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12/25/2009
MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM AN ATHEIST TO ALL YOU BELIEVERS
CATEGORY: Ethics, History

Atheism is usually its own worst enemy. By that, I mean there is a large number of unbelievers who make great sport of those who worship a divinity, mocking them, referring to them as “superstitious” and generally lording their supposed superior intellect and perception of the “real world” over those who see things differently.

Yes, there are times when Christians especially deserve this treatment. It becomes impossible to respect the beliefs of people who think that the AIDS virus or 9/11 were punishments from God. And forget the loony Muslims who believe it efficacious to live in the 8th century rather than embracing modernity. These believers have demonstrated that they are a clear and present danger to the west and everything we have built up over a thousand years of bloody wars over placing religion in its proper place in our society.

But true atheism takes the best thinking from religions and incorporates some of the more universal moral tenets into everyday life. For example, if you can get by the story of how they came into being, most of the Ten Commandments are an excellent starting point if you seek to live a moral life. At bottom, they are nothing more than common sense rules in how to organize a society around basic moral precepts. Don’t kill the fellow walking towards you even if he’s a stranger and not of your tribe. Don’t steal from your neighbor. Take care of your parents. Don’t play around with your neighbor’s wife. Workers deserve one day off a week. Don’t lie.

These commandments whether they are from God or man, are the basis for any moral community. Other religions such as Islam and Hinduism offer similar, if less well known strictures on behavior that has allowed their societies to flourish. The point being; recognizing inherent contradictions in these principles as they relate to one another does not obviate their value as moral guideposts for secular society. The Ur Christian teaching to “love thy neighbor” finds an echo in all great religions, as does Jesus’s related call to treat others as you yourself would be treated.

As far as Christmas is concerned, we have an apparent dichotomy between the biblical Jesus Christ, son of God, and the historical Jesus - son of Galilee, oppressed Jew living in Roman occupied Palestine, and someone who, probably not until near the end of his life, believed in his own messianic mission.

The historical Jesus has always been more attractive to me than the mostly sweet, syrupy, nice-guy Christ of the bible - even when I was still a believer. The real Jesus was a rabble rouser, a trouble maker, a guy who deliberately tried to get a rise out of the powers that be by challenging the nature of their authority. Not the Romans, mind you. But rather the priests and pharisees who ran Judea for the occupiers and who profited monetarily by this relationship. This Jesus was one tough cookie - at least he appears to have been tough minded, and his life in poverty inured him to physical hardship as well.

Whether he was out to “reform” Judaism as some scholars believe or whether he really had in mind an entirely new philosophy that would appeal to both Jews and gentiles is not clear from his teachings. His partial rejection of Jewish dietary requirements as well as some rituals places him in either camp.

He was almost certainly not born in Bethlehem. This seems to have been a construct of the early church who invented the idea of a Roman census (and Joseph’s ancestry?) in order to fulfill biblical prophecy about the origin of the messiah. There is some tantalizing evidence that he hooked up with caravans traveling to India and spent several years there, although most historians view this claim as apocryphal.

Regardless of the historical figure, we know a lot more in a general sense about how Jews lived in 1st century Palestine under Roman rule and specifically, how people in Jesus’s part of Galilee lived. For example, Nazareth was about 6 miles from the city of Sepphoris that scholars note rebelled against Roman rule either shortly before or shortly after Jesus was born. The Romans being Romans, and eminently practical about such matters, slaughtered the inhabitants and razed the city to the ground. This act would no doubt have caused an immense backlash against Roman rule in the area, especially when the Romans rebuilt the city with baths, theaters, and other Roman touches.

Now Nazareth was a poverty stricken place with life pretty much of a hand to mouth existence. The reform minded young Jesus would no doubt have absorbed not only the hatred for Romans but also have developed a burning desire to right what he saw as the evil of the huge gap between rich and poor. Poor people died at a frightful rate, barely living beyond their 20’s before some disease of poverty - leprosy, scurvy, and other disease of malnutrition - claimed them. Death would have been all around the young Jesus. His friends and neighbors, perhaps even family members, succumbing to the ravages brought about by their lot in life.

What has always attracted me to Jesus the man was that he apparently wanted to do something about this. His chastisement of the rich while taking to task the priests and pharisees who accumulated wealth at the expense of the poor was a large part of his teaching while also comforting the poor with the promise of eternal life in heaven. It was the former, of course, that led eventually to his death on the cross - a fate it can be inferred that he accepted as a price to pay for fulfilling his mission.

