Friday, March 27, 2009

You're Damned Right there's a War on Christmas, or, at least, there was one...

Whilst sitting in my lazy-boy not drinking hot-cocoa and ignoring the latest insipid holiday-driven carnival of television advertisements, I began to ponder the supposed "War on Christmas," as Bill O'Reilly of Fox news puts it, within the context of the American Culture War (the origin of the phrase "culture war," interestingly enough, actually comes from the German Kulturkampf, which was ascribed to the period in which Otto Von Bismark enacted policies limiting the Roman Catholic Church's influence on German government).

My internal dialogue was inspired by a preview of one of the latest holiday movies Four Christmases, no doubt an unfunny rehashing of very old themes; meeting the dreaded in-laws, etc. (we know them all, do we not?) seeking to cash in on the season. I then recalled snippets of conversations with friends, family, and complete strangers from the past few months and years, and they all seemed to feel a sense of anxiety, if not dread, about choosing gifts, working with limited budgets, negative feelings for that certain relative, the list goes on.

There's no doubt that at this point, via television specials, lame jokes, and cutesy journalistic commentary, these themes and many more have been explored and reused to a peak of cliche that would make Will Farrell hang his head in shame. But rarely have I heard any extensive mention of the surviving Bronze-Age superstition that a heavenly messiah, who was sent to be tortured and executed to erase mankind's sins, happens to blow out his birthday candles on December 25th (one wonders if his father might use trick candles). While the day called Christmas (an inept abbreviation for Christmass) is still an official US holiday, there is an apparent reluctance to publicly celebrate it as a Christian holy day. Two things are confusing here. First, the US Government, still technically officiates a holiday having to do with one religion, which seems to be a breach of the First Amendment, and second, that American Christians can stomach their holiday being associated with excessive commercialism, adoption of pagan practices (decoration of trees, etc.), Santa Claus, or rampant bovines trampling unfortunate mega-store clerks to get their hands on elmo dolls. It seems that many problems would be solved if the two groups downright disowned each other.

This is not to say I dislike the day. It is obvious that I'm annoyed with the nomenclature which, suprisingly, is not an issue for most people. But all the hum-buggery aside, when I think of this day and all of the astrological interpretations thought up by our ancestors (there's no need for me to rehearse them all, they're well documented), which came after astronomy, by the way,I feel a sense of connection and solidarity with our ancestors as well as with all of their descendents, and it is intensely moving. The bland chatter of the television and its Ho Ho Ho's and red-nosed reindeers fades to the background, and I am left with a moment of contemplative serenity.

So where does this take us? Obviously there are Christians who legitimately celebrate the day, while the rest of us tag along for the ride, and the food. Should a bill be presented in the House of R. to change the name of Christmas to something more like Winter Solstice, or Saturnalia, or Winter Festival? My short answer would be yes, and for the above reasons I would like to think that Christians would take pride in taking the name for themselves and their religion. The real question is, will people think long and hard about all the different concepts associated with 12/25 and come up with a fair and grandiose title that the day deserves? We won't soon know.

To return to the point of the "War on Christmas," I would simply reiterate that most of the "ground-fighting" has long since passed. And, given how passively Christmas has been gutted of all of its religious meaning in the American media and culture, perhaps war is a strong word after all. If one is compelled to continue with the use of bombastic vocabulary, one might refer to it as a Cold War, though it never escalated much from a drab detente. Allow me to call it evolution.

Between Ignorance and Arrogance

I find more and more as I contest the faithful about their world view that one of their favorite arguments to lean on is calling me arrogant. As false as this assertion is, I'm still left wondering what point they've attempted to make, other than conveying the rather trivial fact that I've hurt their feelings. I am usually confronted with this nonsense when they are unable to respond to an argument or have run dry of ways to change the subject.

All I can really do is smirk at this, which unfortunately only emboldens their notion that I'm a smug arrogant prick, but it is humorous to me because it couldn't be any further from the truth. Any standard dictionary will define arrogance as an unwarranted sense of superiority (italics mine). I'll maintain that my anti-religious views are based on the findings of the rich world of scientific endeavor, which has, for millennia, improved living conditions of humanity and indefatigably continues its strive to comprehend the true nature of our existence and origins, and presents its findings with a vast array of demonstrable evidence. From this, I feel no contrition in claiming a warranted sense of accuracy over those who feel they can dismiss science in favor of their scripture. Need I ask who the arrogant one is here?

