Friday, December 6, 2013

Christmas Wars?

Warning (in case you didn't get it from the title) - this post contains religion. If you're bothered by back, tune in again next week when there's sure to be another AV post, or perhaps some flash fiction. Maybe both if you're lucky. I probably should know better, but this is still probably safer and less contentious than a "switcher wars" post.

Shots Fired at the Crossroads of the World

The catalyst for this post is the latest shot in the culture wars by the American Atheists organization. For those who've not heard, they put a billboard at Times Square, New York, asking who needs Christ in Christmas. Their answer: nobody! This, to me, goes a step beyond the "good without God" message the Freedom from Religion Foundation ran on a series of billboards and bus ads a few years back. The idea that someone can not believe in a god yet still lead a good and moral life is a positive one and, given the fact that atheists are consistently the least trusted group in America according to opinion polls, an important one for people to hear.  This is closer to American Athests' 2010 campaign "You know it's a myth". True to their belief, yes. Also needlessly contentious and, from a bigger picture, missing what the actual point should be.
From the Times Square billboard

At the risk of losing some of your trust in me, I'll reveal to those of you who don't know or haven't guessed by now that I myself am an atheist. While my fiction (both what I write and am most interested in reading) leans towards the fantastic, philosophically I'm pretty much a strict materialist. No spirit, no soul, no Cartesian duality. Before we're born we're nothing, and when we die we're gone, leaving behind only the effects we had on the world and people around us. Consider this critique as coming from an atheist, even if not a member of the atheist movement.

You know it's a Myth

I'll start with yesteryear's  "you know it's a myth"  message because that, to me, is a clearer illustration of where American Atheists go wrong and, for that matter, how they appear the same as the most fundamentalist of believers. Their position is that as religious claims can't be empirically proven, religion itself is useless and a waste of time. I'll answer them with a quote from the French philosopher (and atheist) Alain de Botton:

"The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true – in terms of being handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets and supernaturally governed by prophets and celestial beings."

Botton goes on to say that the interesting question  - the one which IS worth asking - is how a particular religious faith leads us to live, how it leads us to act, how it connects us to those around us. 

Back to the original question - is it a myth? If so, what does that mean? Too many of the Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens style atheists take "myth" "falsehood" and "lie" to mean the same thing; it isn't true, therefore a lie. A deception. As a writer of fiction and a lover of literature I know that to not be the case. That the events in Moby Dick didn't actually happen doesn't mean that there isn't literary "truth" as a story about, amongst other things, the idea of revenge. Likewise that various holy books contradict eachother doesn't mean that they don't share spiritual truths about how we can best live together. 

Looking at it this way, whether or not the Jesus story is a myth is immaterial as to how it leads Christians to live their lives. Some follow the moral teachings in the Bible while ignoring the supernatural parts (Thomas Jefferson famously edited everything supernatural or miraculous out of the New Testament. He was left with something shorter, but kept the moral messages intact), some take it more at face value, but most find positive messages about charity and love for ones fellow human. I'd not attack that, even if it weren't shockingly rude to do so.

Two sides of the same coin

Literalism at its finest. 
These attacks convey a literal-mindedness which strikes me as remarkably similar to that of religious fundamentalists. See the cartoon from mad-as-hatters young-earth creationists "Answers in Genesis". Pointing at an actual billboard in response to a request to "show me a sign" is a perfect metaphor for what is wrong with the thinking of those on both sides of this debate; it shows not only great certainty in ones own viewpoint but a lack of thoughtful reflection as to how opposing viewpoints can coexist harmoniously, and how those who believe differently can still live well. The atheist who sees the AIG billboard is likely to react the same way as the believer who sees American Atheists; with - at best - an eyeroll and a shrug. 

A Better Way?

The Freedom from Religion Foundation did a bit better in their reponse to the nativity in Madison, Wisconsin: they added a "secular nativity" featuring figures they admire. From their official statement (by FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor):  "FFRF’s baby is black and female, for egalitarianism, and to acknowledge that humankind was birthed in Africa. Our wisepeople depict atheists and scientific giants Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, plus wisewoman Emma Goldman — with humorist Mark Twain and Founding father Thomas Jefferson thrown in for good measure. "

A Secular Nativity. Respectful, or a deliberate
attack? You decide.
Is copying the traditional iconography of the nativity scene a step too close to mockery? Perhaps it is, and I can see that argument. At least it attempts to join the discussion with a positive statement about the things the FFRF reveres. I'd rather they had done so in a less hostile manner, but I'll accept it as a baby step. I still think that, in terms of constructive dialog, they have a way to go.

