I sometimes find I can see a lot of sense in what church leaders have to say, and I sometimes find myself in broad agreement with Richard Dawkins, but it’s not often that I find myself agreeing with both on a single issue. This is one of those cases, because I really like Christmas. It’s hardly surprising that senior members of the church agree with me there – it’s a very literal example of a “Pope found to be Catholic” story – but finding out about Dawkins’ views seems to surprise a lot of people. I’m not all that surprised, though, because I seem to view Christmas in a very similar way.
For one thing, there are a lot of elements of Christmas that are entirely cultural and secular, if anything owing more to the pagan celebration of Yule and the Winter Solstice than the Christian festival which was later positioned right on top of it. There’s nothing particularly Christian about mince pies, holly or Christmas trees, for example, and even where traditions appear to have been started or encouraged by the church, their connection to the Christmas story tends to be tenuous at best.
I also love Christmas carols, even though I rarely find much that I can agree with in the words. Once you’ve taken out the implausible supernatural events from the Biblical account and the bizarre additions which are best descibed as “pious tradition”, there’s very little content left, but that doesn’t bother me. Give me a carol (with a few exceptions – Little Donkey and Away in a Manger are too awful for words) and I’ll raise the roof with my singing. I generally find I have little inclination to sing songs and hymns I don’t agree with, but in this case I find it almost impossible not to.
I don’t know why that should be. Is it because I value the tradition over the truth of the claims? Because I associate the carols with happy times of celebration? Because they’re familiar tunes which return year after year, forming the backdrop to Christmas celebrations for as long as I can remember? Because I only hear them at a certain time of year, so I’m always left wanting more? Probably a bit of each, but that’s largely guesswork on my part.
And to be honest, I find the story at the root of Christmas as unlikely and unbelievable as almost any in the Bible, with practically every element scoring a 10 on my personal WTFometer. I’m generally pretty obsessive about the truth of any claims that are made, so it seems very odd that I can enjoy a celebration based on a narrative about which I’m so dubious. Maybe it’s because the story’s so well-established in my mind that I can get away without thinking about it too much. Maybe it’s about belonging to a sort of shared culture. Or maybe I’ve been taken in by a romanticised Victorian idea of what Christmas is.
So is it a good thing that I find it so easy to join in when I find the underlying story so incredibly implausible? I suppose it depends on your point of view. Some hardline Christians and atheists might feel annoyed that I want to have my cake and eat it, but I hope most would be happy for me to celebrate an occasion which has always been bigger than the church in whatever way makes sense to me. And while irregular churchgoers who only appear at Christmas and Easter are hardly the sort of engagement the church wants, it’s surely better for them if such irregulars exist than not.
In any case, whatever your beliefs or practice, I wish you a very merry Christmas.
It seems there’s a bit of a rumpus in Santa Monica, where atheists are accused of “hijacking” a traditional nativity display. The display, which is generally used by various denominations to create a series of scenes from the nativity, was disrupted when atheists entered a ballot to be allocated plots, and won 18 of the 21 available, using the spaces to display anti-religious slogans.
There’s almost certainly a lot of background to this story that you can’t get from reading a few blogs and reports, but it’s an interesting story, and one that cuts to the heart of the battles over freedom of and freedom from religion in the US. I confess to having limited knowledge of the US constitution, but it seems to me that the claim that Christians’ 1st amendment rights are being infringed is just so much nonsense. Even if it could be argued that this amendment covers the right to use public spaces to convey a religious message, all that’s happening is that a different message is competing on an equal footing for that limited space and winning, surely the very essence of freedom and equality.
I think it could also be argued, as the area in question is a public park, that the displays should fall under the provisions of the separation of church and state. It may be constitutional to allow displays, but in keeping with previous rulings on displaying the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, it would probably only be acceptable if it doesn’t have a predominantly religious purpose, something which (in my entirely non-expert opinion) I think is neatly achieved by the open ballot for allocation of the plots. The alternative is to attempt to make an argument that the nativity and/or Christmas is predominantly cultural, a complex argument and one on which I’m undecided.
The interesting point to me is what the atheists have done about it. The entry into the ballot (making a concerted effort to apply in numbers, forcing a ballot which was rarely needed before) was a tactical masterstroke, resulting in an almost unopposed platform to make their point. But I think their tactical cunning may be matched by their strategic naivety, as whatever the facts and background of the story, this runs the risk of making them look like obsessive killjoys, which is unlikely to win over any who were previously undecided.
