About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Here we go again, it's grumpy atheist time!

The good news is that more and more media outlets actually bother to ask non religious people what they think of the holy-days (probably without even realizing that the term itself is a bit problematic...). The bad news is that atheists – with a few exceptions – keep coming across as curmudgeons, even though they are supposed to be promoting a positive life style and philosophy.

Take, for example, an interview conducted this week by Time Out New York, a major weekly that deals with the thousands of happenings in the Big Apple. They asked a Buddhist, a Muslin, two Jews (why not just one?), a theistic satanist (whatever the Hell that is), and an atheist. The latter, the president of one of several NYC atheist groups, replied: “We don't celebrate Christmas: it's a foolish holiday. We don't get into gift giving because we don't recognize Christian Christmas. ... We don't have an official event, but we have a nice dinner [on the 21st].” What an insufferable load of unnecessary – and even downright wrong – complaining!

First, “it's a foolish holiday.” Maybe it's because I'm Italian, but I don't think any holiday is foolish. Holidays (or whatever you want to call them) are times for rest and relaxation, to be spent with friends or family. What can possibly be foolish about that?

Second, “no gifts because the Christians do it.” So, if the Christians start eating tiramisu as a ritual I'm supposed to give it up in spite? And who, exactly, would the loser be here? Besides, the gift-giving tradition goes back at least to the pre-Christian Roman festival of Saturnalia (in honor of the god Saturn), so it is simply historically incorrect to associate the two. Incidentally, the Romans also used evergreen trees to honor Saturn, because these plants survive the winter and were therefore a symbol of endurance. So even the “Christmas” tree ain't Christian at all (the German tradition is younger than the Roman, dating only to Reformation times).

Third, “no official event, just dinner.” Boring, and unnecessarily cantankerous. This is my first Winter Solstice in the big city, and I have tried (unsuccessfully) to locate a secular event to go to, just to be with like-minded people. What's the matter with you guys? In the end, my partner and I decided to go to a holiday-appropriate, if a bit mischievious, play entitled The Reindeer Monologues, where Santa's work animals candidly expose the corruption, drinking and sexual abuse that goes on at the North Pole. Funny, no?

Lastly, celebrating the Winter Solstice is in fact perfectly appropriate (it's the beginning of Winter, but also the moment after which days become longer, anticipating the spring renewal), and would remind Christians what the real “reason for the season” actually is: the “pagan” celebration was so entrenched in tradition that the new religion arbitrarily decided that their savior was born on the 25th of December. In reality, that date was the culmination of the Roman celebration of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), which started on the Solstice. The 25th was referred to by the Romans as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the day of the birth of the unconquered sun), and “Natale” is still Italian for Christmas. Apparently, the festival of the 25th was created by the emperor Aurelian around 274, because the sun-god was associated with the gens Aurelia, his family. And by the way, you know that funny thing the Christians call a halo? Just look at Roman coins or shields representing Sol Invictus, and you'll see where that one came from too (Jesus was referred to as the Sun of Justice beginning in the third century). Oh, and you know how modern Christians celebrate Sunday as the day even God rests (as opposed to the Jewish Sabbath)? Well, that goes back to the emperor Constantine, who established the weekly break in honor of, you guessed it, the Sun-god!

So, atheists should embrace the celebration of Winter Solstice because it teaches history to the Christians, because it marks an important astronomical event that effects our lives every time we complete a free roundtrip around the sun, and because it's fun to eat, drink and exchange gifts with people you love.

34 comments:

  1. Thanks for reminding me

    ReplyDelete
  2. Fun fact -- the winter solstice was on December 25 about 2000 years ago, which is why Christmas was set then (on top of the pagan holidays). Due to precession of the equinox the solstice is now on December 21.

    Nick

    ReplyDelete
  3. I fully agree and second the idea. Let's celebrate more festivals. It's good to hear from someone more familiar with the native tongue of the ancient Romans.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I fully agree with how your post starts out. It is wrong for athiests to act just out of spite to the religious, but of course you post goes on to really do just that (act out of spite) leading to your statement

    So, atheists should embrace the celebration of Winter Solstice because it teaches history to the Christians

