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Atheism: One Step Toward Salvation.

Stairs

“Do you have anything positive to add? You don’t like god or religion or theism, we get it. Where is your proposal for fostering peace and unity? How does your belief encourage acceptance and connection with our fellow humans? Where are the inclusive ideas that make Atheism better for everyone?”

The above is me paraphrasing something I read recently, though it wasn’t new or unique and I’ve read or heard many versions over the years. It is something Anti-theists, outspoken atheists and non-theists hear a lot of.  The implication that we’re cold angry people mad at the world and content to kick sand out of spite is not an uncommon viewpoint. Unfortunately there are those Atheists out there that actually do fit this view. I’d say however that by and large this depiction of atheists and especially activist atheists is an overly simplistic falsehood maintained to marginalize and dismiss an uncomfortable point of view.

It’s true, I don’t like the ideas of god, religion or theism, but as for “we get it” it doesn’t seem as though you do. I don’t take this stance to rebel or offend. It’s not because I’m an anarchist or due to my corrupted or absent morals, and it certainly isn’t because I imagine myself smarter or in any way superior to the believer. The considerations that make me an atheist are numerous and varied but the primary drive of my anti-theism is the very fact that religion, and indeed all faith, divides, deludes excludes and insulates. I am an atheist because I seek those virtues listed above, and because history demonstrates that faith and religion are the single greatest barriers to acceptance, unity and education that our species has ever faced.

I reject any idea that requires the suspension (or compartmentalization) of critical thought. I distrust any system that can look down on reason as a lesser thing than assertion or faith. I oppose any view which has the inherent ability to allow it’s adherents to pretend that there is some inferiority between the genders, or asserts that a person’s sexual preference marks them out as evil or damaged. Perhaps most importantly I recognize that to decry these acts and attitudes while supporting belief systems that promote and profess them is hypocrisy.

How does atheism promote unity and acceptance you ask? It doesn’t, not on its own anyway. Atheism is a gateway, it’s the path to the acceptance of the fact that there’s no magic secret, no ghost in the machine. At its finest, in my opinion, Atheism should lead to the twin truths of Humanism and Rationalism. It should lead a person to understand that only through the acceptance of evidence, the cultivation of knowledge and the taking of considered and rational action can anything of worth actually be accomplished.

Quite simply acceptance and inclusion are encouraged by accepting responsibility for ourselves and our world and by levelling the playing field, making the criteria for “truth” and “right” the same for everyone. Humanism shows us that we are the architects of our reality; that change, reform, and salvation must come not from some outside source but from ourselves.  Rationalism requires that we open ourselves to accepting reason and science as our guides. By these methods we are more likely to take proactive steps, and come to more uniform and consistent conclusions. Thus we are more in control of our circumstances and more united ideologically. By holding to testable, verifiable truth rather than declared (and utterly subjective) divine revelation, we declare ourselves open to having our views challenged and our conclusions falsified. These ideals can only lead to a more elevated group consciousness and a more cooperative, peaceful coexistence with our fellow humans. When we base our views on reason rather than faith it helps us to see the world for what it is, it allows us to better match our solutions to the actual world.

There are those who advocate pretending beliefs don’t matter or that all opinions and ideas are equally valid and plausible. This is their answer for and guiding our species into the future, to just let anyone think whatever they like and to pretend that beliefs don’t have consequences.  It seems to me however that the best way to unite, uplift and heal our species, and our world is to judge our ideas, our beliefs and our actions by the light of fact and the criteria of reason and commonsense.

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Definition Swap

Weinberg

There is a large and multi-pronged effort out there to define certain words in such varied and nebulous terms as to rob them of any concrete meaning whatsoever. The word in particular I want to address is “God” but it is not alone, “Truth” is another excellent example of the sort of selective redefinition I’m talking about. Both of these words are used so often, and in so many differing, contradictory, and utterly subjective ways that one could be forgiven for thinking that they don’t actually have objective definitions at all.

I say one could be forgiven, but never excused; misinformation no matter how well meant or innocent of intention should never be excused, it must be unapologetically corrected. “God” with a capital “G” can safely be defined (at least by the dictionaries I checked) as “The one supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.” The concept of “God” is a creation of the Old Testament, which is the defining and original source of the idea of monotheism. It is responsible for the very idea of a single all-knowing all-powerful deity. Before its advent the capitalized “God” did not exist. Before its spread the only concept of deity was that of “god” (note the lowercase) or rather of “gods”. These were lesser, limited creatures with finite abilities and knowledge. This word “god” is a word you don’t really see much in the world anymore, having been largely stamped out by the proponents of its capitalized cousin.

