(God and) The Devil In The Details

Sunday, November 25, 2007 10:38 | Filed in Faith & Forteana, Life

Yes, it’s another one of those posts about religion. You may think it odd for someone who describes himself as an agnostic to take such an interest in the concepts of theism and atheism, but if so, you’re rather missing the point. I’m agnostic because neither the stance of atheism nor any of the theistic stances have entirely convinced me. Some days I’m more towards the religious end of the spectrum, some days more towards the other.

And what amazes — and annoys — me is the seeming intolerance that many supporters of the two sides have for each other’s position.

Firstly, let’s remember that Christmas is a Christian holiday. Oh, the idea of having a festival around then isn’t exclusively Christian, indeed the festival was put there to match an earlier pagan festival, but that doesn’t detract from the idea that Christmas is a Christian holiday.

I object to the fact that organisations up and down the country seem to want to have the festivals but not the religious aspects. Sure, there are other religious holidays at around the same time such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, and I’ve got nothing against local groups wanting to celebrate those — but I’ve never used the term “Winter Festival holidays” or “Winter Festival break”, and I’ve never heard anyone else use it either.

Would anyone actually be offended if we referred to it as “Christmas”? And refer to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa as their own names too, while you’re on, if you’ve got people wanting to celebrate them.

Let’s celebrate diversity: the fact that we have different cultures and different beliefs stemming from different religions is something to enjoy, rather than insisting it must all be homogenised under the “Winter Festival” banner. Or should anyone buying presents be writing “Happy Winter Festival” on them?

Let’s celebrate other religions too; let’s acknowledge that some people celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday; but let’s at least remember that if we are celebrating Christmas, we ought to at least acknowledge it does have some Christian connotations…

Next, you’ve got those religious people with their “I know best” attitude — or maybe that should be “Holier than thou”?

I suggest that if you cannot recognize and acknowledge that purpose in life can only be derived from God, by whatever name you call him, then I’m afraid you do not grasp what “purpose” is. And to you I’d offer my deepest sympathies.A web designer, as quoted by Eric Meyer

I’ve deliberately not included the person’s name because that’s not really germane to the point. The point is that to someone who is religious, it may indeed be the case that all purpose (including loving others, caring for your children, satisfaction in a job well done) does ultimately derive from God. And if it had been said in that manner “to me, all purpose ultimately derives from God”, people would have either agreed or disagreed, but it wouldn’t have annoyed people.

To me, for example, I can have a purpose “to do the best job I possibly can”; as I like to feel a sense of pride in a job well done (technically, pride is probably a sin, but I never claimed to be perfect). I have a purpose to provide for and to care for my family. If there is a God, these desires may have been instilled in me by Him: but if there isn’t, then these purposes derive from within and I can understand people getting very upset at being told that they don’t understand what “purpose” is.

Similarly, I object to those people in town centres with megaphones demanding that I should believe in their God. Actually, some of them I don’t mind too much — they add a bit of local colour — it’s the ones who shout about other religions that I object to. I think if we’re prepared to tolerate them they ought to show a bit more tolerance of others.

The example I recall was some smartly dressed young man shouting that:

Mohammed is dead and in the grave. Only Jesus is the living Christ!

Which is not only offensive but to me missed the entire point. Jesus, according to Christians, was divine so you wouldn’t expect him to die. According to Islamic belief, Mohammed was a human prophet, and therefore it’s entirely reasonable for him to die. It just demonstrated to me that the person ranting away hadn’t even taken the time to try and understand who the Mohammed was supposed to be — and if he’s that ignorant of basic history, why should I assume he knows religion any better?

And this morning it has been revealed that Tony Blair “did God in a big way” but didn’t talk about his religious views because he feared being labelled as a nutter.

[the UK electorate are] … a bit wary of politicians who go on about GodAlaister Campbell

Possibly because the ones who go on about God all the time give the impression of having a direct line. If more people were willing to talk about their beliefs — whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan or whatever — and more people could see that have a religious belief does not by itself mean that you’re some kind of fundamentalist nutter — then the electorate probably wouldn’t be quite so wary.

But because the ones prepared to talk about it are only the ones with a burning flame of faith, then of course they are going to colour everyone else’s perceptions of it.

At virtually every Church baptism I’ve been to, part of the service says:

Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucifiedChristian Baptismal Service

So why not be open and honest about your beliefs — whatever they are? But make sure you do it in a way that is not offensive to others. Don’t forget that just because you have certain personal beliefs (or disbeliefs) doesn’t mean that others necessarily share them; people can legitimately arrive at different conclusions based on the same evidence.

Either half of my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs — and equally compatible with atheismStephen Jay Gould

Of course, only one belief (or lack of it) will turn out to be right… or is that another false assumption?

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Comments to (God and) The Devil In The Details

  1. thacker says:

    November 26th, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    Damn it.

    people can legitimately arrive at different conclusions based on the same evidence.

    Does this mean that I have to surrender the belief that “My God, my flag, my dad, my whatever is bigger or better than yours, so now I am going to have to kill you”?

