Posts Tagged ‘christianity’

The Story of Christmas

Posted: December 8, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Religion
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The following is from an advertising campaign which recently ran in the UK.

This campaign uses what is known as User Generated Content. By getting people to film and send in testimonies on webcams, the company not only saves time and money, but more importantly, it co-opts the apparently genuine, grass-roots nature of the amateur Youtube video blogger to lend unearned credibility to the product.

It is a marketing ploy, and a pretty cynical one at that.

During the 4th century, early Christians were busily spreading the message of Jesus up through Europe trying to gain support and converts as they went. All the civilisations they encountered had strong cultural traditions already which included various annual feast days and celebrations. The most important of which, in a lot of cases, was a midwinter festival some time around the equinox celebrating the end of bad whether being in sight and the eventual return of Spring.

Winter festivals, such as the Scandanavian Jōl, were deeply ingrained in their respective cultures and popular among their people. So the early Christians realised that forcing would-be converts to drop their dancing and feasts in order to accept a new message was going to be a hard sell.

So they adapted their message. Before the 4th century, there had been a certain amount of speculation about when Jesus had been born, but no date could be said with any real certainty. So the early church exploited this hole in their knowledge by creating a midwinter celebration of their own to mark the newly fabricated date of Christ’s birth. The actual date on which Jesus had been born was of little importance as long as they could nominally pin something onto a festival so that converts wouldn’t feel hard done by if they joined up.

Just like Confused.com tried to borrow the credibility of Youtube bloggers sitting at home with their webcams to attract customers to their brand, the early church co-opted the popular elements of the cultures it encountered to attract converts to their religion. ‘You don’t need to give up the fun parts of your present culture,’ they angled, ‘you can keep those bits and still join us.’

Christmas was, in short, a marketing ploy. And a rather cynical one.

This leads me to two conclusions. The first is that atheists should have no problem celebrating Christmas if they want to, despite the assertions to the contrary by some Christians. Christmas was created to avoid early European Christians getting jealous of their heathen peers by re-branding almost all the details of various pre-existing pagan festivals to be nominally Christian. So I see no reason why modern heathens shouldn’t celebrate their part in the holiday’s historical formation by acknowledging the normal traditions of the Christmas tree (Roman), gift-giving (Roman), Santa (Norse), feasting etc.

The other conclusion is that the typical annual outcry over the perceived rise of commercialisation subverting the real message of Christmas is unfounded. Considering that the concept of Christmas was little more than a marketing strategy in the first place, it seems rather fitting that its name should be employed by modern marketeers to shift their goods at this time of year.

Looking back at my original analogy now seems rather unfair. Christmas, for all its pseudo-historical shortcomings, is still founded on a rather lovely ancient tradition of feasting, enjoyment and the giving of gifts to others. The Confused.com marketing campaign is an artless and vacuous attempt to fool viewers into forming a particular, and probably incorrect, image of a bland corporation by creating some of the most intensely irritating thirty second pieces of film in recent memory.

Regardless of your beliefs, the Christmas period is one where we can remind ourselves to do all the selfless things we should be doing all year round. We can spend time with our families and reconnect with friends, give and receive gifts of wildly varying quality and enjoy the warmth of a season that, at least for a couple of days, encourages people to feel goodwill to all.

Just remember that not that long ago, it would have been Odin putting things in your stockings.

He Works in Magisterious Ways

Posted: November 3, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Religion, Science
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One area in which the so-called “new atheists” differ from what I can only assume are called “old atheists” is in their views on the possibility of harmonious co-existence between religion and science. Dawkins, Hitchens and Myers, while acknowledging that religious people can understand science and scientists can believe in God, see religious faith as either contradictory or, at worst, obstructive to good science. However, most moderate religious people, and a good number of atheists and agnostics, see no incompatibility between the two systems.

The most famous defence of the accomodationist position was made by Stephen Jay Gould in his definition of science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria“. Science is the realm of the observable, the empirical and the testable, he claimed; religion is the domain of that which is beyond human experience. Many people, in my experience, sum this position up in something like the statement that science deals with the ‘how’ while religion deals with the ‘why’ (like answer ‘B’ on this page); scientists may be able to tell us how the Earth came to be formed and how life evolved on it, but it is to the clergy that questions about the meaning of that life ought to be addressed.

I disagree. The ‘how’ and the ‘why’ defence is an easy maxim to rattle off in lieu of an agrument, but does it really mean anything at all? Does science helpfully limit itself to the dry mechanistic explanations? And does religion respectfully keep clear of them, only to shuffle out when someone asks a more metaphysical question? Of course not.

The Bible is full of explanations of how things work and how things happened – from the beginning of the Earth to its end. How many of these explanations you may wish to write off as poetically pregnant metaphors will be decided by the particular strain of the religion you most identify with. However, with even the most modern and woolly tea-and-biscuit fuelled reading of the Bible, it is a stretch to imply that the Good Book completely steers clear of physical and biological explanations or politely holds its tongue when any other ‘how’ question is raised.

Similarly, it is only a uselessly simplistic characterisation that would suggest that science limits itself to the ‘how’ questions. The rapidly evolving and endlessly enlightening fields of psychology, neurology and genetics have given us myriad insights into ‘why’ questions that mere decades ago would have been left entirely to theologians and philosophers. In fact science is even able to study the ‘why’ of religion itself (search Pubmed for ‘religion’ and ‘brain’ for examples).

