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Photo Credit: ! /streetart#__+__www.♥.tk ﴾͡๏̯͡๏﴿ via Compfight cc

I remember being chided by my dad way back when I was still in grade school. I had written “Merry X-Mas” on some greeting cards we were told to make as a school project. I didn’t think anything of it and just thought it was a shorthand way of writing “Christmas.”

But dad said, “Is your God an X? Don’t write XMas because that means he’s unknown.”

Of course, I hadn’t read up enough yet to know that the proper reply to this is “X is how the Greek letter chi is written and is the first letter of ‘Christ’ in Greek.” So I grew up always on guard that I should write “Christmas” and not “XMas” lest Jesus see me and cross me off his book for being too lazy to write the full spelling of his name. (Yes, I know that technically “Christ” isn’t his name but you know what I mean).

This is also that time of the year when Christians remind us to “Remember the reason for the season” and to “put Christ back in Christmas” — a yearly crusade against the commercial and festive atmosphere typical at this time of the year. I wonder what they would say if they knew that the reason for their season was most probably a political move by Pope Julius 1 at around the 4th century, who chose December 25 to be the official birthday of Jesus Christ. The decision to do so was not because of historical accuracy since the scholarly opinion at that time was that Jesus was born sometime in spring and not winter — a fair point if one considers that there were shepherds herding their flocks in the field — which wouldn’t make any sense if there were snow all around.

So the ancient church decided to celebrate their savior’s birthday alongside other pagan winter festivals, in the hopes that Christmas would also be popularly embraced — a strategy that paid off, especially when Christianity became a dominant religion in many European countries.

In fact, many Christmas customs and practices have origins in pagan celebrations. The tradition of gift-giving and merrymaking comes from the Roman’s celebration of Saturnalia — in honor of the Roman god, Saturn. After a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, ancient Romans held a public banquet, then more private celebrations, gift-giving, and a general carnival atmosphere. Sound familiar?

The word “Yuletide” is not a Christian word but is derived from the pagan Yule celebration practiced by Scandinavians and historical Germanic people. The exact meaning of the word “Yule” is uncertain although there are references to the Norse God, Odin as the “Yule Father” and “the Yule One.” Ancient Norse people would burn large logs to celebrate the end of winter or “the return of the sun.” The logs would literally take several days to burn out, and during those days, the people would feast and have a good time.  Today, burning the “Yule log” is a popular a Christmas tradition in Western countries even among Christians who probably have no clue where the practice came from.

In the early 17th century, Puritan Christians decried the decadence of Christmas celebrations.  This would start a prolonged fight between different church factions, the Anglicans, Catholics, Protestants, and so on on how Christmas should be celebrated. Some wanted more elaborate ceremonies, while others wanted to focus on the more religious aspects, and still others wanted the whole thing banned altogether — which actually happened in many communities and even countries like Scotland.

It was only in the 19th century when writers such as Washington Irving (“The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon”)and Charles Dickens (“A Christmas Carol”) wrote popular stories about Christmas that many traditions surrounding it were slowly revived. Christmas became a popular holiday to celebrate family, goodwill and charity, and that continues to be the case to this day.

So whether you are Christian, Atheist, Agnostic or Pastafarian, I wish you all a Merry Xmas and Happy Saturnalia!

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Violent Reactions? Send me an email at andy@freethinking.me. View past articles at www.freethinking.me


Rediscovering Theism

Photo Credit: Raphael Goetter via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Raphael Goetter via Compfight cc

Change is never easy.

When I started questioning my beliefs and distancing myself from church, I felt quite alone. Then I found a community that welcomed doubters like me, who had the same questions as I had, who felt the same way I feel. And I thought I had come home.

I immersed myself in various atheist and agnostic books, videos, podcasts, agreeing with many of them, and even writing my own articles (as regular readers of this column know very well) in a similar line of thought as them.

Many months ago, I got acquainted with a member of our freethinking community, Gelo, and although we have never met in person, I found him to be an impressionable and reasonable fellow. There was one major problem though.

Gelo was a theist, and a Roman Catholic at that.

For those who don’t know my background, I studied in a Catholic school all the way from my elementary years until college, and even after that, but I have never been a Catholic.  I was a Bible-believing Evangelical Christian, as was my family. I was immersed in Protestantism vs. Catholicism arguments way before I gave up on the whole thing altogether.

And yet Gelo’s ideas do not necessarily fit the mold of what you would hear from CBCP proclamations or Sunday sermons. He agreed that my objections about God were valid and that he agreed with them, however, he claimed I was hitting a straw man – a caricature of God – and not the God that classical theists like Thomas Aquinas understood and wrote volumes about, and that even the concept of God I understood as a Christian was wrong.

He says in a recent blog entry entitled, Christmas Post:

“Intelligent people rightly find illogical the proposition that such a being (or beings) exists. And the problem is that both the religious and the skeptic have little time to parse through the metaphysical obscurities — or, as Dennet would say, “deepities” — of theology in order to get a better conceptual framework with which to view God.”

