A Christmas Song I Love

I love “O Holy Night.”

I write that unironically. I’m not a Christian. Heck, I’m even skeptical of the historicity of Jesus, and even if he were historical I doubt there’s any truth to the Nativity story as related in Christian mythology. Yet, in the pantheon of Christmas songs, “O Holy Night,” a song explicitly about the night Jesus was born, ranks highly for me. I have 31 different versions, running over 2 hours consecutively, on my hard drive. When the song hits me right, when it’s done sensitively, I get weepy. I find it quite moving.

But not the Arcade Fire version. They sound like they were drunk off their asses, and it’s hard to take it at all seriously.

What about “O Holy Night” do I find so appealing? The tune, certainly. It’s a lovely tune, an evocative tune, whether it’s done on cellos, guitars, piano, harp, even bagpipes. There’s a gentleness to the tune that carries you along and sweeps you away, and it’s hard to believe that the tune is only 150 years old instead of something that’s existed forever.

Also, though Jesus isn’t my myth and Christianity isn’t my belief, I find the chorus — more specifically, the first refrain, the part that begins “Fall on your knees!” — quite powerful.

Such is the power of art. It doesn’t have to be literally true to have an emotional power. There were never Hobbits, nor a Mount Doom or a Ring of Power, yet the ending of The Return of the King leaves me bereft. There was never a Roy Hobbs, he never played baseball for the New York Knights, yet the end of the The Natural (film, I should caution, as the novel’s ending is quite different) is simply breathtaking.

In the same way, I can — and do — love “O Holy Night.”

And if you want a really lovely version, I recommend the one by Sleeping at Last. The Eisley version is solid, too.

Edited to Add: Three weeks after posting this, in the run-up to Christmas, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an episode of Soul Music about “O Holy Night.” I shared a link to the program on Facebook, and here’s what I had to say about it:

The BBC’s Soul Music program this year takes a look at the song and presents some stories of people and their connection to the song, from an Anglican archbishop who spent Christmas in a hospital stricken with pneumonia to a woman who sang it spontaneously in Washington’s Union Station to a Philadelphia aid worker who found new meaning in the song when she helped some homeless people have a real Christmas.

It’s a nice half hour listen. I might’ve gotten teary eyed a few times.

It’s a nice program. Yes, it scratches the surface of the song’s origin (leaving out that the French writer was an atheist and the American translator a Unitarian transcendentalist), but it’s mainly about the personal effect and meaning the song has for people.

I was listening to it again yesterday (ie., December 23rd, as I write this), and it’s a really lovely program.

On the Year that Was

With 2016 drawing to a close and 2017 about to begin, I decided to take a look back at 2016 and spotlight the best (or most significant) blog post of each month. Some months — July, quite notably — were more difficult that others; there were a few months, like March and August, where I only posted two or three times in the month.

There you have it, the year that was 2016.

The Non-Faith of Christopher Hitchens

Several years ago, riding Baltimore’s Light Rail to work, I was reading Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great. A group of black teenagers boarded the train and took seats near me. One asked what I was reading. I handed him the book.

He almost physically recoiled at the title, black block letters on the yellow dust jacket. “Of course God’s great,” he said.

“Is he?”

“Oh course he is. You don’t think so?”

I shrugged. “Who can say?”

“You believe in god, don’t you?”

I shook my head.

His eyes grew wide. He stook, gestured to his friends, and pointed at me. “Guys, he doesn’t believe in god!” His friends all gave me weird looks — boggling eyes, open mouths.

He handed back the book. A few stops later, he and his friends disembarked from the train, and a few stops after that I was at the office.

God Is Not Great is, imho, a bit of a misnomer of a title. Hitchens’ book isn’t like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, an argument for why there isn’t a supernatural deity. Rather, it’s a look at how religion, while it tries to help people be good and do good, causes people to cause pain and suffering in the name of their religion. If you’re familiar with Hitchens’ criticisms of Mother Teresa, that’s what God Is Not Great is like.

All of that as preamble, having read Hitchens’ book and listened to his speeches on religion, I am absolutely convinced that Hitchens had no late-in-life conversion to Christianity. Larry Taunton’s claim that he did is a clear fiction. The Hitchens who eviscerated Mother Teresa as a cruel sociopath in the name of her god would never, ever have considered the possibility that Christianity was true. Evangelicals may want one of the fiercest modern critics of Christianity on their side as a modern C.S. Lewis, but to get there they have to invent conversations and create an imaginary Hitchens that is so divorced from reality that he’s become an unbelievable fantasy.