Of course, it may be that this is just the final act in a long-running saga of religion versus secularism in the area, and the facts may be rather more complicated than is immediately obvious, but that doesn’t seem consistent with the fact that allocation of the plots has generally been done on the nod in the past. Taking it at face value, it looks like a deliberate effort to act like jerks and annoy Christians and sympathisers. If that’s what they wanted, fair enough, but if they wanted to make a serious point and win a few converts, they might have been better off just taking one plot (even applying for lots to ensure they got some, then allowing the rest to be reallocated) and making a more positive point than “religion is stupid”.
Christians have been guilty of plenty of goading and jerkishness in the past, but if you want to point towards a better, more rational way of life, it doesn’t do you any favours to adopt the habits of the people you’re criticising.
Okay, I’m basically not a very nice person in many ways, and I’m all too aware of my many faults, but this year, my conscience has been pricked after being pointed towards the words of Jeremiah:
This is what the LORD says:
“Do not learn the ways of the nations
or be terrified by signs in the heavens,
though the nations are terrified by them.
For the practices of the peoples are worthless;
they cut a tree out of the forest,
and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.
They adorn it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
so it will not totter.
That seems like a pretty clear denunciation of Christmas trees to me, and prophetic as well, seeing that it was written about 600 years before Jesus was even born. The question is, how much wiggle room is there?
I mean, I have an artificial tree – is that OK? What about if the tree’s real, but is a living tree, or wasn’t grown in a forest? It’s a minefield. Must I have a colour scheme without any silver or gold, is the important point that it shouldn’t contain both silver and gold, or is even that acceptable, as long as it’s balanced with some other colours? I think that would make sense, because just silver and gold can look a bit bland and sterile, but maybe we need some deep thinkers to give some serious theological thought to this. Just as soon as they’ve finished on Ezekiel’s aliens.
(Interestingly, while I was writing this, I discovered that there are some people who genuinely believe this passage prohibits Christmas trees. Or at least, they appear to – Poe’s Law applies as much as ever.)
I got sent yet another implausible urban myth by email recently. As usual, it had been forwarded several times by different people around the world before reaching me, a brief Google of a few key words from the text was enough to find a comprehensive debunking, and the sender was a Christian. The last point is a pattern I’ve only just noticed, but from a few discussions I’ve had, it seems that it may be a general trend, and it got me wondering why that should be. A cynical voice in my head immediately suggested that if you’re prepared to unquestioningly swallow huge chunks of religious doctrine, it probably indicates that your facility for critical thinking isn’t as developed as it might be. An amusing thought, possibly with some truth in it, but my kneejerk fair-minded sense of balance leads me to wonder whether it’s really the best explanation.
The first thing that occurred to me as a counter-argument was conspiracy theories. Again, going by my own experience and anecdote, Christians are relatively unlikely to believe in conspiracies. At least, they don’t generally seem to believe in the usual ones – JFK, moon landings, 9/11, Princess Diana and so on – which I’d expect if they were just believing anything they were told. There’s a complication here, because taking things on trust could possibly be considered consistent with either belief in conspiracy theories or rejection of them, but I think uncritical acceptance ought to result in a certain level of belief in conspiracy theories, depending on the dominant narrative among your friends and acquaintances. So there may be something else going on.
One possible explanation is that it depends on your exposure to the myths. The more friends you have who might receive an email, believe it and pass it on, the more opportunities there are for you to pass it on yourself. Christians tend to know lots of Christians, and these messages tend to have been forwarded many times, so if there’s even a small increase in the likelihood of an individual Christian passing it on, it might lead to a big difference in the number you eventually receive from Christians, although that still doesn’t explain why Christians might be more likely to believe these myths.
It also appears that a lot of emailed myths are specifically Christian in nature, usually being either modern parables related as fact or an attempt to raise awareness of a non-existent threat to Christianity or act of oppression. So it may be that they’re started and circulated by (or at least among) Christians, resulting in a disproportionate number of myths in circulation in those circles. That could explain the imbalance by itself, although it doesn’t address the question of why that should be true. I suspect that Christians are fertile ground for establishing myths, for various reasons, but I’m not so confident about who starts them. I may come back to this another time.
