Sunday, 21 December 2008

The Truth and Traditions Behind Christmas

I don't think that learning the story behind why we celebrate Christmas necessarily means that it is in anyway less enjoyable to observe the tradition. I've celebrated Christmas for the past 21 years and i will continue to do so. For me it's a festival of giving gifts, family gathering and generally relaxing and enjoying something at the darkest coldest time of year. It's great!

This video from BeardyMan (a professional beatboxer) explains a lot of it in a short time and is quite funny (I recommend the uncensored version though).

The Date of Christmas:
The first evidence of the end-of-year festival came from Egypt with Pagan customs centred around the January calends. Christ-mas (as in the celebration of Jesus' brith) was created in the fourth century and then the date of the 25th December was set in the 5th century by the Western church to coincide with the day of the birth of the Roman god Sol (sometimes referred to as Ba'al, Mithras, Saturn and many other names from different periods of hsitory). Many historians have speculated that this was a deliberate attempt to convert Pagans to Christianity.

Biblical 'evidence' that Jesus was not born in December comes from Luke 2:8: "...there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night." The Bible later claims that the winter is a rainy season which would not permit shepherds to abide in open fields by night (Solomon 2:11 and Ezra 10:9, 13).

There is no widely accepted true date of Jesus' birth, but estimates put it somewhere around September. If God had wanted us to celebrate Christmas, why would he have hidden the date from us so well?

The Spirit of Christmas
The spirit of Christmas that we know and observe now is a celebration of the birth of Jesus and a time to be thankful, to love thy neighbour and to give to the needy. The Pagan festivals of Saturnalia and Brumalia which came before and on December 25th respectively were festivals of merrymaking and worshiping the Sun God. It was not a huge leap for the church to procliam that the day of worship for the Sun God was actualy the day of worship for the Son of God. The rituals of the pagan festivals were so deeply ingrained in culture at the time that it would have been impossible to reject them and follow only Christianity, so this compromise was reached which is maintained today.

Christianity typically celebrates and observes the date of important figures' deaths. Paganism is the religion which observes Birthdays. My recent 21st birthday dinner was actualy a Pagan festival! Who knew?

Customs and Traditions of Christmas:

Mistletoe: - originally thought to be sacred of the Sun God by pagans and used for it's healing powers, mistletoe was hung and Pagans kissed under it as one of many debaucherous customs during the festival. The kiss was meant to celebrate the death of the old sun and the brith of the new one.

Yule-Log: - 'yule' meant 'wheel' which was a symbol of the sun god. If you were in cornwall, you may have used the term 'Stock of the Mock'. Devon and Somerset inhabitants might have used 'The Great Ashen Faggot'. All these were literally logs burnt as part of the festival. Yule-tide was actually a germanic pagan sacrificial feast that was later absorbed into Christmas.

Christmas Trees: - Orginally from Germanic Paganism in the 16th Century. Trees were decorated with fruit and nuts and children were allowed to collect them on Christmas day. Some fundamentalist Christians cite the following passage from Jeremiah 10:1-5 as biblical 'proof' that Christmas Trees are a banned practice:

[1] Hear ye the word which the Lord speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:
[2] Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
[3] For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
[4] They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.
[5] They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.

In reality it is more likely that this passage refers to the creation of false idols from wood, silver and gold. 'Christmas' trees weren't in use until around the 15th and 16th centuries and even then weren't specifically related to Christmas.

Father Christmas: - Also known as Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas of Myra was a Turkish Bishop who was the subject of a legend about throwing bags of gold down people's chimneys to act as a dowry to allow three girls to marry and not become prostitutes. Strangely we leave that bit out when we tell the story to our kids!
Many parallels have been drawn between Santa Claus and Odin, a hunter God of Germanic Paganism. He was said to lead a hunting party through the sky, much like Santa and his reindeer. Children would place their boots near the chimney filled with carrots and straw for Odin's flying horse to eat. Their gifts would be replaced with sweets in a reward of their kindness.
The name Santa Claus actually comes from the Dutch 'Sinter Klaas' which simply means Saint Nicholas.
In Britain, however, we have Father Christmas who is a more general figure of Christmas with many of the same charateristics. He is said to live in Lapland, rather than the North Pole where Santa Claus lives.
Contrary to popular Belief, the Coca-Cola Company didn't invent the jolly, plum, red and white, bearded man we know as Santa Claus. Their adverts popularised the image first given by Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly. The orignal image of Santa and the ideas of the sleigh, reindeer, mode of entry (chimneys) etc. all came from a poem by Celemnt Clarke Moore published in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23rd 1823. The poem was titled "A Visit from St.Nicholas" but is now more commonly called "The Night Before Christmas".