Link Round-Up: December 20

A couple of links for you kind readers today. Mostly I spent the day baking cookies and finishing the first season of Star Wars Rebels. Which ends, by the way, with a pretty intense three-part story. And the droid, Chopper, remains a psychopathic asshole.

Link Round-Up: December 15

Our second link round-up!

These are things I read today that interested me, with some commentary on what I read and what I thought.

I spent some time digging into the plugin’s code last night. I’ve identified the problem — or, rather, where the problem is happening — but my attempt at fixing the code didn’t work. The fix I coded looks right, but for some reason it doesn’t do what it should.

I need to ponder this some more.

Link Round-Up: December 14

I am inaugurating a new blog feature — a mostly-daily link round-up of things I read and found interesting.

It’s primarily as much for my benefit as it is yours, the reader’s. I see something, I have thoughts, and then I forget about it or, worse, post a Tweet with the link and then never think about it again. The thing is, I’ll think six months later, “Hey, wait, I read some article way back when,” only then I can’t remember quite exactly what it was.

These link round-ups will be eclectic because I have eclectic interests. This one covers Robert Plant, China, and Christmas songs.

Some days I might have two or three links. Some days I might have ten or more. It’s a matter of what interests me that day.

I’m using a WordPress plugin for this. It’s one I’ve had for a while, as I liked the concept of it, but I’ve never used. I suspect it may need some coding work; it was released a few years ago, then abandoned, and I’ve noticed that something about it doesn’t quite work. That’s something I’ll need to look at.

For our inaugural round-up…

America’s Increasing Secularism and Its Personal Aspect

This morning, on my way into work, I heard a segment on NPR’s Morning Edition about how a new Pew survey indicates that Americans are becoming less religious, and this decline in religious belief has happened over a short frame of time.

  • The share of Americans who say they are “absolutely certain” that God exists has dropped 8 percentage points, from 71 percent to 63 percent, since 2007, when the last comparable study was made.
  • The percentage of adults who describe themselves as “religiously affiliated” has shrunk 6 points since 2007, from 83 percent to 77 percent.
  • The shares of the U.S. adult population who consider religion “very important” to them, pray daily and attend services at least once a month have declined between 3 and 4 percentage points over the past eight years.

The report didn’t address why increasing numbers of Americans are comfortable with not being religious. If I had to make a guess, I would say the Internet has played a role. It’s easier today for someone with doubts and questions to find someone who can answer their questions and, importantly, give them support when they reject the dogmas in which they were raised. Twenty years ago I knew I was an atheist, but I didn’t know any atheists, and I wouldn’t meet any for several more years.

Now I seem to meet atheists everywhere. :)

Except for where I live.

My parents noted one time they visited that there are churches everywhere here. I joked that in Raleigh I could have swung a cat and hit half a dozen bookstores, while here I would hit half a dozen Methodist churches.

That’s had a consequence. I’m less public now (in real life, that is) about my atheism than I was before I moved to Pennsylvania. The reason is that I really don’t feel my small community would be accepting of an atheist among them.

To give you an example, two weeks after I moved here, two women from a local church knocked on my door. They wanted to invite me to their church since I was a new resident. (I assume that my complex passed my information on to several churches in the area as I received a great deal of mail from local churches over my first few months here.) I didn’t know quite how to react, and the conversation turned very awkward when I was honest with them about why, even though I appreciated that they took the time to talk to me, I wouldn’t be attending their church. In short, they gave me a look that made me feel like they suspected me of murdering babies. The only way the conversation could possibly have gone worse is if I had told them that I don’t even own a Bible. (Which is true. I don’t.)

While among my friends (who don’t live here) I don’t hide my atheism, I have, when asked by neighbors or others in the community, been evasive or even outright lied since that incident with the two ladies. I’ve even put a Buddy Christ bank in my front window. It’s self-protection. Culturally, this place is very Southern — I walked past a house flying a Confederate battle flag this morning while walking to my polling place — and very conservative. A liberal cosmopolitan atheist doesn’t exactly fit here.

I digress.

I just find it interesting that more and more Americans are comfortable stating that they aren’t religious. It’s possible that the United States will never approach European levels of secularism, but I could be wrong. Who knows, in light of yesterday’s Star Trek news, maybe the Star Trek future, where atheism won the historical question and human religions were discarded on the dustbin, really is possible.

The Jerks of the Atheist Movement

I am sometimes asked what I think of today’s leading atheists, people like Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, Sam Harris.

