Tag Archives: Christian

The Celts. For Real.

English: Vector version of a design from the B...

English: Vector version of a design from the Book of Kells, fol. 29r. Traced outlines in black and white representing three intertwined dogs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neo-Pagans are not Celts.

Since I’ve ranted about who the Celts weren’t, I thought I should say who they actually were. The term ‘Celt’ has been abused for quite a long time now; people buy Celtic music, wear Celtic designs, and imagine themselves as part of a great Celtic identity. This is twisted into odd forms of nationalism, neo-paganism, and Christianity. It might seem vaguely ironic that the term is used by both pagans and Christians, but the reality is that they are both wrong, so what’s the difference?

The Term is the Thing…

I must be quite clear on this point, and you must pay attention, as this is crucial; we are speaking here of terminology. Detach the word ‘Celt’ from any image or concept it might arouse in you mind; words are used to denote concepts, and sometimes those words are misused. This misuse might lead to one word being used to describe many individual and separate physical things and abstract concepts. It may be that no connection between these discrete and individual things exists, except for that word. While certain groups of people who specialise in the field of studying these things might grasp this fact, in popular culture the separate identities of these things are muddled and mixed because only one word is used. This mess is compounded by fashion, arbitrary notions of nationalism, and, sometimes, outright deceit. But just because something is popular does not mean that it is true (just look at that whole ‘god’ phenomenon; I mean, seriously, are we not over that yet?).

If you want a very basic example of this, look at Goths. A few hundred years ago the Goths were a migratory nation wandering around the Roman Empire generally taking things over. Nowadays ‘Goth’ refers to a non-violent post-punk subculture which is more likely to feel oppressed than go oppress other sub-cultures. ‘Gothic’ also denotes a type of architecture that has nothing to do with either the Goths (had swords) or the Goths (have ipods). The term is also applied to a type of literature, which may have influenced the Goths (tend to have piercings), but not the Goths (tended to pierce people), and may have itself drawn some inspiration from Gothic architecture. So, here we have a term that describes a certain style of writing, a certain style of building, and a certain style of fashion, none of which are really connected to the original meaning of the term which denoted a bunch of folk from northern Europe who moved to sunnier climates.

Now that we are clear on that…

There are, essentially, four things the term ‘Celt’ is attached to –

1. A historical ethnic group.

2. A family of languages.

3. Archaeological material (well, not really; I get to this in a moment).

4. A bunch of fanciful modern nonsense about faeries, druids, new-age Christian hokum, spirituality, and an economic bubble.

Let’s all agree to ignore 4. So, what are these three Celtic things, and how are they all ‘Celtic’  but not about the Celts? The problem lies with 17th and 18th century scholars (many of the world’s problems are the fault of these guys). These people were working in the dark, fumbling around with artifacts, languages, and cultures, attaching names that made sense at the time, but no longer do. All they had to work with were the histories handed down by propagandists, politicians, and priests (hardly the most trustworthy of folk), and the things they dug up, and had to make some sense out of it all. Certain elements of this process were easy; the ancient Romans and Greek were very helpful in leaving tons and tons of things in the ground and in books to be found by these scholars. Sadly, these scholars believed everything the Romans and Greeks wrote in these books. So when it was said that there were a people called the Celts, and that they were barbarians, it was believed. Almost everyone in Europe who was not Roman or Greek was labelled a Celt, because it was easier to think of great empires and cultures in opposition, civilisation in contrast to barbarity, bad guys versus good guys, us against them. Utter nonsense, of course, but that’s basically the way it was thought of for centuries.

So, history, archaeology, and culture were all muddled up by these scholars, creating a new version of the myth of the Celt (Caesar got there first in many respects, but more on that later). Then, in the 19th century, simply because academics love making things far more complicated than necessary, philologists decided to name a group of languages, which until then didn’t really have much in common with the ‘Celts’ of the historians or archaeologists, Celtic. To make matters worse, around this period racism was becoming tremendously popular, and nationalism was really taking off. Nations had to invent identities, foundation myths, reasons for why you are not one of us. Utter nonsense again, of course, but people are stupid. Certain peoples looked back and picked the bits of history they like; the anti-monarchical French liked to identify themselves as Gauls, ‘Celts’ who had resisted the imperial ambitions of a certain Roman; the English liked the idea of being made up of various peoples who had kicked the crap out of the Britons, ‘Celts’ who had been conquered by Romans, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, and Normans; and the Irish, being not-English, began to identify themselves as ‘Celts’, something which the neighbours agreed with as they had a fondness for kicking the crap out of Celts. Did the Celts of France, Britain, and Ireland have anything in common? No. And yes… It’s complicated.

