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:
The world was made perfect, humanity was made in the image of the creator and endowed with free will and free choice. The “fallen” “sinful” state of the world is the result of the wrong choices made by mankind as a result of free will and only an acceptance of god and its will can heal the broken world and ensure paradise everlasting. These are things that we’ve all heard before. This is the theist’s justification for the state of reality in the face of their assertion of a loving god, however there is one major problem with this argument. The problem is the idea that “god” in this scenario is omnipotent and all-powerful. Why is that a problem?
If you’re going to assert an omnipotent creator then you’re required to accept all that that entails. First off it means that if such an entity existed it would have been intimately aware of the ramifications of it’s creation before it had even begun. Long before the big bang ever banged an omnipotent creator would have had to know, by definition, every movement of every molecule, and every thought and action of every microbe, animal and individual within this imagined creation.
Free will is defined as: “The power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate. The ability to act at one’s own discretion.” This, obviously, is not possible in a universe monitored and maintained by an all-knowing all-capable life form. If the omnipotent god hypothesis is true then it follows that you act the way you act not because you choose to but because said god chose to allow you to by the initial act of creation. It is patently ridiculous to think that we are in some way capable of acting in contravention to the will of something that is truly omnipotent.
If the god hypothesis is true it leaves us with only two possibilities:
1) There is an omnipotent god and we are, all of us, fulfilling his original design every day: If this possibility is true it would mean that all of the horror of history the witch hunts, inquisitions, holy wars, genocides, murders, rapes and various other atrocities were foreseen and are part of the design. If this is the case then how can we possibly take seriously the idea that this creature we call god has any warm feelings at all for us and what makes it worthy of anything but our distain?
2) The god which created the universe is not omnipotent and is subject to errors and mistakes: this possibility addresses the fact that god is apparently so displeased with the make-up of it’s creations, so reproachful of the instincts and drives which it implanted in us to begin with. If this option is truly the case though why is there any reason to believe that worship of it would result in anything of better design or construction than that which is already before us?
So either god is perfect all knowing and coldly indifferent to the trials and tribulations of we lower life forms or it is loving but bumbling and incapable. These are, in my view the only rational possibilities available under the umbrella of the god hypothesis.
Of course there is another possibility. It is possible that we are natural phenomena resulting from a complex and not fully understood process of growth change and development. It is possible we are beholden to no one and nothing for our existence, and that we are limited to a finite period of time before we break down and cease to be. Under this possibility our actions are explained by our upbringing, culture, traditions and education. Our various crimes and cruelties are explained by the fact that we are imperfectly evolved creatures whose adrenal glands are too large and whose frontal lobes are to small. Under this possibility we live in a universe of cause and effect in which we have to make a conscious effort to better our own circumstances and those of the fellow creatures around us or simply watch them both deteriorate. This possibility requires us to act as stewards of ourselves and our world. To take responsibility for the shape of our reality and to put away the notion that it will all work out regardless of us. It requires us to act. If not out of any altruistic motivation then out of simple self-interest. In my view this possibility is the one most likely to result in the kind of radical shift in perception and action that I honestly believe is necessary if we’re to survive as a species. Whether or not the god hypothesis is true is, to me, of less importance as whether or not it is good for us collectively. I think an honest weighing of the pros and cons throughout our history points to the fact that it is not, and yet we cling to this support blanket while it’s influence divides us, distracts us and ultimately imperils all of us.
There’s a huge population of people in the world who don’t believe that the bible is the perfect word of god. They don’t believe that the teachings of any church are inviolate. They don’t except the truth of miracles without evidence or believe that just because a preacher or pontiff declares something that it immediately has the stamp of truth.
This sounds like a description of non-theists but that’s not the group I’m talking about. The group I’m referring to here is the species of theists generally referred to as “Religious Moderates” This particular brand of theist is by far the most numerous, they exist in all denominations, faiths and walks of life. Most of these accept that the world is far older than a few thousand years, believe in the value of medical science to combat illness, accept the basic truth of evolutionary theory, and have even been known to wear garments made of blended fabrics!
The religious moderate is in every way a rational thoughtful modern minded person, with the exception that they profess to have a belief in a god of some kind. These believers however aren’t necessarily constrained by their “holy” books, as a matter of fact they’ll often quickly admit that the bible or the quran, or whichever book you discuss with them is full of contradictions, inaccuracies, terrible atrocities, ridiculously severe laws, and bigoted judgements. They’ll tell you before you can even get it out that the “holy” book in question is the work of man, and is therefore not a true barometer of god’s will or his intent. The truly frustrating part of all of this is that they’ll still use pieces of that same “holy” book to defend their “faith”. A christian moderate will, for instance, disavow the entire old testament, talk about how the stories are metaphorical and not meant to be taken literally. They’ll explain how the grandiose claims made are just poetic language and then in the same sentence talk about the ministries and miracles of christ as though they’re from a distinct and more reputable source.
This seems, at least to me, like trying to have your cake and eat it too. “I accept that the book is flawed and wrong, and i don’t believe a whole lot of it, except for these parts here, they’re literal historical truth.” This seems like roughly the same thing as saying “All astrology is crap, except for MY horoscope, obviously that’s true.” A great many of these people will talk about how the supernatural aspects of the bible aren’t the most important part, how the message of brotherhood, charity and compassion, a message which is verifiably not unique or original to christianity, is the most important part. If that’s true, I would ask, why is that message contingent upon there being a supernatural creator? Why is it necessary that jesus have special abilities or superhuman powers in order for this message to have weight? Confucius, Gandhi and several other thinkers both before and after christ preached almost exactly the same things without the need of a claim of deity. There is no Temple of Gandhi, no Gospel of the Mahatma.
There are several other aspects of what I’m terming “The Moderate Problem” that equally flummox and irritate me in regards to theological argument, and ultimately the issue of whether or not the world is better off with or without the, in my view fallacious, belief in a supreme being. Those aspects of the problem will have to wait for another day and another post however.