Monday, December 29, 2008

but isn't it just a made-up holiday?

I'm really tired of hearing all the bitchy comments about any non-Christian holidays from supposedly injured Christians (injured, you see, by anyone daring to celebrate a holiday other than Christmas or have a religion other than their form of Christianity or, Jeremy forbid, not have a religion at all!). Humanists and atheists who choose to forgo the holiday altogether are snubbed for not conforming, Jews find one of their lesser holidays elevated to a higher level because it happens to occur near Christmas and pagans try not to point out the obvious, that Christmas (not to mention Easter and Halloween) is basically a pagan holiday. Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, Boxing Day, Bodhi Day, Id al-Adha holy days, Saturnalia, Yule, Zartusht-no-diso, Festivus, Omisoka, Shabe-Yalda, Human Rights Day… all are celebrated in December with varying numbers of followers and varying amounts of media attention. I guess the less you broadcast your faith, the less people take issue with it. But nothing is quite so questionable, it seems, as the audacity of celebrating Kwanzaa. Nothing gets more mocking in the "comments" section of an on-line article, nothing gets more eye-rolling in a family conversation. "Isn't it just a made-up holiday?" they ask -as if that aspect of it condones the mocking and simply dismisses the holiday out of hand.

Well, yes, Kwanzaa is a made-up holiday. It was created by African-American scholar and social activist Ron Karenga in 1966. No one disputes that. What people seem to forget, though, is that ALL holidays are made-up. ALL holidays are invented by someone at some point and much of what Christians hold dear about their December celebration are actually pre-Christian pagan practices condemned by the Bible they claim to follow.

In celebrating Christmas and assuming it is a far-reaching and universal holiday, you forget that December 25th was certainly not the birthday of Jesus but rather was co-opted by the Christian church to bring in all the pagans and heathens daring to celebrate other holidays at that time. You forget that the Christmas Tree is a pagan symbol and that Santa Claus as we know him is basically a creation of the Coca Cola company. Certainly the celebration of the birth of Jesus is a couple thousand years old but the holiday we know as Christmas is much younger. The Jewish Festival of Lights is a slightly older celebration, but certainly not one that has been celebrated since the dawn of time. Pagan celebrations are far older, and their roots can be found throughout most modern-day holidays. All holidays were made up by someone at some point or another and the only reason Christmas gets more respect than Kwanzaa or National Talk Like A Pirate Day is because it's a federal holiday -leading people to assume that the day takes on a federally accepted Christian meaning, which is simply not true. As soon as a day becomes a federal holiday, it automatically becomes secular because the Constitution of our country declares that the government shall not make laws impose religion onto their citizens.

Heck, most people -Christians included- don't realize that the Twelve Days of Christmas do not end with Christmas but rather begin with Christmas and the Twelfth Day is January 6th, also known as (surprise!) Twelfth Night.

As you may have read in my previous blog entry, Jesus is certainly not the first son-of-god-and-a-virgin born on December 25th. If anything, the Jesus myth is a story made up to match myths already in existence for other deities from Mithra to Buddha to Dionysus to Adonis. Christmas is as made-up as any other holiday, it's just that it's been made up for longer.

Kwanzaa is a made-up holiday that consists of seven days of celebration, featuring activities such as candle-lighting and pouring of libations, and culminating in a feast and gift giving. It is a celebration honoring African heritage. All bad so far, right? Nothing remotely normal or common place there, certainly nothing you might find in any other December holiday.
Now, keep in mind that each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the following principles: Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith. (For more information, please see the Official Kwanzaa Web Site). Again, nothing good here. Nothing worth lauding and contemplating incorporation of in ones’ own holiday celebration, right? No, community building and unity and responsibility and creativity are definitely things we should avoid at all costs. And we should definitely mock people who celebrate Kwanzaa for actually putting into practice many of the themes and principles which Christians claim as their own and yet so rarely espouse.

So before you start mocking anyone for their religion or their holiday or their customs, take a look at your own religion and holiday and customs and see if maybe yours aren't just as nutty as theirs. Or maybe theirs are simply more honest than yours. This is something I had to keep in mind during the election this year because sure, Mitt Romney believes in a nutjob wacko religion -but it's no more nutjob wacko than Scientology or Christianity or Flying Spaghetti Monsterists (though, to be fair, that's kind of the point of FSM) or Spiritualists. In my opinion, anyone who believes based on faith rather than evidence is equally in nutjob wacko territory so until we have out atheists running for office, I can't really make a voting decision based on the candidates’ belief system when none of them are really any more rational than the rest, in my view. Whew.