There’s also an interesting psychological aspect to this. It’s well-understood that people are prone to numerous cognitive biases, which make it hard to correctly evaluate new information. In particular, this may be an example of confirmation bias, or possibly in-group bias, manifesting in an overeager acceptance of “facts” which confirm existing beliefs, or an increased tendency to believe stories which appear to come from “your side”.
Of course, this is all predicated on my experience being typical and relevant. My circle of friends may not be typical, and it is a fairly small sample, so I’d be grateful for additional feedback. I’m also aware that we all have cognitive biases, and my perception may be coloured by my own, together with memories of the time many years ago when I was briefly (and very embarrassingly) taken in by the hoary old story about NASA and the sun stopping still.
I’m not ashamed of those biases – as we all have them, the worst thing we can do is pretend that they don’t exist, but I want to do what I can to keep my brain under control, and stay as objective as possible. So please let me know if your experience matches mine, and hopefully, I’ll end up with a more accurate picture than my own rather narrow experience.
I don’t like to see children being indoctrinated with irrational, illogical or nonsensical beliefs. I’m careful to give my boys plenty of information, to be honest, acknowledge uncertainty and try to give them all the information and tools I have at my disposal to learn and investigate for themselves. I even insert my own asides to correct their dinosaur books when they mention brontosauruses. So why do I find myself telling them that there’s such a person as Father Christmas?
I tell myself that it’s traditional, that it’s something everyone grows up with, and which is more or less expected. I ‘m sure the boys will soon be old enough to draw their own conclusions about the truth or otherwise of the story. And I suspect the grandparents would be less than impressed if we were to tell the boys it’s all just a silly story. But I could say exactly the same about religious beliefs, and I clearly don’t treat the two in the same way.
I started out with high ideals. I was going to tell the truth, just not the whole truth. So if asked about Father Christmas, I’d say that I’d heard – or some people say – that he comes and puts presents in your stocking. If that wasn’t enough for an inquisitive boy, I’d add that I’d hung my stocking up every Christmas Eve and it had always been full in the morning. Not a word of a lie. It might even teach them to think carefully about what was actually being said. But that was a bit of a cop-out, and in hindsight, it was never going to last long, seeing that small children could have taught Torquemada a few things about interrogation.
It’s all very well having ideas about being carefully truthful, but you have to have the stomach for it, and you have to plan for every eventuality. Unfortunately, as Field Marshal von Moltke said, “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. I made several small slips over time, and when my careful hedging was met with the retort “Granny says he’s real” and a baleful stare, I had to choose between my principles and my family. I caved, and the thumbscrews hadn’t even come out.
But in truth, I was clearly never all that committed to being honest, or I would have been direct in the first place – Father Christmas is made up, reindeer can’t fly, and the finances of an operation that revolves around giving things away with no obvious income stream would make the Lehman Brothers look solvent. Apologies if that shocks anyone. I was prepared to tolerate and tacitly encourage a belief in ridiculous supernatural events because it’s the social norm, I didn’t want either my boys or me to seem weird, and it seemed – still seems, I suppose – like a nice, harmless story.
So I’m inconsistent – a hypocrite, if you like. But I just don’t know what I should change. I’m still uncomfortable with religious indocrination (although that covers a multitude of sins, and could do with a lot more detail), but I don’t want to live in a world without innocent wonderment, where all stories have to be clearly identified as either fact or fiction. I’d like to believe there’s a watertight middle ground, but I don’t know what it might be.
At least I should have a while before I need to worry about the tooth fairy.
I’m not generally keen on what seems to be an increasing trend for overt displays of religion in the sporting arena. If sportsmen and women believe in God, that’s fair enough. If they constantly mention it in interviews, I suppose I can live with it, although it would irritate me as much as when they’re constantly mentioning their sponsor. And when a sporting career is sacrificed in the name of that religion, as with Euan Murray and Jonathan Edwards (his subsequent change of mind and eventual atheism notwithstanding), I find it very puzzling, although the sacrifice involved is something that I can’t help but admire and respect. I’m just not so relaxed when they bring this onto the field of play.
