Friday, November 18, 2011

Of Christmas and myths

Stacy Trasancos’ post in Catholic Sistas is worth reading for the first paragraph alone (but go ahead and read the rest of it anyway):

Alright, let’s face it. Is this the time of year, just before Thanksgiving, when you start dreading the impending “Holiday (Don’t call it Christmas) Season?” You know, the season of nightly news stories about how schools won’t allow the display of Christian symbols, the already beginning onslaught of commercialism and advertising, the atheist sloganeering that degrades an event so sacred, and all the politically correct puffery about how to speak of the Holy Celebration of The Birthday – Christ’s Mass – without actually saying it. It’s almost intolerable and almost ruinous, like the odor of the hydro treated petroleum distillates of Goo Gone® invading a warm and apple-cinnamony glowing kitchen. Pew!

Oh, yes. It would be a much nicer holiday without all that ridiculous stuff about the Nativity, right? Because, of course, atheists would have eventually come up with “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” without the need to intrude angels and other fantasy creatures.

Okay, okay, sarcasm off. It’s just that there’s no other holiday that brings out the utter futility and despair of atheism like Christmas, despite the rampant commercialization and the mercantile merger into one long “season” stretching from October 1 to February 22 (why don’t we just adopt Oktoberfest and Carnival and be done with it?). Especially the billboard American Atheists posted outside the Holland Tunnel last year that screamed in frustration: YOU KNOW IT’S A MYTH!

Yes, we know it’s a myth. We also know it’s true history.

Actually, we know what AA means when they call the Nativity story a “myth”; even though the use of the word to indicate a humbug or tarradiddle is improper, it’s so common that we’ve almost forgotten its proper use: a story that is meant to impart essential truths of life to its hearers/readers, regardless of its conformance to known facts. The atheist calls the Nativity story a “myth” to degrade it; but it’s no less of a myth for being the true account of the circumstances of Christ’s birth we Christians confess it to be. By this definition, the atheist account of the universe is no less of a myth regardless of its claimed basis in science.

But using the common sense of the word, the statement is uncommon nonsense. In fact, we don’t know that the Nativity story is a fairy tale; neither does the atheist. For even without importing into the Gospels of Matthew and Luke the authority of the Holy Spirit, the atheist is still left with the unenviable task of proving that Mary did not conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit, that angels did not appear to shepherds abiding in the fields, that there were no wise men from the East guided by a miraculous star to bring gifts to him, that Mary and Joseph didn’t flee to Egypt to escape murder by a jealous Herod … and so on.

Of course, this task would be easy if you could prove that God — or, at least, the God of Christianity — doesn’t exist … or even if you could make a reasonable case to that effect. This is harder than you might think; in fact, many atheists have surrendered the point in favor of either making God “an unnecessary explanation” (The law of parsimony: “Beings of reason should not be multiplied beyond necessity”) or by presuming no-God and insisting the Christian carry the burden of proof.

Again, the task is not as simple as stated. As I explained in “The contingency problem”, the scientific validation of Fr. Georges Lemaitre’s “big bang” theory put paid to the “steady-state universe” myth which needed no God to create it; subsequent theories of universal origin have simply re-introduced the infinite-regression problem the “steady-state universe” was meant to solve without a Necessary Being. As for the presumption of no-God … well, “innocent until proven guilty” is good jurisprudence, but “false until proven true” is bad logic, as is its corollary, “absence of evidence is evidence of absence”.

Speaking of bad presumptions, the average atheist is crippled by one or more of three other myths in dire need of examination: 1) the myth of the material-only universe; 2) the myth of human progress; and 3) the myth of the ignorant, gullible first-century citizen of the Roman Empire. He has no evidence to deprive the universe of a supernatural element for science to be true; he has no grounds to believe the increase of technological complexity has made people better (better in what way?); he has no need to believe the people of Jesus’ time to be any less perceptive or more credulous than the post-modern man — and yet he does any or all these things, constantly begging these questions for his proofs.

But even if he were to overcome these problems without reluctantly accepting the possibility that the Nativity story might be true, he’s still at a loss and a disadvantage. For the central theme of the story — God entering human history as man, to not only share our lot but redeem it — has exercised such a powerful hold on the human imagination that, to paraphrase Peter De Vries, it need not be true to be salvific.

All the atheist can offer is a universe barren of final purpose and meaning, a wild and dangerous wasteland sliding inevitably under the entropic tug to its doom while not caring a fig for the fragile carbon-based creatures in it. “[The materialists] have made us believe that this is all there is,” J. R. R. Tolkien exclaims to C. S. Lewis in this clip, “three dimensions, five senses, four walls [of a prison]!” The nativity myth gives us a universal (katholikos) freedom of hope; the atheist myth leaves us with an isolated entrapment in despair.

Really, the American Atheists scream “You know it’s a myth!” because ridicule is the only weapon of conversion they have left.