To steal from Tim Minchin, "Science adjusts its views based on what's observed. Faith is the denial of observation, so that belief can be preserved."

And stop judging others, lest ye want me to judge you. And smite you.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Newtonmas, one and all.

The Ten Days of Newton, Olivia Judson.

On the tenth day of Newton,
My true love gave to me,
Ten drops of genius,
Nine silver co-oins,
Eight circling planets,
Seven shades of li-ight,
Six counterfeiters,
Four telescopes,
Three Laws of Motion,
Two awful feuds,
And the discovery of gravity!

Happy birthday, Sir Isaac Newton. And Cab Calloway, Humphrey Bogart, Clara Barton and certainly Louis-Joseph Chevrolet.

Also, according to varied myths and legends involving mangers, miracles, virgins and disciples, happy birthday to Horus, Osiris, Attis, Krishna, Zoroaster, Mithra, Buddha, Heracles, Dionysus, Tammuz, Adonis, Hermes, Bacchus, Prometheus, and Jesus.

May you never trample a fellow being for a DVD player, may you never beat up a Santa Claus, may your holly-days be food- and family-filled, and may the new year find you thankful for your fortunes and mindful of those less fortunate, and may you remember to do unto others as you would like to be done unto.

Here’s wishing you discovery and rational thinking, science and skepticism, a never-ending urge for wisdom and knowledge, and a space of calm contemplation in an otherwise mad, mad world.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Diverse, noisy and opinionated.

“That’s part of the magic of this country,” said Mr. Obama, “is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated.”

Diverse, noisy and opinionated. I guess that’s supposed to be a good thing -though “opinionated” generally has a negative overtone. “Holds strong opinions” doesn’t seem as cunty as “opinionated.” Kind of like “childless” vs. “childfree.” But anyway, diverse is supposed to be good, right? (though in college all it really meant was that we had to shell out a buttload of money for X-to-the-Z-ibit, leaving us with only enough left over for Sponge on the “undiverse” side of the aisle). But “noisy”? Is that supposed to be a compliment?

Obama was, of course, defending his decision to have the douchebag evangelist asshat Rick Warren give the opening prayer at his inauguration.

Yes, Rick Warren of the Biggest Honking Church In The Galaxy (because you know you can’t pray to your god unless your altar is at least a hundred feet wide). Anti-gay anti-abortion anti-the-ability-to-understand-how-people-could-possibly-live-without-religion-infiltrating-and-controlling-every-aspect-of-their-lives Rick Warren. Rick Warren of the indigestible “A Purpose Driven Life,” which is one of only three books that I have thrown down with great force upon being unable to finish. Ah yes, just the sort of man to pray over the beginning of a (hopefully) new era for our country.

Fuck Rick Warren. Yes, he’s done a lot of good, from a certain point of view. Yes, he speaks lefty-like about things that evangelicals normally shun (global warming, genocide), but he still compares gay marriage to incest and child abuse, and still values the potential life of a fetus over the current and actual life of me. And as for choosing him to pray over our country? Well, Mr. Obama, I am not disappointed. I am mad.

But I’m also mad for an entirely different reason. Can you tell me why we have an opening prayer and benediction at the inauguration at all?? Despite what the e-mail forwards try to convince you of, we are still technically a secular nation (and Christmas is actually a secular federal holiday, not a federally-approved religious one), and the government really isn’t supposed to pimp one religion over another, or any religion over none at all. “Wall of separation” and all that. Should atheists and pagans and Muslims and Buddhists and Taoists (et. al) really be forced to sit through an opening prayer by Warren and a benediction by Reverend Lowry? How inclusive and welcoming is that?

Not even a little.

...If you want something a bit more eloquent, though, here's what I wrote to the Obama campaign through The Obama-Biden Transition Team:

I was very disheartened to hear of Mr. Obama’s choice of Reverend Rick Warren to read the opening invocation at the inauguration. As a non-theist, I regularly feel slighted by the common acceptance of pre-event prayers and religiously motivated speeches at public occasions. I am confused by the need for an invocation and benediction at a government function such as the inauguration, regardless of conventionally accepted habits, as I was under the impression that it was not government’s job to push one religion or another upon the American people.

