Back in the Swing of Things

So I am back in NYC and settling into the Winter session course I am teaching…I am also mastering Assassin’s Creed on the Play Station3 🙂

 I hope that everyone had an exceptional New Years…I started the new year with some good news. I found out that I will be going to the Towards a Science of Consciousness meeting in Tucson to present HOT Implies PAM: Why Higher-Order Theories of Consciousness are committed to a Phenomenal Aspect for all Mental States, even Beliefs (which is a re-worked version of the first half of my paper Consciousness, (Higher-Order) Thoughts, and What it’s Like…you can see the virtual presentation from this summer’s Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness meeting in Vegas HERE). I am very exited to do this as I have had lots of great feedback and discussions about my argument with David Rosenthal and Rocco Gennaro and I think the argument is stronger than ever…

 Before I left for vacation I was having a very interesting discussion about Christmas and whether or not it is a Christian holiday (and whether or not, even if it is, atheists and agnostics ought to celebrate it). Let me re-cap what I think my argument was supposed to be.

1. The argument from etymology– The word ‘Christmas’ means ‘The Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ’ in English. There is no definition of the word in any dictionary which lists it as a secular holiday

This indicates that ‘Christmas’ designates a Christian holiday. Now, there have been two sorts of response to this argument.

R1. The actual holiday is a pagan holiday that the Christians took over and renamed, so whatever you call it, Christmas is not a Christian Holiday at all, but just the disguised pagan holiday

This doesn’t seem right to me. It is true that rituals of Christmas are taken over from pagen religions, but this was a common strategy that the Church employed to boost its numbers. The locals are less reluctant to convert when the new religion has familiar attriibutes but none the less the Church (in around 300 CE) created a new holiday to commerate the birth of Jesus Christ and they decided to call it Christmas (originally Christ’s Mass). The practices that we have today derive from that Chriatian tradition, not the earlier pagan one. The fact that the celebration occurs on a day that no one actually believes marks the actual annevesery of Jesus’ birth does not matter. We do not celebrate President’s day on Washington’s actual birthday, but it is a celebration of his birth even still…Nothing similar has happened that would make Christmas a non-religious holiday…This leads us to the second response that was made,

R2. That may be the meaning of the word, in some external sense, but what matters is what the person intends to be celebrating (the internal meaning of the holiday). So, if I celebrate Christmas in a completely secular way, not intending to be performing any religious rituals, or to be giving thanks for the incarnation of God in the flesh, then I am not celebrating a religious holiday.

But is this right? Suppose that I decided to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday (April 20th, I *think*)? Suppose that when challenged I replied that I was not intending to commemorate the mass murdering individual that was the Fuhrer of Germany, but rather the artistic vegetarian that Hitler was in his youth. It is important, I might continue, that we remember not to squander our talents. Hitler was a powerful persuasive personality and if only he had used his powers for good instead of evil the world might have been a very different place. So it is important to remember his birth.

Or again, suppose that I chose to celebrate Osama Bin Laden’s birthday? Suppose I gave the same sort of justification as above. It seems to me that whatever I intend to be doing, I am celebrating the birth of these hateful and wicked men.

Now, this response might be taken to mean that there is a separate holiday that is a secular celebration of family and helping the disadvantaged that just so happens to be celebrated on the same day as the Christian holiday (sort of like 4/20 a ‘stoner’ holiday is celebrated (accidentally I hope) on the same day as Hitler’s birthday). I don’t think that this is actually the case now (though maybe we are in the transition period and in the future ‘Christmas’ will be ambiguous in English as between a Christian and a secular holiday). At anyrate, I am sympathetic to this idea (this was the idea behind my ‘Family Day’ or, as I prefer now ‘Giftmas’ 🙂 but I think we ought to femphasize, and help formalize this process with the coining of a new name and specifically dedicating it to secular celebration.

Doing some research about this I discovered that the issue has been taken to court by some atheists. They argued that the fact that we get Christmas day off amounts to state endorsement of Christianity and so violates the seperation of church and state. Here is a nice little article on the case from About.com. The judge rules against the claim and denies that there is a violation of the seperation between church and state. The reason is not becaus ethe judge finds that Christmas is not a religious holiday but because the day off serves a “valid secular purpose’. Having Christmas day off de facto serves the purpose of bringing families togeher and that is a secular purpose of the holiday. I think this is right, but that doesn’t mean that the holiday is itself a secular one, unless someone declares it to be so…

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6 thoughts on “Back in the Swing of Things

  1. My argument is not that Christmas is a secular holiday, but that participation in this holiday, even if it is a religious holiday, doesn’t constitute an endorsement of the objectionable beliefs or practices of Christians. I’m not making a universal claim about all holidays (especially mythical Hitler days), but about this specific holiday.

    I’m not sure what the conditions for endorsement in this case would be, but since Christmas is celebrated not only by Christians, but also non-Christians, who don’t intend to endorse Christianity, there are good prima facie reasons to
    think that participation in Christmas is not equivalent to endorsement.