It must be hard to strike a balance in what you do to acknowledge your religion in a sporting environment (if you feel the need to do so at all), but I rarely see anything that impresses me. Some actions tend to come over as superstitious (e.g. crossing yourself all the time), while some are just plain crass, like the way God seems to get thanked all the time by the winners of sprint races. Did the other guys pray insufficiently often, or to the wrong God? Does God simply like the winner more than the others? If different people win from week to week, does that mean God’s as fickle as a two-bit whore? It just seems ridiculous.
And then I read this article on Tim Tebow. I’m not aware that I’d ever heard of him before, mainly due to being on the wrong side of the Atlantic, and I could tell instantly that he was someone I wouldn’t really get on with. But then I read the article. And I can’t quite put my finger on the reasons why, but a few things clicked when I did.
I can’t exactly say that I’m converted to the idea of ostentatious prayer poses after scoring. I don’t suddenly believe that God has favourites. But it set me thinking, and it’s given me a different perspective. It made me wonder if the act of thanking God for every victory was less about divine favouritism and more in a spirit of being grateful for what each of us has. That’s a perfectly sensible sentiment, which shouldn’t change just because you’re at the top of your field. The expression of that gratitude may often be rather clumsy, but these are sportsmen, not theologians or philosophers, and someone’s got to win, after all.
In a competitive world like professional sports, where fine margins are the difference between victory and defeat, religion could represent that extra 1% that everyone’s striving for, even without any suggestion that God’s running a massive match-fixing operation. Maybe their beliefs are true, maybe they aren’t, but if they generate confidence, it isn’t hard to see why so many make a big deal out of them. It’s certainly no less rational than always putting your left shoe on before your right, or bouncing the ball a certain number of times, or even wearing a nasal strip.
I want to draw some sort of conclusion out of all this, but I don’t know if I have one. I haven’t really reached a conclusion at all, just started to question some assumptions I previously held. Maybe all I can conclude is that it’s important to keep an open mind and always try to consider others’ actions/beliefs in the best possible light. That sounds like a pretty good rule to live by.
Considering that everyone agrees on what the Bible contains (give or take a few disagreements around the margins), it’s amazing how much disagreement there is about how to interpret it, and the overall message of the book. That’s not just down to a small lunatic fringe – whole denominations have entirely different understandings of what passages mean and what to do about it, and are convinced that they’re right. Even literalists who would argue that every word is God’s unambiguous holy writ are capable of disagreeing with each other, and I’ve yet to meet one who treats Matthew 26:26 as the unambiguously literal text he/she claims the Bible is.
All over the world, people seem to be reading very different things in the Bible. Conservatives see a stern, vengeful God. Liberals see a fluffy, cuddly, inclusive God. Both either explain away or simply ignore passages which disagree with their basic interpretation. Politically, it’s claimed as support for left-wing and right-wing policies. Famously, the basic message Margaret Thatcher took from the parable of the Good Samaritan was that the Samaritan was only good and helpful because he had money.
And then there are all those people with books to sell, who are convinced (quite genuinely, I’m sure) that there’s clear evidence in the Bible of previously concealed gnostic revelations, from the Bible Code and various numerologists to Jesus having an affair with John (the disciple whom he loved). Given a bit of work, it seems that you can make a case for almost any interpretation of the text, even if you’re the only one who’s convinced. (See my post on Genesis for an example)
I’ve got a theory that how you interpret the Bible, like what you see in a Rorschach inkblot, says a lot about you. Now that the standard inkblots and common interpretations have been published, creating fears that it may be possible to “cheat” in a test, maybe the Bible could be used instead.
Christianity makes a big thing of being counter-cultural, but when the rubber hits the road, how much does it actually differ from the culture it claims to run counter to? I grew up understanding the sum total of Christian Morality to be a sort of middle-class respectability and politeness, and I’ve seen little since then to suggest that it’s much deeper than that. There’s variation depending on your location and flavour of church, and those different flavours will often disagree with each other, but the result always seems to be a sort of institutionalised, co-opted secular morality, reflecting the dominant culture of church members rather than an objective standard.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the church often seems to lag a long way behind general cultural trends in the morality stakes. A couple of current examples are homosexuality and the role of women. The wider population largely got over these some time ago, and is now waiting impatiently for the church to catch up. That isn’t necessarily an indication that the church is doing anything wrong – it could be argued that it’s holding to moral principles in the face of a hostile culture – but given that the church is in fact moving towards the centre ground of popular opinion, albeit with glacial slowness, it looks far more like the church really is following at its own pace, rather than leading.