I find the regular mixing of government and religion inappropriate -whether it is public prayer, nativities and ten commandment displays in government buildings, the Bible being used for swearing in ceremonies, the pledge, our currency- and I find the choice of a man such as Rick Warren to perform a religious ceremony at a government event even more inappropriate.

Mr. Warren is undoubtedly a man devoted to his religion and his cause, and certainly his celebrity has enabled him to address serious concerns such as climate change, AIDS and genocide. However, he has regularly compared gay marriage to incest and child abuse, and he values the potential life of a fetus over my current and actual life and well being as a woman.

I realize that Mr. Obama is seeking to be inclusive, to foster a culture of tolerance and acceptance, to “reach across the aisle,” but perhaps choosing someone who disagrees so vehemently with many of his supporters on such matters as homosexuality and women’s health is not the best ambassador of civility for the inauguration.

I strongly urge Mr. Obama to reconsider this invitation, and hope that he will consider the rights and hopes of secular Americans, as well as those of the more religious, at this historic time in our country’s history.

Lauren Cocilova

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

So, you want to give away your money?

Well, you probably don’t, but we all often do it anyway so I thought I’d share some of the causes and organizations which I think are most worthwhile. Because what is blogging, after all, if not an excuse to post a bunch of random shit no one really cares to know?

Guttmacher Institute
Purpose: to advance sexual and reproductive health through an interrelated program of social science research, policy analysis and public education, designed to generate new ideas, encourage enlightened public debate, promote sound policy and program development, and, ultimately, inform individual decision-making.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America
Purpose: to provide comprehensive reproductive and complementary health care services in settings which preserve and protect the essential privacy and rights of each individual; to advocate public policies which guarantee these rights and ensure access to such services; to provide educational programs which enhance understanding of individual and societal implications of human sexuality; to promote research and the advancement of technology in reproductive health care and encourage understanding of their inherent bioethical, behavioral, and social implications.

The National Organization for Women
Purpose: NOW works to eliminate discrimination and harassment in the workplace, schools, the justice system, and all other sectors of society; secure abortion, birth control and reproductive rights for all women; end all forms of violence against women; eradicate racism, sexism and homophobia; and promote equality and justice in our society.

Secular Humanist Aid and Relief Efforts
Purpose: a secular alternative to faith-based relief efforts; a program of the Council for Secular Humanism; working with Americares (purpose: to provide immediate response to emergency medical needs and support long-term humanitarian assistance programs for all people around the world, irrespective of race, creed or political persuasion)

Human Rights Campaign
Purpose: America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality.

The Humane Society of the United States
Purpose: The HSUS seeks a humane and sustainable world for all animals—a world that will also benefit people. We are America's mainstream force against cruelty, exploitation and neglect, as well as the most trusted voice extolling the human-animal bond.

Public Broadcasting Service
Purpose: is a non-profit public broadcasting television service with 354 member TV stations in the United States, with some member stations available in Canada.

Heifer International
Purpose: to work with communities to end hunger and poverty and care for the earth; providing gifts of livestock and plants, as well as education in sustainable agriculture, to financially-disadvantaged families around the world

Victory Junction Gang Camp
Purpose: to enrich the lives of children with chronic medical conditions or serious illnesses by providing life-changing camping experiences that are exciting, fun, and empowering, in a safe and medically-sound environment.

Also, seeing as how it’s December 8th and everything, check out the Dimebag Darrell Memorial Fund and VH1's Save The Music Foundation and RIP Dimebag and Mayhem.

A final entry: check out Techskeptic's Data Daily Atheist Charities List, if you're tired of "charity" having such a condescendingly Christian overtone.

Added 12/15/08: Plan USA
Our vision is of a world in which all children realize their full potential in societies that respect people's rights and dignity. If James "The Amaz!ng" Randi thinks this is a worthy cause, it must have something going for it.

Added 7/06/09: SkeptiLove, a website devoted to reporting on the generous acts of non-believers, and to bringing skeptics, critical thinkers, agnostics, atheists, humanists, and secularists together to participate in charitable projects.

