Putting The ‘J’ Back In Christmas!

Julia Sweeney, outspoken atheist and comedian perhaps best known for her roles on Saturday Night Live, has an excellent post up about Christmas. After quoting a full page ad in the New York Times about returning Jesus and the religous meaning to public schools, she writes this. (Note: Ms Sweeney doesn’t like it when people quote her blog but that’s tough cookies. If she writes good stuff, grammatically correct or not, I’m going to quote it.)

Okay. Here’s what I say: I agree with [William A.] Donohue[, President of the Catholic League] (!!!). Well, I agree that it’s silly to take Jesus out of Christmas. I mean, we call it “Christ” mas, fer chrissake.

When I discussed this ad with my friend Jim Emerson (who sent it to me to begin with) he said, “Yeah, but you could also argue that the Christians took a perfectly good pagan holiday and made it about Jesus!” Which is also true.

But it kills me that Mulan [her daughter] can’t sing any religious songs at school for Christmas. Everything is all about Santa (as if that is less religious than Jesus!) and holiday-time. Which I really hate. I love the story of Jesus’ birth. A baby born in a barn, after a long trip? Born in the humblest circumstances and yet became a leader and revered? This is a great story. It’s a myth, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great story. That means that if I want her to hear the Jesus birth story I have to take her to a church. Which sucks. I mean, this is the myth of our culture! Why do we have to pretend it is not?

I say brava, brava, bravissimo!

Really. I agree fully with her reasoning and her motivations. She takes an extremely pragmatic approach to Christmas and belief. This is what gets me about another extremely outspoken atheist, Richard Dawkins. He is an extremely intelligent man but he misses the point on this that Julia nails. It’s about myths and stories. They have a place in society and public schools.

This topic ties in well with my weekend Intertube viewing. I am hoping to find some time this weekend to watch to the rest of the Beyond Belief 2006 conference.

Just 40 years after a famous TIME magazine cover asked “Is God Dead?” the answer appears to be a resounding “No!” According to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, “God is Winning”. Religions are increasingly a geopolitical force to be reckoned with. Fundamentalist movements – some violent in the extreme – are growing. Science and religion are at odds in the classrooms and courtrooms. And a return to religious values is widely touted as an antidote to the alleged decline in public morality. After two centuries, could this be twilight for the Enlightenment project and the beginning of a new age of unreason? Will faith and dogma trump rational inquiry, or will it be possible to reconcile religious and scientific worldviews? Can evolutionary biology, anthropology and neuroscience help us to better understand how we construct beliefs, and experience empathy, fear and awe? Can science help us create a new rational narrative as poetic and powerful as those that have traditionally sustained societies? Can we treat religion as a natural phenomenon? Can we be good without God? And if not God, then what?

This is a critical moment in the human situation, and The Science Network in association with the Crick-Jacobs Center brought together an extraordinary group of scientists and philosophers to explore answers to these questions. The conversation took place at the Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA from November 5-7, 2006.

The speakers included  Steven Weinberg, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael Shermer and, of course, Richard Dawkins. The videos can be downloaded in full and cover the entire two and a half days of the conference. I’ll try to post a more complete wrap up next week because I’m only on the second day (and loving every most many minutes of it).

Unfortunately some of the speakers stake out positions I can’t accept.

Dawkins’ most outrageous claim is to say that calling a child a Catholic, an Muslim or a Hindu is a form of child abuse. Sorry, but WTF! I understand where he is going with this. But to call the association of small children with a specific religion child abuse is to demean child abuse. I’m sure Dawkins feels differently, but to me constant physical and mental torture are child abuse. Letting a child starve to death locked in a room where the only window is covered in paint (it happened in Hamburg last year) is child abuse. Screaming and yelling at a child for no other purpose than pure evil and ignorance is child abuse. Using the words Muslim, Hindi and Sikh in a newspaper picture caption is not child abuse.

A second person who I can’t warm up to is Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. I haven’t read his book yet (it’s on back order) but he takes an ‘in your face’ approach to religion. He seems to accept only two possibilities, atheism or fundamentalism. I don’t accept that. But more next week (I hope).

Finally there is Stuart Hameroff, who is just bat-shit mad. I mean seriously. They should simply find him a keeper and medicate him; tenured or not.

The speakers I have enjoyed immensely? Glad you wondered. Up until now, my favourite lectures were from VS Ramachandran taking about the bio-chemical reactions in the brain associated with religious feelings; Susan Neiman, who is currently writing Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists discussing morality without recourse to religious justification; and finally, Patricia Churchland, who’s discussion of prairie voles I thoroughly enjoyed.

Further heros include Lawrence Krauss, a physicist and all-round level headed guy, and, of course, Michal Shermer, who gave a good but not spectacular talk.

But back to Julia Sweeney. She takes the same course I would. Churches, stories, myths and beliefs aren’t inherently bad. They are part of the culture and part of the make up of the people living in that society. They are important; too important to sweep under the carpet; too important to leave in the hands of fundamentalists. That’s why we need people like Julia Sweeney, Michael Shermer and Lawrence Krauss. People who think but also feel and understand. That’s what Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins don’t do. Or at least they don’t show it.

So yeah. Let’s put the Julia and the Jesus back in Christmas.

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