  2. Hey Josh,

    Yeah, I see that that is your argument. I should have addressed it explicitly in the post. Sorry about that.

    But I do think I have addressed it. Your prima facie reasons amount to pointing out that non-christians do in fact celebrate christmas. I agree with you. Non-christians do in fact celebrate christmas. I also agree that some of these non-christian celebrators do not intend to be celebrating a christian holiday.

    Now I argue that this shows that these non-christians are celebrating a christian holiday. You, apparently, agree and want to claim that even so that does not mean that they endorse the views of the christian religion. In one sense I agree with you. They may not intentionally want or intend to endorse any chriastian beliefs, but in another sense they are clearly endorsing the christian holiday by celebrating it. This is clear, it seems to me, because I can demand an explanation from you. You need some special justification for your practice just because celebrating the holiday is typically taklen to be an endorsement of the person/place/thing/event that the holiday commemorates.

    That seems reasonable to me, but then the question becomes one of whether or not the special justification is good enough or not. Here we clearly differ. You seem to think that christianity is only ‘mostly evil’ whereas I see as ‘pure, concentrated evil’. In other words, the cultural significance is a wholly negative one and so it seems fantastically odd to want to celebrate it (hence my Hitler Day analogy), but as I say, this is a different argument.

  3. Richard,

    It seems to me that you are running together two arguments here. Originally you argued that non-Christians should not celebrate Christmas because celebrating it was an implicit endorsement of their religion. I took this to mean that when non-Christians celebrate Christmas it is a form of lying–implicitly claiming to believe something we don’t. Since lying is wrong, it would then be wrong for non-Christians to celebrate Christmas. Notice here that the moral nature of the claimed beliefs are irrelevant here. Regardless of whether the claimed beliefs were Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, if they were not genuinely held it would be wrong (or would at least require justification) to claim to believe them.

    My response was fairly simple. Basically, I just claimed that your standards of assenting to a belief were unrealistic. I pointed out that many people celebrate the holidays of religions to which they don’t belong without other people thinking that they were thereby claiming to accept that religion. Thus, there is no reason to believe that they are lying.

    I now think this response was inadequate because your view about the immorality of celebrating Christmas has two legs.

    The other is that you think that Christianity is “pure, concentrated evil,” and so, even if we aren’t claiming to accept the beliefs of Christianity, we shouldn’t legitimate Christianity by associating with its religious practices at all. This is not a claim about lying or inconsistency,
    but a more substantive moral claim that relies on the moral content of the beliefs in question. We might say that it would be wrong in the same way that it would be wrong for a politician to accept money from white supremacy groups, even if that politician doesn’t hold himself hold racist views.

    This seems to me a much bigger issue, and one to which the celebration of Christmas is rather irrelevant. First of all, your original argument becomes pointless. After all, if you are correct about the evilness of Christianity, then (contrary to your earlier claim) there would indeed be something wrong in celebrating it for both the Christian and the non-Christian. After all, it is just as wrong for the skinhead to celebrate Hitler Day as it would be for the Jew.

    Second, if Christianity is so evil, then what exactly is the harm involved in celebrating Christmas? The problem with Hitler Day would be the legitimization of his racist and violent views. But I hardly think this is the worry involved here–Christianity is well legitimated on its own already. Is it because it would weaken our voice in speaking out against the evil of Christianity? Well, I suppose so, but I hardly think most atheists are really doing so anyway, and it would seem more important to convince them to do that before worrying about their celebration of Christmas. Seriously, I just don’t see the harm involved here. After all, it is atheism and agnosticism that is the minority seeking legitimacy. Our association with some of the forms of Christianity in a secular manner would seem a good way to gain legitimacy in the general culture.

  4. Hey Richard,

    Looking back over the original thread I found you’d already responded to some of these points and I’d missed it over the holidays. Sorry about that.

    I suppose the crux that remains is this–if the issue isn’t endorsement of the truth claims of Christianity (which you admit), why should should it matter to me that Christmas is a Christian holiday? Is it only that I should be working to make society completely secular? If so, why isn’t my secularized version of an admittedly religious holiday as effective as not celebrating it at all?

  5. Hey Josh, thanks again for the excellent comments. You say,

    “I suppose the crux that remains is this–if the issue isn’t endorsement of the truth claims of Christianity (which you admit), why should should it matter to me that Christmas is a Christian holiday?”

    My original gripe was that non-christians celebrate christmas under the excuse that it is a secular holiday, which it isn’t. So I mainly wanted people to own up to what they are doing. As we have come to see, this gripe isn’t really with you; I have a different gripe with people like you 🙂

    My vauge sentiment was that the Church just counts all the people who celebrate Christmas and the larger the number the better off the Church is. So in that sense it does matter…though I agree it may be outweiged by other considerations….

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