As I said in the opening the effort to change the definition of God is multi-pronged. Pantheists like to claim things like “God is the universe!” while moderate Christians or fundamentalist moderates like to say “God is love” or “God is the best parts of ourselves” and spiritualists and mysticists add to the clamour with “God is energy!” and “God is the laughter of little children” or whatever you like in substitution. They all have different definitions, or redefinitions, but their motivations for changing the definition are all basically the same.

I do not think that the perpetrators of this definition sleight of hand choose their words at random. I think that the words “God” and “Truth” were chosen for very specific reasons. The word “God” morphed from its true definition referring to the all-powerful monotheist god Yahweh to become the anthropomorphized spirit of every good thing once people began to recognize the unquestionable monstrousness of the original character. As we advanced as a species we learned more, we grew more moral and more sociable and unsurprisingly the personality of God laid out in the Old Testament lost its luster for some. Rather than move on from the mythology entirely however some simply kept the parts of god they liked, and discarded the rest. The evolution of the definition of God is exactly the same sort of selective interpretation that fundamentalist moderates use when deciding which parts of their various holy books to advocate and which to dismiss.

Now we come to the second word I mentioned, another victim of constant redefinition and rebranding, the word “Truth”. This word we hear all the time, and most of us would probably say we have a good idea of what it means. I think it’s fair to say that at its simplest and most direct truth means “that which is in accordance with reality or fact.” This definition of truth is the basis of all knowledge, scholarship, science, and critical inquiry. It’s what makes mathematics work, it’s what makes planes fly…and there are large groups of people in the world who want you to believe that it doesn’t exist. They’ll tell you the all truth is subjective. They’ll say that we each have our own truths and that they are all equally true and all equally valid. “It is overly simplistic,” they’ll chorus, “to assume that something is false just because there is contradictory evidence.” If there is no objective standard for truth, if everything is true then there is no basis for criticism and no mechanism for challenge or reform. This is exactly the type of atmosphere religion and theism in general require to not just survive but thrive.

So with “God” safely sanitized to fit their particular attitudes or proclivities and “Truth” relegated to the realm of opinion it becomes impossible say that ANY definition is incorrect because it is true to them. So the pantheist who declares that the universe is God is just as right as the fundamentalist moderate who says that god is love. It is faith without conviction, it is Old Testament fan fiction.

A lot of atheists will be quick to say “the bible isn’t evidence.” I do it myself all the time. Yet I will concede that the bible is better evidence than your unsubstantiated personal relationship with infinity. Subjective truths are very real and very valid, we all have them. A rational reasonable person learns to differentiate between the subjective truths of their individual reality and reach deeper to the fundamental real objective truths of reality.

Wrong Again Religion!

marriage

I’ve noticed a growing trend of Christians complaining about being “attacked” for their beliefs about the “sanctity” of what they call “traditional marriage”. My first impulse is to point out the fact that Christianity is not the oppressed minority under siege from a massive and powerful conspiracy to destroy and deny it its rights. It is not the victim in this situation, but the victimizer.  I’ve tried that tack however and had very little success with it so I’m going to try something a little different.

Since I’m trying to build an argument to make Christians understand, it seems only right to start with the bible. It is, after all, the Christian instruction manual for life; it must contain their concept of “Traditional Marriage” and lay it out plainly, right?

Shockingly however, in the Bible, marriage is not limited to a consensual union between one man and one woman. There are, in fact, any number of acceptable forms of marriage laid out in the pages of the Bible and most forms of marriage it mentions don’t even require both parties to consent! Not only is consent not required but there are SEVERAL variations of non-consensual marriage.

