Monthly Archives: December 2012
Christopher Hitchens once pointed that “religion makes morally normal people say and do disgusting and wicked things.” As far as I’m concerned the sentiment in the picture above is a perfect example of that truth. A little more than two weeks ago twenty children and six dedicated teachers were gunned down in an act of madness that shocked and saddened the world. Not even a full day passed before the religious decided to capitalize on the tragedy and remind us why this horror occurred. It wasn’t because of the lacking programs to identify and treat mental illness, or because of the ready availability of firearms and ammunition, no it turns out that the reason that those twenty-six people had to die is because we’ve separated education from belief. Those kids and their teachers died because we don’t allow organized school prayer in public schools?! Can these people really think this? Can people who believe in a benevolent and all-powerful god honestly believe that it would be so spiteful, so hateful that it would stand by and allow the mass murder of children just because we’ve separated prayer from education?
Keep that word “separated” in mind because that’s all we’ve done, we haven’t done away with religion or religious teaching in spite of the theist’s assertions that our society has “abandoned god” or their declarations that this abandonment has opened up a void which has become filled with immorality and violence. This is the sort of alarmist nonsense one has to expect from the more fundamentalist theist. As a matter of fact though there is no “void” if you’re a religious person and you’re raising religious children there are entire structures where you can go to celebrate your beliefs. There are massive, extremely well-funded infrastructures where you can celebrate whatever baseless tradition works best for you. We’ve separated education from religion for a reason. That reason being that education should be concerned with facts verifiable, testable, reproducible truth. Religious belief is not fact; it is a belief and an incredibly subjective belief at that. It has no place in the world of fact and knowledge, and to dress it up and shelve it next to actual knowledge is to mislead those you would teach.
Whether you agree with removing religion from public school is beside the point though. Whether you believe in god is really beside the point as well. Even if you believe in an all-powerful overseer who is watching the world every second your own life experience must have demonstrated to you that god doesn’t stop bullets, just like it doesn’t avert tornadoes, or stop buildings from burning to the ground. As a matter of fact most theists will tell you that god doesn’t work that way… there’s a plan, and even when we don’t understand it it’s for the good. So in that case the tragedy had nothing to do with the lack of prayer, it was part of the plan…right? Doesn’t that mean that these people have just decided to use a well publicized tragedy to peddle their agenda?
The ultra-fanatical hate group that calls themselves “The Westboro Baptist Church” announced plans to picket the site of the shooting and the funerals for the dead. Though sickening it was not surprising as this “Church” doesn’t have respect for anything at all. They hate homosexuals, and anyone who doesn’t hate homosexuals. They hate the country that gives them the freedom to spout their bigoted nonsense, and they hate the soldiers who die to defend them. One could reasonably expect them to celebrate the massacre of children, or any other unimaginable atrocity. In a way their insane and hateful jihad against…well…pretty much everything is less offensive to me than the drivel that starts off this post.
The simple fact is that the Westboro Baptist church is made up entirely of ignorant, hateful, indoctrinated bigots. One comes to expect any kind of nonsense from them, but trying to use this shooting to preach about school prayer? That’s not the work of wild-eyed zealots, that’s the work of as Hitchens said “Morally normal” people saying wicked things that they can’t really believe in order to promote their own viewpoint. This is much more offensive to me than Westboro for one reason: because these people should know better. Your god, real or not, has nothing to do with this, and even if those kids had been laying on their faces in prayer all day not one bullet would have been moved aside or one life spared and you know it. To pretend otherwise is wrong, callous and disrespectful to the dead and their families.
It’s that time of year again, the holiday season, and so if you live in North America it’s likely that you’ve seen at least one example of the sentiments expressed above. You’ve probably seen signs on lawns while driving around your neighbourhoods, or banners hung while you did your shopping, and most likely post after post while exploring the internet. It is time again for the Christians’ annual drive to convince us that they and their religion are the source of our winter holiday, and that without their improbable claims and irrational organizations there would be no winter holidays. This time of year we begin to hear about how without Jesus there would be no December celebration, and no cause for the day of merry-making, gift giving, and enjoyment of family and friends which so many of us secular and theist, enjoy. The fact is, however, that “the Christmas season” has very little to do with Christianity at all and in fact most of the things we would consider to be “Christmas-y” have nothing at all to do with Jesus.
