Have Yourself a Rational Little Christmas
Have you heard about the new Christmas card making the rounds? On the cover it reads:
‘On December 25th, a Savior was born. He revealed eternal Truth, bringing Joy to millions. He astonished the world with His command over Nature. He changed history forever.’
You open up the card it says: ‘Happy Birthday, Sir Isaac Newton. December 25, 1642 - March 20, 1726.’
The cardmaker, John Powers, who describes himself as an ‘objectivist’, was compelled to produce this card because he was tired of having everyone’s else’s religious statements rammed down his throat, while having to limit his own response, as an atheist, to the bland offering: ‘Happy Holidays’.
‘I decided that if it's okay for (almost) everyone else to stamp, seal, and deliver their philosophy to me every Christmas, I'll do just the same,’ he says.
The ‘rational’ movement is now targeting Christmas. In the UK, a show entitled ‘Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People:A Rational Celebration of Christmas’ at the Bloomsbury Theatre next week, is sold out.
The show, stars alongside comedian Ricky Gervais, such guardians of rational thinking as Richard Dawkins and Ben Goldacre, a Guardian newspaper columnist wedded to trashing anything he considers ‘junk science’.
As the Skeptic has written, ‘Rather than talking of Jesus’s birth, acclaimed science author Simon Singh will talk about the birth of the universe. Instead of talking about Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, Bad Science Columnist Ben Goldacre will talk of alternative medicine and charlatans, while Josie Long [a British comedienne] will talk about the wonder of the stars.’
The purpose of the evening, we’re told, is not to knock Christmas, but to celebrate the wonder of the universe, rather than pandering to the myths of ‘fundamentalists’.
I have no quarrel with the idea of celebrating the wonder of life here on earth – at this time of year or any other. What I do have a problem with is calling the discoveries of Newton and the views of Dawkins or Goldacre any sort of final truth, or indeed considering these opinions any more rational or less fundamentalist than those of religious fanaticism.
My own study of science and medicine has convinced me that medicine and science are subject to myths as powerful as the virgin birth.
Religion is finally a story – a story to help us to make sense of the miracle and puzzlement of our life and death - but so is science.
The scientific story is told in installments. We learn about our world in piecemeal fashion, a process of constant correction and revision. New chapters refine — and often supplant — the chapters that have come before.
The Rational Christmas evening plans to classic archive footage of the late astronomer Carl Sagan and celebrated physicist Richard Feynman, who once termed Newtonian laws science’s grand ‘rules of the game’.
These rules – now more than 300 years old - described a tidy little universe as a collection of isolated, well-behaved, discrete and self-contained objects operating according to certain fixed laws.
New scientific story
The work being carried out in prestigious laboratories all over the world have recently torn up that rulebook and scattered it to the four winds.
The latest scientific story suggests that at our essence, we exist not so much as a collection of separate entities, but as a unity, a relationship — utterly interdependent, the parts affecting the whole at every moment.
Our understanding of ourselves and our universe is in flux possibly more than ever before.
Nevertheless, most of the pundits of ‘rational science’ hold onto the outmoded Newtonian view of our universe just as rigidly as a Christian or Muslim fundamentalist holds onto a literal interpretation of his or her holy book.
At this unique point in history, science and religion are beginning to converge. Science has begun to prove what peoples of all cultures have instinctively understood for generations.
We can only gasp in wonderment as each chapter unfolds and we discover that we are something far more impressive than evolutionary happenstance or genetic survival machine. Literally any interpretation of what is human and what is divine could hold sway.
The most rational point of view these days is an open mind and a healthy respect for what human beings have intuitively grasped and described in mythical – and often symbolic - stories through the ages. The Christmas story, with its central message of rebirth and renewal, is just such a powerful message – with far more meaning to our human experience than F=Ma.
I have my own Christmas card I’d like to print. As William Blake once famously wrote in a letter:
‘Pray God us keep
‘From single vision & Newton’s sleep.’
Have a non-rational week.