Language timothy, language.

Latin survives today as Portuguese, Romanian, French, Spanish, Occitan, Catalan, and the various Italian dialects mostly because the Romans were very, very good at killing some people, and educating those who were left. Sadly, a great number of these people spoke various forms of what is called ‘Celtic’. They didn’t call it Celtic, and they might not even have realised that their languages were related; a Portuguese person might have rather a hard time understanding a Romanian, though technically they are speaking very similar languages. The various peoples of Gaul who spoke Celtic languages might not have immediately understood one another, but they would have definitely had a hard time comprehending the Irish, or the Galatians (who lived in central modern Turkey), even though they were all speaking ‘Celtic’ languages. Not that Caesar cared when he was conquering Gaul; all that mattered to him was that they didn’t speak Latin and they had lots of gold, which he wanted. Keep an eye on this Caesar fella, a lot of the problem is in many ways his fault.

Scholars in the 19th century, when confronted with a bunch of languages, which were clearly related, found in a vast region stretching from Anatolia, central Europe, northern Italy, France, Iberia, and the British Isles looked in the works of ancient writers to see if they could find some great empire or culture to explain this phenomenon. They took a liking to the ‘Celts’ and the name stuck; these languages became known as Celtic, divided into Insular and Continental branches, the latter of which became extinct, though the former survives as Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton.

A family tree of languages. Click to blow your mind… (Image via Wikipedia)

Are these languages Celtic? Yes, in a very specific linguistic sense meaning that there is a language family which scholars use the term ‘Celtic’ to identify. Were the people who spoke these languages, and those who still do, Celts? No. They may, at best, be called Celtic-speakers, which would be like calling Americans German-speakers (see how often you can get away with saying that to an American before irk turns to anger). The Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and Breton speak Celtic languages but are not Celts.

Celtic_sword_and_scabbard_circa_60_BCE.

Pointy stabby thing, also known as ‘sword’ (Image via Wikipedia).

Swords, Scabbards, and other Stuff.

As before, there was a time when anything non-Roman from the Stone Age on was synonymous with ‘Celtic’, but the limits of that term were eventually reduced to the Iron Age, an then into two specific periods, La Tène and Hallstatt. The folk of La Tène persuasion are customarily associated with the Celts of Caesar. The use of Celtic languages far exceeded the territories encompassed by these cultures, which may have included non-Celtic speaking populations. We might suppose that, as there was a certain unity of material culture and language in central Europe, these people were Celts, but ‘Celtic’ Ireland and Britain possess little in the way of this material culture, but are the only places where the language survives. Even the Celtic-speaking peoples of Iberia, the cleverly named Celtiberians (I bet it took months to come up with that), were hardly touched by the La Tène culture. And let’s not get into the difficulties thrown up by the Celtic-speaking Galatians of Anatolia. Can we tie artifacts and remains to languages, and make them both Celtic, essentially inventing a people with a shared ethnic, linguistic, and material identity? Well, yes, if you ignore the facts, which is what people generally seem to do.

There are more Roman archaeological artifacts found in Ireland than ‘Celtic’, which would, with seriously flawed logic, suggest that the Irish were in fact Romans. Which would be an impressive feat, since the Romans never invaded Ireland. So,  what is commonly referred to as ‘Celtic’ in an archaeological sense is really two separate material cultures, neither of which are in any serious way connected to ‘Celtic’ languages, or the modern ‘Celtic’ nations, aside from the use of fancy interlacing to entice shoppers to buy ‘authentic’ Celtic merchandise. We must then conclude that archaeology cannot tell us who the Celts were, only that there were a bunch of people hanging out in Central Europe who made things in a certain distinctive way before the Romans came along and ruined the party. But at least it gets us closer than language does.

Julius Caesar, bane of Gauls and historians (image via Wikipedia)

A Tapestry of Lies.

