Now that everyone has had a chance to recover from the materialism that the holidays have become, it's a good time to take an objective look at the phenomenon of modern-day Christmas and the divisiveness it has spawned in our culture - a clash that plays itself out on a larger religious battleground. Right-wing religious zealots enjoy stirring up controversy by claiming that there is an annual war on Christmas, and left-wing liberals swear there is no such war. Where does the truth lie? Is there a war on Christmas - or is it a battle over outdated belief systems?
Let's start by examining what Christmas really is. The best gift to give next Christmas would have to be the gift to the world of a larger heart. The real Christmas tree is our bodies and minds, newly decked with universal virtues. The best Christmas carols are the songs of unity, not archaic hymns invented by narrow minds to praise a historical figure that never existed. It is a time for fasting, not feasts; silence, not partying; continence, not orgies of presents and passions; looking within, not looking without and noting those who did not say "Merry Christmas;" and deep reflection on the health the human heart. No public or private monies need to be spent to celebrate Christmas. No trees need to be chopped down, and no one needs decorations or gifts. The spiritual celebration of Christmas is an inward celebration. No outer war can ever be fought against it because it is as impervious and invincible as the sun itself.
Christmas is not the time for mindless merriment. It is also not the celebration of the birth of the so-called son of God, since both Christmas and Easter were celebrated long before the advent of Christianity. Those "holy" days belong to all of humanity, not just one divisive sect. Jesus-not as an historical person but as a mythic image of God developed over centuries like the figures of Krishna and Dionysus - represents self-sacrifice, self-expansion to include all of humanity, asceticism, mystical sense-introversion as a means to commune with the infinite, and the birth of new courage, determination, and enthusiasm in fighting the inner battle against a narrow sense of self. On December 25th, then, whether human beings choose to celebrate the solstice, the resurrection of Osiris, Mithra, or Jesus, it is ideally a time for renewed hope in human potential.
Unfortunately, organized religion has waged continuous war against the universal spiritual promise of humanity, so it is good to be reminded of that promise in aspects of the life and teachings of some spiritual figures - including the Jesus character from the New Testament. However, no single institution has crucified Jesus' image and butchered his teachings more than the Christian church itself. Christian fanatics never intended to celebrate the real Christmas. They merely wanted to co-opt the pagan date and twist it to their own dubious ends. Today, they do the same thing, and the only silver lining is that they turned it into a day that revealed the hypocrisy of their piety. It is no surprise, therefore, that by the time the consumer age was upon us, the celebration of Jesus' birth would be practically synonymous with materialism. Worse, Christmas has been reduced to a political talking point. One way to fight for humanity's spiritual promise is by defending Christmas from the Christian fundamentalists and reclaiming what it is really about. If it takes a war of ideas to win the spiritual Christmas back, then it is well worth the struggle.
The struggle against religious fundamentalism, of course, encompasses far more than addressing the fictional war on Christmas. A mere few centuries ago, Galileo had the audacity to propose that the earth revolved around the sun. Initially, he did not consider his proposition a declaration of war on Jesus or Christianity. But it turned out to be both, because Jesus and Christianity were, at the time, defined in terms of a cosmos that revolved around the Catholic Church. Any hint that the astronomical state of affairs was not in keeping with the Church's dogmatic worldview was blasphemously threatening, hence Galileo was jailed as a heretic.
What does this have to do with today's fundamentalists? Just as the motions of heavenly bodies challenged the Catholic Church in Galileo's time, today's way of life poses a continuous challenge to extreme religious thinking. That is, fundamentalists of all religions rightly conclude that all aspects of their religion are under never-ending attack. For example, today's Bible scholarship refutes many of the deeply held beliefs of Jews, Christians, and Muslims - but ironically, the major battlefront lies not in higher education or the larger culture, but within the very minds of religionists. Philosophers discovered long ago that extreme religious points of view are laden with irrationality, implying that radicals must continuously wage psychological battle with their innate reasoning. Because of such inner conflict regarding their faith, it is to be expected that external circumstances will be repeatedly interpreted according to "us against them" paradigms. Fundamentalism therefore breeds self-contradiction, defensiveness, and sometimes paranoia.
Take, for instance, the belief in eternal heaven and hell embraced by extremists of differing faiths. All wisdom essentially reveals Newton's third law: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Ethically reflecting this fundamental scientific principle of cause and effect, the Bible cautions readers that they will reap as they sow. In the East, the same principle is elucidated through the doctrine of karma, from the root kri, meaning action or cause, and which is cognate with the English word create. Similarly, our legal structure strives to maintain a system wherein the punishment fits the crime - and calls it justice. Though this verity is empirically obvious, religionists necessarily believe otherwise because their preacher, imam, or rabbi tells them otherwise.
