The War on Christmas

Earlier this week I saw an article on Breitbart talking about how the “War on Christmas” has a new front: the growing number of Bible scholars that believe Jesus never existed, so referenced in a Big Think article. Having read about this and watched a few Bart Ehrman and Richard Carrier lectures, this was not news to me. Here, I want to first address this fiction known as the “War on Christmas”, then talk about the flaws in both articles.

The War on Christmas

People have become aware that overt use of “Christmas” excludes people that do not celebrate the holiday. Government entities are, or should be, prevented from referencing “Christmas”, as it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Where private businesses are concerned, they are free to say or not say Merry Christmas or whatever. Many large chains have taken to the more inclusive “Happy Holidays” in the interest of not being accused of excluding people. The phrase, “Happy Holidays” includes all people, including people for whom December 25th represents the birthday of one third of the trinity of deities that they worship.

Christians have wrongly claimed that this practice of inclusion is an affront to their particular holiday and religion. They forget about people of other faith traditions that have holidays around that same time. Their major argument in this vein is an Appeal to Tradition, e.g., “That’s the way it’s always been,” paired with heartstring-tugging Appeals to Emotion. So many people, especially in the US, have this shared memory of Christmas being the most magical and beautiful and loving-est thing that there could be. Indeed, there are few things as comforting to the late 20th century American psyche as the images of Christmas depicted in A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, and It’s a Wonderful Life, not to mention the works of Norman Rockwell.

My own childhood is filled with these kinds of memories from real life: get the family together, have a big meal, open presents, play in the snow. And, yeah, probably go to church. Maybe we didn’t go to the Midnight Mass on the 24th, being little kids and all, but we went to Christmas Day Mass as good little Catholic children. The pageantry of the Catholic Mass, especially at Christmastime, added more magic to my kid-mind.

People appear to be conflating their good Christmas memories with the religious belief that, in their view, undergirds them. It’s extremely easy to associate traditions such as a decorated fir tree, giving gifts and whatnot with Christmas because of branding: It’s a Christmas tree, those are Christmas presents. The truth is that those traditions have no basis in Christian doctrine. If the birth of Jesus were celebrated at some other time of the year, say March, when some scholars think he was actually born (if he existed at all, but that’s for another time), would sleighbells, fir trees, and sweaters be part of the celebration?

Christmas has become a cultural holiday rather than a religious one. The proof of that is in non-Christian cultures that have adopted many of the traditions, such as gift giving and the style of decoration. I lived in Taiwan for three years. Christians are definitely a minority there. Yet, all the children know who Santa Claus is and they talk about getting presents on December 25th.

How Breitbart Got it Wrong

This isn’t new. There have long been historians and scholars claiming that Jesus never existed and that the story was made up. It’s laughable that the scholars holding this fringe position are being cast as bannermen to the cause that brought us plain red Starbucks cups and employee policies on greeting people.

The fallacious nature of this connection cannot be overstated. In one case, you have a group of scholars, who at least claim to be sincere seekers of the truth, finding less than convincing evidence of the historical Jesus. In that group there may be, as it says in the article, “atheists with an axe to grind.” To the extent that those scholars are blinded by their biases, they should be ignored. Their goal is to produce legitimate work in their field while also selling books and doing lectures, and maybe, just maybe, affect change in the consensus among Bible scholars and ancient historians.

On the other side, you have the aforementioned secular appeals to inclusion as intended by the Establishment Clause. There’s no coordination between these two parties.

Big Think Also Got it Wrong

By using “growing number” in the title of their piece, they make it sound like it’s bigger than it is, like it’s about to reach critical mass. The same could be said of the phrasing of the opening sentence of the third paragraph: “More and more, historians and bloggers alike are questioning whether the actual man called Jesus existed.” At first glance, it sounds like they are claiming that there are more and more historians and bloggers flocking to this position, but that’s not quite it, is it? The comma after “More and more,” indicates that they are referring to a degree rather than a number. To see what I mean, imagine there’s no comma and compare how it sounds to the sentence as written.

Also, “bloggers?” This is the internet. Every idiot out there has a blog. Just as the number of people (much smaller than anticipated) who visit the Ark Encounter doesn’t make Young Earth Creationism true, so does the number of “bloggers” promoting the Jesus Myth not matter with regard to scholarly consensus. Some of those bloggers may be credentialed and have opinions worth sharing on the subject, but that isn’t implied by the title of “blogger.”

To a brandy-new atheist who just discovered Hitchens, this Big Think article might sound like a huge blow to Theism, if not the knockout punch. However, reading the full article reveals that it’s not nearly so overwhelming as the title makes it sound. There are definitely arguments to be made on both sides, or at least it appears that there are educated people on both sides making arguments. In fact, it seems like the “Mythical Jesus” position is and will likely remain a fringe position in the scholar community for some time.

