The “war on Christmas” and misrepresentations of atheists

war-on-christmas-460x307Fox News is mostly an American problem, but South African readers will probably have heard of Bill O’Reilly, the conservative political pundit who spends a lot of time being angry about Obama, people who don’t believe in God, and various other issues.

Chris Stedman (here’s my review of his book, Faitheist) has written an interesting post on how the “war on Christmas” is actually a war on atheist voices. The title of the post sets up a false dichotomy, in that it could be both, but the post makes various good points.

O’Reilly exploits every possible opportunity for hyperbole, and Christmas is no exception. The “war on Christmas” is pretty much an O’Reilly invention, and refers to the (alleged) efforts of non-religious folk to keep the Christ out of Christmas.

But as I remarked to a journalist who recently interviewed me on how South African atheists feel about Christmas, Christmas is to all intents and purposes a secular holiday for most folk already. By this I don’t mean that Christians have forgotten about Jesus – just that the bulk of proceedings are a rare and (sometimes) pleasurable opportunity for friends and family to gather.

The Christ-related bits will involve a prayer of thanks, and maybe some reading from the Bible, but my point is that the day is not going to involve excessive religious ceremony, even for Christians. Christ will no doubt be in their thoughts at times, but I will celebrate Christmas just like they do, for the most part.

In this context, there’s nothing to go to war over. If I’m right, and Christmas is secular in any case, Christmas provides an opportunity for two things (not an exclusive list): one, celebrating Christmas and two, being obnoxious towards Christians, and conforming to a certain stereotype of how offensive atheists are.

I choose the first option. And as Stedman points out, most atheists do also, which is why his piece argues that it’s a war on atheism through mischaracterising us, rather than on Christmas (as I said at the top, it could be a war on both, so I think the title poorly chosen).

He links to interesting research that suggests only 15% of atheists in the USA are anti-theist, meaning that they “believe that the obvious fallacies in religion and belief should be aggressively addressed in some form or another”.

The remainder are characterised as academic atheists, agnostic atheists etc., but regardless of whether you disagree with how the authors carve the landscape up, it’s true to say that some atheists are more aggressive than others – and it’s fair to ask whether they should be taken as representative of the whole.

As with all contested topics – or even “all topics” – those who make the most noise, or who say the most outrageous things, will get the attention. In the USA, it’s American Atheists, who use Christmas as an annual opportunity for provoking the religious. American Atheists say that their approach works, and I’m pleased that Massimo Pigliucci has written this post arguing that it doesn’t, because that’s my sense of things too.

The rest of us need to perhaps make more noise. I don’t know – I certainly feel like I make enough of it, but perhaps not in some of the places I should – for example, I’ve left all the Facebook atheist communities I used to belong to, because they were filled with too many obnoxious people.

That’s a problem to resolve another day, though. For now, and until the end of the Newlands cricket test on (theoretically) January 6, I’ll probably be quite quiet here, though still active on Twitter. If you’re celebrating Christmas as a Christian, joy and peace and all that to you.

If you’re doing what I’m doing, which is eating and drinking too much with great friends, have a wonderful day also.

Regardless of all else, Christmas is still a holiday

And for that, we can give a little bit of thanks. Thanks, to the conventions of calendars, and ostensibly secular states who continue to pay their respects to religious traditions. I don’t mind – as I’ve said before, this atheist thinks it entirely justified that our public holidays are mostly on religious holy days. But mostly, I can’t mind times like this, because the holiday offers a most welcome break not only from work, but also from the never-ending human stupidity that is reported in the news.

The stupidity goes on, of course – it’s just that less of it is reported. Here’s a lovely example, from IOL (today), explaining how the police in Swaziland are making victim-blaming in cases of rape their official policy. Yep, it’s true – police spokesperson Wendy Hleta

said the use of the 19th century law would be applied to anyone wearing revealing and indecent clothes. Women wearing revealing clothes were responsible for assaults or rapes committed against them.

“We do not encourage that women should be harmed, but at the same time people should note acceptable conduct of behaviour,” she said. The act of the rapist is made easy because it would be easy to remove the half-cloth worn by the women. I have read from the social networks that men and even other women have a tendency of ‘undressing people with their eyes’. That becomes easier when the clothes are hugging or are more revealing.”

2012 had good bits too, of course. Plenty of good company, good food and wine, and an exciting and productive year of work, both at the university and on the Daily Maverick (which you should of course be reading, if you aren’t already doing so). And on the secular activism/atheist etc. front, the unremitting infighting, misunderstanding and so forth shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that it seems we are making progress. The 2011 UK census results, released earlier this month, contain some quite interesting data. You can read the key stats here, but the piece of information that leapt out for me was this:

Between 2001 and 2011 there has been a decrease in people who identify as Christian (from 71.7 per cent to 59.3 per cent) and an increase in those reporting no religion (from 14.8 per cent to 25.1 per cent).

Also, remember that even among those who self-identify as Christian, being a Christian no longer seems to mean much of significance – at least in terms of where you get moral guidance, which metaphysics you subscribe to, and so forth. The Richard Dawkins Foundation data, released earlier this year, revealed that (for Christians in England):

  • 15% of them have never read the Bible
  • 32% believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus
  • 24% say that the Bible is inferior to other sources of moral guidance
  • 54% look to their own “inner moral sense” for guidance on morality, and only
  • 10% seek moral guidance from “religious teachings and beliefs”
  • 50% do not consider themselves to be religious

So that’s good. Here at home, I’d be lying if I reported that there seems to be any decrease in irrational beliefs. The churches seem to be going along strongly, and we’ve got a possible 7 more years of the buffoonish Jacob Zuma – a strong ally of theirs – as President. Besides religious belief, the continued dearth of good science journalism (with the occasional and honourable exception of the Mail & Guardian) isn’t helping to limit the growth of quackery, of late most prominently visible in the form of the formerly respectable scientist, Tim Noakes.

Yep, I’m also tired of all the medical journals banging on about the Bible. And Louis Agassiz himself still seems to be waiting for people to agree with his purported “great scientific truths” of a) the falsity of the theory of evolution, and b) scientific racism. I don’t know about you, but I’d be a little more wary of citing someone like that as an authority on how hypotheses gain acceptance. I guess that’s mostly because I eat too many carbs, though. I should be careful, in case I end up developing homicidal urges:

Anyway – merry Christmas to you all, whatever Christmas might mean to you. See you next year. And if you don’t know Tim Minchin, take a listen to his Christmas song, below.