Genesis tells us of Judah, who forced the wife of his dead son to marry and sleep with his other son. (Genesis 38:6-10)  In Deuteronomy 21 we learn that soldiers who are attracted to enemy women are allowed to take them as their wives so long as the soldier in question waits a month between taking her and raping her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-13) In the next chapter we learn that rape is considered an acceptable form of marriage proposal so long as the man is willing to pay his victim/fiance’s father the required fifty shekels. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) and in Exodus we learn that a master can force his slaves to marry regardless of their will. (Exodus 21:4)

However the Bible isn’t all non-consensual rape marriages, as I said it is open to many interpretations of nuptials. For instance, according to the Bible, Yahweh has no problem with polyamorous or polygamous relationships. According to (1 Kings 11:1-3), King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Christians today make the claim that God punished Solomon for his polygamy, yet the fact is the Bible says quite plainly that Solomon was punished for marrying foreign women who lead him to worship other gods (1 Kings 11:1-2, 9-10). According to  (1Chronicles 3) King David had seven wives. Regardless of modern spin on the situation both men are generally regarded as paragons of scripture and high in god’s favour, and nowhere in the text is there any question about whether their version of marriage was a correct one.

Christian apologists will tell you that Jesus defined marriage in (Matthew 19:4-6) “Haven’t you read, he replied, that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh So they are no longer two, but one flesh.’ Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” yet this is not a definition. Christ never condemned the previously mentioned forms of marriage or said that this was the only acceptable form of union. At most what you’ve got here is yet another form of marriage in the text further demonstrating the elasticity of the term in the scriptures. And a careful reading of the passage and his concluding statement “let no one separate” reveals that Jesus’ primary intent in those verses was to forbid divorce—something which modern Christians readily ignore.

There is, I assure you, much more than can be said on the subject of biblical marriage but suffice it to say that the modern conception of consensual one-man-one-woman marriage is, by the lights of the Bible, a new and radical departure from what the fathers of the faith would call a traditional marriage.

As for why conservative Christian views come under scrutiny from secular society the answer to that is simple. When one looks back through history the positions of conservative Christianity are, almost without exception, horrendously  backward and bigoted positions based largely on personal bias, ignorance, and of course selective interpretation of the scriptures. Let’s look at some examples.

SLAVERY

Perhaps the most striking example of conservative Christianity’s failure to evolve with the times is the conservative defence and fostering of the practice of slavery. The abolition movement met constant and often violent opposition from the faithful when it came to the question of freedom for slaves in America and England. The Reverend Alexander Campbell one of the founders of the Restoration Movement famously  said: “There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral.”

That is an opinion that was shared by Jefferson Davis, the first and only President of the Confederate States of America as evidenced by the following quote:

“Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency of the arts.”

                How did they justify this position you ask? They turned to the ultimate authority on law and morality of course. They delved into their bibles and came up with examples like the following to show that God wanted slaves right where they were.

 “Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” Genesis 16:9

“There were still people left of the Amorites, Hittites, Perrizzites, Hevites, and Jebusites. Solomon conscripted the descendants of all these people remaining in the land whom the Israelites could not exterminate to serve as slave labor. As it is to this day”  1 Kings 9: 20-21

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.” Ephesians 6:5-8

WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE

Female equality in our society was a long fought battle that met with strong opposition from both men and women. One of the groups strongest in their opposition to this equality was, inevitably , Conservative Christianity. The idea being that it was unnatural and sinful for women to reach above the subservient, weaker position they’d been given by god. This position, they assured us, was upheld by holy scripture and they used bible verses like those that follow to anchor their prejudice.

 “For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.”  1 Corinthians 11:8-9

 “Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands.” 2 Timothy 3:1-7

                Now I hear the Christians screaming “There were Christians fighting for suffrage and abolition too!!” and they’re right. There absolutely were Christians working for abolition and suffrage, and their work would have gone a whole lot easier if it hadn’t been for the Parties of God pretending they have some unique understanding of morality or private warrant to decide “right” for all mankind.

I’ve written it before and I’ll likely write it again. Religion provides no unique benefits to the world, it does how ever have unique pitfalls which make it an unnecessary and dangerous extravagance. The Christian viewpoint has been on the wrong side of every major social change in history. The “gay marriage debate” shouldn’t be a debate. Once again the bible has provided, as it always does, a justification to cling to outdated stigmas and stereotypes. The rest of us, secular society, will once again drag you kicking and screaming toward modern morality and basic humanistic consideration for your fellow humans. We’ll do it because you don’t get to choose how we live, and when we’re done and we’ve finished all the work you can all sit around and declare that, just like the Church freed the slaves and gave women the vote,  the Church brought equality to “the gays”.