    Yeah, thats a good reason to celebrate? Although much of what you say is true on the origions of events of Christmas, you are way over-simplifying. How and when Christmas is celebrated relates to previous celebrations, but even without the Roman celebrations there would still be some type of Christmas (although Easter would perhaps be the more celebrated holiday). No-one is claiming that Jesus told us to give presents on his birthday and put up decoritve trees. The fact all these traditions came from previous events does not change the meaning of why we celebrate Christmas today. As far as how Sunday became the Sabbath for Christians, your a little off on that one.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The fact all these traditions came from previous events does not change the meaning of why we celebrate Christmas today.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think that Massimo was trying to say that Christians confound the "meaning" of Christmas with the cultural symbols and traditions of its celebration. Rather, since the symbols and traditions of Christmas derive from deep and diverse origins, they may be readily appropriated by atheists without fear that using them will signal that one is actually religious. The fact is that whether the US was predominantly christian or predominantly pastafarian, we would probably have adopted many of the same symbols and traditions for a major holiday. Therefore, if you are an atheist who likes leisure, meals with family, and gift-giving, then practicing Christmas is still important. As the old saying goes, "don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Chris,
    I guess I felt that M's point was it is ok for athiests to celebrate Christmas because its origions are not from Christianity. My thought is that its Ok for athiests to celebrate Christmas reguardless of its origions. There doesn't have to be some fear that people will think your converting. If I was in a middle eastern county I would have no issue celebrating a Musleum holiday, and wouldn't see fit to give some explaination of why it is Ok for me to do so. Christmas today is viewed as an almost secular holiday anyway. No need to fear, that you'll be labeled an idiotic Christian. Besides using the excuse that the traditions of Christmas comes from previous events really isn't valid, because the origions of festivals like Saturnalia are still religious, just not Christian. So is it just Chrisianity were afraid of being associated with? I guess that is why I take offense to the post. M is saying its ok to do these things because there not Christian (but they are religious in origion)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Jim

    Of course it would probably make some difference that the religion represented by saturnalia is no longer extant. At least it is hardly likely that anyone would think that one believed in it because you observed some of its vestiges.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Interesting discussion on CNN last night (Dobbs and Toobin). Apparebtly there is something called the "reindeer rule" that the courts recognize. The general idea is that "mostly secular" symbol such as reindeer, xmas tree, santa himself- have no bearing on separation of church and state (this discussion revolved around the recent menorah/xmas tree incident).

    I think Massimo was really saying that most atheists could reasonably adopt a sort of reindeer rule for themselves personally.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Jim,

    so it doesn't bother you _at all_ that the New Testament says absolutely nothing about gifts, celebrations, or even when Jesus was allegedly born? In what sense is the Christian one the "real reason" for the season??

    And yes, I would count teaching a bit of history to Christians as a good (though by far not the primary) reason to celebrate, enough of this insufferable lack of humility.

    ReplyDelete
  10. MP: "...so it doesn't bother you _at all_ that the New Testament says absolutely nothing about gifts, celebrations, or even when Jesus was allegedly born? In what sense is the Christian one the "real reason" for the season??"

    Christmas is not necessarily a "Christian" or biblically mandated holiday. It is something similar to "Ash Wend." in that regard. My hub taught on this a couple of weeks ago.

    In Jewish religious life, the coming of the Messiah is longed for and would be celebrated if the Messiah was thought to have come. But the way that Christmas is celebrated now probably does not resemble that sort of celebration in the least.

    INTERESTINGLY ENOUGH, however, the 10th chapter of Jeremiah does refer to some practice that sounds just like a non-Christian Christmas(?) celebration. And remember this passage is not only very anti-superstitious, is also very ancient!!

    From the Blue Letter Bible
    New King James Version

    Jer 10:1 HEAR the word which the LORD speaks to you, O house of Israel.
    Jer 10:2 Thus says the LORD:

    "Do not learn the way of the Gentiles;
    Do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven,
    For the Gentiles are dismayed at them.
    Jer 10:3 For the customs of the peoples are futile;
    For one cuts a tree from the forest,
    The work of the hands of the workman, with the ax.
    Jer 10:4 They decorate it with silver and gold;
    They fasten it with nails and hammers
    So that it will not topple.
    Jer 10:5 They are upright, like a palm tree,
    And they cannot speak;
    They must be carried,
    Because they cannot go by themselves.
    Do not be afraid of them,
    For they cannot do evil,
    Nor can they do any good."

