Friday, December 25, 2009

Reason For The Season

"I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience. " - Carl Sagan
This is the first Christmas I'm spending without a savior in it. Well, in actuality every Christmas is without a savior, but this is the first time I actually know that, rather than believing in the possibility of savior I can't prove exists. This is in some ways a lot easier than I thought it was going to be. In other ways, it's harder than I imagined. I guess it's that it's hard, but not the way I anticipated. Maybe I thought I'd get suicidal. Statistics indicate more people attempt suicide this time of year than any other. However, although there's no statistics to prove this, I'd be willing to bet it's more believers than nonbelievers who find this a significant time of year to take their own life.

Wow. First paragraph into this and already I'm pretty dark and maudlin. Not my intent.

I've heard more and more as I become more vocal in my atheism that "you can't disprove religion." This is a double negative which therefore nullifies its use in a debate. If you remove the double negative you get "you can prove religion." But you can't. It is by design unprovable. That's why it persists despite an onslaught of opposing evidence that science holds the key to understanding the universe as it actually is rather than what religion hopes it will be. Faith makes it impossible to argue the point, because you can't argue with faith. A person who has faith will just dismiss you as a nonbeliever, regardless of how much proof you have that they are wrong.

A better way to say it is "One can't prove religion" however that wording doesn't help the religious at all. As I've said before, I used to be a Christian but over the past year I've come to the realization that I stopped being a Christian a long time ago. I kept trying to quantify my beliefs, so that I could accept more and more of what's real and actual without letting go of the fanciful and imaginary. Let me try to explain what I mean, in the light of Christmas context. 'Tis the season after all.

Let's say you're a kid around six or seven years old and you've been told the entire story of Santa Claus. You have bought it all hook line and sinker. You don't actively try to disprove this story because your own parents have told you and you've no reason to believe them to be liars. People in your community - adults that you've come to respect and appreciate - behave in your presence as if Santa were real. They speak of him even when they think you're not listening as if he were real, or so you assume. You're too young to understand sarcasm or playful banter between adults. You have no reason to question the validity of the story, so you accept everything at face value.

Then one day your boots are missing, and you assume your mom put them in the closet cuz she's done that before but you want to go outside. So you go into the closet to find your boots, and while in there you happen upon a bag of presents that are addressed from Santa Claus to members of your household. This was an accident. You honestly didn't mean to uncover this evidence, but now that you have, your mind is suddenly perplexed and you find yourself questioning the story without realizing it. But being a good little child you decide to take this directly to your parents and see if they can answer this for you.

So you go straight to your Mom and Dad and you say you were looking for your boots but found Santa's bag, and ask them why we have Santa's bag in our closet. Your parents at first look worried, but then your Dad smiles at you and says that's cuz Santa's a busy guy and he may not be able to make it to our house right on the 25th, so he sent some presents ahead of schedule, so we wouldn't go without. It's a service Santa provides some parents and this year he selected your household and aren't you special? That satisfies your curiosity and so you don't think much about it. Probably cuz your Mom then suggested milk & cookies or something to take your mind off it.

But then next Christmas you're a year older and this seed of uncertainty has planted itself. There's now little things about the story of Santa that you just don't get. For example, in Twas The Night Before Christmas, Santa comes down a chimney. You don't have a chimney. Maybe you bring this up to your parents and they have a suitable answer, but that's just one example.

Why do the reindeer fly? At school the teacher says that birds fly and deer run. Why didn't Santa just tie a bunch of birds to his sleigh if he wanted to fly? Come to think of it, why doesn't he use a rocket? I mean he needs to go fast right? What's faster than a rocket?

And how come some of your friends get exactly what they want for Christmas and some of them don't? And why do some of your friends not talk much about Santa while others can't talk about him enough? And why are some adults more tightlipped about the whole thing than others? And by now you've heard some rumors that there's no Santa at all, but you dismiss those lunatics outright. Your own parents say there is a Santa, so if some strangers just don't believe, they're probably the ones that Santa gives coal to cuz they been bad, right?

