The Reason for the Season 7000 Years Ago

Why do we celebrate at a time of year that seems to offer little to celebrate about to anyone living very much north of the Equator? Why do our celebrations involved lights and evergreen trees? The ultimate answer is axial tilt, of course. As the Earth moves around the Sun, the Sun seems to move northward, then southward, then northward, then southward, …

But if you were living centuries before modern times, that would not be so apparent. What would keep the Sun from going farther and farther south until the whole world freezes? So it would be reassuring to note that the Sun would be coming back. Why lights? That’s what that time of year lacks, with the Sun rather far south and not up for very long — if at all. Why evergreens? Because they don’t drop their leaves, giving them the appearance of being alive through the winter, and not dead, like most other plants.

Needless to say, winter-solstice celebrations acquired lots of other lore, like the birth of Jesus Christ, Santa Claus, his reindeer, etc. In fact, some people in recent decades have invented solstice celebrations, like Ron Karenga’s pseudo-African holiday Kwanzaa and the New Jersey Humanist Network’s HumanLight. But I’m concerned about the core here.

Winter-solstice celebrations are older than Xianity. Germanic peoples celebrated Yule at that time, and Scandinavians still call Christmas by their languages’ versions of “Yule”. So we English speakers could bring back that old name. Romans had celebrated Saturnalia at about this time. Etc.

It’s hard to look back much further, because of a lack of written records. But several ancient monuments mark out various astronomical landmarks like the solstices and equinoxes. Their builders must have done that because they thought those landmarks worth marking out, and likely celebrating.

Monuments like Newgrange and Dowth in Ireland, and Maeshowe in the Orkney Islands, which are about 5000 years old, and which are oriented toward the Sun’s winter-solstice path. Newgrange is oriented so that the Sun shines into it when it rises on the winter solstice.

But the champion so far is the 6900-year-old Goseck circle in Germany. It has gaps in it aligned to the north, to the winter solstice sunrise, and to the winter solstice sunset. So one could stand in its center and watch the Sun rise and set through its gaps on that day. And a great day it may have been back then.

Atheist bus ads and billboards

Over the last few years, various atheist and freethought groups have been reaching out by creating bus ads and billboards. Most of their content has been rather innocuous, with only a few that could be called combative.

There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life
Don’t believe in God? You are not alone
Millions are good without God
Imagine no religion
In the beginning, man created God
Beware of Dogma
Faith is believing something you know ain’t true — Mark Twain
You know it’s a myth. This season, celebrate reason! (with a traditional Nativity display)

But some transit agencies have turned down some of these ads, and some billboards have gotten “revised” by defacers. But the most remarkable reaction was what happened when the Dallas – Fort Worth Coalition of Reason ran some ads that state “Millions of Americans are good without God” on the Fort Worth transit system’s buses. Certain pastors claimed that they were so offended by this ad that they threatened to boycott the transit agency. Some local businessmen, however, sent out trucks to trail the buses with slogans like “I still love you — God”.

Bus Billboards Say Atheists Good Without God CBS Dallas / Fort Worth – News, Sports, Weather, Traffic and the Best of DFW
Atheist Bus Ads Rattle Fort Worth – NYTimes.com

Why run these ads? To make converts? Unlikely. But there’s another reason, and I think a good one. To reach out to people who are on the fence or who might already be convinced, to show that they are not alone and that there are organizations that they might possibly be interested in. Discovering that one is not alone in something can be a great feeling; we are social animals, not solitary ones like cats.

The continued rise in US secularism

James L. Haught has posted on the continued rise of secularism in the United States A Huge News Story, Barely Noticed | Unreasonable Faith. In much of Europe, Canada, Australia, and Japan, the fraction of worshippers has dropped to 5-10%, but the US continues to lag behind this trend, with its megachurches and TV evangelists.

But the US has been belatedly following along. “Nones” have been rising from 8% in 1990 to 15% in 2008, Catholics and mainline Protestants have been declining, and young people have been dropping out of organized religion at 5 or 6 times their historic rate.

James Haught notes that this trend will likely hurt the Republican Party and help the Democratic Party, because of how more secular voters tend to vote, but I suspect that the Republican Party may try to adjust its message to appeal to more secular voters.

Many Americans are still creationists

Sad but true. Four in 10 Americans Believe in Strict Creationism. Furthermore, Americans are behind the citizens of many other industrialized nations in support for evolution (Level of support for evolution).

But that’s slowly changing. Belief in creationism has dipped slightly in recent years, but belief that God had no involvement in humanity’s evolution has been rising. It has approximately been steady at 9%, but after 2000, it has been rising to today’s figure of about 16%. The remaining alternative is that God had guided humanity’s evolution, which continues to get a lot of support.

Not surprisingly, more educated people are less likely to believe in creationism and more likely to believe in God’s non-involvement, and more frequent churchgoers were the opposite. Turning to politics, Democrats and Independents were much alike, while Republicans were much more likely to believe in creationism and less likely to believe in God’s non-involvement. It is yet another indication that the Religious Right is an important part of the Republicans’ base, but not that of the Democrats.

I think that many of the leaders of the US’s less fundie churches have done their followers a disfavor by not explaining why they don’t consider creationism True Christianity or whatever. By simply saying “God did it!” without further explanation, they let their followers become creationists. If they seriously believe something like what Galileo had believed, that the Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go, then they ought to think of some way of communicating that to their followers.