Of course it is possible for scientists to be religious or for religious people to believe in evolution or the big bang. However, this is not proof that they are mutually compatible worldviews so much as further evidence of humans’ ability to hold multiple incongruous viewpoints while coping with the resulting cognitive dissonance.

The cornerstone of science is scepticism of that for which there is no evidence. This is the reason scientists make hypotheses based on observations and then try to test those hypotheses to see whether they hold true after exhaustive efforts to falsify them. Any christian scientist (by which I mean a scientist who is religious, not a follower of Mary Baker Eddy) must either admit that they hold some parts of their life out of reach of the light of their scientific scepticism or tie themselves up in confusing knots of attempted justification and theological gymnastics.

The cornerstone of religion is faith in that for which there is no evidence, and it is for this reason that I see it as fundamentally incompatible with science. A christian (or muslim or jew etc.) who wishes to maintain their faith must approach certain questions without the genuine openmindedness that ideal science calls for.

Once again, I acknowledge that some scientists are religious and some religious people are scientists and I do not think it would be helpful to force polarisation on such people and make them choose one or the other. However, both worldviews cannot be held in one mind without the necessary compromise of one or both.

The religious scientist must protect his faith from the requisite questioning tools of his trade. The scientifically-literate believer must moderate the will, power and scope of their god so as not to to tread on the toes of what rational discovery has given us. Inconvenient as it may be, these are two almost entirely overlapping magisteria, both of which claim powers of explanation and enlightenment.

God Hates Us All

Posted: July 23, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Religion
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One of the most contraversial and widely hated groups in America is the Westboro Baptist Church. Following wide-spread media attention, and features by journalists such as Louis Theroux, their methods of picketing the funerals of victims of anti-gay hate crime, as well as service men, with slogans such as “God hates fags” and “Thank God for 9/11” have become well known and widely despised.

Westboro Baptist Church

Their behaviour has earned them myriad lawsuits and numerous arrests. For example, in 1995, Benjamin Phelps, the grandson of the church’s founder, was convicted of assault for spitting in the face of a passer-by during one of their regular pickets. In 2007, the father of a marine whose funeral was picketed successfully sued them for damages amounting to $5m.

Most people’s reaction to hearing or reading about this group’s actions tends to be disbelief and disgust. How could anyone be this callous? How could anyone show so little respect for their fellow humans? The answer, of course, is that they believe they are doing God’s work.

Homosexuality, they assert, “pose[s] a clear and present danger to the survival of America, exposing our nation to the wrath of God as in 1898 B.C. at Sodom and Gomorrah”. They interpret the Bible in such a way that they believe it is the job of anyone who truly believes in God’s greatness to war against “workers of iniquity”, and this includes gay people, and those who accept them and enable them to lead their lives. They picket the funerals of soldiers and service men because “they voluntarily joined a fag-infested army to fight for a fag-run country now utterly and finally forsaken by God who Himself is fighting against that country.”

Quite rightly, the WBC has drawn criticism from Christian religious groups just as it has from non-religious and other-religious groups. Perhaps Christians find their rhetoric more offensive because they claim to be speaking for God and on behalf of those who truly follow him. Perhaps they are also worried that actions like this from one Christian group will bring disrepute upon the whole church and be a shot in the foot for the whole mission of the glorification of God. Perhaps they particularly dislike the way they twist the words of the Bible to justify their hateful position.

To despise this group on humanistic grounds, for their hideous disrespect of humanity is reasonable and, in my opinion, absolutely correct. However to criticise them on religious scriptural grounds is not. The reason is that the WBC does not twist the words of the Bible to justify their position – they don’t need to – those hateful words are there already.

The WBC point to Psalms 5:5, “The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity”; Proverbs 6:16-19, “These six things doth the Lord hate:… he that soweth discord among brethren”; Psalms 11:5, “The Lord trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth”; and Malachi 1:3, “And I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.”

The argument that the they are misrepresenting the Bible’s meaning, because really God loves everyone starts to look a little thin when you start to read a bit more of the Bible and come across these examples of God being unashamedly hateful towards, not just people’s actions, but people themselves. Indeed, as Skeptics’ Annotated Bible points out, one can hardly fault the group’s logic: God hates “workers of iniquity” (Psalms 5:5); homosexuality is “abomination” (Leviticus 18:22); therefore God hates fags.

I will reiterate quickly that I do not think this group deserves anything but the deepest contempt and condemnation, but for the religious to dispute them on scriptural grounds is hypocritical. What are they doing but validly, albeit selectively, quoting parts of the Bible? And this is exactly what every moderate sermon does aswell. For every John 3:16 quoted, there is a Psalms 5:5 being ignored, because to give equal weight to both would lead to so much contradiction and cognitive dissonance that no believer would know what to do with themselves.

In order for Christianity to function as a religion, the Bible needs to be read selectively, or at least certain passages need to be interpreted liberally. So it should be no surprise that there is one group that pays attention to those bits that everyone else leaves out, and who saves their liberal interpretations for those sections that others might prefer to take literally. This is the problem with the claim that the Bible offers any sort of revealed moral teaching – without engaging the evolved humanist moral sense to overlook the contradictions and to only pay attention to the positive messages, the Bible can be used to justify violence and hate just as well as it can love and compassion.

The Westboro Baptist Church are a disgusting group, but theirs are the same tools that are used in every pulpit every Sunday. A long, ambiguous book of myths can be used to justify any moral position, for real goodness, we must look to the evolved sense to protect ourselves, our families and our species that we all have without having to take any book’s word for it.