As for historical Celts? Well. This is where the fun really begins. Celts appear first in the writings of the Ancient Greeks, who wrote that the ‘Keltoi’ lived up around the Danube, northern Italy, and also in southern France. Which seems to map onto the La Tène scheme of things. Caesar gives the most information on these Celts, which is not surprising as he had an excellent research opportunity,  getting up close and personal with the Gauls, what with his conquering, killing, and enslaving campaign. That kind of thing won votes back in Rome, and he was aiming for the big leagues. It’s a pity that he was a politician and a soldier, as his views of the Gauls are heavily laden with stereotypes which had been around for centuries. He is the only person to refer to certain ‘Celtic’ practices, such as the Wicker Man, and so we cannot know if they are true. Caesar was keen to point out, though, that the Gauls were  semi-civilised, unlike the utterly barbaric Germans, but at least Teutonic trains run on time. All references to Celtic culture and religion are based on Graeco-Roman stereotypes, and, as far as I know, no mention is made of Celtic art in their literature. So, in modern terms, Caesar was a racist, and only saw what he wanted to see. To be fair, he was a clever guy, so let’s give him the benefit of doubt, and say that he was telling the Romans back home what they wanted to hear. But, essentially, he was like an Englishman going to America, writing home about the barbarous customs and foods (creationism and cheese in a can) he found there, while ignoring their contribution to world culture and science (jazz and the moon landings).

I suppose we could say that at least Caesar confirms that the people of Gaul called themselves Celts, until we recall that the Romans didn’t care what any named themselves; they called the Greeks Greek! The Greeks called (and still call) themselves Hellenes, since the place where they come from is called Helles. See how that works? Amazing, simple, apt. Like the Romans gave a damn. Uncultured sheep-herders living on the tops of hills near a swamp, the Romans re-baptised the entire Hellenic people after the first ones they met, the Graeci. Imagine if on meeting an American for the first time you asked for their surname, and from that point onwards referred to all Americans by that name. One of the first Americans I ever met was a Mr. Hickey, which would make all Americans Hicks, or Hickeans. In any event, when Caesar says that the Gauls called themselves Celts, he may have just been quoting the Greeks, because nobody back in Rome really cared what the Gauls called themselves, so long as they made good slaves or stayed dead. So they may have been Celts, maybe. But they were not seen to be the same as the people of Aquitaine or northern France, or even Iberia, or Britain. Caesar only describes a small portion of the people we would expect to be called Celts as Celtic. It’s almost like he was making it up…

Interestingly, Caesar didn’t call the people of Britain Celts, but Belgians (of a sort). And throughout the Middle Ages none of the surviving ‘Celtic’ peoples of the British Isles called themselves Celts, or had any notion that they had a shared heritage, other than the fact that they were extremely fond of killing each other. Historically speaking, the ‘Celts’ of the British Isles weren’t labelled as Celts until much much more recently.

So. There you have it.

What have we learned? The ‘Celts’, as they are commonly understood, never existed, and while certain aspects of the linguistic, archaeological, and historical notions of a Celt overlap, they do not provide us with who or what a Celt really was. A person from a La Tène influenced region of central Gaul who spoke a Celtic language may tick all the boxes of what is needed to be a Celt, but this would exclude so many others, making the whole notion invalid.

So, in conclusion, I must apologise. I said at the beginning I was going to tell you who the Celts really were, and I haven’t. But it’s not my fault, nobody can. And anyone who says otherwise has either discovered something revolutionary, and should be published in a book, or is a nutter, and should be hit with one.

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with Realising That There is No God.

When I was young I loved reading about the myths and legends of other peoples; I still do. I was enthralled by the pantheons of the Greeks, Romans, Indians, Norse, Irish, Aztec, Egyptians, and pretty much whoever else I could find. I did prefer the European ones, as the gods they believed in were mostly human. Snake gods and monkey gods were fun, but, even in my youth, I found them a bit unbelievable. The gods of the Europeans were clearly kings and queens, warriors and heroes, concepts I could grasp much more easily, and, with the limited understanding of history a child has, might in some fashion be based on real people and events. But, I was told, they were all myths, all made up by primitive people who didn’t understand the world as we now do. Whoever told me that really shouldn’t have…

In my mind, the gods of the Greeks were just as true as the god of the Christians; they each had complicated histories, heroes and monsters, heaven and hell. In my mind, it was simply that one religion had replaced the other in a contest of popularity, aided by men with pointy bits of steel. I never understood why one was relegated to fantasy while the other was regarded as reality. I was told it was because Hercules and Achilles were not real people, but Jesus and Moses were actual historical figures who lived and breathed, and wandered around a lot. I put aside the myths and became more interested in the Bible because its stories were real, apparently. ‘Why then are there no dinosaurs in the Bible; if it’s true they should be in there somewhere?’ The answer I received was adequate; the old parts of the Bible are made up because when people started writing it they hadn’t discovered dinosaurs yet, and they didn’t know how life began, but the stories are still important. Which appeased me somewhat at the time; I could see how the Bible began like any good polytheist myth, but then, as time moved on it became more real; Greeks, Persians, and Romans started popping up and having wars and such, the places mentioned could be easily found on a map, and people were still fighting in the region, which made the newer bits of the book far more true in my mind.