I am saying this as someone who doesn’t own a Bible (I suspect the Smithsonian’s replica edition of The Jefferson Bible doesn’t count), but does have copies of Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Hitchens’ God Is Not Great on his living room bookshelf.

I think they’re generally assholes in how they go about doing what they do. I have no issues with their goals of destigmatizing non-belief and working for a religiously pluralistic society that doesn’t favor any particular creed. How they go about arguing their corner, though, is not infrequently painful. Sometimes, I feel they cross the line into bad taste and deliberate offensiveness.

I am not alone in feeling this way. I am not the only atheist who thinks Dawkins is the world’s best argument against becoming an atheist, because who wants to hang their flag on that jerkface? Patton Oswalt feels the same way:

“I feel, as an atheist, about people like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher the way that Christians must feel about Fred Phelps. Look, being an atheist means you don’t give a fuck about what anyone believes in. I don’t think any of it’s real, but you can go ahead and do it. I’m not trying to destroy religion. I just don’t care about it. I have my own moral code, as twisted as it is, but it’s not a bunch of old, desert fairy tales that I live by.” (Source)

That’s pretty much exactly how I feel. I don’t care what anyone believes; if it makes the person happy and their belief doesn’t harm me or anyone else, what do I care? I have my moral code; very simply, it’s “Don’t be an asshole.”

Where I differ from Dawkins — and a big part of why I think he’s an asshole — is that he thinks that believers are foolish and stupid to believe, while I don’t think that at all. (His “bright” meme — atheists should adopt a new term to describe themselves — made pretty clear what he really thought; if atheists are “bright,” then by extension theists must be “dim.” That’s the reason I won’t use the term “bright,” because I think it’s deliberately insulting to believers.) I don’t think that what believers believe in is true — obviously — yet I recognize that what they believe in gives them meaning, structure, and happiness, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with having meaning, structure, and happiness in one’s life.

I agree with something Ricky Gervais, also an atheist, said in an interview in 2013: “It’s a strange myth that atheists have nothing to live for. It’s the opposite. We have nothing to die for, we have everything to live for.” When you get one shot at life, you better make it count. Spending time being a miserable git or making people miserable just isn’t worth it.

Why be an asshole like Dawkins or Harris or Maher? That won’t convince anyone to abandon their belief in god, and it may push someone who was on the edge of questioning religion away from embracing atheism.

Kevin Smith gave the world the Buddy Christ in Dogma. Maybe we need an atheist comic to give the world a Buddy Percy Bysshe Shelley or Buddy Thomas Paine or Buddy Sagan as the icon of a kinder, gentler atheism.

Answering the Ten Questions for Atheists

I saw a link to this on Twitter — Today Christian posted 10 Questions For Every Atheist with this challenge: “Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…”

I look a good challenge. Let’s take a look, shall we?

1. How did you become an atheist?

I was an always an atheist.

Did I attend church? Yes. Did I sing in the childrens choir? Did I go through confirmation? Did I study the Bible and attend church camp? Yes, yes, and yes.

But attending church doesn’t make one religious. I think I was always looking for proof. I was looking for a reason why god and Jesus and all that rot made sense.

I never found that reason.

I watched Cosmos with my dad when I was six, and Carl Sagan described a universe that was absolutely amazing — and also a universe that didn’t require god.

I became fascinated by religious relics like the Shroud of Turin and the Holy Grail because I thought they would be corroborating evidence of what happened in Judea circa 30 CE.

And then there came Easter 1987, when an innocent question in Sunday School planted major doubts about Christianity.

On my own, I formulated arguments that philosophers call the Argument from Reasonable Non-Belief and the Argument from Inconsistent Revelation.

2. What happens when we die?

Consciousness ends. The body decomposes. That’s what happens when we die.

What does “consciousness ends” mean? That’s trickier, and I’m not sure of the answer. Maybe it’s like the moment when you transition from wakefulness to sleep; there’s a moment where the mind simply… stops.

I know there will come a day when whatever mental energy makes me up will cease. That day comes for all of us.

3. What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!

Then there is. The prospect of Hell doesn’t terrify me. A god that created intelligent beings and then tortured them for eternity is no moral exemplar and is unworthy of worship.

I think that’s why I always had a problem with Augustinian theology. Augustine precedes from the assumption that god is a vindictive asshole. My theology, to the extent that I had a theology until I didn’t, was always more Pelagian than Augustinian. Pelagius’ god was capable of empathy, while Augustine’s god was a sociopath.

4. Without God, where do you get your morality from?

I live by a simple code. It goes like this.