But it is still the atheists who are considered the arrogant ones, be it on the street, or in much of the media. I am often told by my more pragmatic cohorts that we should make every effort to be nice about our beliefs, and be tactful in our criticisms of other's, to avoid the eventual "arrogance" dismissal. There seems in this to be a creeping assumption that we bludgeon our opponents as much with our fists as with our words, which is certainly not the case. Obviously arguments can get heated (the fun ones usually do), but am I to offer tea and cake to my opponent with some vain hope that they won't feel assaulted? Please.

Those who have a strong point to make should be weary of those who have no better way of dismantling them then by claiming personal offense, which, at the end of it all, is a simple logical fallacy. And to those who seek to employ this defective gimmick, I ask politely that they aspire to not mistake their ignorance for my arrogance.

Maher is no mediator, but tells a hell of a joke.

Comedians have always served as a valuable barometer with which one can gauge the progression of society. The comedic elite is often on the cutting edge of what can be said aloud without facing public crucifixion, and their ideas and words are later adopted and mass-produced by the ­­proprietors of popular entertainment as they become more palatable to the masses, and finally end their long journey on The View. It is only through this lens that any merit can be awarded to Bill Maher's Religulous.

That is not to say the film wasn't intensely enjoyable, only that it will do nothing to change any religious minds. It offered enough sneer and jeer to make the most crotchety atheist chuckle (and we all know their type, don't we?), while being unapologetically offensive enough (and I say that with the utmost glee) to make the faithful turn a deaf-ear. It is encouraging that a movie of this content could come out in such a mainstream fashion, and it will most likely take an honored place among the works of the "new-wave" of atheist thinkers. However, for the atheist community to take a more prominent and respected place in the body politic, there are still ahead years of grunt work that necessitate a more disciplined candor than is offered by Maher.

Religulous serves the purpose of energizing those who already harbor strong negative feelings towards religion, and in his rousing conclusion, Maher surely inspired some who have been compelled to hold their tongues to be more open, honest, and unrelenting in their criticism of religion. It would seem that Maher has set out to inspire the atheist community to action much in the same manner that Sarah Palin has attempted to energize the social-conservative base. That may seem unfair, but because Maher is clearly in possession of a significantly more robust intellectual fortitude (as well as his respective audience) than the latter, I make the comparison without compunction.

On Prop 8

I am filled with a seething embarrassment to have been asked to vote upon the matter of the Constitutional amendment banning homosexual marriage. There are occasionally those who argue either side from an economic standpoint, which, for me, serves only to induce a raised eyebrow of amusement, but it is apparent that this issue is based solely on religious belief.

It is not, however, just the whack-jobs of the Westboro Baptist Church spewing this insipid diatribe. When having a conversation with any (seemingly) level-headed religious person of the most "moderate" faith on the subject, I am typically faced with a unanimous agreement that homosexuality is not only morally wrong, but that it is somehow only an acquired taste. (A side note on this matter: it seems silly to me to ascribe one single "cause" to homosexuality, be it a natural preference or one effected by one's environment, etc. Absolute explanations of this sort only diminish the complexity of the matter, and shouldn't have any bearing on the question of its legality.) There are of course the "having-it-both-ways-moderate-religious-liberals" who will selectively go against their holy documents in support of the homosexual plight (that, however, is a different conversation, and I won't have it said that I've made a sweeping generalization about the attitudes of the faithful).

Then there are the proponents of Civil Unions, which even the Democratic presidential ticket favors. That's all fine and dandy; it provides visitation rights, property-ownership rights, etc. Why not also provide them their own drinking fountains? (Do you catch my drift Mr. Obama?)

What this has really come down to is a semantic argument approaching the horizon of mind-numbing inanity. There is endless argumentation over the definition of "marriage" as being sacred, religious, governmental (etc.) institution, without a whisper of the idea that it can have multiple meanings and contexts. All a couple really needs to do to be married in this country is to sit for a few minutes in front of a judge and sign some paperwork to be awarded the bundle of aforementioned rights and privileges. There needn't be music, special collars, or boring sermons that have nothing to do with the ceremony at hand. If a church refuses to marry a homosexual couple, fine. It is after all against the tenets of their book, wise as they are. But the religious ceremony is an entirely separate occasion than the legal jargon, and should not be conflated into one definition.

We are talking about the decisions of consenting adults. Let us not forget that the last of the Sodomy Laws weren't repealed by the Supreme Court until 2003 (and how many heterosexual couples do you suppose were arrested for that one?). There always seems to be a religiously-based perverse obsession with the sexual habits of others, and it's time to remove it from the political process.

For those fond of the slippery slope argument, I leave you with Lewis Black: