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Contrary to what Christian leaders have been claiming for a long time, the “real meaning of Christmas” isn’t their nativity story. A midwinter festival has been celebrated in the Northern Hemisphere for thousands of years (it’s pre-Christian in origin). The Romans had a festival called Saturnalia, which the BBC website details – Did the Romans invent Christmas? The answer is, no, they didn’t; the early church high-jacked the Roman festival of Saturnalia, when it became clear that no one was going to stop having a good time at around this time of year.
Originally a one-day feast at the end of autumn, Saturnalia gradually moved to later and later dates, with longer celebrations, throughout the Roman period.
By the time of Christian conversion it was running into and incorporating a number of festivals. These included the Opalia – the festival day for Saturn’s consort Ops – on the 19 December and the Sigillaria- the day of present-giving – on the 23 December. The 25 December was dies natalis solis invicti – the birthday of the ‘invincible’ Roman sun-god Sol.
Cancelling Saturnalia was unthinkable, so Christian Rome converted it to a Christian holy day instead.
American atheists have a lot of invective aimed at them by ignorant Christian fundamentalists. One extreme example, this week, was in response to the school massacre in Connecticut; a Tennessee Baptist pastor told his congregation that the number of mass shooting were escalating because of schools were government “mind-control centers” that taught “junk about evolution” and “how to be a homo,” and that “humanism” in schools taught Lanza (the shooter) that he was God and “he can just go blow away anybody he wants.” He wasn’t alone in blaming atheists and atheism for the massacre. Former US Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee said that the shooting was a result of having “systematically removed God from our schools” (ignoring the fact that America is constitutionally secular).
It’s great that many Americans, even those who are religious, find the statements of Huckabee and company objectionable, but it’s unfortunate that the objections focus on the wrong issue. Rather than argue about whether God is jealous and vindictive or loving and compassionate (or at least in addition to that argument), Americans should be calling out fundamentalists for depicting nonbelievers as agents of evil.
The Suffolk Humanist Group was formed in December 1991, so we’re 21 this year. A bunch of us celebrated with a tea party in Hadleigh, Suffolk, today, where members old and new met and reminisced. Thanks to Sue Hewlett for organising the lovely buffet. The cake was lovely – sorry if you missed it, but it’s all gone.
Physicist, author, and broadcaster Jim Al-Khalili has been appointed the British Humanist Association’s new President from January 2013, when he’ll take over from Polly Toynbee.
As we celebrate our 21st anniversary, the group’s secretary Denis Johnston, Suffolk SACRE member and SIFRE board member, will be interviewed by Rob Dunger on BBC Radio Suffolk this Sunday at 7.05am. Either set your alarm or listen again later in the day.
A Humanist contribution to a Celebration of the Declaration of Human Rights at University Campus Suffolk, Ipswich, 11th December 2012, organised by the local UN Association.
Suffolk Humanists & Secularists hosted the event and chose Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Perhaps the most well known quote about free speech is “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, which has been attributed to Voltaire but was actually written by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, paraphrasing him. It neatly summarises the idea that freedom of speech is worthy of vigorous defence, even when you hate what’s being said.
I was keen to celebrate Article 19 as I value free expression very highly, as do most humanists and secularists. Those who know me won’t be surprised to hear that I frequently disagree with people. I’ve always done it. My school reports made reference to it. It’s never seemed to me that there was anything wrong with disagreement; quite the contrary. It’s how you learn, how you challenge your own and other people’s ideas, how you develop them. My exasperated mother once threatened to burn my books because they provided fuel for my arguments. If she’d carried out her threat, she’d have been following a centuries-old tradition of book-burning in reaction to dissent by religious and political authorities. It still happens today. One of the most recent examples is the public destruction of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses by Bradford Muslims in January 1989. Ironically, the Bradford Muslims didn’t seem to have bothered reading Rushdie’s book before setting fire to it. They were told that it was blasphemous, and that was enough. What was worse was that Rushdie had to go into hiding because the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a death fatwa against him.
Margaret Nelson will be on Terry Baxters’s programme with a local clergyman at 8.05am on Wednesday 12th December to talk about the results of the census, published today. Fewer people are claiming to be Christian and more have identified themselves as atheist. How will this affect the Church’s claim to keep 26 bishops in the House of Lords, especially since none of them will be women, and how will it affect its arguments about same-sex marriage? Is it time to consider disestablishment?
Today is Human Rights Day. Tomorrow we’ll be hosting a celebration at the university, with guests including the Mayor of Ipswich, focussing on Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Click here for more information. Today, the International Humanist and Ethical Union has issued a report on worldwide discrimination against the non-religious. It details those countries where freedom of speech is impossible because it is considered a crime to criticise religion, or even to be non-religious or to adopt the wrong religion. If you care about this, please join us at the university tomorrow, and share this post. The IHEU says,
The International Humanist and Ethical Union has produced the first report focusing on how countries around the world discriminate against non-religious people. Freedom of Thought 2012: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Non-religious has been published to mark Human Rights Day, Monday 10 December.
Herewith the latest newsletter – click here to download it (pdf). Please note the event on the front page, the Human Rights Celebration at University Campus Suffolk. We hope that as many as possible will come to hear speakers from a variety of local organisations (including ours) offer their thoughts on Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Humanist Rights, which is about free speech. Everyone is very welcome. We’ll be in the atrium of the West Building at UCS on Tuesday 11th December from 8pm. Please let us know if you’re coming so we can cater for everyone. There should be someone at the door to let you in, otherwise there’ll be a notice telling you which button to press.
Camp Quest, the organisation that organises summer camps free from religion for children, is having a party at Conway Hall, London, on Saturday 15th December. If you have children and you’re interested in knowing more, this is an opportunity to find out. Click here to go to the CQ website.
With all the hoo-ha over women bishops (and how there aren’t any), there are two websites that might interest you. The first is the BHA’s campaign to get bishops out of the Lords website, Holy Redundant. The second is an e-petition that was begun when the church’s rejection of women bishops was announced. It reads, “No women Bishops, no automatic seats in the House of Lords.” If an e-petition attracts at least 100,000 signatures, it’s likely to be debated in the House of Commons. It’s a good idea to write to your MP too. We know that at least one local MP, Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) is a member of the Parliamentary Humanist Group, though he doesn’t seem to attend many, if any, meetings.
We’ve had a phone call from Chris Pitts of the Outside Project, who was hoping to drum up some support and maybe even practical help from us, especially as he hasn’t had a lot of interest from Christian organisations. To find out what it is, and maybe get in touch, see their website.