But then there's the bully at school. You personally witnessed him be bad all year, and yet he boasted getting the biggest presents of all that year. What the hell is that about? And then there's the letters you've been writing to Santa. You never get a response back. Of course that's because he's busy, but this year you noticed your Mom didn't even put a stamp on the envelope when she took it to the mailbox. How's it gonna get to Santa without a stamp? She puts stamps on all the other mail. When she forgets, the mailman doesn't take the envelope and then she argues with him for ten minutes. Yet when it comes to a letter for Santa, it doesn't need a stamp? ...Well, he IS Santa. Even the mailman knows that. However, over time these little incidents add up, and while each event separately has an explanation that keeps the story of Santa intact, the fact all these events happened and all these uncertainties occurred over time reveals a deeper mystery, and once uncovered the sobering reality, that there is no Santa and there never was.

Oh, you can look at the history. The Roman Catholic Church does have evidence of a Saint Nicholas. Most every culture in Europe speaks of an individual who gave to children without expecting anything in return. There is some scant historical significance to back up the story, but a literal dude in a red outfit flying around with magic reindeer and elves giving literally billions of children around the world an abundant supply of gifts in less than 24 hours every year? Nope. Never was. Never will be.
"One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. it is simply too painful to acknowledge -- even to ourselves -- that we've been so credulous. (So the old bamboozles tend to persist as the new bamboozles rise.)" - Carl Sagan, The Fine Art of Baloney Detection
For each of us it's different, and we may or may not remember the final clue that reveals to us the truth. It's never sudden, but it's always sudden. I can't even pinpoint it for myself. It was a gradual thing. One Christmas I just knew. There's no Santa. My parents had figured out that I figured it out and so we just didn't pretend anymore. I'd grown out of it. I can't even remember which year that was. Was I seven? Was I ten? Surely by fifth or sixth grade I was "too big" to be bothered with pretending to believe. In fact it's perhaps a kind of silent badge of honor. A step towards maturity. A discovery that one is that much closer to not being a kid anymore. You're in on the gag now. You're an adult now. And when you get older you can have kids and tell them about Santa and let them figure it out on their own too.

That may be where the disconnect is for me. I don't have kids. I never plan to ever have kids. I don't want kids, but if I did, I wouldn't want to lie to them. About anything. So I really can't understand why other parents do. Why do we perpetuate this lie? Why must we make up a story about how beautiful and fantastical and wondrous the winter season is? It already is. However, the way it really is wondrous is kinda scary. It's also harder to explain to a four year old, so instead we tell them this whole other story that we think is easier for them to understand.

The actual story, the actual 'reason for the season' is simply not something you can tie into a pretty red bow and put under a tree. It's not cut and dried. In some ways it is a tale still being weaved for mankind, by mankind. We don't even fully fathom it yet. Most importantly, it's not marketable. There's no way to make money off it so no one has any incentive to turn it into a marketable thing with a cute slogan and a two for one special at Walmart.
"Such reports persist and proliferate because they sell. And they sell, I think, because there are so many of us who want so badly to be jolted out of our humdrum lives, to rekindle that sense of wonder we remember from childhood, and also, for a few of the stories, to be able, really and truly, to believe--in Someone older, smarter, and wiser who is looking out for us." - Carl Sagan
What is this 'better story' that isn't? Well, funny you should ask. The same week of Christmas is something called The Winter Solstice, which has actually been heralded for thousands of years, even before the Christ Child story allegedly took place. Some believe that's why Stonehenge was built, because Early Man needed a way to understand their universe and track what things in the heavens were doing over a long period of time. If you just glance up at the stars in the sky they don't appear to be moving, but some very early human beings did notice that over time there were changes in the sky, and the stones at Stonehenge seem to be placed in just such a way so as to anticipate these changes. Before the sciences that we take for granted today, early human beings were partaking in rudimentary astronomy - star gazing. They determined that around the last week of what we now call December, the nights were the longest they ever got and the days were the shortest they ever got. Then about six moon cycles later (new, quarter, half, full, etc) the days would be the longest and nights the shortest. They didn't understand what all this means then, but before Christianity even began, human beings were trying to figure it out.