I semi-recently reconnected through social media with an old friend who's belief has taken a turn towards fundamentalism and young-earth creationism. One lesson I've learned from interacting with her over the years is that, even if I'm certain that she is objectively wrong about some things, the actual age of the earth matters quite rarely in our daily lives. What does matter is that she's a kind-hearted person who loves her family and does her best to be a good mother to her children. If her religion is part of what inspires her towards that, who am I to argue?

What's the Point of All This?

What's my purpose here? What do I want for Christmas? I mean aside from the spiffy Abrasus triangle commuter bag from the Evernote market and a new winter dress coat and peace on earth and all that stuff. What I want is for all of us to listen to each other, and to celebrate our differences respectfully and lovingly. That's one reason I'm "outing" myself as a non-believer; just as not all Christians think that pre-historic humans hunted dinosaurs, not all atheists consider mocking others' belief systems to be a worthwhile sport. Perhaps this winter solstice/Christmas/Hannukah season we can all remember that we have to share this world, and we can look to those things that make us the same.

 Happy Holidays to all reading, no matter which you celebrate. 


  1. So nice how you slyly worked in there the EXACT item you wanted for Christmas (or whatever you are celebrating). ;)

    In response to the "Who needs Christ during Christmas? Nobody." billboard, my 11-year-old daughter said, "That's what Christmas is all about. That doesn't even make any sense." I have to agree with her. Wikipedia defines Christmas as “an annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ and a widely observed holiday, celebrated generally on December 25 by millions of people around the world.” Do I believe this billboard, the “You know it's a myth” one, and the secular nativity are needlessly offensive? Yes. (I don't find the Answers in Genesis cartoon very effective either, by the way.) Why spend all that money just to ridicule someone's beliefs?

    I believe your quote from Alain de Botton departs from basic logic. In fact, whether or not a religion is true is the MOST IMPORTANT question to ask. It matters very much whether God exists. It matters very much whether he has expectations of us as his creatures. Because if God DOES exist, and DOES have expectations, and we fail to live up to them, there might be negative consequences to that failure. Is that a risk worth taking? Most people don't give this issue any meaningful amount of consideration. They are more likely to follow the culture around them (which mocks God and exaults sin). I know, because this is who I used to be.

    I can completely understand how an atheist would want to be validated for their “good” behavior. I can understand that in a worldview without God, how people act toward each other is of utmost importance. (It also is in a worldview WITH God.) Who doesn't want to be treated fairly and kindly? But God says in Romans 3:11-12 “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (For more info on this passage, see This is a very bitter pill to swallow. No one wants to be told that nothing they do is good. We've had this conversation before, Leonard, so I won't rehash it here, but it boils down to this: “good” has a particular definition in God's eyes, and it necessarily involves first believing in him and loving him. Helping an elderly woman across the street is “good” according to our limited human understanding, but unless it's done with a heart that loves God and desires his glory on earth, it is not truly good.

    Romans 1:18-23 in the Bible says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” This is the real truth every atheist will have to face at the time of their death if they are, in fact, wrong.

    I appreciate your kind words about me, and I appreciate that you don't “consider mocking others' belief systems to be a worthwhile sport.” In that regard, let me gently point out that your description of AIG as “mad-as-hatters” sounds pretty mocking to me. I hope you don't put it on a billboard. ;)

  2. Leonard this is a great post. And I really appreciate what you are saying about how an atheist (or anyone else) can and should be able to look beyond the beliefs of a person and accept that they are still a good person and that their beliefs are not nearly as important as how they treat other people.

    Do you see any irony in your ability to be so accepting of someone who is fundamentally religious because they are still a "good" person and such a person saying to you that you must not be a good person, because to be truly good you have to believe in God (in other words, accept their fiction)?

    This too me seems to be central to the matter of how atheists treat others and how they are treated. On the one hand it is undeniably true that others have the right to their beliefs and can still be good people, and yet on the other we are told that we don't really have the right to be "wrong" in God's eyes and we can't be good unless we accept that. This is the kind of tacit intolerance that leads to so much aggressively poor behavior on the part of the Twitter Atheists in my opinion.

    1. I'll say that it's a pretty clear result of our differing worldviews; in a theistic worldview, "good" is defined as "in harmony with the divine" whatever that divine may be.

      I do value Julie as a friend despite these differences. We met eachother when she believed differently. What I see as interesting food for thought is that, had we met today, we'd likely not make a connection and my life, at least, would be the poorer for it.