It must be very confusing to be a religious extremist living with beliefs that counter common sense and justice. Imagine navigating a world where everyone knows that 2+2=4, but you are asked to believe that 2+2= infinity and still keep a straight face. That's right - finite causes in life amount to an infinite effect after death. All the 2s and -5s and 26s that mathematically represent the merits and demerits you accumulate in one brief lifetime amount to an infinite consequence, either heavenly or hellish. In other words, you will reap what you sow . . . multiplied by infinity.
Religionists are also asked to believe things that contradict scientific discoveries. Imagine living in a modern society where the earth is widely accepted to be billions of years old, but your belief system claims the world is only several thousand years old. In another example, extremists are asked to believe that sex is evil under certain circumstances though their bodies urge otherwise. No wonder they see life as a battlefield - they are constantly living in the battlefield of their own bodies and minds. To confuse matters further, extremists are asked to worship in halls that cost millions of dollars to build. They pray in such opulent conditions for salvation from an ancient ascetical figure one day of the week, and then submerge themselves in a culture of consumerism for the other six.
To top off the list of contradictions, extremists believe that people of differing faiths are deeply deluded. Imagine living with a human heart that naturally wants to reach out and include other humans, perhaps even family members who disagree on matters of faith, but is prevented from doing so because of a narrow religious identity.
Now imagine yourself as a modern person who drives a car, checks e-mail regularly, listens to mp3s on a portable player, reads the news concerning biological weapons proliferation, and listens to the radio. Then remember that cars, computers, chemistry, and coherers were not invented by theologians or pontificates with their noses in the Bible. The religions of today were born and developed when magic and superstition ruled nearly every human mind, well before science won the day. So your beliefs are stuck in the Dark Ages, but you perforce live according to the dictates of modern science. In such a case, you would be correct in concluding that there is indeed a constant war against your religion.
So if there is a war against organized religion, who started it? Actually, it was incited long ago by religious fanatics themselves. They started the war by enforcing divisive beliefs in violent and power-hungry ways, so naturally human beings eventually fought back using reason. The European Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, when knowledge of the Greeks was looked at more closely, was one of the first assaults. Then for the next two hundred years Western philosophers ruthlessly picked apart Christology. By the time the founding fathers of America came along, inspired as they were by the likes of rationalist Thomas Paine, religion in the way of the Old World was finished. Reason had won in the minds of anyone who was willing to exercise even the slightest bit of independent thought. It was only a matter of time before Nietzsche would proclaim that "God is dead," by which he meant that it was intellectually untenable to continue worshipping a god with no more validity than Osiris, Zeus, or Ahura Mazda. Today, reason is known to spell the death blow to already dying religious ideologies.
Religious leaders that wanted to join the emerging world had to shift gears in numerous ways. They had to loosen the dogma of exclusiveness for an ever-shrinking planet, reinterpret old myths to conform to allegorical rather than literal meanings, and rely more on the influence of beliefs gravely imparted to young ears than on the iron maiden. Unfortunately, today many such leaders align themselves with reactive forms of government, practice hypocrisy in ways ranging from fake healing to pederasty, and preach hate, discrimination, and disempowerment from the pulpit. They are engaged in a battle for so-called "traditional moral values," and their reluctance to join the rest of humanity in an age of reason is the source of this struggle. But a greater struggle exists for those leaders who rejected the modern world without compromise. To them, it has become a war to the death against the modern age.
The main arsenal of organized religion in this war on science and modernity is not planes or bombs, but seductive ideas repeated to uneducated vulnerable minds. Mark Twain once noted that we all shudder at the kind of terrorism that murders thousands in a few minutes, but hardly recall the far greater psychological terror that was wrought for over a thousand years in the name of organized religion. Following a lineage of innumerable "heretics" burned, ripped apart, or hacked to pieces in the name of religion, modern religious extremists have inherited the terror wrought in the minds of countless millions over many centuries. This terror takes the form of self-divinization, self-mystification, self-delusion, self-aggrandizement, and self-destructiveness, and is passed down from parent to child. It mocks human rights and liberties; it laughs at international laws and Geneva conventions; it builds the suicide weapons of our species for a wide profit; and it scoffs at the dignity of humanity. Evolutionists call human beings the highest mammal on the planet, which is pure nobility when compared to being ontologically called sinners - de facto, by definition, by birth!
Such dissemination of fear and hate does not even begin to encapsulate the past crimes of organized religions. Because human religious motivation so often stems from fear of the unknown, especially death, religionists cannot help fearing the future. This fear prompts war against any change observable in the present, including a war against human progress in all categories. In short, there is a war on religion that has been going on for very long time, and religion has been losing, particularly in the recent past. This war threatens the narrow religious identity of millions of people; it is a threat that plays out not merely as oversensitivity concerning issues of faith, but in America's cultural war.
We need not have any doubt that fanatics will lose this war one way or the other. Truth has ever been on the side of the expansive self that refuses to blindly accept religious doctrine or divisiveness. The question is: how much of the planet and the human race will religious extremists take down with them before we see a generation of human beings who will choose to refrain from divisive beliefs? How long will it be until genuine spirituality flourishes? When can we all finally celebrate Christmas together?