I should point out that the nation in which I grew up was almost exclusively Catholic, the schools were run by the Church, and the Church had a dominant role in society (things have change somewhat since then, but the Church still wields a great deal of power). A priest used to come to my primary school on a regular basis and quiz us; we learned loads of prayers (which I have long since forgotten), parables from the Bible, and all kinds of other nonsense. I vaguely remember being afraid at my First Confession that I wouldn’t remember all the prayers and curious incantations, which would lead to the priest getting angry at me, and then I’d have to say lots and lots of prayers. I don’t recall ever being afraid of god, just of priests; they were weird and always smelled funny (I later figured out the smell to be incense and sweat). I remember that when we were supposed to say our prayers silently I used to think about other things, and wondered if the other kids were doing the same. I’ve often wondered how many people actually pray when they bow their heads in silence.

By the time Confirmation came around (another of Catholicism’s strange rites of passage) I had serious doubts about the whole Bible thing. Not god so much, I was willing to give that the benefit of the doubt. I had become very interested in physics and history, and these disciplines, while not questioning Christianity outright, were certainly showing me an alternative perspective. Reading about evolution or the Big Bang, no mention of god was made, just of natural selection and elementary particles. Mathematically defined forces had drawn the universe, not some benign deity, and natural selection had led, quite randomly, to the improbable existence of us. Where was god in all of this? I was told all things happen “by his hand”, or some such platitude, but that was not satisfactory. Science didn’t seem to need god to explain the universe, so why did religion? And why was it made so empty? I had begun to notice some small inconsistencies in the Bible too; history books on Egypt never mentioned the flight of the Jews, the kingdom of David, which was a mighty and powerful kingdom in the Bible, was barely a blip in the history of the Near East, and Jesus was hardly noticed by the Romans until Christians started becoming a nuisance long after he died. You’d think that these great empires, and all their historians and annalists, would have noticed these apparently important people and events. The Bible was looking more and more like a myth, and not a very good one at that (also, I read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ around this time, and if one man could invent such a detailed world, well, it made me think that whoever wrote the Bible just wasn’t trying that hard). The history of the Church was also troublesome; its issues with Copernicus and Galileo, its oppression of reform, its stranglehold on education. This was looking more and more like an organisation that wanted confine the mind rather than liberate it. And who would want to be a part of that? I had not yet given up on the god thing though.

By the time I began secondary I was left with what, I learned later, is called deism. I reckoned that there might well be a god, but that it was beyond us, outside the universe, outside of understanding. So physics and history didn’t apply. I also thought that Jesus was probably a real guy, but more along the lines of Gandhi, a moral leader, rather than the son of god, and that Christianity, on the whole, was no more or less valid than any other mythology from the ancient world. I had move away from Christianity in general, and had begun to investigate Eastern faiths. I imagine many teenagers do this in some fashion or other. I became quite interested in Zen as it didn’t appear to require a belief in the divine; it was rather more an exploration of the self, and it had a far more positive attitude towards this self than Catholicism. Religion never really came up in this stage of the education system in my school; the one teacher who cared was generally regarded by students as an idiot; even other teachers seemed to shy away from her when she began talk of god and Jesus in her life. I had stopped going to Church, or rather being cajoled into going by my mother, except on special occasions (funerals, weddings, Christmas), so religion was having less and less of a real impact on my life, and I was becoming less and less interested in it. I was thoroughly agnostic. And one day something weird happened; some of my classmates and I happened to talking about something religious at lunchtime, and one of the girls in the class looked utterly baffled. I asked her why, and she said that she didn’t believe in god, and neither did her parents; she was never expected to believe. To me, this was a revelation. I had never thought of it that way; I had remained agnostic because I thought that I should believe in some kind of divine order, I hadn’t realised that simply not believing was an option available to me. Dispensing with deism, which was not difficult as it is the vaguest possible avenue of belief, in an instant I was intellectually free of this god character and the mass delusion.

My Problem with Your God 6 – The Afterlife

Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the...

