Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

My wife and I were leaving Robert Morris the other day, and a man came up to us to ask for directions.  “Is Dearborn Street nearby”, he wondered.  We kindly replied that Dearborn was only a few yards away, pointing him in the correct direction. As he took leave of us, he smiled pleasantly, waved, and shouted “Merry Christmas”! I wondered, ‘what did he mean by that?’

This is now the world in which we live. The ‘War on Christmas’ narrative is running amok. Thanks largely to Fox News, radio talking heads, and screeching bloggers, the month between Thanksgiving and New Years Day has become ground zero for the culture wars.

Great-Christmas-War-eWhen this seemingly kind man stated “Merry Christmas” to me and my wife, I wondered if he had ulterior motives.  Was he, in fact, proclaiming an aggressive political statement with his apparent jolliness?  Was this ‘Merry Christmas’ a shouted proclamation of his religious and political views on the street corner in order to be seen by others. Had he received his hypocritical reward in full? Even more disturbingly, was he making sure we shared the same views as him?  Did he hope to discover that my wife and I were on his team?

Or, was he just a friendly man who appreciated the little help we provided him? Was his ‘Merry Christmas’ simply intended as a straightforward hope for my wife and I to have a wonderful holiday season?

About 10 to 15 years ago, this conflicted set of thoughts would have never entered my head. Back then, I would have smiled nicely at the guy, and responded in kind, wishing him a full-throated “Merry Christmas”!  If he had said ‘Happy Holidays’, I would have replied in a similar fashion. “Happy Hanukah”, “Happy Kwanzaa”, “Happy Boxing Day”?  None of these fare-the-wells would have struck me ill. I would have smiled, and happily replied, ‘the same to you my friend!’

Today though, how one greets their fellow man during this six weeks often has little to do with friendship and warmth.  For some, the method one uses to wish a stranger good tidings during the holiday seasonraisingthetree has deep political, tribal meanings. As such, the idea that a ‘War on Christmas’ exists, and must be fought, is quickly eroding the very holiday the Noel freedom fighters purport to protect.  The irony would be delicious if it was not so tragic.

I think for a great number of people, the holiday season, and Christmas in particular, is not relegated to churches, sermons, or hymns. To put this more bluntly, Christmas is not only about Christianity or Christians. As a lover of Christmas myself, and as one of the secular humanist boogeymen that Fox News fears, the day holds little religious meaning to me. But, that does not mean I don’t find the day and season to be spiritual, or spiritually fulfilling. For 21st century Americans, Christmas’ encapsulation of brotherhood, peace and goodwill is a heartwarming necessity in an increasing cold, individualistic society. The discursive, and completely imagined, “War on Christmas” weakens, if not completely annihilates, that most wonderful aura of happiness each December produces.  Though the idea of a ‘War’ on any holiday is ludicrous in itself, it is especially unfortunate when utilized to create Christmas identity ideologies.

If nothing else, the creation of this supposed struggle and escalation of the tribal rhetoric provides a sobering example of the power of words.  One of the reasons humans throughout history have ‘loved’ war is because it produces a strong, aggressive sense of community. Of course, this community is most often steeled by identifying and vilifying an enemy who is different.  War produces a sense of moral righteousness that pulls members of a group together, but does so with a sense of paranoia, hatred and distrust of those seemingly on the other side.

But, how to identify such people?  Do they dress different? Think different? Feel different?  Or, do they simply talk different?  Can they say ‘Shibboleth’?  Do they say Happy Holidays? Or, are they on ‘our’ side and say the correct greeting of ‘Merry Christmas’?


By Gerry Dedera, Humanities Faculty.


Dawkins, Harris, Dennett

Religion Without God, the last book of the late philosopher Ronald Dworkin, will be published later this year by Harvard University Press according to the April 4th edition of “The New York Review of Books.”  This follows the flurry of recent bestselling books like The God Delusion by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, God Is Not Great by the late essayist and editor Christopher Hitchens, and The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation by neuroscientist Sam Harris, which heralded the entrance of what some have called “Radical Atheism.”  Hitchens went so far as to identify himself as an “anti-theist” to make sure everyone understood just how poisonous he believed any form of religion to be.  Search any of those names, along with others like philosopher Daniel Dennett and theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krause, on You Tube to witness their titanic debates with a variety of religious scholars and leaders.  The fact that Dworkin’s book seeks to identify some common ground between religion and atheism demonstrates the strides nonbelief has made toward replacing religious belief as the norm in our society.  And this is a microcosm of the much larger historical trend.

The oldest human societies were tribal in nature, organized around families and patriarchs.  One can gauge the development of a modern civilization by its distance from tribalism.  Tribalism divides people in groups and seeks its own survival as the paramount good.  Religions are tribes.  Each holds its own beliefs in highest regard while claiming to know that the beliefs of all other tribes are ultimately and catastrophically wrong.  There may be some lip service regarding tolerance and diversity, but when push comes to shove, there is no tolerance of diversity.  Look no further than the histories of Northern Ireland for Catholic versus Protestant, or Jewish Israel versus Muslim Palestinians, or Hindu India versus Muslim Pakistan, or even Shiite Iran versus Sunni Iraq.  Wherever human beings seek to live together in peace with one another, religion is not enshrined as a prominent feature of that society.  Conversely, wherever religion is enshrined as a prominent feature, there is no peace among tribes.  That must surely be why the Founders of our nation expressly prohibited, through the First Amendment to the Constitution, enshrining any single religion as our national faith.  Refusing to promote one deemphasizes all.  The founding of the United States was the significant historical step away from tribalism by intentionally decoupling civil society from religious belief.  There have been, and continue to be, efforts to reconnect religion and state, but they are in response to a bridge already crossed and must ultimately fade from our public discourse.

Further evidence of the decline of religion can be seen within religions themselves.  The Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam illustrate the point. The oldest of the three, Judaism, is the most secular.  Whether being Jewish requires some degree of religious belief or ethnicity or cultural identity or Israeli citizenship or some combination of these to one degree or another is a topic of serious discussion among Jews.  Simply put, many Jews, perhaps a majority, claim that their Jewish identity can be lived devoid of religious belief.  The second oldest religion, Christianity, is on the same path.  The number of people who identify themselves as Christian, but do not attend worship services or believe what their leaders tell them is essential to their faith continues to grow.  There is no reason to think that this trend will reverse itself.  Finally, Islam, the youngest of the three, may be currently the most militant, but not to a greater degree than Judaism or Christianity were at about the same age.  Look no further than the Israelite invasion of Canaan or the Crusades or Inquisition for examples of barbarous militant exclusivism.  It would be interesting to compare timelines of these three religions to see what each was up to at about the same age.  But that’s for a later time.

For now, it is clear that we live in a time when religious belief is necessarily waning because of increased interaction with people of backgrounds different from our own.  Holding fast to the notion that my tribes’ beliefs ultimately represent the only accurate understanding of Truth inhibits efforts to interact with others as equals.  The historical trajectory of the three Abrahamic religions offers further evidence.  So, if the arc of history bends toward justice, as Martin Luther King claimed, it must also bend toward atheism.