Interestingly, 'Old Nick' is often a name given to the Devil, also known as "The Deceiver".

Presents: - Gift-giving was also part of Saturnalia and although the bible does tell us that the three wise men brought gifts for the baby Jesus, no other gifts were exchanged. It was custom at the time to present a king with gifts on arrival. The wise men most likely arrived after Jesus' birthday anyway, as the passage states that they were seeking out the child who WAS born King of the Jews.

Therefore the 25th of December really belongs to 'Dies Natalis Solis Invicti' - the birthday of the unconquered sun. Why devote the day to one famous prophet of old times when you could devote it to a number of fictional sun gods and use it as an excuse to eat well, spend time with friends and family, exchange gifts, decorate our house and town and have a few days off work?

What could be we celebrating instead?

Saturnalia - Roman festival on the 17th December, extended to a whole week ending on the 23rd in later years, during which there is much drinking and marrymaking and social roles are reversed for a short time. Servants are served by their masters. Presents are exchanged and people greet eachother with "Io, Saturnalia!" — (Io pronounced "yo").

Brumalia - the ancient greek solstice festival in honour of Dionysus (known as Bacchus by the Romans). He was the God of wine, inspirer of ritual madness and ecstacy. If we do it the Roman way, Brumalia is a 30-day festival of drinking and merriment starting on November 24th.

So Io Saturnalia! Happy Brumalia and Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 30 November 2008

To Tide You Over

Apolgies for not having posted in a while. I am having a very busy term at university and although I'm still reading and watching interesting things, I haven't had time to write about them.
I found this today though and thought it was an amusing way to fill space before a new post around Christmas.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Palin's Foreign Policy

In fairness this may have been taken out of context, but either way it's a 
remarkably weak claim from someone who could potentially be president. 
Is the best she can come up with to explain her foreign policy credentials 
really just that Alaska shares a border with Russia? I don't think i need to 
write much more on this, just watch the video and be amazed!

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Why I could be a Deist

"Deism is the belief that a supreme God exists and created the physical universe, but shall not intervene in its normal operation." 

Most commentators agree that two features constitute the core of deism:
  • The rejection of revealed religion (religion that began by divine revelation)
  • The belief that reason, not faith, leads us to certain basic religious truths

Most Deists also reject scripture, miracles and prayer (due to the belief that God won't intervene anyway), while many Deists accept evolution and put emphasis on the importance of reason and rational thinking, which in most cases leads to emphasis on the scientific method.
Deists differ, however, in their beliefs about the existance of an afterlife and whether god still exisits or simply set the universe in motion.

So Deism for me is really the only way I COULD accept that some form of god either does or used to exist. The god in question here isn't Allah or Yahweh however. In this case it would be more of a powerful creative force, perhaps with a form of conciousness, that caused the big bang and set in place the physical laws of the universe. 
The main problem I have with being certain in my Atheism (obviously very few atheists ever say they are certain; only that it is so highly unlikely that god exists that it effectively amounts to total disbelief) is that the furthest back science seems to be able to explain is the big bang. The question of 'what caused the big bang' is the most intriguing question and hardest to answer or even think of a time when there could be an answer.

I say I COULD be a Deist, but the reason I am NOT is that chosing the position of Deism serves no purpose. It doesn't explain anything any better than an atheistic and scientific viewpoint and only presents further questions about the nature of the god-like entity that began everything. If there was a god that began the universe, and he doesn't intervene in the operation of the universe, then prayer is useless, worship is useless and attempting to find evidence of him is useless, so we may as well not bother, And then it has no affect on our lives, so belief and non-belief are essentially the same thing. Therefore it's simply a matter of preference, and I don't feel a need to explain the creation of the universe until science gets closer to being able to, so i'll stick with Atheism!

