presents, and Christmas trees and lights and decorations, and holiday music, from Michael Praetorius and Handel to Irving Berlin and Leroy Anderson; it has nothing to do with Jesus, for me. It's my cultural tradition and I love this stuff; I see no need to turn my back on it.



Last night on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Nancy Gibbs delivered a monologue on her impressions of this year's holiday season. I would like to point to two things she said: the first was thoughtless and ignorant; the second reveals what I think is an essential truth about the difference between religious and nonreligious people.

First, "The Black Friday news about the Wal-Mart employee trampled to death as he opened the doors at dawn seemed to promise an especially Darwinian holiday season; only the fittest survive." Darwinian? I have difficulty understanding how a graduate of Yale - summa cum laude - and Oxford could display such ignorance of the fundamentals of biology. Darwin would see no trace of his theory in this event. Natural selection did not kill Jdimytai Damour; bad luck, mass hysteria, criminal negligence by Wal-Mart in inadequate security, and irresponsible behavior by one of his co-workers in taunting the crowd, did. Survival of the fittest refers to adaptability to one's environment, not accidents due to stampedes. I doubt that Gibbs would contend that Damour's co-workers had some advantage, conferred by a genetic mutation in a common ancestor, that naturally selected them to survive the incident while he, lacking this gene, did not. If she actually understood the word she was using, that would literally be what she meant: that Damour died because of his genes, and that his untimely demise was natural and beneficial to humankind, in that it kept him from burdening the gene pool with offspring that would carry on his disadvantageous genes. But, I am willing to explain away her passing remark with ignorance rather than attribute it to malevolence.

Some may feel that I am splitting hairs or quibbling about an innocent remark. The fact is that anti-evolution propaganda has had a deleterious effect on the quality of our science education and the public understanding of important scientific issues, so this is an issue it is constructive to be sensitive about. While I assume Gibbs certainly did not intend to speak antiscientifically, it is important that our respected newspeople promote understanding, not ignorance.

Second, "December sometimes feels like one long final exam, a character test for many people of many faiths, whose holy days fall before year's end." At first, when I listened to this remark, I was offended, at the implication that cultural participation in our holiday traditions is for people of faith, and therefore, not for people without faith. But upon further reflection, despite the fact that I find the idea of "holiness", for a day or for any other thing, to lack meaning, I find this remark simply reflects on one of the greater truths about atheists. We need no character test, no holy-days, to be good. Insofar as I, as an atheist, am good, I am good of my own accord; my desire for philanthropy stems not from a desire to please any god, nor fear of punishment if I am not good. I require no Holy Ghost over my shoulder. As I am accountable to myself, my conscience is more reliable than an entity with whom you can have no observable contact, and whose existence, through religious ritual, you must constantly be reassuring yourself is plausible (i.e., not ridiculous!), lest you fail to keep the faith.

Peace on earth, goodwill toward humankind. Merry Christmas.


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