Image via Wikipedia

I find the whole notion of an afterlife puzzling. We live, and then we die.  Unless, of course, you believe in magic and fairytales, in which case, we might either get a second chance at things, some kind of reward, or even punishment. I do understand the appeal of an ‘afterlife’; it would be nice if all the good deeds we had done in life, great and small, were recognised by some all-knowing judge who smiled upon us benevolently, gave us a pat on the back, said “well done, here, you deserve some bliss”. And, of course, the corollary, that all bad people, and those who had done us wrong in life, are punished. I mean, it’s only fair, right? Life isn’t fair, but the afterlife is? Is that the way it works?

As I understand it, this ‘God’ fellow is the ultimate arbiter of who gets in to the exclusive club known as ‘Heaven’, or of who gets to go on a jolly journey to ‘Hell’. You have to ask then, what are the requirements of entry? I mean, aside from the whole Ten Commandments nonsense, the abstaining from some of the more fun aspects of life, and the general belief in the delusion of a sky-god and his zombie son. If you believe in a heaven you must believe you have a pretty good chance of getting in, otherwise what’s the point? So, are you a paragon of virtue, or the lowest common denominator? Would you join a club that would let someone like you in? I imagine most people who pray weekly in the relevant temple of their faith believe that they will go to heaven; do you think that they all qualify? Do they live up to your rigorous standards? Because everyone can’t get in, that’s part of they system. By the simple fact of not believing in your peculiar delusion the vast majority of people are excluded from your faith’s vision of heaven. And that’s not just those living now; think about all the people who lived and died before some semi-literate desert nomad invented your faith. The vast majority of everyone ever will not go to your heaven, and I reckon quite a good deal of them are better than you. I don’t mean that as a slight against your character, but you are up against the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (who are the foundation of Western science, reason, and civilisation), the genius who came up with oral rehydration therapy (which saves millions of children dying from diarrhea  every year), and Norman Borlaug (the guy who saves millions of lives every year by designing better types of wheat). How do you compare? How many civilisations have you defined? How many millions of lives have you saved? Surely, by virtue of their astounding accomplishments, they get to go to Heaven, right? Would you give up your place to someone more worthy? Maybe God would overlook the “believe in me” red-tape, it’s all part of the plan, right?

The whole “God’s plan” thing is worrying too. People who die in accidents, of God-Pythondisease, or other such tragedies, are, in the words of clerics, taken before their time, it’s all part of God’s plan. Plus, as an added bonus, they get to go to heaven directly, because of the suffering and whatnot that they had to endure.That’s nice, comforting. It’s not really a random accident that could happen to any one at any time because Nature and the Universe are our best friends and they would never do anything to hurt us. It might even be that, if the human race is ever wiped out by a gamma ray burst from a star billions of light-years away that died billions of years before God was even invented, some religious person’s last thought will be, “it’s all part of the Plan”. The problem with ‘The Plan’ is very simple; if it’s all part of God’s plan, and you get to go to heaven for playing your little role in the plan, doesn’t everyone get to go to heaven? “Well”, you might be saying to yourself, “that certainly solves the exclusivity problem mentioned above”. Yes, it does, but it also means everyone gets in. Everyone. Including Hitler (yeah, I went there). If you believe in ‘The Plan’, you have to accept that everything is part of it, and that every player is doing God’s Will. And God is Good (I’ve been told this quite often, but remain unconvinced, especially by the use of the copula), so everything he does is good, therefore the plan is good. So bad things might happen for a good reason. If this is so, anyone who did anything evil was really just an instrument of God, and so can’t be blamed for their actions, and if they cannot be blamed, they are free from sin, and get to go to Heaven. Even Stalin. If you believe in ‘The Plan’ you kinda have to accept that you will be sharing Heaven with murderers, rapists, dictators, pedophiles (the Catholic Church lets them in already), and all kinds of other nefarious folk, like the CEOs of banks, boy-bands, and anyone who ever appeared on reality TV.