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Do you WANT god to exist?

Dan said...
"Toby, you strike me as a bloke who really wants to believe God is out there and is real.

Tell me, what made you change your mind on his existance or lack thereof? What was your previous belief system? "

I don't think I do want God to be real. If I found out tomorrow that he really did exist, I would firstly have to ask "which god" so that I could find out if I was headed for heaven or hell, nirvana, reincarnation or something else entirely. Lets say I found out it was the Christian God, and I started to believe because I was given the evidence, I repented and asked forgiveness and I was pretty sure I was going to heaven. The knowledge of a second life and what's more a far better life, would completely diminish the importance of this one. I'd be forced to question so many things such as why I see suffering in the world, why the natural world and indeed humans ourselves have so many imperfections and why, if he can, doesn't he stop bad things from happening? I imagine I wouldn't get an answer from God himself even if I prayed, so other Christians would tell me it's all part of his plan or that it's because I or someone else has sinned against him. That's not really the kind of god I'd like to find out exists! 

I see no neccesity in there being a god. In fact I think his existence would actually devalue a lot of what we know about the world and the wonder I have in considering it all. For me it is far more amazing and beautiful that my eyes evolved to their fairly-good, but not perfect, state that they are today due to millions of years of fine tuning and improvement by natural selection, than if someone with the power to do everything simply said 'there you go... an eye' and didn't even bother to make it as perfect as it could have been! If God made my eye, why give me a blind spot? Why invert the picture? And why only let me see such a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum? Did it come with a reciept? Because I might trade it in for echo-location and wings to be honest. That sounds a lot more fun!

A small note on my history of belief:
I was bought up in a 'vaguely religious' home. My father basically believes in a God, but isn't sure that it is necessarily the Christian one. He certainly believes in Christian morals, the soul, and some higher power guiding life on earth. My mother claims to be agnostic, but often favours the side of the debate with less evidence and i think probably does believe in 'something more'. So my upbringing was fairly secular but I certainly celebrated Easter and Christmas and learnt why they were celebrated. I went to three different CofE Schools until I was 19. The first school had us singing hymns every morning, pray and hear a biblicaly-inspired moral story. The second did the same, but had it's own Chapel that we would go to every other Sunday for a full hour long service complete with bible readings. And the third had us in chapel every morning and every third Sunday with hymns, readings and prayer in all services. It was certainly the Christian faith I was exposed to more than anything else.
However, I also took Religious Education from a very early age, so learnt the basics of almost all other major religions. From about age 14 (i'm about to be 21) I started to discuss the likelihood of god's existence with friends and my brother, who is also now a non-theist. There was no particular moment when I realised I was an Atheist, but there was a gradual movement towards it over many years. The combining factors which changed my mind are probably:

- Learning about the many different belief systems and realising they couldn't all be correct.

- Being taught science to a high level and understanding that it explained everything far better and more elegantly than religion.

- Discovering evolution.

- Discovering other intelligent people were 'Atheist' and understanding what that meant.

- Not being happy with the position of Agnosticism, which I was for a year at least.

- Being forced to attend religious services by the school, despite claiming for the last 3 or 4 years of my time there that I wasn't a Christian, but realising the many inconsistencies, contradictions and falsehoods in the readings and services.

 -And more recently, all this being strengthened by my continued research into the topics and surrounding areas.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Ridiculous Religious Rebuttals #1

Watch from 5:00

Leaving aside his aggressive tone, and rude claims about Dawkins' knowledge; the Priest in Rome uses the age-old argument that Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot did terrible things and were Atheists. He also admits that Religious events such as the Spanish Inquisition and (although he doesn't mention it) The Crusades also killed many people, but seems to claim that because they killed fewer people than the dictators he mentions, it is somehow more forgiveable!

As Dawkins rightly points out, Hitler was a Roman Catholic, but none of these dictators carried out horrendous acts in the NAME of atheism. They all carried them out in the name of their political and social ideals. Communism etc. but certainly NOT Atheism. Perhaps some 'militant' atheists would like to kill religious people, but not me, not Dawkins and not any other Atheist I have ever spoken to. Certainly we know of plenty of religious people who would like to kill other people who simply do not follow their specific religion. Some of them are suicide bombers and some of them are in government. It's a terrifying prospect.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Atheist Arguments I Don't Like #1

Atheists aren't all perfect people. They don't always have intelligent things to say. Here are some arguments Atheists often make that I DON'T agree with:

1: "If God was the creator... what created God?"