In other words, he is contending that most atheists and agnostics are arguing against an idea of God that the truly intelligent theist finds as illogical as they do. The problem, however, is that most atheists and agnostics do not even take the time and effort to understand what classical theism is all about. They like hitting the easy targets because well, it’s so easy and convenient to do so.

He continues:

“Unsurprisingly they are left ill-prepared to see Him as nothing more than a divine tinkerer, or, more famously, as Paley’s watchmaker. This is why we often see a theology that is more akin to that of Pat Robertson and Kirk Cameron than to that of Alvin Plantinga or Edward Feser.”

Gelo suggested I read a book by Edward Feser, a philosophy professor who was once an atheist but later also turned to theism and is now a Roman Catholic, which I did and found fascinating although I would have to read it again because a lot of the philosophy went over my head.

So anyway, after several months of putting that book down, I have decided to revisit classical theism in more detail and may even write about it in future articles. I have found out that I understand best when trying to make other people understand what is in my head. It’s like the principle that the teacher also learns when he teaches.

Change is never easy. I have built a comfort zone around the fact that I have gained some notoriety in being that “atheist” writer, so this may come as a surprise to some of my readers. But I have said before and I will say it again: I am committed to neither theism nor atheism. I am committed to truth by way of reason, logic and evidence, wherever that may lead.

So I don’t know where this will end up (or if it will ever end, for that matter), but it’s going to be one hell of a ride.

 Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Violent Reactions? Send me an email at andy@freethinking.me. View past articles at www.freethinking.me


Humanism, not Religion, is Our Salvation

Photo Credit: Ibar Silva via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Ibar Silva via Compfight cc

Typhoon Ruby is headed our way and already I see dozens of Facebook posts urging people to pray that it will be deflected, for God to spare the country, and so on. If the effectivity of prayers that came before past super typhoons are any indication, I doubt if the results would be any different this time around. Not that I am longing for a disaster. I would be delighted if some freak force of nature caused this one to go astray or to dissipate altogether. But I am of the opinion that prayers and holy books don’t make good shelters, life boats or first aid kits.

What good did prayers do when Yolanda struck Tacloban? Was there a divine force field that somehow blocked the path of Pablo when it struck various parts of Mindanao? How about Ondoy, Milenyo and so many others like them?

What stands out in any human tragedy is not the presence of some mystical force, but rather the resilience of the human spirit. Human hands reach out to help, comfort and rebuild. Human hearts feel compassion and sympathize with those who suffer.

Humans helping fellow humans, humans caring for and loving fellow humans — this is what humanism is all about, and it is what will save us — not some pie-in-the-sky salvation with promises of angelic choruses or 72 virgins — but real and tangible solutions in the here and now.

Humanism is a “philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively.” (from Wikipedia)

Being a humanist does not necessarily mean that one gives up religion or belief in a god. It means that one is able to see past the divisiveness and us vs. them mentality that many religions cultivate in their followers. The world would be a better place if people placed less emphasis on religion and more on humanism. After all, underneath our skin colors and beyond our regional cultures and practices, we are essentially the same.

Religion, when not tempered by clear and rational thinking, has a strange way of distorting reality. It can make you think that death and suffering in this life is ok, because you will be justly compensated for it in the afterlife. So it creates a fatalistic mentality of not exhausting all possible solutions to alleviate pain and misery (because “it can’t be done anyway, and this world is going to get worse and worse and will end soon and Jesus will come back and make things right.”)

Humanism, however, doesn’t wait for some magic man in the sky to come and make things right. It places the burden squarely (and rightly) on our shoulders. If we want to make the world a better place, then it is our responsibilty and duty to plan and act accordingly. It is on us to research and develop the means to stay healthy, prolong life, and improve its quality.

Religion teaches that your life is not in your hands but in the hands of some unknown, unseen entity. Religion makes you believe that you are pawns moved around according to the will and plan of some invisible master. Humanism teaches that your life is your own to shape and that you have a huge responsibility in creating your own future and the kind of world that you want to live in.

Humanism and religion are not incompatible though as many religious thinkers have pushed through the boundaries of doctrine and dogma and truly see and value other humans for who and what they really are, and I applaud and respect these people.

It is only when religion becomes too dogmatic that it becomes uncaring. Even Jesus berated the Pharisees when they stressed the law over compassion and kindness. “Man was not made for the Sabbath,” he said, “but the Sabbath for man.”

I may be critical of religion, but when a fellow human is in need, I will gladly help, not because God tells me so, but because I am human and I can empathize and share the pain.

The storm is coming. Stay safe. Be prepared. And I wish you well.

Originally posted in Sunstar Davao.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Violent Reactions? Send me an email at andy@freethinking.me. View past articles at www.freethinking.me. To know more about humanist activities in the Philippines, visit the HAPI (Humanist Alliance Philippines, International) website: www.hapihumanist.org.

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