Sunday, December 7, 2008

Christmas Wars and Televised Simony

One of the worst aspects of religious fundamentalism and fanaticism is their love of victimization. They must be the one true faith, and as proof of that, persecuted by some larger entity that surrounds and threatens to engulf them. That, of course, is typical of cult behavior and also psychosis. The poor, sad individuals who are desperate to feel special despite their innate mediocrity can't really be blamed for seeking shelter under the wing of a religion that makes them feel special. Yet we can blame the despicable con men who sell the various brands of claptrap to the rubes. I'm singling out hucksters like Pat Robertson, Billy and Franklin Graham, L. Ron Hubbard, Sun Myung Moon, Jim Jones, Bob Jones and similar frauds peddling a half-assed religiosity rather than genuine religion. But in this case I want to focus on Bill O'Reilly.

O'Reilly is about as vile a person and opportunist as this society has produced. Each year he tries selling the idea that there is a "war on Christmas". It's a blatant con to whip up a frenzy of fear and victimhood in the hearts of the mindless marks of this video fraud. Just looking at the tsunami of Christmas kitsch that descends upon us, usually about the time the Halloween decorations get marked down, the persistent, insistent, ubiquitous presence of creches, carols and Claus belies the idea of a "war on Christmas." Drive through any residential neighborhood or any commercial district from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day across America and you'll be convinced that Christmas has warred and won against all comers. But facts and logic have never been friends to Bill O'Reilly.

This year the chief, perhaps only, hook on which O'Reilly has been able to hang his "war on Christmas" con is the atheist statement included in a Washingtom State display of seasonal memorials. What's especially bad this year is that that statement deserves some criticism though not anything that comes from O'Reilly's bloviations.

The text of the sign reads, "At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

Had the Freedom From Religion Foundation stopped at the second sentence I would have been in complete agreement. In fact I agree that religion is "but myth and superstition." However, I have seen the beneficial effects of religion in many people. I have know many truly religious people who express their various faiths by helping their fellow men. These people have shown me open hearts and freely questioning minds. It is the kind of narrow religiosity peddled by the con men named above and their ilk "that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

Let's take an example. I truly love the King James Version of the Bible. It was the first version that I heard as a child attending the Methodist Church. I still credit the rich Jacobean prose of that translation with giving me entree to Shakespeare, a fact self-sufficient to warrant admiration and love. But one of the tenets of much recent fundamentalism is that the KJV is the sole authoritative version of the Bible. Apart from the absurdity of claiming that Moses, the Prophets and Jesus wanted to be passed down to us in fulsome Jacobean prose that assertion is born of ignorance, descends into stupidity and all in furtherance of a pernicious agenda.

First, it ignores the fact that most of the fundamentalists of Elizabethan and Stuart England accepted only the Geneva Bible as authoritative. My New England Puritan ancestors considered the KJV a Papist abomination that had no place on the lecturn in their churches. The Geneva Bible was the version that Shakespeare knew best. His plays echo its phrasing in a number of sublime passages. Yet the Geneva Bible itself has antecedents not the least of which is John Wycliff's Middle English translation. The KJV is a major revision of Miles Coverdale's Tudor Great Bible that derives from William Tyndale's 1525 translation that became the basis for the Matthew Bible, Coverdsale's immediate predecessor. Additionally, some of the language from Thomas Cranmer's translation of the Book of Common Prayer for Henry VIII informs the KJV, particularly in the Psalms. And Wycliff, Tyndale, Coverdale, Cranmer, Erasmus, Melancthon and all the others had as their starting point Jerome's Latin Vulgate. So the King James Version touted as uniquely authoritative by the Protestant fundamentalists, is no more authoritative and no less so than its antecedents. That's where the ignorance comes in. Sort of in the same way that one is having sex with one person and all of those who've had sex with him or her before, the KJV is just the early 17th Century slut with whom you're currently sleeping.

But the surpassingly stupid and the primary purpose of asserting the primacy of the KJV is the insistence that no subsequent translation has authority. The idiotic subtext of this assertion is that all knowledge and divine inspiration ended in 1611. How divine inspiration could escape all translators and scholars of the last 400 years while being readily available to your friendly, neighborhood fundamentalist preacher is clearly a divine mystery. If the church service can include a hymn composed more recently than 1611, we shouldn't have much to fear from more recent translations. However, the real point in asserting this absurdity is to keep the faithful from questioning the authority of their con men/preachers.

If, as current scholarship has definitively shown, the sole Biblical allusion to a divine trinity is a 16th Century insertion, that calls into question the principle that the KJV is the one, true, immutable and definitive word of god. We can't have that, now, can we? Calling the text into question in any way turns the Bible into a work of men, not of god. It means that slavery, racism, homophobia and other disgusting justifications of bigotry as well as the claim of the Jews to the land of Palestine lose their Biblical support. But the irony is that none of that challenges the existence of a god.

This may sound funny coming from a proud atheist but fundamentalism, be it Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Islamic or any faith's, is a greater insult to god than my lack of belief ever can be. That one's faith is so shallow, fragile and mindless that, for example, the filioque (if you don't know what that is, look it up!) being exposed as a marginalia note by a later reader and not an article of faith shakes one's faith, then it is not rightly faith at all.

Religious fundamentalism is a mental straight jacket for those so intellectually precarious that they probably need an actual straight jacket to keep them from harming themselves and others. Fundamentalism is a comfort because it allows its adherents to check their minds at the door on the presumption that all thinking has conveniently been done for them. One of the reason such people are a danger to society is that they have been taught the Orwellian idea that their ignorance is actually intelligence of a higher order.

If a greeting like "Happy Holidays", an assertion by an atheist group or any such petty expressions constitute an attack on your individual faith then it is your problem that your faith is weak and insubstantial and no "war on Christmas" as a neo-fascist demagogue like Bill O'Reilly would con you into believing. If you are genuinely religious then the contrary opinions of others are of little or no consequence. If you are possessed by a narrow, puscillanimous, windging religiosity then of course your faith will be challenged because it is really no faith at all.

I have neither patience nor respect for the religiose. And I have far less tolerance or respect for the demagogues who exploit their narrow, ignorant religiosity to incite them to fear and hatred against some object of the demagogues' wrath.

Is the man with the biggest, most elaborate creche on his front lawn, lit by the greatest wattage the most religious person in the neighborhood or town? I doubt it. I also doubt that the person who makes the most noise about his faith, howsoever he expresses it, is the person of deepest faith. If you have genuine faith your works will witness to it. If the great joy and mystery of the whole power and potential of life itself coming in the form of a newborn baby moves you as a thing sublime then not even a real war on Christmas can meet the slightest success. The only thing you need fear or hate is the simoniac who would pervert your faith, your religion into something that can be threatened by a phrase.In short, the only person warring on Christmas is Bill O'Reilly himself.