So. Let’s agree that ‘The Plan’ notion is fundamentally flawed, and that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. I’ll give you, the believer, the benefit of doubt; you are a good and ethical person who happens to wholeheartedly believe in a worryingly transparent fantasy. According to your rules, you get to go to ‘Heaven’ when you die. While there you meet all your dead relatives, friends, and the other cool kids who got passed the bouncer, because they also abided by the rules. After a while of hanging out with the angles and their dull music you wonder where all the good music is. It’s in hell. Ah well, you still have bliss on tap. You look around and your best friend Timmy isn’t among the saved. You ask why and find out he went to hell because he didn’t believe in God. So. Your friend burns for all eternity. While you get bliss. That would really ruin my buzz, if I were you in heaven (but I wouldn’t be in heaven, because it’s not real). Knowing that perfectly decent people suffer for no other reason than they don’t believe in your brand of hysteria would really tarnish the whole good vibe thing that Heaven had going on. How could you (after-)live with yourself? Unless God wipes your memory, which is deceitful, or you are a cruel soulless person, in which case you have to wonder how you got to heaven in the first place, and what kind of sycophant are you? Sorry, that last bit is unfair, believers are not sycophants, that’s the clergy. Believers are chattel.

Orthodox icon of St Edward the Martyr

You get to hang out with people like this forever... Image via Wikipedia

But the problem really is that you already agreed to abandon ‘The Plan’. If God doesn’t run the show, what’s the point of having a God? Okay, fair enough, you can make the case for human agency, but this removes God from being a loving, caring blah blah blah, to a remote and uncaring arbiter who decides what is good and what is evil. Why is he uncaring; well, if he cared he wouldn’t let bad things happen, would he? So, God is a judge; there is no right of appeal, no other avenue open to you. He makes the rules, he enforces them, and he is the king of heaven. I’m sorry, but that’s a dictator. And dictators exist to be overthrown by popular revolt. The Democratic Republic of Heaven would be a nice thing. It’s almost a pity that there is no God to overthrow, or no Heaven to liberate. Anyway, we’ve given up ‘The Plan’, and God is just a judge. Heaven is an exclusive club of pretty much all the most boring people ever. Sure, there are some good ones in there, but let’s face it, hermits, martyrs, the chaste, and the pure can’t really have many interesting anecdotes to pass the time with. And you will have a lot of time to pass, an eternity in fact. I know it’s an old joke, but all the fun people will be in hell, along with all the evil ones, the not-so-bad-but-didn’t-make-the-cut ones, and the actually-wonderful-people-who-didn’t-believe. Which makes heaven seem really unfair and boring.

Centaur & a Lapith in battle

Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

It wouldn’t be so bad if religion had just left heaven as an unknowable state of being. They had to go and make it a place, a thing, a kingdom with walls and subjects, of eternal peace, and limited imagination. And that’s just stupid. Even so, an unknowable heaven is only slightly less redundant. You could say “but, you admit, it’s unknowable, you don’t know that it doesn’t exist, you can’t prove its non-existence”. You got me there, that’s a humdinger. I also can’t prove the non-existence of basilisks and centaurs, but just because we can’t prove something magical doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that it does. I’ll wait here until you bring me evidence of an afterlife; evidence, mind you, not the collected ramblings desert nomads and delusional parasites, feverish hallucinations, or other such deceptions .

You didn’t exist for millions of years before just recently, and you will cease to exist again quite soon. Enjoy a moral life while you can, because you won’t get a second chance; you’ll just be dead, forever.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam

Stolen Holidays.

Yule Thieves.

Christmas is a funny thing; it is supposed to be a celebration of the birth of the son of the Christian god, but in reality, for most people, it is an orgy of consumerism and gluttony, which aren’t very Christian concepts. But neither is Christmas. It is, in effect, a pagan winter festival that has had Christian decorations draped upon it; a polytheist tree wrapped in monotheist tinsel. Christmas wasn’t celebrated by the first Christians, or even the second ones; not until the 4th century do we find records of the adherents of this peculiar new Jewish cult regarding the birth of their Messiah as something worth celebrating. Indeed many Christians thought that celebrating one’s birthday was a barbarous thing, particularly Origen, one of the most influential Christian theologians of Antiquity and the Middle Ages. But the time of year was already a cause for celebration before the posthumous popularity of a certain Galilean. The Romans, and many of the folk they conquered, celebrated ‘Saturnalia’ in the depths of winter, a festival of lights and feasting, where houses were covered in green-leaved branches, people were allowed time off work, and bonfires were lit. Sound familiar? Or what about the Northern Europe winter festival called Yule (or Jul), where houses were adorned with candles, animals were slaughtered, great feasts were organised, and vast quantities of beer was drunk? Jealous (possibly) of all this good clean pagan fun, the Christians jumped on the idea, and hijacked it for their own purposes.

Do you know When Jesus was born? Answers on a Postcard, Addressed to “The Pope, The Vatican, Italy”.

