Sunday, December 15, 2013

What war on Christmas?

There is no war on Christmas, except in the paranoid minds of those that insist Christians are a persecuted majority in the US (perhaps it is contagious - Canada's federal government in recent years seems to be making wishing people a Merry Christmas a priority).

In the bad old days, pretty much every Canadian was Christian (those that were already here were sent to residential schools because they weren't considered "real" Canadians; those that believed differently either weren't allowed in, were openly discriminated against, and/or were deemed disposable (by, for example, forced labour building rail lines)). Canada now boasts significant numbers of Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, Wiccans, and a growing percentage of individuals who adhere to no religion.

"Happy Holidays" as a generic greeting is a recognition that, until you learn otherwise, it isn't necessarily accurate to wish your conversation partner "Merry Christmas." Of course, if offered a seasonal greeting that isn't part of your cultural heritage, just respond in kind. It's simply being polite - a quintessential (in stereotype, if not in reality) Canadian value. In no way is it accurate or reasonable to portray "Season's Greetings" as an attack on Christianity.

Christmas has been a secular consumerist event for decades. Many people celebrate and love Christmas for entirely non-religious reasons. If a store doesn't erect a Christmas tree or manger display, it's a business decision - not an ideological assault or anti-Christian sentiment.

Using the term "war" is a clear example of overblown rhetoric. We're moving from assuming that everyone celebrates Christmas to recognizing the reality that many do, and some don't. No one is shunned. No one is hurt. No one is maimed. No one is killed. No one is having their rights infringed upon in any way. Where is the war? Because religious displays are left to private homes and houses of worship instead of city hall? Because Christmas iconography (including the "secular" kind, such as conifers and sleighs) are merely prominent instead of universal?

To those incensed at the fading prominence of explicit Christmas greetings - get a sense of perspective. Christmas is offensive to no one, but the phrase "War on Christmas" is to many. Direct your passion, indignation, resources, money, and energy to the plenitude of issues facing our society that need addressing. Don't waste your (and so many other people's) time with this invented non-event.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Do not give your money to these people

They are everywhere this time of year - at the entrances of supermarkets, in the hallways of malls, by the exits of beer and liquor stores.

They use a number of gimmicks to attract your attention, are usually polite, and all want the same thing - your money. 

I am talking about the Salvation Army, and I want to encourage you not to let the bell-ringers convince you to make a contribution to their organization.

Last year I learned that the Salvation Army is a despicably homophobic organization. The Canadian chapter "believes marriage is the covenanting together of one man and one woman for life in a union to the exclusion of all others." It has similarly unenlightened views about gays and lesbians (but does not condone violence). Different chapters (countries) have different policies, some of which state that being gay is a sin before God and must be corrected.

Despite its generally successful efforts to portray themselves as an inclusive organization serving anyone in need, in practice it is ecumenical - serving folks of all religious backgrounds, as long as they are Christian (or willing to consider becoming so). I have heard that some branches offer food, coffee, and extra breaks to employees who attend daily prayer groups.

 "The Salvation Army exists to share the love of Jesus Christ." The Canadian chapter's mission statement reveals that the primary purpose of your money and gifts is to proselytize the Good Word. I was shocked to discover this about the Salvation Army, given its ubiquity; perhaps others will be surprised as well.  

I will not contribute anything to the Salvation Army, regardless of their other good works. They operate under false pretences, using the goodwill of others as a club to evangelize, and consider the words written on a piece of parchment millennia ago by desert nomads to be more important than the well-being of their fellow contemporary human beings. I encourage everyone instead make a donation to organizations that are genuinely charitable. Given the multiple disaster areas around the world, from the wreckage left by extreme weather events to the horrific human consequences of war, I recommend Médecins Sans Frontière (Doctors Without Borders).

Friday, December 06, 2013

What was Brian Pallister thinking?

Brian Pallister, leader of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative party and head of the provincial official opposition, created quite the stir in some circles when the following video was widely circulated online on Monday, December 2 2013:

Many self-identified "infidel atheists" were incensed by his remarks. I fail to see what the hubbub is about. 

Here is a basic breakdown of what Mr. Pallister focuses on during the 23-second video:
  • 5 seconds wishing folks a Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah
  • 15 seconds talking about how he doesn't understand unbelievers, and how that's fine with him
  • 3 seconds wishing everyone all the best
Atheists got top billing in terms of air time.

Of course, I have no access to the inner workings of Mr. Pallister's mind, but the following seems to me to be a reasonable guess.

Mr. Pallister was speaking off the cuff on a topic he is rather uncomfortable with - hence the stumbling, almost stuttering delivery. He is probably aware of atheists and religiously unaffiliated Canadians in a way he wouldn't have been even ten years ago.

So while saying "Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah," he possibly thought, without preparing an answer, "What about the nonbelievers? I can't appear to be excluding them, and I don't want controversy." And so he started his sentence, and another part of his brain interrupted with, "Don't be too accommodating; you don't want to alienate your religious constituents."

Thus the strange mix of inclusiveness, wishing everyone all the best, with terminology ("atheist infidels") most often used in a pejorative manner.

Mr. Pallister inadvertently drew attention to the fact that a large and growing number of Canadians do not view Christmas as a religious holiday in any way. Canadians generally view the end of the calendar year as a time to embrace family, feasts, gifts, trees, lights, retail discounts, and three statutory holidays within one week. The religious nature of December 25th matters to an ever-shrinking percentage of the population. "Keep the Christ in Christmas" was quaint twenty years ago. It is not as obsolete as abacuses or monocles, but still a reminder of times past, like cathode ray tube television sets or people wearing wristwatches. Mr. Pallister clearly recognizes this on some level, even if it doesn't apply to him personally.

In my view, this is a tempest in a teapot. He spent most of his time saying how he wanted everyone to enjoy this time of year, and was clearly grasping at straws to find a way to do so. Yes, he employed a poor choice of words. But rather than criticise him for that, freethinkers should thank him for explicitly mentioning the community and his desire for all to appreciate the season. Instead, request that Mr. Pallister accept the invitation to speak with a representative of Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba so he can extend warm wishes in the future to a significant part of his electorate in a more diplomatic, appropriate manner. If he accepts, it would demonstrate genuine good faith, and his message will be received with the warmth and compassion with which it was (presumably) intended.

Citing this as an example of anti-atheist bias in elected officials is inappropriate and will dilute warranted criticism when other public figures make far more egregious, explicit attacks on atheists' legal rights and physical well-being. Save outrage for truly outrageous acts.

Secularism is not nearly enough: Video

One year ago, I attended the Centre for Inquiry Ottawa's Eschaton 2012 conference. I gave a speech entitled Secularism Is Not Nearly Enough as part of a Canadian Secular Alliance panel, which was recorded. The video has just been made publicly available. The video freezes during the first minute, but is of reasonable quality thereafter. Enjoy.