I've often found it amusing that The Three Wise Men are said to have used a star to guide them to Bethlehem to find the Christ Child where even meanie King Herod couldn't find him. Why would a star lead wise men to a stable? The answer of the Winter Solstice has always been in the stars, but those who wanted to bring attention to the Christ Child story, just took that Winter Solstice story and made a left turn at Alberquerque with it. Let's try NOT doing that this time and see where we end up.

Julius Caesar, about forty years before the presumed birth of Jesus Christ, determined that December 25th was the Winter Solstice on his "Julian Calendar." Jesus Christ wasn't literally born on December 25th. The Roman Catholic Church usurped that day, because it was when many pagans were partying anyway. The Catholics simply appropriated the holiday, and would tell the pagans they didn't have to change their traditions, just the reason for the season. I've known this for many years. As far back as a child I remember comparing notes with a friend who was a Jehovah's Witness. She said she had reason to believe Jesus was born in October. I don't recall ever finding any evidence of when he was actually born. The point was, he wasn't born in December. That's just the day we set aside to remember his birth. It's not literal. Very little in the Bible should be taken literally, unless you want to be a crazy person. The Old Testament is actually The Tanak. It's the Torah, the Nevuim and the Kevuim or whatever. It's the holy writings from the jewish tradition, and even they don't take it literally. Christians usurped the Old Testament and then tacked on the New Testament presumably as proof that the prophecies mentioned in parts of the Old Testament literally came to pass. The promise God made to his Chosen People was fulfilled presumably by the birth and death of Jesus of Nazareth. And of course, the jewish people looked at Jesus and said, "well he's a sweet little jewish boy and all but what the hell are you talking about?"
"You never see a rabbi on TV interpreting the New Testament, do you? If you want to truly understand The Old Testament, if there's something you don't quite get, there are Jews who walk among you, and they, I promise you this, will take time out of their very Jewie Jewie day and interpret for you anything that you're having trouble understanding, and we will do that if, of course, the price is right. Was the earth created in seven days? No. For those of you who believe it was, you Christians, let me tell you that you do not understand the Jewish people. We Jews know that it was not created in seven days, and that's 'cause we know what we're good at. And what we're really good at is bullshit. This is a wonderful story that was told to the people in the desert to distract them from the fact that they did not have air conditioning. I would love to have the faith that the universe was created in seven days, but I have thoughts, and they can really fuck up the faith thing. Just ask any Catholic priest." - Lewis Black
That was the beginning of the end for my belief structure but it took most of my life thus far for it to completely fall to ruin. My religion wasn't literal. Much of it was open to interpretation. As I learned more, my religious beliefs would have to adapt so as to remain meaningful and significant in the light of actual information that contradicted it. After awhile I realized I had been treating my belief structure as if it were a buffet table. The parts of Christianity that involved judging other people didn't appeal to my appetite. The parts of Christianity where I couldn't do things I wanted to do even though there were no victims and no harm caused to anyone, that didn't taste good either. Dancing for example. Baptists despise dancing, because it might lead to premarital sex. Hell, BREATHING might lead to premarital sex! Let's call that a sin too!

The light of reason slowly chipped away at what I had believed to be right bit after bit. A grand artifice planted in the middle of my existence since birth was getting smaller and held up less of anything valuable. To attempt to explain every bit as it chipped away would make this far too long. I'll try to keep it down a bit.

There's four different accounts of the Christmas story in the accepted canonical bible. Matthew Mark Luke & John. Four different accounts of Jesus' birth and life. One would think that having four different accounts from four different people would reinforce the story. However, these four accounts only have some similarities and many more differences. Things omitted from some but not others. Also, there's other documentation that didn't get canonized. There are books which the Church dismissed and didn't include. Some still exist and others are now lost forever, certainly to public scrutiny.