Too Many Messiahs

Messiah, the word means “anointed” and the title declares the promised deliverer of the Jewish nation prophesied in the Hebrew Bible. It’s a word we hear often associated with Christianity and the character of Jesus of Nazareth, but is it deserved?  The New Testament is full of assertions that Jesus fulfilled many prophecies from the Old Testament and therefore was the promised Messiah, but a great many of those prophecies seem to be misinterpretations, corruptions, or not actually prophecies at all. (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jim_lippard/fabulous-prophecies.html)

Aside from whether or not Jesus merited the title is the fact that he wasn’t even close to the only one to claim it. There where at least seven possible claimants to the title between the years of 4bc and 36 CE, Jesus of Nazareth being only one.(http://www.livius.org/men-mh/messiah/messianic_claimants00.html)

Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian most responsible for giving us a non-biblical source of information in this region at this time, records several other leaders of groups who likely saw them as the Messiah. These men led groups similar to, and in some cases larger than, the character of Jesus of Nazareth and in many cases they demonstrated actions and personalities more in keeping with the tradition of David (king, military leader etc)

One of these was Simon of Peraea. (Sources: Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 2.57-59 and Jewish Antiquities17.273-277; Tacitus, Histories, 5.9.) Simon was a slave to Herod the Great who named himself king after Herod’s death and led several thousand revolutionaries who attacked and burned the King’s palace at Jericho and several other royal holdings in the area. The account tells us that Simon was seen immediately as a threat and the Romans quickly mobilized to destroy him. Simon was beheaded in 4bc and every one of his followers was crucified. It should be pointed out that Josephus gives more words to the tale of Simon than he does to the story of Jesus. Does this mean he gave it more importance? Maybe not, but it does demonstrate that he didn’t give any SPECIAL importance to Jesus’ claim.

Athronges ( Sources: Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 2.60-65 and Jewish Antiquities17.278-284.) was a shepherd who declared himself king and messiah and along with his brothers and their followers led a rebellion against Rome and their puppet king Herod Archelaus, son of Herod the Great. According to Josephus their rebellion killed a great many of both the Romans and the king’s forces. Athronges’s rebellion might have gone on for as long as two years, using raiding tactics against Roman supply trains and other targets before it was finally whittled away by the legions. Josephus’ account does not tell us what became of Athronges himself but it does say that two of his brothers were killed in various battles, one was captured and one surrendered when it became clear the cause was lost.

While both of these figures and the character of Jesus of Nazareth may have claimed or been claimed to be the messiah by others none of them actually meets the requirements laid out by the prophets of the Old Testament. The text lays out very specific requirements and ways by which the Jews will know the Messiah:

1) He must be Jewish. (Deuteronomy 17:15, Numbers 24:17)

2) He must be a member of the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10) and a direct male descendent of both King David (I Chronicles 17:11, Psalm 89:29-38, Jeremiah 33:17, II Samuel 7:12-16) and King Solomon. (I Chronicles 22:10, II Chronicles 7:18)

3) He must gather the Jewish people from exile and return them to Israel. (Isaiah 27:12-13, Isaiah 11:12)

4) He must rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. (Micah 4:1)

5) He must bring world peace. (Isaiah 2:4, Isaiah 11:6, Micah 4:3)

6) He must influence the entire world to acknowledge and serve one G-d. (Isaiah 11:9, Isaiah 40:5, Zephaniah 3:9)

All of these criteria for the Messiah are best stated in the book of Ezekiel chapter 37:24-28:

“And My servant David will be a king over them, and they will all have one shepherd, and they will walk in My ordinances, and keep My statutes, and observe them, and they shall live on the land that I gave to Jacob My servant…and I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant and I will set my sanctuary in their midst forever and My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their G-d and they will be My people. And the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forever.”

If an individual fails to fulfill even one of these conditions, he cannot be the Messiah.”

(http://www.debunkingskeptics.com/DebunkingChristians/Page26.htm)

A later figure than any of the three already mentioned comes much closer to meeting the requirements laid out above than the Nazarene, Simon, or Athronges. His name was Simon ben Kosiba and he was active against the Romans in Jerusalem a full century after the supposed time of the death of Jesus. Ben Kosiba appears in several Jewish sources as well as early Christian and Roman sources. In 132 ce he led a successful rebellion against the Romans routing the Tenth Legion and retaking Jerusalem. He reintroduced sacrifices at the place where the temple had once stood and was declared the Messiah by Rabbi Aqiba the official religious leader of the Jews in this age, though of course there were those who disputed it.

