Contrary to what Christian leaders have been claiming for a long time, the "real meaning of Christmas" isn't their nativity story. A midwinter festival has been celebrated in the Northern Hemisphere for thousands of years (it's pre-Christian in origin). The Romans had a festival called Saturnalia, which the BBC website details - Did the Romans invent Christmas? The answer is, no, they didn't; the early church high-jacked the Roman festival of Saturnalia, when it became clear that no one was going to stop having a good time at around this time of year.
Originally a one-day feast at the end of autumn, Saturnalia gradually moved to later and later dates, with longer celebrations, throughout the Roman period.
By the time of Christian conversion it was running into and incorporating a number of festivals. These included the Opalia - the festival day for Saturn's consort Ops - on the 19 December and the Sigillaria- the day of present-giving - on the 23 December. The 25 December was dies natalis solis invicti - the birthday of the 'invincible' Roman sun-god Sol.
Cancelling Saturnalia was unthinkable, so Christian Rome converted it to a Christian holy day instead.
American atheists have a lot of invective aimed at them by ignorant Christian fundamentalists. One extreme example, this week, was in response to the school massacre in Connecticut; a Tennessee Baptist pastor told his congregation that the number of mass shooting were escalating because of schools were government “mind-control centers” that taught “junk about evolution” and “how to be a homo,” and that “humanism” in schools taught Lanza (the shooter) that he was God and “he can just go blow away anybody he wants.” He wasn't alone in blaming atheists and atheism for the massacre. Former US Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee said that the shooting was a result of having "systematically removed God from our schools" (ignoring the fact that America is constitutionally secular).
It’s great that many Americans, even those who are religious, find the statements of Huckabee and company objectionable, but it’s unfortunate that the objections focus on the wrong issue. Rather than argue about whether God is jealous and vindictive or loving and compassionate (or at least in addition to that argument), Americans should be calling out fundamentalists for depicting nonbelievers as agents of evil.
Margaret Nelson will be on Terry Baxters's programme with a local clergyman at 8.05am on Wednesday 12th December to talk about the results of the census, published today. Fewer people are claiming to be Christian and more have identified themselves as atheist. How will this affect the Church's claim to keep 26 bishops in the House of Lords, especially since none of them will be women, and how will it affect its arguments about same-sex marriage? Is it time to consider disestablishment?
As news spreads of the killing of the US Ambassador to Libya, J Christopher Stevens, by an angry mob reacting to a film about Islam, there's also news that Channel 4 has cancelled its screening of Tom Holland's film, Islam: the untold story, in response to threats from Muslim extremists.
The film that prompted the Benghazi assault on the US Embassy, as well as demonstrations in Egypt, was made by an Israeli filmmaker, Sam Bacile (who's gone into hiding), and was promoted by Morris Sadek, an extreme anti-Muslim Egyptian Christian campaigner who lives in California. It's a rubbish film, whatever you think of Islam, with wooden acting, comedy beards, and an inflammatory depiction of Islam. Click here to watch it.
Tom Holland's film, shown on Channel 4 recently, is not a rubbish film; it's a documentary that records the research Holland has done into the origins of Islam. Click here to watch it on 4oD. The Telegraph reports, "The investigation into the origins of the religion claimed that there is little written contemporary evidence about the prophet Mohammed". This reminded me that Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou said more or less the same things about King David in the Old Testament and Jesus and the origins of Christianity in her BBC TV series last year, yet there were no Jewish or Christian mobs baying for her blood - though some American fundamentalists probably would have been rather rude about her, if they'd seen it. Uneducated Muslims in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Libya live in social groups where the men and women are segregated, independence is frowned upon, and a mob mentality is easily developed. It's taken centuries to get this way; simply being rude about them isn't going to change anything.
The main Abrahamic monotheistic religions' stories have been changed as they've been passed down through the generations, like Chinese whispers, so now there's very little truth in any of them. In spite of this, anyone who dares to say so is likely to be threatened by those who prefer to remain in ignorance than to question the nonsense they've been conditioned to believe. One of the biggest problems with all of them is their fundamental sexism, but atheists can be just as guilty of that.
Instead of picking fights with theocracies, it would be better if some of the money currently being spent on military hardware was used to provide education. In the long term, it's the only thing that can make a difference. Most of the men in the Muslim mobs were taught by imams in madrassas, the only form of schooling they ever had.
“Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe. Let us learn the truth and spread it as far and wide as our circumstances allow. For the truth is the greatest weapon we have.” - H G Wells
As you'll see from yesterday's comments on our blog post from last year about the Scout Association's promise to "love God", the issue is still topical here in the UK. Today there's news from Australia that the Girl Guides there will no longer have to promise allegiance to God and the Queen, though Australian Scouts have yet to catch up.
The BBC reports:
Girl Guides in Australia will no longer have to pledge allegiance to the Queen and God and will instead promise to serve the community and Australia.
They will also pledge "to be true to myself and develop my beliefs".
Leaders said the move, which follows a two-year survey of members, was designed to make Guiding more modern and relevant and boost membership.
We recently reported on how Sanal Edamaruku, President of The Indian Rationalist Association, is facing arrest for offending Catholics by proving that the source of "holy water" from a crucifix was, in fact, a leaky pipe. They had been drinking the filthy stuff.
New Humanist magazine reports that, yesterday, Delhi police officers went to Sanal's house to arrest him, but he wasn't there. When he returns, he's likely to be arrested. If you haven't already signed the petition calling on the Catholics to drop the complaints, please click on the above link to sign it.
In the latest New Humanist magazine, philosopher Julian Baggini says that one of religion's attractions to the religious is that it offers hope, and asks if living without religion means living without it.
Most atheists accept that “Hope is essential to life,” as AC Grayling put it to me, “a beautiful, central thing in all our lives.” Philosopher Nigel Warburton, recalling the inscription “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” at the entrance of Dante’s Hell, told me, “Hell is not having hope.” But both reject the claim that hope requires religion. “It’s not that atheists don’t have hopes,” says Warburton, “they just have different hopes.” Among these Grayling lists hopes “for the improvement of mankind, for greater justice in society, for more people to love more other people”.
Maybe one of the problems with religion is that it offers hope based on totally unrealistic expectations?