This campaign to make the season about the Christian messiah is, of course, not a new thing. We in North America and some other places even call it “Christmas” now, but it wasn’t always so. In fact, historically speaking the advent of “Christmas” is a relatively recent thing compared to the true “reason for the season” which is the celebration of the Winter Solstice.
The solstice is the time when the sun appears at noon at its lowest altitude above the horizon, it is the shortest day of the year, and traditionally the first day of winter. Observing the solstice is a tradition which predates Christianity by thousands of years, at least. Some scholars actually say that the observation, in some form, of the solstice, may date from as early as the Neolithic period of the Stone Age. Observances of the solstice have been practiced by almost every culture on the planet including the ancient Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Greeks, a host of Celtic pagan societies, and several Asian cultures including the Chinese.
So there has always been a winter celebration toward the end of December and the solstice has always been a major festival in most cultures, a day of celebration, feasting and reflection. In light of this fact is it so remarkable that a theology would choose to try to attach their deity to it? Of course not, what better way to make converts comfortable with a new religion than to maintain a tradition they already have? Even if it is slightly altered. Not only is it not surprising, it’s not unique. Many religions have attached their mythological protagonist to the solstice. Here are several besides Christ whose adherents have all claimed December 25th as the birth date of their god: Horus (Egypt) Osiris (Egypt) Attis of Phrygia ( Phrygia and Greece) Krishna (India) Zoroaster (Persia) Mithra (Persia/Rome) Heracles (Greece) Dionysus (Greece) Tammuz (Babylon/ Sumer) Adonis (Greece) Hermes (Greece) Bacchus (Greece) Prometheus (Greece) Beddru (Japan) Odin (Scandinavia) Salivahana (Bermuda)
The fact of the matter is that the invention of “Christmas” was a carefully thought out and executed piece of propaganda by one of the early Church’s masters of propaganda the Roman (and pagan) Emperor Constantine in 336 AD. December 25 was chosen for the simple, but important reason that it coincided with the supposed birth of Mithras, a Persian god who was adopted by Rome, a god worshipped strongly by the vast majority of Roman soldiers at the time. By making this upstart Christ figure as much like the existing Mirthras as possible Constantine made his worship more palatable to his people in general and his soldiers specifically. The soldiers were, after all, the source of the Emperor’s power, and so had to be kept happy and comfortable.
In fact most of the “Christmas” traditions you think of associated with the holiday have absolutely nothing to do with Christ or the religion named after him. As a child you likely heard that the reason we give gifts at Christmas is to commemorate the gifts presented to the infant jesus in the manger by the three wise men. Well, right from the start that story is a corruption of the bible story since the three wise men weren’t even in the stable where jesus was supposedly born. According to Matthew 2:11 an unspecified number of “magi” visited him in a house at some unspecified time after his birth and presented him with gifts.
The fact is the practice of giving gifts at the solstice, as well as decorating homes with trees, wreaths, mistletoe, and other greenery all come from pagan traditions which predate Christianity by centuries. Christianity is a relatively modern graft onto a far more ancient pre-existing festival. Christmas as it exists today is a bastardized amalgamation of Christian dogma, pagan, traditions and (in most cases) western commercialism. Saying that Christ is “the reason for the season” is the same sort of arrogance as claiming that all that exists does so just so that our tiny spec of a civilization could come into being. At it’s purest and simplest here is the truth:
Today another gunman climbed out of wherever it is these people come from and shredded the ever tenuous peace of the United States. This time it happened in Connecticut, once again a heavily armed citizen of that country took up those arms and vented his rage, frustration, anger, inferiority, madness, or some combination of those things on his fellow citizens. Reports are saying that the body count of today’s insanity is at twenty six people, eighteen of those being children between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. How does a person walk into a grade school with weapons and start shooting at anything in sight you ask? I honestly have no idea. If you’re wondering what could possibly be wrong enough with a person to make such an action possible my guess would be: quite a lot.
I’m a new parent, my son is just over six months old and seeing this today I can imagine all too clearly the horror, anguish, rage, and helplessness experienced by every parent of every child at that school or in that community. It’s too easy for me to imagine my boy huddled in a corner with a bunch of other young kids, all of them panicked, confused, terrified, and at the mercy of some angry, broken, crazed individual who has decided to avenge themselves on the world. I can imagine the horrors, the nightmares and the traumas that he’d have to deal with for long years following that ordeal, and I can imagine the even darker possibilities and it makes me sick to my stomach. My deepest regrets and sympathies go out to those who have lived what I have just been imagining.