Simon ben Kosiba waged one of the most costly and successful campaigns that the Romans faced in Judea. So successful that the Emperor Hadrian was forced to bring in three legions and several auxiliary units of reinforcements as well as one of his best generals from Britain to meet the challenge.

Even with all of this manpower however the fighting was brutal and in the end the Romans were forced to wage a slow and ugly war of attrition using terror and atrocity to dishearten the Jewish rebels. Cassius Dio the Greek historian put the number of Jewish dead at 580, 000 and said that fifty of their most important outposts and 985 well known villages were destroyed. (Cassius Dio, Roman history 69.13.2-3) For three years however there was an independent Jewish state where there had only been a Roman client kingdom for centuries before. ben Kosiba’s revolt came closest of any messianic claimant in antiquity to meeting the old testament requirements.

Why did so many men in such a relatively short time seek, or have given to them, the title of Messiah? The answer, put simply is hope, anger, frustration, oppression, and desperation. The Jewish people were an oppressed people in their own land, ruled by a line of gentile kings supported by a foreign army. They were heavily taxed, their traditions, and indeed their very way of life was, it must have seemed to them, polluted every day by these alien invaders. Is it so surprising that rebels should arise, or that they should use the religious zeal of their fellow Jews to recruit followers and strengthen resolve?

Like so many other examples older traditions stolen, mutated and adapted into Christianity the use of the title of Messiah was no more than a way to make it easier to fold Jewish adherents into the flock, to incite existing passions and make assimilation easier. The fathers of Christianity used the apparent messianic nature of the character Jesus to justify the stature they gave him, but it wasn’t a unique title, and it wasn’t a title that he had any right to. The man Jesus no more met the requirements of being the Jewish Messiah than any other claimant in history thus far; and in fact that he didn’t even do as well as some others. As with every other claim made about the character Jesus when the evidence is looked at dispassionately we get, to paraphrase Shakespeare “A tale full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

Atheists Against Atheism??

12

I spend a lot of time talking about the hateful, baffling, and often false things Theists say and believe on this blog. Today I’m going to mix it up a bit and discuss another group and an incomprehensible position I just can’t get my head around. The group I’m going to be talking about are atheists, a very specific kind of atheist which some of you may recognize. Some of you may even be this kind of atheist. If you are maybe you can help me understand…

There is a group of atheists out there in the world who have taken the time to think about the issue, they’ve pondered, considered and (hopefully) studied and become comfortable enough with their position to openly call themselves atheists. This particular kind of Atheist has determined, just as the rest of us have, that religion and religious claims are false, baseless, utterly man-made, and often times harmful however this sub-set of atheists regularly and actively call down anyone who challenges a theist’s religious assertions, or points out the falsehoods and inconsistencies in their doctrine. These people ostensibly reject the idea of a god, reject all forms of religion but see no problem with the practice, and are actually affronted by the more aggressive species of atheist who choose to debate and discuss the issue.  I really don’t understand this type of atheism. I suppose one could chalk it up to some of them just being “live and let live” types not interested in pushing their own views or “agenda” on anyone but if that’s the case why are they involved in the discussion in the first place?

I write and debate on the topic for a couple of reasons: 1) I’m an AntiTheist.  I honestly believe that religion and religious thinking are divisive, detrimental and dangerous, not just to those individuals snared by it but to all of humankind. 2) I know that there are more plausible, more demonstrable, more awe-inspiring truths out there that explain our origins, and indeed all origins far more correctly and satisfyingly than any faith system ever has.  I value knowledge, study, learning, and honest inquiry.  I myself have learned the vast majority of what I know because someone took the time to put their thoughts to paper, to debate and discuss, and I am eternally grateful for that. If I can make just one person  actually consider and question what they profess to believe and that leads them to go out with new questions and seek actual answers I’m a success.  I can’t imagine a better pay off for an hour or two of typing. I consider any amount of “yelling into the wind” to be well worth that payoff.