Our own judicial system deals with this kind of thing every day. Eyewitness testimony is always subjective, and often easily dismissed in court if you have a good attorney on your side. Human beings are fallible. So wise men and women called lawyers and judges and juries have to sort though testimony and find to the best of their ability what's credible and useful. However, these too are human beings and therefore fallible.

It was human beings like these that were instrumental in the canonization process. Where they are fallible, Christians are to presume on faith that God picked up the slack, and the final product known as The Holy Bible IS in and of itself infallible, as the word of God as God wants you to experience. Yet... it too is interpretive. You can't take it literal. If you do, you might end up blowing up buildings or killing a neighbor for having sex with someone else's wife. Or stoning people for being different. There's a lot of crap in the Bible.

But the Winter Solstice is kind of crap free. The actual event it depicts just is, regardless of what we call it and how we measure it. In fact, it proves to us where we are full of crap. The guys back during the time of Stonehenge didn't really understand it, and we're only now grasping its significance in recent centuries. What does it mean? It means that this thing we call Earth. This giant globe that we call home and take so for granted, is a spinning rock in space. It's a mudball, really. It's spinning around an even larger ball of flame made up of mostly hydrogen.

Religion tells us that God is eternal, but that God made the heavens and the earth, so they're not eternal. Science agrees there. The Sun is not a perpetual source of heat. It will run day run out, but our best estimates indicate we should have several thousand more years before we even have to worry about that. This mud ball spins around on an axis as it revolves around the Sun. It's wobbling. This time of year the wobble puts the mud ball at such an angle as to lessen the amount of solar energy to actually strike the northern hemisphere. This is why in Australia they're currently experiencing the hottest time of their year. For them, winter is summer and vice versa.

This wobble is consistent, but our perception of it is very slowly changing. The whole purpose of the Gregorian and Julian calendars was to keep track of these changes in the sky, and use them to keep track of time for humanity, and our place in the universe. When Julius Caesar's great thinkers devised the Julian calendar for him, the Winter Solstice was December 25th. Two thousand years later, that has shifted. It's now closer to December 21st. About every five hundred years it's gone back a day. So Julius Caesar's calendar wasn't exact, but considering what they had to work with 2000 years ago (y'know, no computers and stuff) that's not too shabby.

Religion tells us that The One True God doesn't change. Science has revealed that the only constant in the universe is change. Once I realized that there was no god, I wanted to be mad but there was nothing to be mad at, but "He" was never there. Not "His" fault. Not my parents' fault. They didn't know. All of humanity doesn't really know. People who disagree with my discovery still think I'm full of it. How can I KNOW when they 'know' that there IS a god?

Everyone who believes has personal life experiences that solidify that belief within them. I can't dismiss those outright. However, I've dismissed my own, and with time any irrational experience can be explained through rational thought and objective observation. I can't disprove that you believe in a religion, but I can disprove the tenets of that religion itself. If one then goes, "well you can't take X literally. It's a figurative representation of Y." That's just cheating. There comes a point when you disprove enough of the literal pieces of any given religion, that what's left can be dismissed as trivial or irrelevant.

Sure there's no Santa Claus, but the Spirit of Christmas lives on in the hearts and minds of all those who believe in the spirit of giving; that it's better to give than to receive. So long as we don't let go of that, there's a little bit of Santa in each and every one of us and WE cumulatively keep him alive. That's what we tell ourselves. Santa becomes a reminder in all adults to not forget what it's like to be children, and it's a way to get those who have wealth to not forget what it's like to have nothing. In that context, I think even most atheists would be on board the "it does more good than harm" train.

Still, it's lying. Wouldn't it be great if we could keep this 'Spirit of Giving' sentiment the whole year round, without conjuring up a complex back story that has no legitimate evidence to support itself as a way for us to remember these important tenets? Why do we have to lie to ourselves to believe in the truth?