Maybe that’s not entirely fair. I’ve said before that the weakness of the church is that it’s run by people, and maybe it’s lost its way a bit over time, so what about the foundation of the church? There’s plenty in the New Testament about being different and standing apart from the world, so it was radical and different back then, wasn’t it? No, not really. The epistles suggest that local churches would have a strong flavour of whatever local customs there were (in the port of Corinth, for example, St Paul’s main concerns appear to have related to sexually promiscuous polyglots), so the church doesn’t appear to have been al that distinctive in its early days in the 1st Century.
You could argue that this is a reflection of a movement that was still young and somewhat raw and disorganised, but it never seems to have changed very much. The Letter to Diognetus – the earliest known example of Christian apologetics, dating around the late 2nd Century – appears to confirm Christianity’s conformity to cultural norms, even when trying to show how different and remarkable Christians are:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life… With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
So even by the most positive interpretation of what’s often regarded as the church’s golden age, it appears that Christianity doesn’t offer an alternative to mainstream culture so much as a slight variation. That’s not so terrible, but when it’s cast as distinctively counter-cultural and a source of objective morality (neither claim being particularly rare), it does cast doubt on the honesty and self-awareness of the person making the claim.
Looking at the way the church has worked in the past, the way it’s shifted with culture and changed its position on various issues, I can see it as a plausible result of a lot of people trying to make the world a better place, one step at a time, through careful application of the Golden Rule. What I can’t see is any way it could be the outcome of a huge community in possession of a clear, unambiguous, objective moral code.
One thing I feel very strongly about is secularism – I think it’s an essential feature of a civilised democracy. Now, before anyone takes up arms, here’s what I mean by that. Contrary to how some seem to understand it, secularism isn’t about banning religion, or dictating atheist dogma – it’s about separating church and state, ensuring that all are free and able to pursue any religion or none, as they see fit. Basically, I don’t think any belief or lack of it should be given a privileged position in society, regardless of my view of the validity of those beliefs.
I don’t like the idea of having an official state religion. In many cases, it’s relatively harmless (and I can generally live with the situation in the UK), but it can easily create an uncomfortable and inappropriate expectation that the state religion will be reflected in laws, ceremonies and official practice, effectively imposing that religion on people who don’t share it. I think children should be able to honestly discover and learn about a wide range of beliefs and religions in RE, not subjected to years of Christian indoctrination interspersed with pat dismissals of other beliefs. I think creationism should stay in RE where it belongs, and come nowhere near a Biology lesson. And I don’t think schools should be obliged, as they currently are, to have communal “acts of worship”.
Ah, so I want to ban God from schools and government? No, I want a society where no one is discriminated against because they hold a minority view. I want it to be possible to go through life with any or no belief without being forced to choose between suffering for those beliefs or compromising them. If you think that sounds namby-pamby and politically correct, take a moment to consider how you’d feel if your belief was in the minority, and you were expected to regularly join in worship of a deity you don’t believe in, or adhere to associated religious laws.
Having said that, it does get messy. If religion shouldn’t be favoured or imposed on non-believers, how do you define a religious law? Is it fair to say any restriction on abortion, for example, is motivated by religion? How about divorce? Debt? Is it even possible to prohibit murder without falling foul of the Secularism Police? Honestly, I don’t have any simple answers, although I’m pretty sure we can all agree that murder is undesirable. The best I can suggest is to judge each case on its own merits. At the very least, there should be good secular arguments in favour of a law, not just “God says so”.
Personally (others may disagree), I’m content for religious bodies to be given tax breaks and positions in the House of Lords, provided that their recognition isn’t based simply on their religion, but is available to groups of all religions and none which meet the same criteria. So there would need to be specific non-religious reasons for this recognition, and it would need to be possible and reasonable for the same advantages to be won by other groups, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack of them. The state shouldn’t be supporting religion for the sake of religion.
So where does that leave us? We have an ideal and a basic structure of how to apply it. It may not be perfect or watertight, but it’s much more inclusive and tolerant of minority beliefs than the current situation, and that’s surely a good thing.