For in truth, this was a driven man, as most reformers are. Scholars have argued when and even if Jesus actually began to believe himself to be the messiah. The biblical references, written decades after Jesus lived, are suspect because the new Christians would have found it advantageous to have the central figure of their religion proclaim his divinity at some point. And it is generally accepted that Jesus had already come to the attention of both the Romans and the Jewish hierarchy prior to his arrival in Jerusalem - not necessarily because he proclaimed himself divine but because of his association with John the Baptist (executed state criminal) and his many healings that some in the leadership viewed as suspect because he claimed God had performed the miracle through his intercession - a notion perilously close to heresy.

But knowing all this, Jesus chose to go to Jerusalem where he faced the very real prospect of his death. This is the kind of courage shown by the best reformers in history - or the most fanatical. Whatever the reason, the incident in the temple - almost certainly planned in advance - sealed his fate. That attack on the money changers was a direct challenge to Caiaphas and his fellow collaborators. And the Romans no doubt took a very dim view of the incident also, given it was Passover - a time when the population of Jerusalem skyrocketed and Jewish sensibilities about the Romans were a tinderbox of resentment and hate.

This was a man that anyone, believer or non-believer can admire. And honoring him and his simple message on Christmas by exchanging gifts, and getting into the spirit of the season by trying to be a little nicer to people is perfectly in keeping with holding a secular outlook on the world, and preferring to live one’s life by following moral precepts that rise above any particular religion to reside in the tangled beauty of our imperfect, but rational minds.

Even though I don’t see this tough, driven, intelligent, yet gentle, and compassionate man as a God figure, I can celebrate his life by honoring traditions begun by those who, in fact, believe in Jesus as the Son of God. The “Spirit of Christmas” knows no religion. It has, as its basis, the enduring belief that that one can revere the spiritual without acknowledging the sacred.

So Merry Christmas to all my Christian friends. And to my fellow atheists, it wouldn’t hurt if you acknowledged the secular nature of the season while embracing those universal moral tenets taught by the Man from Galilee.

By: Rick Moran at 10:40 am
19 Responses to “MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM AN ATHEIST TO ALL YOU BELIEVERS”
  1. 1
    Russell Miller Said:
    11:47 am 

    As someone who very recently has had a direct spiritual experience but does not believe Jesus exists at the moment, and is trying to figure out where everything fits, thank you for this post. This is why I read this blog. Maybe you’re off base on 90% of the stuff you write about, but then you write something like this and make up for it. I shared it on my facebook page.

  2. 2
    michael reynolds Said:
    12:46 pm 

    I’m an atheist as well and also never had a problem with Jesus per se. (Christians are a very different matter.)

    Maybe I’ll start thinking of Christmas as being a bit like Martin Luther King Day or President’s Day or Veteran’s Day — a good time to reflect on what I owe to much better, much braver men.

  3. 3
    Jim Said:
    2:42 pm 

    Hi Rick

    You put it all out there and don’t hold back. I respect that and enjoy the posts. Merry Christmas.

  4. 4
    mannning Said:
    3:02 pm 

    It is good to know these beliefs of yours in more detail. The post was well thought out, and appealing. The last step in your belief system is to acknowledge the devine: all else is quite Christian in morality. This allows me, and others, I suppose, to understand much better where your moral base originates; that is, exactly where mine does.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

  5. 5
    Chuck Tucson Said:
    10:55 pm 

    My former belief system came crashing down around me when I started reading Sagan.

  6. 6
    CZ Said:
    11:11 pm 

    I don’t believe in atheists.

    Scientists have no consensus that they actually exist.

    Guess I will just have to wait for a peer review.

  7. 7
    Mark Borzillo Said:
    12:16 am 

    Atheism is a contradiction. For someone to say that god doesn’t exist, they would have to be omniscient, which, is an attribute of god, the person thus making himself one, and thereby disproving there is no god. For an atheist to say they don’t ‘believe’ in god is another thing. I can say I don’t believe in the sun, but the evidence would mock my belief. Jesus must have been a lunatic to let himself be led to a horrible death, especially since he claimed to be God. But someone who claims to be God would also be thought a liar, in stark contrast to the nature of God. The resurrection proves he wasn’t a lunatic or a liar…He stated more than once that He would rise again, and who but God could raise someone, himself, from the dead. It’s all about something called sin, but not a lot of people like to acknowledge or talk about it.

  8. 8
    Chuck Tucson Said:
    3:08 am 

    Mark Borzillo,

    Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

  9. 9
    SShiell Said:
    9:09 am 

    “Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.”

    No, very simply it is called faith.

  10. 10
    Doug King Said:
    10:56 am 

    Rick — As a sincere believer in Jesus and an active member of a church, I thank you for your warm wishes.

