Thursday, 16 December 2010

Why do atheists celebrate Christmas?


It’s a question that people who don’t believe in religion are often asked, so I thought I’d discuss my personal reasons for celebrating Christmas.

But first...
According to tradition, and the Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 2:1-7 and some pretty music, Jesus was born in a stable, and placed in a manger (a long open box or trough for horses or cattle to eat from, usually filled with straw or grass). Three “wise men” came from the East, saw a star in the sky and came to worship him, bringing valuable gifts. When they arrived there were angels worshipping, all of which created the mythology of the birth of a man who was to save the people of the earth from themselves.

The story itself is, of course, total nonsense and I’m not going to go into great depths of analysis to say why. Suffice to say that there is no scientific evidence for the “Herod” sending out his minions to murder “innocents,” nor is their evidence for the bright star, or that the Romans demanded that people return to their homes for a census which also didn’t take place at the purported time. Then there is the date, that even the Catholic church admits was probably some time in April, and not at the winter equinox.

Also we are all more than aware that Christmas is really nothing more than the romantisation of the celebration of the winter equinox that long predated Christianity.

So with all this cynicism about the religious aspect of Christmas, why do I, personally celebrate it, and why do I enjoy Christmas carols, which I have often been heard to sing out with gusto?

The answer is very easy to understand. It’s because I rather like the idea of Christmas. The music is stirring because it evokes hope in humankind’s desire for “Peace on Earth” and “Goodwill to all Men.” 

Who can fail to be moved by lyrics such as...


Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping on your nose,
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir,
And folks dressed up like Eskimos.

Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe,
Help to make the season bright.
Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow,
Will find it hard to sleep tonight.

They know that Santa's on his way;
He's loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh.
And every mother's child is going to spy,
To see if reindeer really know how to fly.

And so I'm offering this simple phrase,
To kids from one to ninety-two,
Although its been said many times, many ways,
A very Merry Christmas to you
 
...or fail to see the improbability of this song...

On the first day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
A partridge in a pear tree.

On the second day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the third day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the fourth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the fifth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the sixth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the seventh day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the eighth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the ninth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the tenth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Ten lords a-leaping,
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the eleventh day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Eleven pipers piping,
Ten lords a-leaping,
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the twelfth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Twelve drummers drumming,
Eleven pipers piping,
Ten lords a-leaping,
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree!
 
...and then there’s the whole idea of a feast with loving family and gifts being handed out. 
So, before I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and a peaceful, happy, healthy and prosperous New Year, enjoy it all in the spirit of love, kindness, charity, peace and the look on a child’s face when he/she wakes up on the morning of the 25th to find that “Santa” has visited and left at least one gift for every member of the family. Try to extend the goodwill to the people around you who don’t have family with them at this time of universal friendship, don’t drive if you’ve been drinking, and forget the world’s problems for 24 hours on this one day of the year. 

It’s not a matter of “Happy Holidays” to people who don’t believe in Jesus, it is a matter of one day when everyone on the planet can feel good about being alive and share that feeling with everyone else. That’s the true spirit of Christmas, and perhaps the only good thing that came from the stories in the Bible. 

Thank you all for sharing my blog in 2010. I’ll be back again shortly after the start of the New Year.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Miracles and Witchcraft


Most well-read people are familiar with the stories of witch-burnings during the middle of the second millennium, during the time of early Stuart kings in England and, of course, the Salem witch trials, as described in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible.

The justification for this behaviour is this verse from Exodus 22:18:
Do not allow a sorceress to live.
My question is: where do we draw the line between socery and miracles? How is an old woman who understands the efficacy of natural remedies, or who is able to dispense advice to lovelorn people, more dangerous than chariots of fire appearing out of nowhere (2 Kings 2:11) or Elijah’s separating the waters of a river with his cloak (2 Kings 2:14).

In 2 Kings 4:15-16 Elisha foretells the birth a son to a woman, for the sole purpose of his being able to “lay his hands” on the child later when he dies, in order to bring him back to life. But Harry Potter is a bad story for children to read? At least Harry Potter doesn’t cause children to be born, and die, simply so that he can prove his miraculous, magical abilities.

The New Testament has the story of Jairus’ daughter who Jesus brings back to life. For what purpose? To prove that he can? Then why can’t modern “miracle” workers cause amputated limbs to regrow, or children killed by cancer to be resurrected? Was there something special about Jairus’ daughter? Was she destined to become a great leader, or a world-renowned scientist? No, it was merely an attempt by the writers of the Gospels to prove that Jesus’ powers to perform miracles were equal to those of Elisha. In other words, mere propaganda.

And then we have stories of multitudes of people being fed (2 Kings 4:42, Matthew 15:29-39, Mark 8:1-10, Matthew 14:16-21, Mark 6:35-44, Luke 9:12-17, John 6:5-14), poisonous stews being made innocuous (2 Kings 4:39-41). To what end? Surely there are far more people without food today? How come God doesn’t perform some miracle that will make the Sahara desert into fields of grain? If he is capable of great miracles, how come there are so many starving people today?

The miracles continue: A man named Hazael is destined to be king, but there is already a king in place. So Elisha arranges for the king to die, drowned by the water in a thick cloth (2 Kings 5:14-15). Why? How is it permissable for Elisha to commit outright murder and have it called a ‘miracle’ yet Harry Potter’s triumph over the evil Voldemort is “witchery” and the books forbidden to the chldren of fundamentalists? I’m using Harry Potter because, with the release of the latest movie, it is again a topic being discussed on message boards, with fundamentalist parents saying that it is the “work of the devil.”And CS Lewis’ stories with talking lions is not? 

The double-standards of the Old Testament continue: 



2 Kings 13:21 Once when some Israelites were burying a man, they spied a band of these raiders. So they hastily threw the corpse into the tomb of Elisha and fled. But as soon as the body touched Elisha's bones, the dead man revived and jumped to his feet!
Micah 5:12 I will destroy your witchcraft and you will no longer cast spells.

What exactly does “casting spells” mean?


Then there’s more about ‘healing:’
2 Kings 5:10 And Elisha sent a messenger unto him, saying, Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean.
Matthew 5-7 Jesus came down the hillside followed by a large crowd. A leper approached Him, knelt before Him worshiping, and pleaded,  if You want to, You can heal me . Jesus touched the man, and said to him  I want to, be healed . And instantly the leper was healed.
Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10 In Capernaum, a Centurion came to Jesus asking to have his servant, who was close to death, healed. When Jesus said He would come and cure the servant, the Centurion answered that he was not worthy to have Jesus come under his roof, but to only speak the word, and his servant will be healed. Jesus was amazed at this and told His followers, that not even in Israel had He found such faith. Jesus then told the Centurion  Go, let it be done for you according to your faith . And the servant was healed in that hour.
Matthew 8:14-15, Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:38-39 After Jesus healed the possessed man in the synagogue in Capernaum, He and His disciples went over to Simon and Andrews home, where they found Simons mother-in-law sick in bed with a high fever. Jesus took her by the hand and helped her sit up, the fever suddenly left, and she got up and prepared dinner for them.
The problem with all the “healing” which I don’t really, mind, I’m all in favour of people being cured of horrible diseases, but why these people? Why not a ward full of cancer patients, or families that carry the haemophilia gene? Why some obscure centurion’s servant? All this is just nonsense to convince ignorant people that Jesus is able to perform miracles. Well, if he is able to perform miracles, how come in the Near East, why not in South America? Why did he allow the explorers to take smallpox to the Americas?

There’s more: sea storms being calmed, people being lowered through roofs to be cured, blind men, withered hands, water being turned into wine. I don’t understand. Surely there are more beliervers in Jesus today than there were then, would it have hurt him to send the planes flying into the Twin Towers off-target? Why did the Titanic sink if he was able to perform miracles? I’m sure there were more people who believed in Jesus on the Titanic than not, what was the reason for that disaster? 

I could go on, however, the answer is really quite obvious. The people who wrote the Gospels were selling a product. They wanted their readers to buy the product, in exactly the same way that the peddlers of religion still want their congregations to put money into their coffers, so they sell the idea of miracles, and “mysterious ways,” and “we don’t always get our prayers answered” and so on. It’s really a no-win situation for those of us who don’t support religion. There is no defence against the blind faith that makes people who believe the magic (also known as miracles) in the Bible is miraculous, while people who learn how to make their assistants disappear are evil, or that Harry Potter is casting real, effective spells, when they believe that Moses actually did cause an army of Egyptians to be drowned in an opened, dry seabed. 

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Bible has a bit of an obsession with sex...

The Pope’s recent acquiescence on the use of condoms and 1 December being World AIDS Day, prompted me to bring up this topic.

The Bible has a lot to say about sex, it is almost obsessive about it. This obsesson was responsible for the sexual repression that was part of western civilisation up to the sexual revolution of the late 20th century. It is also the reason that Orthodox religions still regard women as possessions and sex as something dark and dirty, not to be spoken of and to be indulged only behind closed doors, preferably with clothes on and only for the perpetuation of the species. So let’s take a look at the what it says.

The sexual discussions begin at the very beginning of the Book: it speaks of aphrodisiacs...

Genesis 30:14 And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them unto his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, Give me, I pray thee, of thy son's mandrakes. 
Song of Solomon 7:11-13 Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field; let us lodge in the villages. Let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine flourish, whether the tender grape appear, and the pomegranates bud forth there will I give thee my loves. The mandrakes give a smell, and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved.

… the sin of masturbation or the wasting of seed, for which the punishment is death...

Genesis 38:7-10 And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD wherefore he slew him also.    

 and adultery.

Leviticus 19:20 And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free. 
Leviticus 20:10-11  And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. And the man that lieth with his father's wife hath uncovered his father's nakedness both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. 
Ezekiel 23 19-21 Yet she multiplied her whoredoms, in calling to remembrance the days of her youth, wherein she had played the harlot in the land of Egypt. For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses.
Matthew 5:28-30 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
…and puts “adulterers” right up there with “perverts, slave traders, liars and perjurers.”
1 Timothy 1:10  ...for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.