    Jer 10:6 Inasmuch as there is none like You, O LORD
    (You are great, and Your name is great in might),
    Jer 10:7 Who would not fear You, O King of the nations?
    For this is Your rightful due.
    For among all the wise men of the nations,
    And in all their kingdoms,
    There is none like You.
    Jer 10:8 But they are altogether dull-hearted and foolish;
    A wooden idol is a worthless doctrine."

    http://www.blueletterbible.org/cgi-bin/tools/printer-friendly.pl?book=Jer&chapter=10&version=nkjv

    cal

    ReplyDelete
  11. "So, if the Christians start eating tiramisu as a ritual I'm supposed to give it up in spite? And who, exactly, would the loser be here?"

    uh, you? :)

    I love tiramisu also. But it is not really that old of an italian invention, is it?

    And by the way, who makes the best in the US? Macaroni Grill's seems like it is rather good to me.

    cal

    ReplyDelete
  12. I'll be celebrating the Winter Solstice!!!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Cal, I used to go to the Macheroni Grill when I lived in Knoxville. Alas, that's pretty close to the best Italian you can find in the South, but my tiramisu is far better than theirs... :)

    ReplyDelete
  14. At Buca di Beppo, the tiramisu just about gets up and walks out the door on its own strength. Very heavily liquored.

    seems the recipe for it can vary A LOT from place to place. Buca would presume to be Sicilian, if i remember correctly. I tried to make tiramisu once, but I added low fat something or another (?) to make the mascarpone. Big mistake.

    cal

    ReplyDelete
  15. G'day

    So, if Yahweh probhits using trees at Christmas, why do Christians still use them? Did he change his mind on this?

    I think Christians are quite welcome to clebrate on Dec 25th and I'd never think they were converting to paganism when they do.

    But since Matthew was pretty sure that Jesus was not born in the winter, should the Christians find a more apporpriate date, but that would make it a bit too close to the ancient festival of the Spring Equinox. Looks like we'll all just have to share the Solstice season, which is appropriate as it affects everyone, regardless of their culture and beliefs, and I'm happy with that. Though, we miss the snow stuff here in Australia. One day I'll get to the northern hemisphere and have a white Christmas. It does look wonderful. And it makes a change from heat and bushfires.

    Interestingly, in August, I heard a long range weather forcaster predict rain on Christmas day in Sydney and the weather man today is saying, cool, 20 degrees and showers on Christmas day. It's rare that it rains on Christmas day in Sydney.

    Seaons greetings

    ReplyDelete
  16. So they found an atheist who doesn't celebrate in any way, and he's speaking for all of us? I don't think so. For crying out loud, Richard Dawkins even keeps Christmas. The media has a vested interest in keeping the fight going - but don't think all atheists are "grumpy".

    ReplyDelete
  17. ...that the new religion arbitrarily decided that their savior was born on the 25th of December.

    How do we know that? Meaning--it would be interesting to read more on the subject.

    :)

    ReplyDelete
  18. The Roman emperor Constantine decreed Dec 25th as Christmas as he was a cunning politician who stradled worshipping Mithra, a main god of the empire prior to Christ, and worshipping Christ as well, though he didn't personally convert til he was dying.

    Mithra was born on the winter solstice and all those Romans and other pagans had been busy celebrating that and Saturnalia so it made sense to take over the celebrations, rather than start a new one some time in Spring or early summer.

    Nothing more than clever politics really.

    ReplyDelete
  19. so it doesn't bother you _at all_ that the New Testament says absolutely nothing about gifts, celebrations, or even when Jesus was allegedly born?

    Nope, no more then it bothers you.

    In what sense is the Christian one the "real reason" for the season??

    In the sense that Christians make up the majority of the United States, so thats what the majority decided to do. Just that simple, its how we choose to hold the meaning. If you wish to celebrate for a different reason, thats great! No need to have a sign on your door that says "Were opening Saturnalia presents only, no Christmas presents". Perhaps you would be more comfortable if the clerk wished you a Merry Solstice. I guess my point is that athiest know this is a special time of year, there seems to be something there in Christmas, and you want to take part in it, but you cant associate yourself with Christianity, so you have to go to lengths to explain why it is Ok to take part. I say just take part without the big explaination and I promise no one will come knocking on your door telling you its time for church. I am not quite sure the difference between your post and what the NYC athiest group is doing. Your both going out of your way to explain why Christmas is foolish.

    Not sure why saying this gives me a lack of humility?

    madm4n,
    To me your logic doesn't stand. Its ok for athiest to celebrate religious holidays that are now extant, but not religious holidays that are current since we know you don't believe in the extant one. You said a mouth full, all of this comes from a fear that someone might think your foolish enough to believe. Its not to make a point, its fear of how your perceived by your fellow athiests.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Jim

    My comment was in response to these sentences of yours:

    Besides using the excuse that the traditions of Christmas comes from previous events really isn't valid, because the origions of festivals like Saturnalia are still religious, just not Christian.