In the days and weeks that are coming there will be calls for tighter restrictions on weapons. There will be renewed calls for stronger gun violence laws. There will also be those people who will argue that these measures are unneeded unnecessary and ultimately will do little to prevent horrendous acts like those we’ve seen today and so many other times in the recent history of the United States. There will be those people who will trot out the Second Amendment to the U.S Constitution. They’ll state that the law protects their ” right to keep and bear arms” and there will be those who will say that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Both of these positions are technically correct but deeply flawed interpretations.
The Second Amendment of the U.S Constitution actually contains the words ” a well regulated militia” the amendment’s purpose was to ensure that the citizens of the new country would have the ability to defend themselves from tyranny by the new government. It was not designed to ensure every citizen’s right to keep an m-16 in the hall closet, or to collect enough firepower to turn a US street into downtown Beirut. It also has to be pointed out that the amendment was written when the height of firearm technology was the musket. The framers of the constitution never envisioned a world where one man could devastate an entire building in minutes, they couldn’t have. Should we perhaps look at this “right” through the lens of it’s modern effects? Should we not ask ourselves if the cost of this “right” is too high?
Am I saying ban all firearms? No, I’m not. What I’m asking is why does any civilian need more than a handgun? Or at most a hunting rifle? Why does anyone need more than say two guns maximum? Why is it easier to buy ammunition than it is to board an airplane? Why doesn’t a firearms licensing require at the least an annual mandatory psychological examination? Why, if you’re going to be granted the ability to carry a weapon, shouldn’t you have to demonstrate regularly that you’re capable, knowledgeable responsible, and sane enough to be trusted with that privilege?
As for the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument, absolutely true. I agree. If every gun on the planet disappeared tomorrow there would still be stabbings, bludgeonings, poisonings, and any number of other forms of one human killing another. However, does anyone honestly think that if we limited the number of guns, or more realistically the number of bullets in the world, that the number of violent deaths wouldn’t drastically decrease? Does anyone think the death toll today would have been near as high if a twenty four year old man with a cavalry saber had burst into a grade school? Of course people kill people, but it’s a bunch easier to do when you’ve just got to reach out for your semi-automatic, squeeze the trigger and spray a room.
It should be harder to get a weapons license, harder to keep that license, harder to get a gun, and easier to track a bullet. The simple fact of the matter is that most citizens have absolutely no need to be armed. The war is over, the red coats aren’t coming, and while I understand defending your rights I also understand that the “right” to bear arms shouldn’t be a right. “Rights” are for everyone and clearly not everyone should have a gun. Gun ownership should be a privilege, a privilege that has to be constantly earned by those who would have it. How many times are we going to wake up to the news that a lone lunatic has decimated a structure full of people before we come to the conclusion that this power needs to be regulated and controlled much more tightly than it is?
I apologize, I know this is not my usual subject matter but it feels connected to me. For me it’s all about looking at what’s in front of you rationally, and trying to understand not just what happened but why that is what happened. It’s about looking at reality as it is, not as we would have it be and perhaps most importantly it’s about discarding outdated ideas, traditions, and even “rights” when they don’t fit the realities of life any more. As I see it today twenty six people died because we haven’t adapted to the changing realities of the world fast enough. It hurts me that it’s so, and it breaks my heart that this time it had to be our children that suffered the consequences of our failure to evolve. My heart felt regrets to the victims of today’s insanity. I’m sorry.
The Facebook page “The Atheist People” has published an article I wrote today. It’s no three book deal with Random House but it is the first time I’ve submitted my own work for someone else’s consideration and the response has been great!! It’s always so nice to see that your perspective resonates with others, and it’s always interesting to spark debate. I hope those of you who read me here will check it out. Unfortunately the best I can do for a link is to the page it’self. My article is the one that was posted today. Enjoy and thank you to those of you who comment, like, share, and everyone who takes the time to read what I write.
