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.