  2. JackP says:

    November 26th, 2007 at 11:50 pm

    @thacker: well, yes, ideally anyway…

  3. Chris Hunt says:

    November 29th, 2007 at 4:50 pm

    I object to the fact that organisations up and down the country seem to want to have the festivals but not the religious aspects.

    Name three such organisations.

    I know this story is a regular space filler in the Daily Mail around this time of year, but does it actually happen?

  4. JackP says:

    November 29th, 2007 at 6:41 pm

    yes. I know it’s Daily Mail filler, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. If it only existed in Daily Mail world, I’d never read about it for a start…

    For example, Clackmannanshire, Edinburgh, Lewisham, Aberdeen, Exeter, and Cornwall councils are having something they pitch as a “Winter Festival” this year.

    Or you don’t have to take my word for it – search for it yourself.

    To be fair, it’s probably more accurate — for many of these at least — to say that they appear to be playing down the religious aspects (dropping “Christmas” from the title, for a start) rather than excluding them completely, but why?

  5. Chris Hunt says:

    November 29th, 2007 at 9:19 pm


    The Clackmannanshire Winter Festival page mentions the word “Christmas” seven times in a quite short press release, including plugging a “Christmas Carol Concert”. Not much evidence of rampant secularism there.

    The Edinburgh page talks about their “winter festivals” – i.e. Christmas and Hogmanay. The two have a more equal billing in that part of the world – apparently Christmas “was a traditionally quiet time of year” until recently in Auld Reekie.

    “Lewisham Town Centre will come alive to the sights and sounds of Christmas when it celebrates its 10th Winter Festival between 11am and 5pm on Saturday, 24 November” (emphasis mine). The Lewisham “winter festival” appears to be what they call the “get some Z-list celeb to switch the Christmas lights on” event – not a replacement for baby J’s birthday.

    In Aberdeen, “This year also heralds the city’s first Winter Festival which brings together a tremendous programme of events taking us through the festive season and Hogmanay and into the new year.” Plenty of C-word use in that page too.

    Inverness’ Winter Festival starts in November and runs out into the new year – “St Andrew’s Day and Hogmanay will be other highlights in a comprehensive programme of events”.

    In Cornwall there’s some case to answer – they have a “Truro Winter Festival Park and Ride” which could perhaps better be called a “Christmas Park and Ride”. Maybe Trurovians(?) get narked by calling things “Christmas” things if they start in late November? Who knows? Plenty of mention of Christmas on the page though.

    So, up and down the country, there isn’t really any evidence of local councils replacing Christmas with some PC “Winter Festival”. Sometimes they have one as well (Lewisham), sometimes Christmas is included in one along with other things (various bits of Scotland), but nowhere do I find anybody having one instead.

    There was a good article in The Guardian about this last year. Examines the background to all the famous “banning Christmas” stories and finds they’re all nonsense. Who’d have thought it? Gratifyingly it’s hit #4 when you Google “Winterval”.

    Happy Holidays!

  6. JackP says:

    November 29th, 2007 at 9:47 pm

    [Bugger... deleted my own comment by mistake... here goes again - I'll try and be brief, though]

    1. I acknowledged in my last comment that those places weren’t necessarily excluding Christmas entirely — but did certainly play it down a bit by dropping it from the title. I’ll acknowledge the Hogmanay thing too; it’s pretty logical to combine the two.
    2. I remember that Guardian article too. It may even surprise you to learn that I agreed with it, and can add some more examples — the Post Office being surprised that religious figures were “pleased” that they had “seen sense” and returned to Christian imagery for stamps this year and pointing out that for the last 10 years they had alternated between secular and Christian imagery on their stamps. In fact, I looked into it last year too.
    3. I’m not claiming there is a “war on Christmas”. I just don’t understand why when some Christians celebrate a religious Christmas, and pretty much the rest of the UK celebrates it on a secular basis, we can’t still call it “Christmas”? After all, like I said last year:

    we could follow the example of the nursery my children go to, where they are taught about the different religious festivals that different religions celebrate throughout the year, and are encouraged to take part in — BTP made a crown for Diwali this year. Wouldn’t that help us all to understand one another and break down racial and religious intolerance? Isn’t that a better idea than trying to suppress religion?

  7. Chris Hunt says:

    November 29th, 2007 at 11:29 pm

    Well, I’m going to make this my last post on the subject – because it’s clear we’re mostly in agreement, and I certainly fully agree with your call for religious tolerance.

    What I still don’t see is any evidence that anybody actually is saying that ‘we can’t still call it “Christmas”‘. I don’t see any evidence in the cases cited – the Truro one is the only one where there’s any case to answer, and that’s not entirely conclusive.

    I’m afraid the “Name three cases” strategy is my standard response whenever I’m told that something is commonplace. I used to use it when people resisted using CSS because “lots of big companies still use Netscape Navigator”. They could never name three such companies, or even one, it was just hearsay repeated as fact.

    So, my early Christmas present to you is the “name three test”. It’s really good for testing any kind of generalisation by pulling it back to the specific.

Leave a comment