The Bible has very little to say about the birth of Christ; only two of the Gospels even bother give an account of that oh so special event, and they provide very little detail, and even then they don’t agree on what actually transpired (if it did), except, of course, for the crucial headline event. The best part about Jesus’ birthday is that no-one knows when it really is; nothing in the Bible even hints at when it could be, which, for a work of revelation and prophecy, is a bit ironic. Before the 4th century, the different Christian factions believed Christ to have been born in March, April, or May. And even then, the year is wrong, all thanks to a monk named Dionysius Exiguus who couldn’t do his math very well; Jesus was born sometime between 6 and  4 Before Himself, not on Year 1.

One Festival to Rule Them All…

In the West, the first mention of Jesus’ birthday is in the mid-4th century in a Roman calendar of sorts, and it declares it to be the 25th of December, a date that was soon adopted throughout the Roman Empire. Which may appear to be a bit random, since Eastern Christians seemed to prefer the idea of a spring or summer birthday. Interestingly, the 25th of December was already commemorated by many pagan Romans, such as that most crucial of Christian Emperors, Constantine, as the birthday of Sol Invictus, the sun-god (where’s a Catholic priest with no understanding of history or linguistics when you need one?).  It also happens to be around the time of the winter solstice, a time venerated in many other non-Christian religions. To co-opt one was to co-opt them all. It’s only a theory, but it seems quite reasonable to suggest that Christmas was invented to appeal to Roman pagans in particular, since they ran the world in those days, and they already had a long tradition of celebration around the 25th of December. Of course theology was later tacked on, the lengthening of the days is symbolic of the light of Christ and such, but the ‘birthday’ of the Christian Messiah has always lived in the shadow of what Christmas is really about; having a good time with friends during the darkest period of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere anyway), drinking and eating, and having a party.

Bring out Your Dead.

The Christians also swiped Hallowe’en from those rascally pagans, who had a thing for equinoxes and solstices. The early Christians seem to have been equally fond of plastering their notions over pre-existing conditions, and Hallowe’en is no different. This was, and continues to be, an essentially pagan, and particularly ‘Celtic’ (not in the sense of an ethnic group, but as a linguistic family which may have shared cultural practices) celebration, probably called something akin to Samhain (‘Sow-an’ not ‘Sam-hain’ as a certain American supernatural TV series claimed), which Christians sneakily sidled up to with ‘All Saints’ Day’, followed swiftly by ‘All Souls’ Day’ and all of a sudden it’s a harmless party-time for children, drunk students, and immature adults (don’t get me wrong, certain aspects of maturity are over-rated).

Bye-bye, mister Nazarene pie.

The one major celebration the Christians didn’t steal from the pagans was Easter (just when you think you have them figured out, they go and change their game to keep you guessing). No, they stole it from the Jews, though, in fairness, the Christ-lovers do have a legitimate claim on it. Unlike his birthday, we have a better idea of when Jesus was killed, because he had become important enough to take notice of by then. He (if he existed, and I reckon he may well have, but without the magic tricks) was crucified sometime in the month of Nisan, possibly on Friday the 15th, at the beginning of, or during, Passover. Which you might think is a good deal of detail, except Jewish months move. Unlike the Roman/Gregorian/Modern calendar, which is solar, the Jewish one is lunar, so the months are not always in the same place every year. The 15th of Nisan provided the early Christians with a bit of an issue; the date of Christ’s execution wandered around a bit. Theologically, some preferred the Paschal celebration to come after the vernal equinox, the world was ‘brighter’ after the death of the Galilean, and others didn’t care, believing that they should celebrate the event on the correct date, even if it happened to fall on the wrong side of the equinox. Of course the pagans also celebrated the vernal equinox as a time of rebirth and renewal, a happy coincidence with the Christian message. The Christians didn’t steal Easter, and, to a certain degree, pagans seem to have successfully inserted their notions into the Paschal celebrations; the term ‘Easter’ comes from a pagan goddess, and bunnies, eggs, and chocolate have very little to do with the vicious scourging of a Jewish reformist.

What have we learned, then? Ignore religion and enjoy the party; life doesn’t last very long, and then you are dead.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam.

Spontaneous creation or God?

NASA StarChild image of Stephen Hawking.