Remember, these organizations need support, donations and volunteers year round and not just during the holidays, but if you can give anything, even a little, it helps a lot. Send an anonymous check or request not to receive solicitations if you are worried about getting on a mailing list, but do send something. Perhaps in lieu of dinner out some night you could buy dinner for a less well-off family. Perhaps in lieu of buying a new DVD you could help others. Perhaps in lieu of another new pair of sneakers, you could help supply warm shoes for a needy person. We all likely have more than we need, especially if we have the time to wile away on a blog, so we should take a few moments this season and see what we can share with others.

As always, check out the Charity Navigator to see how your chosen charities are rated.

Besides, 'tis the season for giving, after all, and 'do unto others' applies to secular folk, too.

Monday, December 1, 2008

say no to the ho, ho, ho

I don’t have children, but I don’t think that precludes me from pontificating on the plethora of perilous pitfalls into which parents plunge purposefully. I am a taxpayer and a community member, and the way you raise your children affects me -and often offends me. Just because I do not have or want children does not mean I know nothing about them and don’t get to express an opinion on them. You have chosen to have children, and you judge my decision not to have children, so I get to judge the results of your decision, too.

At this time of year, as greed runs rampant and hapless Wal-Mart employees are trampled by grown men and women who should know better, as we demand bigger TVs and more expensive jewelry from our spouses, or cars and vacations from our parents, as we turn Yuletide into a red tide of joyless rushing madness, I wonder what your children are learning from you.

We like to think the Christmas season is one of goodwill and charity, but we all know it’s about want and greed and disappointment. Our worst selves come out just when we should be our nicest, and the next generation sees it all. Why should they be good and patient and kind and forgiving when we’re not? Why should they believe us about anything when we lie to them about so many things?

And why do we feel the need to lie to our children, to scare them into being good? Why don’t we just tell them to be good for goodness sake? Not out of fear of punishment or desire for reward, but simply because this is the right thing to do? There need be no Santa Claus to fear, no Easter Bunny to expect, no Tooth Fairy to bribe. And certainly no God to lord fearsomely over you. Rather, be good simply because you should. Teach your children to do unto others -a timeless rule that need not be Christian-based. You wouldn’t want Johnny to steal your toys or pee on your cat or make fun of your haircut, so don’t do those things to him!

Besides, children who are wretched throughout the year nearly always get rewarded at Christmas and so have no concept of going without as a result of their behavior. How many kids have ever really gotten coal in their stocking?

Tom Flynn has an excellent list of reasons to “just say no” to Santa Claus in his book “The Trouble with Christmas” and I think they express quite well what I’ve been trying to say about this damn myth all these years.

Ten Reasons Why Thoughtful People Should “Just Say No” to Santa

Reason #1: To teach and perpetrate the Santa Claus myth, parents must lie to their children.

Reason #2: The Santa Claus myth exploits characteristic weakness in young children’s thinking, perhaps obstructing their passage to later stages of cognitive development.

Reason #3: To buoy belief, adults stage elaborate deceptions, laying traps for the child’s developing intellect

Reason #4: The myth encourages lazy parenting and promotes unhealthy fear.

Reason #5: The number of characteristics that Santa Claus shares with God and Jesus verges on the blasphemous.

Reason #6: The Santa myth harms children’s cognitive and emotional development and damages family dynamics.

Reason #7: The Santa myth stunts moral development because it encourages children to judge themselves globally, as good or bad persons, rather than to judge positive or negative behavior.

Reason #8: The myth promotes selfish and acquisitive attitudes among children.

Reason #9: Children may not enjoy the Santa Claus drama as much as parental nostalgia suggests.

Reason #10: Contemporary authorities who defend the Santa myth on psychotherapeutic grounds fail to make a convincing case.

-Tom Flynn, The Trouble with Christmas

Before surrendering to another year of madness and mendacity, think for a moment about what your actions are teaching your children (or someone else’s children). If you are greedy and selfish, of course they will be, too. If you put all your emphasis on the gifts instead of good behavior, is it any wonder children grow up unable to manage credit or balance a checkbook? When everything is handed out without condition, when there is no mundane punishment for bad behavior, when the season is about showing off and dressing up and give me give me give me, is it any wonder kids grow up unappreciative and resentful?

Besides, don’t you want your kids to thank you for all the good that is in their lives, instead of some mythical elusive invisible being?