Archive for December, 2013

An Atheist’s Perspective: Happy Holidays

December 17, 2013 3 comments

Typically around this time of year I would fire off a post about what it was like being a soldier in the war on Christmas. It was my attempt at being clever by showing that no war against the day was needed as society seemed to be doing a good job itself of de-spiritualizing the day anyway. The season basically runs from Halloween to New Year, and by the end everyone is pretty sick of hearing sixteen different, new renditions of silent night anyway. I think it’s a good idea, and perhaps Agent 8072996914 will come out of retirement (still waiting for that check Atheist-Socialist-Muslim overlords).

Instead, this year I want to tackle this horrifying concept of “happy holidays,” this greeting that someone decided that is an offensive line in the sand despite my memory that it has always existed as a saying. The outrage seems to be that when someone tells another person, “happy holidays” they are doing so because they hate Jesus. When Macy’s puts up banners with the phrase “Season’s Greetings” it’s because they hate Christians and would rather they didn’t shop at their store. As near as I can figure this is what runs through the mind of a person who wishes that they were being persecuted so that they could feel special. I say this, because it can be the only explanation for the mental gymnastics that one must go through in order to believe that the choice of signage is somehow a personal insult.

I am an Atheist. I do not believe the Nativity story ever happened. I do not believe that it resembles an event that ever happened. I can point to scenes in the story that do not make sense and those scenes have nothing to do with spiritual or religious phenomenon, e.g. the Augustinian census is ridiculous in its requirement that every person return to the homeland of their ancestors. Not only does this add an undue burden by forcing everyone to return to somewhere they have never lived, but if you are taking a census wouldn’t it make sense to have people be counted in their actual home? Further, what’s the cut off generation wise, sure Joseph is of the line of David but why not go back further than that, or conversely not that far? He didn’t have relatives in the area so why make the trip with a pregnant woman to begin with?

That’s just one portion of the story, a portion that Roman history neglects to mention. Despite all of that around this time of year I am overcome with a profound indifference to how people greet me. I am not offended when someone tells me “Merry Christmas” anymore than I get offended when someone tells me “god bless you” when I sneeze. Why do I not become offended? Because I don’t make it a habit of myself to go out of the way to become offended. Because thinking that the world is out to get me and hates one of the things that I identify as doesn’t seem like it would be fun way to live. I have no plans on making myself into a misery addict, or a self-inflicted martyr simply because I can’t accept the fact that outside of the people that know me personally the world regards me with the same indifference that I regard the average person in, say, Russia.

Tell me “Merry Christmas” and I am very likely to say the same thing back. Why? Because I am a reasonable human being who doesn’t believe that every phrase which is uttered out of me has to be a declaration of essential beliefs that make up my personality. If I tell my Jewish neighbors, “Happy Hannukah” it does not mean I believe in the story of Hanukkah, I’m merely saying hi to the people that walk past my door.

In my past, I’ve worked for about five national corporations (I’m unsure if I count the place that was bought out during the holiday season as one or two) during the holidays and not one of them ever directed its employees as to what they ought to say to customers. At no point was a directive given to me that I ought to greet 65% of the population with resentment by removing references to their deity from the absent minded greeting that I would half-heartedly wave at them when they came in or left. Sure I regarded them with disdain, but I was in customer service and I regarded every person in the building that wasn’t a co-worker with disdain. It wasn’t personal, because I didn’t know any of them and I didn’t care enough to find out what religion they were so I could determine how I should greet them. I was just there to collect a meager sum and get out.

Anyone who thinks that there is a war on Christmas, does not work in retail and has never worked in retail. They couldn’t have, because if they had, they would understand that if a retail store went out of its way to insult a great majority of its potential customers it wouldn’t stay in business. This is their busiest time of year, which translates to their most profitable time of year, which means that they must not only hate Jesus but that they must also hate money as well.

When Starbucks slaps “Enjoy the Season” on the door (or whatever it says) does that cancel out the numerous Christmas displays inside the door? Does their Christmas blend coffee mean nothing? There is no war outside the heads of crazy people.

An Atheist’s Perspective: Why Sending a kid to Religion Class is different than Sending them to Science/History/Literature Class

December 10, 2013 1 comment

If you explain something to someone else it puts you the speaker in the position of having to face the reality of something that you have said to yourself. It’s like freezing before giving a speech, the words aren’t any different but now there are people listening, and perhaps you worry that someone else won’t buy what you are trying to sell. I think this is partly why the mere existence of the non-religious, not to mention atheist, is so infuriating to some religious people. That existence means that someone else heard the exact same story they did and still said, ‘no, that doesn’t make sense to me and I won’t believe it.’