I know there's no god for the same reason I know there's no Santa. I don't have to go to the North Pole and personally inspect every foot of land and ice up there. Even if I did, someone could then just say Santa has since moved. Now he operates not on the North Pole but in space. Or he took the workshop underground. When you're dealing with something that's not there, which isn't limited to the laws of physics or deductive reasoning, one can say anything one wants about it. There's no god because when one uses deductive reasoning and common sense to investigate the phenomenon, it doesn't hold up under the scrutiny. You investigate the legitimacy of it the same way you should investigate the legitimacy of everything in the universe to uncover what's actual and real, versus what's imaginary and speculative. The truth becomes mundane once its taken for granted, but the realization that this spinning rock in space is so incredibly delicate and precious and rare and wondrous is what we really should be celebrating every Winter Solstice. The fact that we've figured out what a Solstice is and we've named it and we comprehend our tenuous place in the universe. That's pretty amazing.

I think that realization is pretty cool. It's like learning how magic tricks work. It's like understanding how an internal combustion engine operates. It's like unveiling yet another secret of the universe, and not being afraid of what it means to how we perceive it. Back in 1897, Virginia O'Hanlon wrote to a newspaper that no longer exists and asked the newspaper to prove the legitimacy of Santa Claus. Francis Church wrote her back. He talked of little minds being skeptical in light of the enormous breadth and majesty of the universe around them.
Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Were Francis Church alive today, I would assure him that love and generosity and devotion can and do still exist regardless of the Santas and Saviors of our philosophies and mythologies. We anthropomorphize these things and many others because its how Mankind's minds can make sense of them, but we don't have to do that. Religion is like the training wheels on a bicycle. We've been riding with them still on long after we figured out how to ride without them. We find it comforting and we feel secure, but it's only slowing us down.

No Virginia. There is no Santa Claus. Your little friends are right.

They are skeptics. We still live in an age of skeptics, and we are growing, while slowly those who still prefer to live in the false light of hope and faith are causing their own extinction. Actual illumination brings knowledge and understanding. To shirk from this is to not want to grow up. If you have knowledge and understanding, and can act upon these things, you don't need hope and faith because you will have taken charge of your species' own future. Rather than depending on some intangible force to take care of the unknown for you, you will actively seek out the unknown and make it known.

No, science is not the end all be all of universal knowledge. No, it doesn't have all the answers. In fact, some day, we may learn so much as to see what is considered science today a load of balderdash! Einstein predicted that one day Mankind would find a Universal Theory of Physics that would tie everything up nicely. He was apparently wrong, but that day may still come. Someone may be able to figure out a way to look at the universe so that all the laws of Physics that we know now fit together like strands of hair after you combed out all the kinks. Or a universal theory might make all the previous theories and laws and things that we take for granted today obsolete, and we may call that something else entirely. No doubt when that day comes there will be scientists who resist that change, and it may take centuries for Man to take that particular "leap of faith" as well.

There are things in the universe that our little minds still cannot comprehend, but give us time, and let us ride without the training wheels, so we can find them and learn to understand. In this great universe of ours, to compare ourselves to ants is far too optimistic. However, our intellect, as compared with the boundless world about us, will be measured by the intelligence we are capable of grasping the whole of truth or knowledge.

There was a time when such contemplation would be derided as heresy. There was a time when my mere utterance of such a thought in public would put me in the stocks, or have me hung from a tree or burned at the stake, because people would misunderstand that I was being so bold as to suggest one day Man would be like God. Like Icarus with his melted wings in the face of the Sun. Quite the contrary. One day we will learn that we don't want to be like God. We never did. One day we will all declare with one loud bold voice that not only are we not God - WE MADE GOD UP. We told his story to ourselves so we wouldn't forget what he means to us, just as we told ourselves the story of Santa.

Merry Christ Myth Day. May your New Year be a bold and daring one filled with joy and laughter and knowledge and wisdom. May you not fear the future humanity has in store for itself, and may humanity be able to face the universe as it actually is and not as how we pretend it could be, because that's the only way we're going to survive it.

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