Big Think could have been honest about this fact from the start. We should want Big Think to be more evenhanded about this, and the fact that Breitbart got a front page article out of it is a perfect example of why. The slight exaggeration in Big Think’s title and that sentence are cannon fodder, allowing dishonest content creators on the other side to put a spotlight on it and say, “See? Look how dishonest these people are.” and continue confirming what their readers have long known about secular people.

Conclusion

In the end, Breitbart are dead wrong on two counts: 1. There never was a War on Christmas, only people who wanted to include non-Christians into society. 2. The minority of scholars who believe Jesus never existed has nothing to do with the first group. Big Think are guilty of overplaying their hand slightly, which is the lesser of the two infringements in this case.

I haven’t read much from Breitbart, though I have heard people speak highly of them. I hope they don’t approach all news stories with the same obvious bias. Speaking of bias, they’re not the only ones here. I used to be subbed to Big Think on YouTube. I especially liked their longer videos, around 45 minutes, on topics such as demographics, psychology, and the universe. Their shorter vids would feature well known people espousing atheist, or at the very least, secular opinions. Only after considering their catalog carefully do I detect a bias on their part.

It’s much easier for me, as an atheist, to see Breitbart’s article and roll my eyes. But I think the more important work is looking at the Big Think article and imagining how Breitbart’s readers might have read it, then asking, “Do they have a point?” For critical thinking’s sake, we have to do this.

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How I Became an Atheist

The following is my submission to Itsokaytogo.com. They are gathering stories from atheists, humanists and other secular people. On there, my story is called Critical Thinking: A Catholic Learns to Doubt. Enjoy.

 

My mom is Catholic, went to Catholic high school, and was determined to raise her sons in the Catholic church. Growing up, I went to Mass every Sunday followed by catechism. I learned pretty well and served as an alter boy. In high school I stopped going except when my mom forced me. My dad was raised Baptist and claimed, and still claims, to be Atheist. Faith wasn’t something that we discussed on a daily basis, or at all for that matter. When I had other Christian friends who would say something about faith and we would feel awkward. I think it’s a Catholic culture thing: we know we’re good Catholics (however we define good) and we don’t need to talk about it. At least that’s my impression of it.

I didn’t think much about God or religion until 2005, when I first tried to stop drinking. I had heard of AA growing up, and decided that my drinking had gotten to be seriously problematic for me and my family. In the program, they emphasize a Higher Power. The phrase “God as we understand Him” is a big part of the literature. If I recall correctly, fully seven of the Twelve Steps mention God or prayer as part of recovery. I figured I wanted to get sober, so I began really taking faith seriously. I decided that my God would be the Catholic God I grew up with. Going back to Mass was like coming home. I really started reading the Bible and getting into prayer and the AA program.

About a year later I started drinking again, but my son was getting older, like almost school age. I felt that the church was a place for him to develop morals. Yes, the old saw that the church is the only and best way to give a foundation in morality. So I started taking him to church and Sunday School. I noticed people chit-chatting during service while I was shushing my son and firmly telling him to participate in all the parts of the Catholic Mass. I often felt awkward during church, a voice in the back of my mind, “This is bullshit, this is bullshit”. No real direction or anything, just a general feeling that we were all just pretending but no one was willing to be honest about it.

Then, in 2012, I started a college program that met on weekends, intended to work around working people’s schedules. This meant missing Mass every other week. In one of the classes, the instructor took some time at the end of the course to talk about critical thinking. Like most people, I thought, “Yeah, other people should really do that. I definitely do that, and other people should too.” This was before I’d heard of Dunning/ Kruger, but man was I committing it. He recommended some books on the subject, one of which I found and began reading.

It introduced me to a systematic way of finding out why we believe what we believe. When I started applying this method to my opinions on things, I found that there was nothing supporting many of my cherished opinions.

At this time, I still had not completely gotten out of religion. I was feeling guilty for not taking my son to church every week, simply for the fact that he was missing out on what I considered necessary moral instruction. I was, however, applying the critical thinking approach to everything.

One night, I was thinking about the God concept. I decided to see if there was anything on YouTube that addressed the subject. I searched “does God exist” or something and watched a debate with Christopher Hitchens and Frank Turek I think. I heard things that were shocking at the time. The way Hitch heaved volley after volley of true statements that show church organizations doing harm in the world really blew me away. His arguments and the bold, shameless way he presented them showed me I could be without God. I can’t think of any specific thing that really convinced me, I think I was on the precipice of walking away from faith but just needed to know that it could be done. For that particular lesson, of being confident in one’s nonbelief, there has scarcely been a better example than Hitch. I really like his point about the Neanderthals. We know that these somewhat human relatives of ours had forms of ritual that suggested belief in an afterlife. If the same God that created us created them, where does that leave the Neanderthals? Did they not pray enough? Were they not quite in His image enough? Anyway, Hitch tells it way better than me, or nearly anyone else. From that point, I could say I was an atheist.

That was the beginning of my journey of discovery. I never want to stop finding things out, and examining why people think the way they do about things.