Christmas Isn’t Logical, and For Once I Don’t Care

Even the most rational, relentlessly logical people have their moments of weakness. This month, I’ve been struggling a bit with my enjoyment of Christmas. This time of year has certainly been secularized to a large extent (the “war on Christmas” has seen much success), but I’m still not sure if my atheism should impact how I have traditionally celebrated the season.

Is it wrong to enjoy carols about the birth of Jesus while arguing that the birth narratives are wholly contradictory? Is it problematic to elucidate the merits of critical thinking and reason while singing about flying reindeer and magical snowmen?

I don’t know! I’m still new to this whole atheism business. Like it or not, my upbringing is part of who I am, and if that’s left me sentimental for Christmases past, is it necessary for me to deny this? Can I permit myself just a bit of nostalgic nonsense?

I will probably watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and quote Linus’ scripture monologue from memory, while acknowledging that it’s bullshit. I will listen to carols about Santa Claus and Jesus alike, even as I know they’re mythology. I will enjoy one time of year when people feel compelled to be generous and thoughtful, even if it’s for fundamentally flawed reasons.

I don’t even really care if a cashier wishes me a non-inclusive “Merry Christmas!” I might even say “Merry Christmas” in return! Does this make me a bad atheist? Do I need to turn in my badge?

I suppose there’s a time and place to raise objections, and I’m not exactly sure yet where to draw that line. My brain tells me that we atheists must vigilantly stand against every religious encroachment, no matter how small, but my gut tells me that it may not be worth looking like a stodgy asshole during the one time of year when people are actually being pleasant to each other.

Is this me admitting a potential flaw in my own thinking? Hallelujah, it’s a Christmas miracle!

Advertisements

Book Review: Unbelievable?

I really like the idea of Justin Brierley’s podcast “Unbelievable?” Bringing together opposing viewpoints for reasonable discussion is exactly what we do in the Atheist Christian Book Club, so when we read Brierley’s book, also titled Unbelievable?, I felt legitimately optimistic. Surely Brierley’s ten years of mediating between theists and atheists would refine his own beliefs, weeding out the weakest arguments and leaving only the sturdiest pillars of faith for his readers to consider. Sadly, I found that Brierley’s arguments were oddly focused on unquantifiable inklings and hunches, and not enough on hard evidence.

A big theme of Unbelievable? is what I call the argument from “there’s just got to be more!” I’m sure there’s a more formal name for this fallacy, but Brierley continually assumes that, because mankind searches for a higher power or a greater purpose, this indicates there is a power or purpose to be found. In chapter 2, Brierley says that, despite scientific discoveries regarding human origins, he “can’t escape a conviction that the order, elegance, and majesty of the universe and our existence within it is crying out for an explanation beyond itself.” He quotes a psalm where David stands in awe of the vastness of the universe, but rather than being humbled by mankind’s seeming insignificance on the cosmic scale, Brierley promotes David’s “sense of purpose” and “belief that he was made in God’s image” – as if believing it makes it so.

Some of Brierley’s support for his faith comes from feelings so vague they could be used to prop up almost any belief. He recounts the stories of people who found God in pop music and poetry, rainbows and romance. He treats childbirth, one of the most well-studied areas of medicine, as pure magic. Has no one pointed out to Brierley that, even if we grant his “evidence”, they don’t point to any particular religious persuasion, or perhaps not even to God at all?

At times Brierley shows plain, unadorned ignorance, presenting fallacious arguments and patent untruths that I can’t believe have gone ten years without being corrected. He claims that the second law of thermodynamics would inhibit evolution, ignoring that the Earth is not a closed system so the law does not apply. He seems to believe that anything that provides hope is good by default, but he doesn’t make the connection that not everything that provides hope is true. He adds “legend” to C.S. Lewis’ “liar, lunatic, Lord” trilemma, but he applies this only to mythicism, never addressing the idea that Jesus’ exploits could have grown legendary after his death. At one point, in two sentences Brierley manages to confuse weak and strong atheism and assert quantity over quality for theistic arguments:

Atheism … has an overall much shorter list of arguments of its own in favour of a naturalistic worldview, the prime one being the argument from suffering.

In this respect, I’ve often felt that the weight of arguments in favour of theism is frequently underappreciated by sceptics. They may dispute their validity, but the preponderance of arguments tips the scales towards belief in God.

It’s confounding statements like this that make me lose any respect I may have had for Brierley at the outset. He touts his impartial debate moderation, and this may be the case, but his book shows all the confirmation bias and bad-faith arguments I’ve come to expect from apologetic authors.