This video is a debate broadcast on ABC's nightline.

On the surface this seems like a clever ploy to stop a creationist in his tracks. The answer an Atheist wants here is for the creationist to say "Well nothing created god. He always WAS". And then the Atheist replies, "Well don't you believe that the evidence for a God is that everything you see, like an eye or the famous pocket watch, must have been designed by a greater power? Then doesn't that apply to God as well?".

The religious person's answer is simply: "No. He's god. It doesn't apply to him." And that makes sense!

The Atheists argument is one of "infinite regress". Who created God? God's creator. Who created God's creator? God's creator's creator... and it goes on. It serves no purpose to reach an answer and can easily be argued against by creationists.

If God is who they say he is, this all-powerful, all-knowing being, then he MUST be outside the laws of our universe. I find it easy enough to believe that IF the universe was created by a higher power, that higher power would be so far beyond our understanding that it is basically useless to try to understand it. We live in a world governed by time and physical laws, so we think in those terms, but if God is real and he created those laws, he must exists OUTSIDE those laws, and therefore to say God has always been there is perfectly understandable.

Unfortunately for creationists, the fact that there is no EVIDENCE for this, or for any existence of God still means I'm an Atheist. Philosophically I can see how the argument works, and why Atheists are wrong to use that argument, but it most certainly is NOT a PROOF of God's existence. The other interesting thing about this argument, is that if God exists outside our universe and our laws, it becomes impossible for us to ever prove of disprove his existence. Hence the on-going debate!

Atheists will say "There is no evidence for God", and they'd be correct. Creationists would say "Well you can't prove he DOESN'T exist", and they'd be correct as well. The point though, is that the "evidence" in favour of God's existence only comes from personal experience and observation, even though it may be shared by many people. There IS an answer to whether God exists. We may never find it, but our best chance at the moment, is to try to find it through science, and not through looking at the world and simply deciding: "Yep, I don't understand everything, therefore God did it."

The Eye as an argument for Intelligent Design

The eye is often used by religious people and particularly creationists as an example of how something so intricate and complex can't possibly have come about by accident. Kirk Cameron used this example as his best argument when given 60 seconds to convince Atheists of a deity in this video:

For me it's clear that the reason Kirk thinks this is a compelling argument, comes from two major misunderstandings:

1: The misunderstanding of the evolutionary process
2: The misunderstanding of "Proof"

The misunderstanding of the evolutionary process is probably the most overarching cause of the inability to accept an Atheist viewpoint. I don't claim to be an expert; far from it; but I feel that I understand enough to be able to explain it to other people and to know that it is a viable scientific explanation of the origin of life and has been effectively proved by countless scientists and scientific data. This all makes it virtually impossible NOT to believe in it, and equally has impossible TO be able to believe in god!

Evolution is actually an unimaginably slow process stemming billions of years. The eye in fact evolved relatively quickly, just a matter of millions of years, compared to other biological systems. It began as a mutation of a similar receptor cell which gave that cell light-sensitive properties. Later, more cells of the same type clustered together to create a larger receptive field. After a few more hundreds of thousands of years the cells lined a small pit in the surface of an animal's body, allowing light to be detected from a wider angle and direction of the source of light to be determined. Then later again something resembling a crude lens grew over the pit to allow the eye to focus on near or far objects... You can see how these kinds of processes are cumulative and develop over their course. Kirk and Bill O'Reilly apparently can't, which is a major reason for why they are NOT Atheists.

Kirk's picture of a "Crocoduck" was possibly the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen used as an argument against evolution. Hopefully I don't need to tell you that ducks and crocodiles would have split apart in their evolutionary paths millions of years before either of them was called a "duck" or a "crocodile". There was however something that could have been called an "Apehuman" as some point millions of years ago. I think we called them Homoerectus.