I understand those atheists who want no part in the debate, they’ve come to their personal truth, it works for them and they have no interest in convincing others. I understand agnostics who are satisfied to say “I simply don’t know” and leave it at that. What I can’t understand are those Atheists who actively take part in the debate but only to say that they don’t think there should be a debate at all and deride those who foster it. The position against discussion doesn’t make any sense to me. I like talking to thoughtful theists, to be honest I like talking to less than thoughtful theists too. I enjoy the discussion. I like when people make me think, and I like when I can tell I’ve made someone else think. This is how we improve ourselves. I don’t get how anyone can be opposed to that, and it seems especially strange to me to adopt the label “atheist” and then attack those advocating atheism…

If you see encouraging debate, or even taking part in one as “proselytizing” and you’re honestly opposed I can respect that. I disagree, but I can respect it, but to proselytize against proselytizing?? I don’t understand that… It seems to me like an effort to be seen as a superior, more open-minded, less offensive brand of atheist and it comes off, at least to me, as hypocrisy. It seems we’ve developed the secular equivalent of the religious moderate, that species of theist who professes to believe that all outlooks are not only equally worthy of respect but equally valid as truth.

If you want no part in the debate that’s your call and I respect that. If you want to take part in the debate and have a different outlook than I do I welcome your contribution to the discussion. I really do, but if you spend your days advocating against advocacy, if you actively label yourself an atheist but oppose discussion of the “whys” of atheism then as I’ve said several times: I don’t understand you. What is it that drives such an atheist, and how did you come to be an atheist? Did your lack of belief happen in a bubble? You read nothing, discussed nothing, and debated nothing? Really? I doubt it, so why would you deny others the tools that you yourself more than likely took advantage of in forming your opinions?

The Reason for the Season

                   kcic             jitr

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:

AxialTilt

Happy Holidays.

A Quick Plug

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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.

The Atheist People

Selling the Dream

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“…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…

An Issue of Indoctrination

Indoctrination, the word comes up all the time in conversations between theists and non-theists but let’s actually look at it closely; what is indoctrination? Is it necessarily a bad thing? Or is it just a matter of what we indoctrinate people with that’s the problem? Well first things first let’s define the word. Merriam Webster defines indoctrination as follows:

Indoctrination: 1) To instruct especially in fundamentals or rudiments.

2) To imbue with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion, point of view, or principle.

So looking at the definitions given one can see that a case could be made, without much difficulty, that there are cases where the first definition of indoctrination is a good and necessary thing. Someone might argue, for instance, that children should be indoctrinated with proper fire safety lessons, proper respect for the dangers associated with sharp objects and the risks of crossing the street.

I disagree with this argument for the simple reason that I personally prefer education over indoctrination in all cases and situations. What is the difference? Well there is, at least to my mind, a huge amount of difference, though it can often be subtle. Indoctrination is, very simply, teaching someone WHAT to think, it is the implantation of sound bites into a person’s head, propaganda. It is “teaching” through repetition and rote without the benefit of multiple viewpoints or considered study. Education on the other hand encourages the person in question to study everything they can from every perspective they can, to take it all in and THEN judge what they’ve learned according to their own intellect, morality, sense of right and wrong and so forth in order to form a worldview.

Religion uses the indoctrination model over the education model for very specific, and quite obvious, reasons. Those reasons boil down to the simple fact that everything we actually KNOW demonstrates that their worldview is often factually wrong and always at the very least highly improbable. If theists were to send their children into schools without any previous indoctrination and allow them to study and learn and draw their own conclusions I honestly believe that the number of theists in the world would drop off sharply, and so do they (that’s why they don’t do it more often). Would they endanger the existence of their various theologies doing so? Sadly, no probably not, because for every person who is freed by study and considered rational thought there are two more who are more than willing to suborn their reason in favor of a collection of comforting promises that no fellow human is actually qualified to give them.

If you look at the growth in atheism and non-theism in the last century there is, I am certain, a correlation between it’s rise and the enhancement of global education systems. It becomes harder and harder to insulate and isolate oneself from the proofs of science and the considerations of reason. Oh it can be done, and as a matter of fact it is done regularly by a great many people but in order to accomplish it you have to do one of two things A) Actively segregate yourself from any topic or content that might challenge or infringe upon your faith (as my wife’s creationist friend who I’ve previously mentioned does) or B) To compartmentalize yourself in such a way that you can accept all of the gifts and truths of science, history, and the other secular disciplines with one part of yourself and with another still fully embrace whatever your particular set of ancient myths, precepts, and strictures are.