    So is it just Chrisianity were afraid of being associated with?


    And especially:

    M is saying its ok to do these things because there not Christian (but they are religious in origion)

    Remember that M's post was about atheists dissociating themselves from Xmas because of its religious connotations, and that this was not only "curmudgeonly" but unnecessary, since many of the traditions were not Christian in the first place..

    Your reply was that they were still religious if not Christian.

    My reply was meant to convey that they would not be seen as religious since the religions were no longer extant.

    This should be comforting to any atheist who does feel shy about his Xmas tree. But M. openly declared this was not the case with him. And it is not the case with me.

    I ALWAYS celebrate Xmas, and will continue to do so. I offer no apologies, and do not care what anyone thinks about it.

    (But I AM a little careful when sending Xmas cards. The odd religious card that is in the standard box is not something I would send to a "secular" friend, because, yes, it would convey the wrong impression. But I do send such cards to people who would like them.)

    ReplyDelete
  21. Jim,

    I think you are grossly underestimating the "culture wars" here. First, I don't think Christians simply mean to say that the real reason for the season is that they are the majority and get to decide (they don't, by the way, since this is a constitutional republic with protection for minorities). You are either being disingenous here or incredibly naive.

    Second, "I promise no one will come knocking on your door telling you its time for church." Really? Because that's what it sounds like to me when I hear George W. or Bill O'Reilly speak...

    ReplyDelete
  22. Madm4n,
    I view dissecting each part of Christmas and explaining why there not really Christian, so it is Ok for me to do it as being "curmudgeonly" towards Christians, thats why I feel there isn't much difference between what the NYC Athiest group saying and M's post.


    M,
    Am I underestimating the "culture wars"? I see it for what it is, most of it unessisary. Like this post. Don't worry I know the religious are just as bad. I guess it gets old, and I am niave in thinking that it doesn't need to exsist (at least not to the extent it does)The fact is that the religous can't slow science (or vice versa), even if I.D. was taught in every school, it would not slow the progress of evolutionary theory (may even help it). The culture wars are more about egos than anything else, although they are fought under the guise that the other side will ruin America. The religious saying The left is ruining America and vise versa.

    I am curious, what would you do if each and every part of Christmas were absolutly 100% Christian? (and there was no winter solstice)Would you deprive yourself of Christmas?

    ReplyDelete
  23. I am curious, what would you do if each and every part of Christmas were absolutly 100% Christian? (and there was no winter solstice)Would you deprive yourself of Christmas?


    If it were so, then I would not decorate my house and yard and instead wait for my Christian friends to invite me to their home for celebration. I, in turn, would reciprocate in other festivals.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Well, my 2p worth... Yet another atheist opinion -- that's why there is not such a thing as "atheist ideology", since we're all so diverse. Herding cats and all that. But I digress, as usual.

    Celebrating Xmas. I myself don't, and don't care (I would if I were home, more below). I'll be working all these days, it's not a holiday for me. It does not matter squat that all the elements of it were taken from other religions, cultures, whatever. It is a christian celebration, everybody knows that, nobody can deny it seriously. I'm not a christian, therefore I have nothing to do with it. As I won't fast during Ramadan, while some friends of mine do. But I sure can wish ye a merry Xmas, if you're into it...

    Now, about the home thing I mentioned earlier. For those who don't know, I currently live in America, but came from Brazil almost 5 years ago to do research (biology). Why does it matter? It has to do with family traditions (they're Catholics, mostly). Xmas time, for me, has always been that time when a lot of people of my family would get together around a huge table (almost always at the ranch), and eat, drink, talk and laugh our heads off for many hours (something like 10 pm Dec 24 to 2 or 3 am 25th, that's how we do it there), to the sound of instrumental (harp, mostly) music, usually. With a quick break at midnight to hug and kiss everybody wishing merry Xmas and opening presents (when we were young, not after grown up usually, in my family). So, being some 4,700 miles from them, it's all obviously meaningless. It can never have that meaning without my parents, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandmas, etc.. My girlfriend is an atheist too, and she puts up wreaths and a little, foot-tall tree on our living room, red and green ribbons on the dogs and horses (the cats do not appreciate this, so we leave them alone, mostly, hehe)... It means nothing to me, but I do my best to humour her. :O)

    Cheers (and a great New Year)
    J

    ReplyDelete
  25. J,
    Sounds like it does mean something to you (although nothing to do with Christianity). Too bad you couldn't get home to your family for X-mas. Sounds like a lot of fun.