Don’t be an asshole.

Classical scholars know this code by another name and a different phrasing. They would say, “Do unto others as you would have them do until you.” The Golden Rule. It predates Christianity by a millennium. Pagans adherred to it. There’s nothing magical or religious about it. It’s a simple code of human decency, one I distill down to its 21st-century essence.

Don’t be an asshole.

5. If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?

Is there eternal justice? No.

Is there an eternal reward? No.

Even the religious would say that, as a general matter, a person can, in fact, do whatever he wants. Human beings have (or at least imagine themselves to have) free will. Actions have consequences in this life, often as a matter of law.

I suspect the thrust of this question is to ask what keeps an atheist from committing reprehensible crimes like rape and murder without the Damocles sword that is Hell hanging over their consciences.

And the answer to that is very simple. Do you know what keeps me from murdering someone? The simple fact that I don’t want to murder anyone. Same with rape and theft and assault and a dozen other reprehensible actions. I don’t do “evil” things because I don’t want to do “evil things.

Conversely, I do “good” things because I like doing “good” things. I try to be kind and caring because of that simple code of mine, “Don’t be an asshole.” I don’t expect rewards in this lifetime, and I know there’s no eternal reward, and yet I still do good. Because I know that the world is a better place by doing good.

6. If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?

In the micro, I derive pleasure from friendships and personal victories.

In the macro, life has no meaning.

I think of myself as an Epicurean in the small picture, and as an existential nihilist in the big picture.

That’s why I don’t deconvert anyone, and my one deconversion was by accident. If religion is a comfort to people individually, why would I want to rip away their security blanket and show them that the universe is fundamentally hostile and meaningless?

7. Where did the universe come from?

I don’t know. It’s okay to admit what you don’t know.

8. What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

9. What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?

Honestly, I think they’re assholes. I have more regard for Hitchens than Dawkins, and Harris would come up third. All fierce and passionate intellects, but they’re also rhetorical bombthrowers.

My problem with the New Atheists is their militancy and their intractability. I agree with their goals, I don’t always agree with their methods.

10. If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?

Not every religion is god-based, though. Taoism is a great example.

And, there we have it. Ten questions for atheists. I don’t think I did too badly.

On a Casualty in FOX News’ War on the War on Christmas

Were it not for Talking Points Memo, I wouldn’t have known that FOX News’ war on the War on Christmas had begun. I guess if Black Friday can creep into Thursday, then the War on Christmas can creep into mid-November.

And what did I learn?

Atheists are attacking A Charlie Brown Christmas in an elementary school in Little Rock, Arkansas!

Several Google searches brought up this article which goes over the situation: “an atheist group has complained about an elementary school’s plans to take its students to see the production of ‘Merry Christmas Charlie Brown’ at a local church.”

A Charlie Brown Christmas isn’t under attack at all. Heck, a spokesman for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers doesn’t see any real problem with the production; he just thinks that if the school is going to have a field trip like that, then they should also teach the kids about other religions’ holidays. Even the mother who doesn’t want her child to attend doesn’t have a problem with A Charlie Brown Christmas; she just doesn’t want her child singled out for taunting by classmates because the child won’t attend. In short, it’s all just dumb.

This isn’t a volley in the War on Christmas. This is a volley in FOX’s endless War on Common Sense.

The common sense solution is to allow the field trip, and then also have a field trip to a mosque or a syngogue in Little Rock in connection with some other religion’s holiday.

The real victim in this situation? Agape Church of Little Rock.

Why are they the victim? Because FOX News has alerted Peanuts Worldwide that their copyrights are being violated.

They don’t license out A Charlie Brown Christmas for theatrical production. From the FAQ page on Peanuts.com, in answer to the question “My theatre group would like to do A Charlie Brown Christmas this year. How can I go about obtaining the rights?” they are vey specific: “We understand the interest in the community for A Charlie Brown Christmas, however at this time it is an animated special only; live theatrical rights are not available.”

Have people staged A Charlie Brown Christmas? Absolutely, a quick Google search will turn up church webpages, YouTube videos, and full scripts. At a guess, these have all flown under the radar.

But now FOX News has held up Agape Church as a copyright violator. In their zeal to fight the War on the War on Christmas, a church in Little Rock is in danger from lawyers and restraining orders thanks to FOX News’ friendly fire. FOX News has fragged one of their own.

Agape Church is the real victim here.

And I feel bad for them.

Good work, FOX News.

Now pardon me — this atheist needs to listen to the music from A Charlie Brown Christmas