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.
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.