This second kind of person is by far the most prevalent form of theist on the planet. This is the personality type of the “religious moderate” who is, in every other facet of their life, a perfectly rational, reasonable, capable and intelligent human being. If you were to insist to this type of person that the local river had spontaneously turned to tomato sauce they would not believe without some sort of evidence, and would tell you so in no uncertain terms and yet at the same time they will admit unapologetically that they subscribe to a system of belief based on nothing more than a two thousand year old collection of writings and an ill-defined personal feeling.

These moderates are as much a product of indoctrination as the less frequent fundamentalist. In the case of the fundamentalist the indoctrination is total, becoming not just the core of their worldview but the entirety of it. There is nothing but the indoctrination. The bible says god hates fags (and it does) and so it is the simple unvarnished truth and, as in the case of the Westboro Baptist Church, the people who believe and spout this ignorant, hateful rubbish will tell you quite unashamedly that they are doing so for your benefit, and even out of their love for you, that you may come to see the truth. As terrible, sad and shocking as this outlook is it’s the moderate group that shocks me more however. Their indoctrination is a more subtle, quiet, and insidious kind. They don’t present the loud mouthed, wild-eyed frenzy of their fundamentalist cousins, they don’t spout the ill-considered rhetoric or shoulder the garish and offensive signage, or even dismiss the benefits of modern technology and medicine yet somewhere inside them there exists an invisible but impermeable wall that no amount of fact, or reason or evidence can penetrate.

Coming back to the question I started with: Is indoctrination necessarily a bad thing? Or is it just a matter of what we indoctrinate people with? For myself, I do think it is always inferior to education for making intelligent, thoughtful, considering people, but then again that’s not really the aim of indoctrination is it? So yes indoctrination is always a bad thing. Encouraging mindless following of any precept or principle regardless of any altruistic or well-meaning intent is, in my opinion, wrong. Indoctrination robs people of the ability to truly learn, it kills the impulse to question, and shrivels the drive to discover. These abilities impulses and drives are the most fundamental right and responsibility we have as human beings and should be treated with more respect.

The Ghosts of Theists’ Future?

                 How we think is, I believe, much more important than what we actually think. The most important aspect of the change in thinking that needs to occur in our society is how we arrive at truth. The importance of critical thinking, of reasoned study, and of rationality cannot be overstated. Superstition, mysticism, and religious thinking are not really the disease; they are merely a symptom of a more serious problem. The human condition seems to consist, at least in part, of an all-consuming desire for easy answers, a need to simplify the complex and deny the unpleasant aspects of our reality at all costs. It is these aspects of the human personality that are the real enemy of progress and true understanding. If these problems are not addressed even the complete abolition of all existing theological systems wouldn’t be a solution. We’d simply find new myths to replace the old.

Imagine a distant future where humanity has forgotten us and our civilization. Where our great cities exist only as ruins and our history is only vaguely and partially recalled. Without an evolution in our thinking it’s all too easy for me to imagine the effects.

Consider what would happen if future archaeologists unearthed ancient documents that depicted an account of a being who descended from the heavens, was raised by human parents, displayed superhuman powers and abilities,  used those abilities to combat evil and protect the innocent, died to protect his people and returned from the dead to continue his struggle.

                     

              Would this story be likely to become the basis of a religion?  Would people be likely to believe these documents even if no other historical source gave them any validity or even mentioned the events in question? I think it is quite likely. What if other digs around the globe turned up more accounts of this being and artifacts related to these tales? Would apologists claim that the sheer amount of things that mention this being serves as proof of its reality regardless of the fact that science and history show no evidence for such a thing?

       

                   Is it likely that people would devote their lives to the idea of this savior and his exploits building massive monuments and congregations in his honor? Could a concept with no objective basis in reality really become so important to people, so pervasive that it would become the basis of entire communities?

           

                Could other finds from history lead the followers of this new religion to have their beliefs tested by others with a different belief system? Would these various groups of followers feel strongly enough about their beliefs to argue and even fight over them?

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What would be the result of all of this struggling between groups of people who each hold beliefs that have no basis in anything but the interpretation of partial accounts of events that science and reason tell us never actually occurred?

           

                  How do we avoid such a fate? We teach critical thinking, and live according to the principles of logic and reason. Require a rational basis for the things you believe. Find out about the realities of existence, find out why things are the way they are rather than just accepting someone else’s interpretation of fragmentary source material. Judge your beliefs not according to whether they’re comforting but according to their validity in the face of the reality around you. In a nutshell, question, study, explore and always challenge your conclusions.