“…And when I sleep I dream of a great discussion with experts and ideas and diction and energy and honesty and when I wake I think “I can sell that”… ”
The quote is from Jed Bartlet the imaginary President played by Martin Sheen on the TV show “The West Wing.” I think of it every so often because I’ve had the same dream, and because of the way Sheen says the line. There’s an excitement, a longing in the character as he discusses it that I can relate to. The problem is it’s a much harder dream to sell than one would think. It constantly astounds me how many people have no interest in the discussion our fictitious president from above outlines. Ignorance doesn’t astound me, not the run of the mill kind that is simply a lack of knowledge, but the conscious willful type? The kind of intellectual complacency that runs so deep as to not only retard the natural human urge to seek and question but actually deride and dismiss it? I will admit that particular strain of the disease boggles me to no end.
Now I won’t go as far as saying that I feel the debate between atheists and theists is the most important debate we face as a species, after all we have a great many urgent problems and conflicts that all need to be discussed and worked through just as expeditiously . How to minimize our negative effects on the environment, how to build the just city, how to ensure an honest shot at the promise of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness not just for one group or one country but for every person everywhere. These are just examples of some of the stunningly important and vital conversations that need exploration.
I think of the debate between theists and non-theists as “The Conversation” though, and when I say it in my head I can hear the capital letters. For me, The Conversation is the longest running and best example of why the other issues mentioned above go unresolved. Only look at how hard some people will work to maintain their ignorance of evolution in favor of creationism, how they’ll stoutly cling to a religious belief even when faced with empirical evidence that points to the strong probability of its being entirely nonsensical. That single example illustrates why we’ve made no significant changes in the way we interact with our environment, even in the face of overwhelming data showing the harm we continue to do.
As a species we’re both incredibly stubborn and incredibly prone to habit. These two things when combined can be mortally detrimental to progress and growth. When you add to that the fact that most people just do what they’ve always done for no other reason than “because that’s just what you do” and the fact that in both religion and other forms of big business there are bodies of people who control immense fortunes and wield huge amounts of power who actively work to ensure that people won’t evolve in their thinking, it’s astounding that we’ve managed to gain the small progresses forward that we have. That goes for both The Conversation, and our thinking toward the other issues I mentioned.
In 1963 Martin Luther King gave his famous speech about his dream that America would live up to the promise that all men are created equal. Dr King inspired a nation and as a result his dream has come a long way toward being realized. Of course I’m no Dr. King, and I don’t think I’m likely to inspire a social revolution of my own, but like Dr. King I have a dream.
In my dream I see an endless audience, reaching back to the horizon in every direction. People of all races, and creeds, all colours, and social backgrounds, of all levels of material wealth and intellectual ability mingle without distinction or division. There is a buzz of excitement and constructive energy in the air. The world’s greatest minds, thoughtful and educated experts from any number of disciplines, gather before this great host to present and discuss, to share theories and ideas, and outline policies and plans. I see a grand discussion by informed and rational participants based on solid well thought out and well-organized evidences. In the great noise of discovery and exploration the petty self-interested bickering of special interests is washed away. People grow together, united not by fear or ignorance or a need for comforting mythology, but by curiosity and the search for honest to goodness answers. In my dream “right” promotes the best possible good for everyone and “bad” is that which detracts from that best possible good. The careful study of those experts leads to real world action by those in power, and as a result lives are bettered and positive change is realized. In my dream eyes are opened and blinders cast off. Ancient prejudices, superstitions and artificial boundaries between people melt away in the face of education, understanding, and cooperation. In my dream the thoughtful intelligent work of those first experts spawns exponential cascades of thought study and new research, the boundaries of knowledge are pushed back, the frontiers of understanding are opened up and humankind begins to answer its long-held promise at last. Each new experiment, idea, and discovery ignites a pinprick light; soon those little lights grow to fill and illuminate what was once a vast and daunting darkness. I see a people lifted up, not by the hand of some external god, or on the backs of winged angels. I see a people elevated by its own long ignored ability to band together, to discuss rationally and reach a reasonable accord together, and to overcome the baser, more primitive aspects of our nature.
Unfortunately unlike our imagined president I don’t wake up and think “I can sell that.” I wake and think of the people who are called “Doctor” who believe that the world is only 6000 years old, the parents who refuse treatment for a sick child in favor of prayer, or the college student who straps on a bomb vest in the name of jihad and I despair for the future of the species…