    I believe freedom of religion and expression are God-given (irrevocable) human rights, including the right to reject a belief in God and/or the right to go your own way. I do not fear or despise atheists. Some of the greatest minds have been atheists who have blessed mankind with their work. I’ve been told (but I haven’t confirmed it) that Victor Frankl, who wrote of the most inspirational books of our time — Man’s Search for Meaning — became an atheist late in his life. I also suspect a disproportionate number of scientists are atheists. I’ve seen military tombstones with the atom icon.

    I know many people have problems with self-professed “Christians” for various reasons. I have real problems with some of them too. The challenge, as always, is to look at people as individuals and not as definitive examples of an entire class. Admittedly, this can be tough when groups at times seem to adopt a herd mentality (aka team mentality). But no group (religious, political, ethnic or otherwise)is immune to group-think. And illusions of moral superiority are not confined to the pious.

    I try to practice the Golden Rule when I interact with people, and I appreciate it when others do too. For me, benevolent and respectful behavior trumps differences in belief and background. I’d rather live next door to someone who differed from me in faith, race, sexual orientation, politics etc. but who practiced the Golden Rule, than be neighbors with someone who outwardly looked similar to me in every respect but who treated others badly.

  11. 11
    TMLutas Said:
    2:55 pm 

    Rick - Thanks for your good wishes.

    I do think that you’ve been ill served by whoever has provided your religious education. The sweet syrupy nice guy is not particularly in the Bible but rather the invention of gutless people who are not willing to afflict the comfortable of the day.

    There are better than two billion christians of various denominations. Just apostolic christians (Catholics and Orthodox mostly) weigh in at about 1.5 billion. I strongly suspect that you have not encountered a representative sample. For instance, my own Romanian Byzantine Catholic Church has 6 eparchies, one in the US and maybe 5000 adherents in N. America. Yet our approach is legally recognized as one of the 23 distinct approaches to describing and approaching the reality of Jesus called rites. And we are different. My bishop condemned the Iraq War, formally. I had to personally speak to the man to make sure he wasn’t going to excommunicate me as I supported the war and was not quiet about it.

    We’re good friends. This makes no sense to a surprising number of people that I tell this too.

    This same man explained the phrase “turn the other cheek” to me this way. In Rome if you struck an equal you used your palm. If you struck an inferior you used the back of your hand. To turn the other cheek was to reply that the striker had used the inappropriate hand part and he really should correct his social faux pas. Unsaid was the part that of course the Roman was going to start off using the back of his hand. That interpretation is quite a bit different from the treacly never strike back lesson that is the interpretation provided by others.

    I would encourage you to explore some of the rest of Christianity. Whether or not you become a believer (and as a christian, of course I encourage you to change your ind) you really ought to understand the faith better. It will, at the very least, assist in your analysis.

  12. 12
    Surabaya Stew Said:
    12:26 am 

    As a beleiver in God but not the divenity of Jesus, I found this post enlightening and heartfelt. Thank you Rick!

  13. 13
    John Taylor Said:
    11:14 am 

    There once was a little old lady at the funeral of an Atheist and when she walked by the open casket she sighed and said “all dressed up and nowhere to go” : (

  14. 14
    bobnoxious Said:
    4:22 am 

    pander as you do bent over backwards, the ecumenical atheist. Sheesh…

  15. 15
    bobnoxious Said:
    4:28 am 

    or…cater as you do bent over forwards, the catholic non-believer. Good grief…

  16. 16
    Bill Beyer Said:
    9:22 am 

    Thanks for the great post- you summarized many of my own feelings about the holiday. And better, made a good case for the ‘in your face’
    nonbelievers to back off a bit. It’s neat that we can put up a sign for atheists that would have been impossible in the 50’s, but evangelistic atheism is as non-appealing at any other proselytizing
    to me.

  17. 17
    Jenn of the Jungle Said:
    12:07 pm 

    Awesome post!

  18. 18
    Jason Bolles Said:
    7:08 pm 

    Thank you for your considerate wishes and your post. My religious faith waxes and wanes, but today you’ve renewed my faith in my country and my people through your goodwill and excellent example.

  19. 19
    epb Said:
    7:12 am 

    “The historical Jesus has always been more attractive to me than the mostly sweet, syrupy, nice-guy Christ of the bible…” Huh?

    Jesus and the Christ go together; they are one and the same person as professed by believers/adherents, “true God AND true man”. Your distinction is false, if used as a criticism of religious faith or justification for your new irreligious faith.

    Still, Season’s Greetings to you.

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