This, I feel is true when answering the questions of children. The temptation to just tell them to stop asking and answer their incessant barrage of questions with, “that’s just the way it is;” is great partly because their questions force us to examine why it is that we believe in certain things. I always try to direct my daughter toward an atomic fact: some baseline piece of information that is utterly basic, e.g. things fall because of gravity–>laws of physics. It’s a much more grave responsibility than I was prepared for in becoming a parent. I have to explain stuff that I have an opinion as well as justifying the reason I have that opinion. If I can’t explain it, I probably ought not to have that opinion, in this way the five year old that I live with keeps me honest. The other part of the frustration is that I realize that for her, my wife and I are literally the summa scientia, the fountain of all knowledge. We are wholly responsible for how she sees the world, now that she’s in school there are other influences but four years is a long time to forge a perspective and admitting that we do not know something is letting her know that not only are we not the source of all knowledge but that we also don’t know everything.

Explaining scientific facts of the universe is quite a challenge, we’ve settled on a cyclical Stoic based position (although she is more inspired by the Futurama episode “The Late Philip J. Fry” rather than the writings of Cicero) to explain what eventually happens to the universe as far as anyone knows. I could not imagine having to explain the stories of religion: with the miracles, spirits, and fantastic stories as if they were fact. I especially could not imagine having to do this and then explaining to her that fairy tales are fake; given that there is little to no difference essentially between them. I mean what am I supposed to say, that Jack and the Beanstalk is nothing to be scared of because giants aren’t real…except when David killed one in the Bible. Or am I supposed to lie and tell her that there were giants but David killed the last one? I can’t in good conscience do that.

Perhaps this is why there exists such a thing as religion class. So the difficult questions about the incredible leaps of logic that we must go through to buy some of the stories can be handed off on someone else. Explain why the Catholic Trinity is a mystery, then explain how it is different from polytheism, follow up with the truth of Transubstantiation and how all things die except Mary. The only way out of it that I can see is to forbid the questioning of such things, a move which I believe to be an actual harm as well as the coward’s way out. You can follow up with how a book written nearly two thousand years ago, edited about 1700 years ago, bears any resemblance to issues of this modern age without the theological hoop jumping that would be required. Do this while then trying to justify the basic facts of the world that this book just plain gets wrong: like the moon generating its own light or where zebras come from. I know that I could not do it.

Our supremely human ability to reason does not allow us to accept contradiction at face value. No one will accept the mysterious people that Cain meets after his banishment unless they are commanded to accept that story is true without question, or they are told that the story isn’t meant to be accepted as true. The expert’s role in this case, must be to explain the contradictions to the young when there is no way that anyone else can. The stories are watered down to be similar to those same fairy tales we tell them are fake, so that they buy the story. By the time they are old enough to question, the stories are such a part of them that they rarely conceive that they could be false. No one questions their own identity.

We may wish to believe that we send kids to religion class for the same reason that we send them to history or math class. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In history or math there is the understanding that the person teaching the class has some special knowledge of history or math that the average person does not. We assume that they went to special history or math classes to gain the knowledge to educate (ideally this would be the case anyway). I’ve never seen that in my religion classes until I went to high school where a priest taught the religion classes, mostly it was just some person…and I’ve been that person. I taught religion classes when I was in high school, and my “expertise” came merely from the fact that I was in the religion longer than the 7th graders in my class. That was my experience as a kid, as well my experience for the pre-Canaan thing that I had to do in order to get married. It wasn’t even the pretend special revelation or access…because one difference between a religion and a cult is how easily you can get the texts.

With kids it is important to be honest. As an atheist I tell my daughter what others believe when its necessary, i.e. when she asks. When she asks why they believe in certain things I give the most honest answer I know, because they were taught something as kids and either never questioned it or were told not to. Contrary to popular belief there is no indoctrination, that’s what religion does; I merely encourage her to question that which she feels is odd, doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t understand. That seems to be the best that any of us can do for the next generation.


An Atheist’s Perspective: House of Cards

December 3, 2013 Leave a comment

I have a method to my writing this blog. The difference in time between when I hand-write the initial idea and the time it takes to actually get that idea posted is about a month and a half. Yes, dear reader, some editing does actually go into this. Not much, I assure you that, but some. My handwritten draft was written on Columbus Day of this year. The fact that I even considered Columbus Day as an inspiration is odd to me and some people that I know personally, because of a session long screed I once unleashed on an Introduction to Political Philosophy class that I was teaching.