    M,

    What do you do during Easter? Can you somehow make it into a more historical event than Christs resurection? Or do you choose to avoid it totally? Or can you just celebrate it without George Bush or Bill O'reilly sending you to church?

    ReplyDelete
  26. Jim,

    at Easter, just as at Christmas, I go astronomical: I celebrate the spring (and no, I don't care whether it is on the right day or not). I never turn down chocolate eggs, which is the Italian tradition... :)

    ReplyDelete
  27. J:
    Xmas time, for me, has always been that time when a lot of people of my family would get together around a huge table (almost always at the ranch), and eat, drink, talk and laugh our heads off for many hours ... With a quick break at midnight to hug and kiss everybody wishing merry Xmas and opening presents ... So, being some 4,700 miles from them, it's all obviously meaningless. It can never have that meaning without my parents, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandmas, etc.."

    Christmas should be about passing on the good parts of traditions on to our family and friends. And that means that you CAN have those things without "parents, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandmas" present.

    My parents never celebrated the holidays in the usual form (because my mother was convinced that certain traditions, santa, trees, easter eggs, halloween) were all pagan and superstitious.

    But we did do mostly what your family did. And that is, get together and really enjoy each others company. These are the best of traditions. Without em, the symbols that all go along with Christmas are rather meaningless.

    It's really all about family and building up and encouraging those you love! When one sets their mind to do this, one will never be lonely or depressed on the holidays. I promise.

    cal

    ReplyDelete
  28. G’day

    Well, Christmas morning dawned cool and drizzly in Sydney but then it warmed up a bit and the sun came out and the kids were in the pool at the family Christmas gathering.

    As a card-carrying member of Australian Skeptics, I was worried that the weather predictor may have got it right as it’s a big call to say rain on Christmas day. I checked out his website and he gave a caveat of a day each way. Now Christmas Eve was wet. We had good rain that day. So maybe we do have to give that as a hit. For the record, New Zealander Ken Ring claims to base his predictions on the gravitational effects of the moon on the atmosphere. This is no doubt probably dodgy science and I see from a NZ science site that many of his predictions have the usual ambiguity to give better looking results.

    When I heard him on the radio in August giving predictions for the rest of the year, I made a note of them as I always wonder how accurate these people are and normally we forget what they say and so can’t measure their accuracies. For September, October, November and December up to now, I’d have to give him 9 out of 10, which puts him ahead of the weather bureau, though he’s also predicted very heavy rain on the east coast between now and new year and that is yet to come.

    Meanwhile, a bit south of here in the Alpine area of Victoria, they’ve been fighting some big bush fires (what you in the US call forest fires) over the last three weeks and on Christmas day they got rain and snow, which has dampened down the fires but not stopped them. There was a great photo in the paper of a fire crew in front of their truck, with Merry Christmas written in the snow on the windscreen. So Ken Ring got a hit there.

    Of course in the paper, there were the usual clichés of a Christmas miracle bringing snow and rain to help fire fighting and claims this is evidence of the effectiveness of prayer. But as this weather was predicted four months ago, how can it be a miracle and prayers being answered. Maybe Ken Ring knows the mind of Yahweh months in advance of Yahweh himself.

    And now it’s drizzling enough in Melbourne to stop play in the cricket at what we call the Boxing Day Test match, against the English this year, in a competition we call The Ashes. However, if you predict rain during the Melbourne cricket Test, no one will think that is remarkable. On the other hand, predicting fair weather for all five days of the match is a brave call.

    Happy Boxing Day

    ReplyDelete
  29. Couple of points.

    First, this is an obvious example of the Northern Conspiracy, to make us Antipodeans celebrate the Northern Hemisphere's seasonal markers. Southern Christmas in June, I say!

    Second, if we are to believe Luke's Gospel, which of course we aren't, Jesus was born when shepherds watched their flocks at night, after the lambing season, in late April or early May.

    Hmph!

    ReplyDelete
  30. *sigh* ... just another example of a reporter's bigotry regarding a minority group. He passes judgement based upon his ill founded perceptions and then seeks out one who "fits the description" :-(

    ReplyDelete
  31. Interesting post. Keep up the good work. Toner

    ReplyDelete
  32. G'day
    The big rain between Christmas and New Year didn't happen. Whew. I can go back to my scepticism.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.