We are all familiar with the Bible’s attitude towards homosexuality, but I thought I should point out the verses that condemn what must have been fairly common at the time it was written, otherwise why would they bother to write about it? Perhaps it was David’s obvious love for Jonathan that drove the people who were writing the law to make a point about how  much homosexuality bothered them:

Leviticus 20:13: If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination they shall surely be put to death; their blood [shall be] upon them. 
1 Samuel 20 40-41 Then Jonathan gave his weapons to the boy and said,  Go, carry them back to town. After the boy had gone, David got up from the south side [of the stone] and bowed down before Jonathan three times, with his face to the ground. Then they kissed each other and wept together—but David wept the most. 
2 Samuel 1:26 I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan very pleasant hast thou been unto me thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.  
Romans 1:26-27: For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.

The obsession with sexuality extends to men who are injured or who have medical conditions involving their sexual organs, and the children of “illegitimate” relationships. I’ve never been able to understand why the innocent children of extra-marital relationships were made outcasts in these societies. Nobody asks to be born, so why should the children suffer because they were conceived outside of “marriage?”

Deuteronomy 23:1-2 He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD. A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD.

The nakedness of parents is strongly condemned in the in the story of Noah being found naked by his son, Ham. In South Africa, the Apartheid government used these verses to explain the phenomenon of people who looked different to the settlers, and as justification for their virtual enslavement...

Genesis 9:22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. 23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness. 24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. 25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.

Joyful appreciation of a young man’s beauty is also highly condemned, and is regarded as “shameful”...

2 Samuel 6:14-16 And David danced before the LORD with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. And as the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal Saul's daughter looked through a window, and saw king David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart. 
2 Samuel 6:20 Then David returned to bless his household. And Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, How glorious was the king of Israel today, who uncovered himself today in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as one of the vain fellows shamelessly uncovereth himself! 
Isaiah 20:1-6 In the year that Tartan came unto Ashdod,  when Sargon the king of Assyria sent him,  and fought against Ashdod, and took it; At the same time spake the LORD by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, Go and loose the sackcloth from off thy loins, and put off thy shoe from thy foot. And he did so, walking naked and barefoot.And the LORD said, Like as my servant Isaiah hath walked naked and barefoot three years [for] a sign and wonder upon Egypt and upon Ethiopia; So shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians prisoners, and the Ethiopians captives, young and old, naked and barefoot, even with [their] buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt. And they shall be afraid and ashamed of Ethiopia their expectation, and of Egypt their glory. 
Micah 1:8 Therefore I will wail and howl, I will go stripped and naked I will make a wailing like the dragons, and mourning as the owls.
Nahum 3:5-6 Behold, I am against thee, saith the LORD of hosts; and I will discover thy skirts upon thy face, and I will shew the nations thy nakedness, and the kingdoms thy shame. And I will cast abominable filth upon thee, and make the vile, and will set thee as gazingstock.    Look, I am against you!- declares Yahweh Saboath- I shall lift your skirts as high as your face and show your nakedness to the nations, your shame to the kingdoms. I shall pelt you with filth.

The New Testament regards celibacy as “righteous” but concedes that men had better marry if they are not able to control their “natural urges" and celibacy makes a man "worthy."

Matthew 19:10-12:The disciples said to him,  If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.  Jesus replied,  Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it. 
Luke 20:34-35 Jesus replied,  The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage.
1 Corinthians 7:9 But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.

… and Revelation says that only men “undefiled by women” will be chosen for eternal life…

Revelation 14:3-4 ...but the hundred [and] forty [and] four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth.These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men, [being] the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb.

It is perhaps difficult for people born after the 1960s to understand the way that sex was regarded, and still is, by the people who did not benefit from the sexual freedom that the birth control pill brought. Even among today’s “baby boomers” sex is a little of a sensitive subject for discussion around the dinner table and older people who allow their children to see them unclothed are still thought of as “odd” by their less-progressive friends. There are still parents who see their unmarried children who live with their partners as “married but not churched” or as “living in sin,” and virginity pledges among teenages are regarded as praiseworthy, and the way to “prevent diseases.” 

Isn’t it time that we threw away the stupidity about nudity and our sexuality and simply accepted that it is as natural as any other bodily function? One of my pet peeves about attitudes towards sex is that even though we imagine that we are progressive and open about it, we still insist that sex organs are different. While we have come up with words to describe non-sexual parts of our bodies, “knees,” “elbows” “eyes” “noses” etc., we still either use cute names “peepee,” “winkie” and “flower” or the cold, clinical, medical terms for penises and vaginas. How come the lexographers haven’t yet come up with names for sex organs that don’t sound like clinical terms? Is it because underneath the use of the words “penis” and “vagina” there is a still small part of us that makes those organs a little “sinful?”