The use of the word "Accident" is also a horrible example of just how little knowledge they both have of evolution. It's true that the evolutionary process contains "accidents" in the form of genetic mutation which create a characteristic (phenotype) that may be beneficial or harmful to the individual. Natural selection then sorts these out by killing off the ones with the harmful mutation and allowing the ones with the beneficial mutation to survive. The survivors go on to reproduce and pass on their genes to their offspring. Later down the generations, the same characteristic might mutate again into something more useful, and then we might call the end product... oh I don't know... an eye!

The misunderstanding of the word "Proof" has always been a problem when debating these kind of topics. Proof to a scientists means that the evidence FOR a theory has got to a point when it outweighs the evidence against by such a large amount, that it has become almost impossible to believe the evidence against. It is a matter of probability, and "Proof" would technically be a 0.999andafewmore9s chance of something being true, but to save time and simplify things, we simply say it is "Proven" or "True".

Many religious people say "Well god is true FOR ME" but it would be a misuse of the word "True" to say that. One can say "God seems more likely to me, given the evidence I have been presented" which would be a valid statement, although highly unlikely given that there is virtually NO evidence for a deity. Or one could say "I BELIEVE in God" which requires no evidence, but is unscientific and therefore, not particularly useful.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Matt Damon on Sarah Palin

Matt Damon perhaps goes a little over the top, but his points are sound. It is quite scary that Sarah Palin could become President of the united states. She's had very little political experience in one of the least populated states, but mainly she appears to be a gun-nut and a creationist, two things I'm not too happy about!

I haven't been following the US Election media coverage that closely, but just from the small amount I've seen, it's already clear that Obama is a far better choice for a modern America. McCain can surely only keep it as it is, or regress it's policies further backwards.

Oh yeah... and McCain would ban Stem Cell research. Enough said!

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Response to a cringeworthy statement

Before you read this, please watch the first two minutes of this video:

Then allow me to de-construct a couple of the arguments of, and generally get a little angry at, the guy with the cross on his cap:

"Don't you guys believe there's no such thing as god? Therefore... there's no purpose to life!"

Wow. Did he really say that? Yeah I think he did... And unfortunately, if you're an Atheist (like me) you'll hear this quite frequently from a lot of different people. Some of them are even quite intelligent most of the time. So why do they still ask this question? God only knows... ;)

The idea that there is a purpose to life is a matter of personal opinion, and it needn't (although it almost always is) be affected by the person's religion, or lack thereof. I personally believe there IS a purpose to life, but I don't know yet what it is. I often think it might be solely to reproduce, until many generations down the line, when Humans are more evolved a global purpose develops. Sometimes I think it is to make the most of our lives individually and to help others make the most of theirs, but I find it hard to see the whole-species goal in simply 'living a full life'. So I don't have an answer, but that by no means is to say that there isn't one! The pursuit of the meaning of life is a good enough purpose in itself, until the meaning is found, so to simply be content with the purpose of your life being some part of an unseen, unheard and unknown being's master plan for the universe while you sit bit and let it all wash over you with no intention to search for the truth seems a entirely wasteful way to live your life, to me!

"So 100 years from now, nothing we ever did or said or believed is going to matter, because once we die, we cease to exist? Am I right?"

No you definitely are NOT right. Our life ends when we die, so we, as a functioning human body and brain do cease to be alive, but our EXISTENCE lives on through memories of others who knew us who are still alive, and the stories of us that they tell to their relatives, through the actions that we have taken which affect the world after we're gone, such as donating organs to save the lives of others, or through creating a business or idea or form of entertainment that people can enjoy after our death. Of course we affect the world, everyone does! If anything, a belief in the afterlife only serves to lessen the likelihood that you will do anything worth remembering in this life, because it's too easy to sit back, live a 'good' life and look forward to your cushy eternity in heaven.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Read My Mind


I'm Toby Vacher. The chances are that if you're reading my first post, you know who I am. Either that or this blog has become hugely successful to the point that some of you have gone all the way back to the start of my writings to see how it all began. Now we're in the realms of time travel though. That's something i might have to come back to in an earlier post. (See what i did there?)

The aim of this blog is 1: to alleviate holiday boredom; 2: to get a (semi)permanent copy of my thoughts and views on various things; and 3: to entertain anyone who finds these things entertaining.

Hopefully i will write about religion, news, morals, world views, films, lifestyle and possibly foods... without rhyming too much.

Please be enjoying.