Image via Wikipedia

Recently (3rd Sept. 2010) Stephen Hawking declared that it was not necessary to invoke the hand of God in the creation of the universe, that the powerful force of gravity could accomplish the fabrication of the vast and wonderful cosmos in an act of self-creation.[1] He was almost immediately rebutted by John Lennox (a professor of mathematics from Oxford University), who said that “As a scientist I’m certain Stephen Hawking is wrong. You can’t explain the universe without God.”[2] He then proceeds to offer rather flimsy examples of how objects need to be designed by an exterior mind, which I believe is deceitfully misleading and over-simplifies Hawking’s argument. He also makes utterly nonsensical statements like “…the Christian faith actually makes perfect scientific sense”, and “But support for the existence of God moves far beyond the realm of science. Within the Christian faith, there is also the powerful evidence that God revealed himself to mankind through Jesus Christ two millennia ago. This is well-documented not just in the scriptures and other testimony but also in a wealth of archaeological findings”. The first statement is utterly wrong, unless the science to which he is referring is the psychological study of mass hysteria, superstition, enforced tradition, cruelty, and genocide. The second statement is dishonest; the evidence offered for the existence of God comes from ‘within the Christian faith’, which makes it faith, not evidence. The ‘well-documented scriptures’ are delightfully corrupt texts, there is no non-Christian ‘other testimony’, and there is no, I repeat, no archaeological evidence for the Christian god, or Christ himself. Lennox even says that “The existence of a common pool of moral values points to the existence of transcendent force beyond mere scientific laws. Indeed, the message of atheism has always been a curiously depressing one, portraying us as selfish creatures bent on nothing more than survival and self-gratification”. Both of these statements are fallacious, morality has nothing to do with faith, and atheism is hardly depressing, and in fact encourages community over selfishness because it does not believe that a myth will save humanity from destroying itself.

Lennox does have a vaguely defensible point though; he believes that there must have been a being to set things in motion, an unmoved mover, a first cause which, at the very least, created gravity, which in turn created the universe. This is the crux of the debate, as it has always been, and probably always will be. Every time science deduces a rational answer for the existence of the universe, and all that lies within it, faith takes one step back. When it was found that the earth was not at the centre of the solar system, religion said it was still the centre of the universe. When it was realised that we evolved from chemicals, religion declares it was a development guided by the ‘hand of God’. The Big Bang must have been seen as a wonderful theory by the established faiths; it provides a point in time, a creation event to which they could attach the label ‘God did it’, even though this was not what science had sought to achieve. And then science pushed back further, but still ‘god’ must be the first cause.

The simple fact of the matter is that science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of ‘god’ (yet). And a true scientist, a skeptic to the core, must accept that there is a possibility, however remote, removed from reason, or absurd, that there is a supernatural force that impelled the universe into being. It must be made clear that this ‘god’ is a very different to the ‘god’ of religion. This hypothetical unmoved mover would be far removed from human discourse, a detached entity existing outside the universe. Arguing that this ‘god’ has anything to do with Christianity, as Lennox does, is intellectually misleading. The revelation of ‘god’ to desert nomads, a carpenter’s son, or faith healers might provide many people with some notion of comfort, but it should not be accepted as the basis for society, morality, laws, or educational practices, which, sadly, it is. His arguments grant credence to oppressive religions, allowing them to argue that there is scientific evidence for ‘god’, and, consequently, all of their incumbent traditions and bizarre beliefs and practices. The ‘god’ of faith is an irrational creature, prone to violence and jealousy, and the religions based on the deranged visions of so-called prophets and messiahs are uncritical of their own practices and beliefs, cling to tradition, and deflated dogma.[3] They can hardly claim to have any scientific basis or any grounds as historical fact.

Whether ‘god’ exists or not is an opinion, not a fact which can be proved or disproved. Hawking believes the weight of the evidence suggests that the universe came into being through the agent of gravity, and Lennox holds that ‘god did it’. What can be proved or disproved are the links in the chains of faith, the shackles of religion which fetter the freedom of thought, and of humankind. Everyone should be free to believe what they wish, but they are not. Religion is imposed on society, indoctrinated from birth, and enshrined as the font of all morality. It is not open to criticism, or investigation. Religion is a closed concept, a narrow viewpoint which seeks to eliminate all others, a parasite of the mind. Whether or not ‘god’ exists is not the point; religion does, but it shouldn’t.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam


[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1308278/Stephen-Hawking-God-did-create-Universe.html.

[2] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1308599/Stephen-Hawking-wrong-You-explain-universe-God.html. See also, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1308616/Stephen-Hawking-Archbishop-Canterbury-attacks-claim-God-did-NOT-create-Universe.html.

[3] See previous posts, ‘My Problem With Your God 1-5’.