"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Friday, 23 December 2011

Happy Christmas: No really!

Despite what the Christian right in America, and some pundits in the Daily Mail may say, there is no war on Christmas. Secularists like myself have no issues with people of faith keeping this time of year in accordance with their religion and have no rabid desire to go around forcing people to say “happy holidays” (which are still “holy” days in any event) or complaining about nativity displays.
What is irritating to atheists, pagans, Jews and other assorted non-Christians is the Christian's assumption that the season belongs exclusively to them. It doesn’t and it never has. The winter solstice has been a time of feasting and celebration for millennia and significantly predates Christianity. It has been associated with various religions and deities from Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, classical Greece and Rome usually along with legends of a virgin born god-man who dies and is reborn / resurrected. It’s a sun cycle thing that, unsurprisingly, some Hellenised Jews in first century Palestine incorporated into their own mythology and Saul of Tarsus sold back to the Romans. It is the pagan roots of the winter celebration; Saturnalia in Rome, Yule in Europe that caused the puritans to ban the celebration of Christmas as a Christian holiday and of course the way we celebrate it now is a relatively recent invention of the Victorians with the addition of the dubious Santa/Odin/Green Man/St Nicholas/Father Christmas hybrid demigod that Christians have bizarrely adopted as their own.
The true meaning of Christmas is steeped in thousands of years of communities, hunter-gatherer and agricultural celebrating the passing of the low point of winter, looking forward to spring and sharing the fruits of the previous years harvest with friends and family. It was a seasonally enforced respite from toil in the fields and a reason to share resources, light and warmth. It continues to be so, even in these urbanised centrally heated artificially illuminated times and in culturally (if not actually) Christian Britain we all buy into the shared narrative of the era to make the season special. Tim Minchin has recently put it this way
I adore Christmas. The fact that I know that Christianity’s origins lie more in Paul of Tarsus’s mental illness and Emperor Constantine’s political savvy than in the existence of the divine has no bearing on my ability to enjoy this age-old festival of giving, family, and feasting.
The dying and soon to be risen sun has been represented in narrative and deification by Osiris, Sol Invictus, Mithras, Dionysus and Jesus to name but a few. In this Christian dominated era we’ve all adopted the cultural norm of calling the season Christmas, and actually I have no issue with that. I am a culturally Christian atheist, which is why a divine Jesus is prominent among the many supernatural beings I don’t believe in. But I am happy to go along with the cultural norm, pleased to hear carols about the nativity (It’s a cute story; same reason I like Frosty the Snowman and Rudolf) and yes more than content to wish you all… a Happy Christmas!

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