It’s that time of year when the sun approaches its southernmost track across the northern hemisphere’s sky and people of various religious persuasions celebrate the winter solstice without actually knowing that that’s what they’re doing. Predictably, some of the Christian commentators who make their living defiling the airwaves and manipulating public opinion are doing their damnedest to ramp up paranoia about a wholly hallucinated “war on Xmas.” Crèches on public property and holiday greetings at retail outlets are being shoved to the forefront of national attention in the midst of an existential crisis that’s never even mentioned because that’s something only “liberals” talk about. It’s comic and tiresome simultaneously. If the promises of the Enlightenment held any water, you’d think that by now western civilization would have grown beyond that kind of thing.
By the time this post goes public I’ll have undergone cataract surgery and will probably have a great deal of vision restored to me. I thank science for that. For all the early 21st century’s horrors, I’m glad to be living in a time when the healing arts reflect the scientific understanding of the human body, not the shamanistic one. A surgeon armed with lasers and an artificial lens is going to do for me what Jesus of Nazareth is reputed to have done with a little clay on which he spat.
The prospect of that restored vision has me in an expansive mood, and I guess it’s for that reason that I want to couch this post as a kind of seasonal greeting to Christians – not that I think any of them will read it here. (But if anyone who does read it finds merit in the thought experiment I propose, please feel free to appropriate it and use it as you like. Who knows: in some rare cases, it might have an effect.)
I probably should say that as I write the following, I very much have certain members of my family in mind. This is the letter that I will not write to them because I know what kind of reception it would get and how much rancor would ensue. I’ve tried something like it before and learned my lesson. For whatever it’s worth, and for the benefit of whomever, here’s my letter:
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Joyous Kwanzaa, Season’s Greetings, whatever floats your boat. Have it any way you like. Relax: there’s no “war on Xmas,” so set aside your paranoia for just a little while and enjoy the holidays on whatever terms suit you. Barbecue a turkey that’s been carved to look like Baby Jesus, for all I care. It’s a free country.
I have a gift for you. If it were to have its intended effect, it would be the greatest gift I could ever offer anyone. Think of it as a Christmas card if you like, and keep reading.
I know that you think that by not believing as you do, I’m making the biggest mistake any human being can possibly make. I know that you believe I will pay for my perfidy with an eternity of unspeakable suffering, endured needlessly since Jesus paid the penalty for my sins and all I need do to avoid eternal torment is to “accept Christ as my personal Savior.” I realize how much sense that makes to you.
I also realize how deluded you think I am. It seems nonsensical to you that someone like me could believe that “all this just popped out of nothing” or that “a little bug crawling around in primordial ooze stood upright and became a man, complete with irreducibly complex eyes.” I’ve seen the way you frame scientific propositions, and given the distortions you imagine us “evolutionists” to embrace, it’s little wonder that science makes no sense to you (even though you seem quite content to enjoy the technological wonders that science has made possible). It would make no sense to me either, couched in those terms.
Do you know what a “straw man” is? Do you realize that the “straw man” intended as an attack on someone else’s positions can be used to dispel doubts about one’s own? Have you looked into the knotty problem of self-deception?
The gift that I want to give you takes the form of a thought experiment that I’d like to invite you to undergo. It’s not going to be easy, because I’m going to ask you to imagine something that’s so alien to you that I might as well be inviting you to visualize a world into which you’d never been born. And beyond the sheer difficulty of it, there’s the great risk that it might give you a glimpse of something you’d rather not see. Are you game?
Imagine for a moment that you weren’t taught all the things about God and Jesus that you learned as a child. Imagine that you’d grown to full maturity without ever hearing about any of the things that Christians believe and teach their children. Try to imagine that on account of a reasonably solid education you understood a thing or two about science, and that you were in the habit of examining claims, evaluating their merit and discriminating among them in order to ensure that your beliefs map as faithfully as possible onto the world that actually exists. I think you should spend some time with that before moving on: in order for a thought experiment to succeed, you have to be able to adopt a point of view that is very different from whatever your default position happens to be.
If you’ve managed to set the mental stage properly, now proceed to imagine that as a thinking adult – not a vulnerable child whose opinions can be easily molded by the authority figures in his life – you are approached one day by a stranger who tells you the following:
“Unless you give careful heed to what I’m about to say, and believe it, you are destined to spend all eternity suffering unimaginable torments. Here’s why: about six thousand years ago, our first mother took the advice of a talking snake and ate the wrong kind of fruit. Because of that, all humans have a sinful nature and cannot stand before the creator of the universe, who hates all kinds of things and whose ways are perfect. He has given you his Law, but you are unable to keep it because it is your nature to break it, thus eliminating any possibility of eternal life in that creator’s kingdom.
“But the creator found a way whereby he could forgive you and restore you to fellowship with him: about two thousand years ago, he impregnated a Palestinian teenager without actually touching her naughty parts and had himself virgin-born so that he could be crucified for your transgressions and come back from the dead three days later. A few weeks after that he ascended bodily into heaven to be with God the Father who is actually himself, and sometime in the near future he’s going to return to Earth and you’re really going to wish you’d believed in him when that happens, because after he calls all his people home to heaven the Antichrist is going to rise to power here, and there’s going to be suffering on this planet on a scale never before imagined and it’s all going to culminate in a great judgment in which you’ll be found wanting and thrown into a Lake of Fire where you’ll burn with the devil – but consciously – for all eternity.”
(Imagine a rise in vocal pitch and intensity near the end of that, as the stranger whips himself up into an evangelistic lather.)
Having heard this amazing story as an adult who’d grown up without any such notions, what would your reaction be? Can you just for a moment admit to yourself that you’d walk away shaking your head and laughing at the crazy man?
That laughter is the medicine for what ails you. Pay attention to it.
Best wishes for a happy holiday season,
Your arrogant, hell-bound neighborhood atheist