The gist of my attack on Columbus Day is this: Christopher Columbus was an asshole. There can really be no doubt of this: slaver, murderer, thief; all of these words can be legitimately applied to him. Furthermore, we can add that not only did he not do the thing that he is “credited” for, but that for a good part of his life he didn’t believe that he didn’t do it. Remember, his plan was to find an alternate route to India so that he could avoid the perils of travelling through the Middle East or around the Southern tip of Africa. He landed in the Caribbean believing that he landed on some island off the coast. Ok, fine, I get that, one can make that type of mistake…at least for a little bit. Seriously, even that’s a little hard to swallow since Europe had been trading, thus communicating with the Far East but he had no idea that this wasn’t it? Even after it was pointed out that he had in fact missed his destination but found a new land he refused to believe it. This despite the fact that this land and people bore no resemblance to the actual Indians. Not to mention that he hadn’t even discovered a new part of the world, as the Vikings had him beat by about 500 years.

Columbus was the first historical figure that I learned was an utter fabrication. A relic of the desire for Italian-American Catholics to get one of their own recognized as a hero by the American government–despite the objective fact that Amerigo Vespucci was a better candidate in every respect.

The world was proven round by Aristotle, any person with an education in the 15th century would have known about it provided their education went beyond just letters, and that they weren’t a bible literalist (there wasn’t as many of those as we might expect during the Renaissance). I can get into many other things that Columbus did, but I must show some kind of restraint.

The reason that I bring it up now, is because it is one of the first things I can remember being taught about history and it isn’t true. I don’t consider it a lie, because I don’t believe that the people who taught me knew better given that they were likely taught the same thing–that they should have known better is a different story, but a lie is a lie only if the person telling it seeks to deceive. It’s like the American story about George Washington and the cherry tree–it’s a story that gets repeated so often that it becomes a “fact.” The question that I could ask myself is that if this pivotal piece of knowledge was untrue, what else was I taught that could also be put in the category of being untrue? For the most part American education follows the same mold as the rest of the world, American roles in historical events become inflated while certain facts are glibbed over. The story of the American revolution is a good example. The causes of the Revolution were pretty watered down. For instance the Stamp Act inflicted upon the colonies was pretty justified in that it was done to pay for the British army’s role in the French and Indian War. Instead of explaining this, along with the real problem of not being represented in Parliament, we get the idea that all taxes put upon the colonies were wrong. I get why this is done: depending on the level of the lesson it may not be fruitful to teach third graders the intricacies of Parliamentary decision making processes and what the true role of an Empire’s colony is supposed to be. The French role in the revolution is being minimized to the point where I was thirty before I understood that the French were fighting a proxy war in the colonies, again though everyone does this to instill a sense of national belonging and patriotism in their respective countries.

With this kind of doubt one would begin to realize that certain things are a matter of fact while others are of belief. Everything that we know now is based, in one part of another, on what we learned as kids. Religious lessons are no different in this respect. In another respect they are different because there is no way to independently verify the truth of religion. Inquiries into the origins of a religion will always be some kind of primary text, but that source is taught as being untouchable. To even question the sources is regarded as fruitless and/or wrong. Neither notion is correct.

Christians, Jews, and Muslims are taught that the world begins in Genesis, either literally or figuratively but this cannot be true as the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh predates the bible and is obviously the source of the story of Noah and the Flood (at least). This the kind of story which throws the origin story of the world into doubt. When one of the supposed rocks of knowledge is shown to be nothing but an image of a rock the whole thing gets regarded with skepticism at best and cynicism at worst. In a way, this can be regarded as the gate way to more knowledge but that was not the intention.

The problem isn’t about leaving something out, which is why I am leaving aside Columbus’s genocide and slavery, this is about the falsity that taints everything it touches. At some point, someone knew better than to teach this stuff as fact. This had to happen because the Columbus story isn’t true but at some point it shifted. The poem about Columbus is regarded as a lyrical version of real events and someone taught a fiction as fact…because it was catchy I guess? It would be like if 500 years from now the end of WWII held closer to the ending of Inglourious Basterds than Hitler shooting himself in a bunker. As it stands though we have falsity taught as fact with resistance to correcting this mistake by those that have held the facts longer. When you pull the bottom card out the whole thing is supposed to tumble but the memory remains. In keeping with the metaphor, we were taught the memory. We know that no evidence exists of a wandering group of Semitic people who escaped from Egypt. We know that there is evidence that those who built the Pyramids were not slaves but rather paid workers, yet the story that we know from the Charleston Heston movie is the one that sticks with us. At some point, we all must stand up and begin asking for our history to be taught with the best available facts that can be proven and ditch the myths.

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