Posts Tagged ‘reason’

Why I don’t celebrate Christmas

December 2, 2009

“‘Tis the season to be jolly” the popular Christmas carol begins.  Indeed, Christmas day is one of the most enjoyed holidays of the year, from the gift-opening on Christmas morning to the family feasts that fill our gullet till our belts need loosening.  So what could possibly prompt a person to walk away from such a celebration?

For me, it has been a fairly gradual process.  The magic of the season undoubtedly dissipates for all of us as we grow older, but my reasons are about much more than a process of maturation.

First, the religious background of Christmas.  As an atheist, I have no religious affinity to Christmas.  The certainty with which the birth of Jesus is presented doesn’t resemble the reliability of the New Testament.  The celebration itself, done on December 25th, is misplaced: the account of Luke suggests that if Jesus did actually exist, he was probably born in the spring or summer.  In it’s original celebration, Christmas was usually celebrated at the beginning of January.  So celebrating the day as the birth of Christ seems, to me, a mischaracterization of history.  Even if such an account were accurate, I wouldn’t celebrate Christmas for the same reason I don’t practice any other religious holidays: I don’t believe the tenets on which they are based.  The best holiday would be one in which we could all celebrate no matter our religious affiliation (or lack thereof).

Certainly Christmas has its less Christian aspects.  The Christmas tree is a pagan concept.  The story of Santa Claus is undoubtedly secular in nature.  The animated Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was an annual favourite of mine as a child, and still holds a certain clutch on my unfortunately oft-nostalgic mind.  Still, tradition and a good story are not enough to keep me celebrating a holiday.

I don’t exchange gifts, either.  The social pressure to keep this practice up is tough to escape.  Still, I see a lot of good reasons for not exchanging gifts, and have thus far been able to resist such pressure.  There is the more practical aspect: if I need to get something, no one is likely to get me precisely what I need.  Further, I shouldn’t really be getting something just because it’s a day on which you give gifts.  If I need something and reach out to you at any time of the year, there’s no reason why a gift can’t be given then.  If I don’t need anything, you needn’t buy me a gift.  Truth be told, neither of us really needs anything.  I think here of the argument Peter Singer has often put forward: spending lavishly on the haves is basically an unethical or immoral action against the have-nots.  If there is someone who needs something at Christmas (or any time of the year), it almost certainly is not you or I.

What can be enjoyed during this season?  Well, I say there are two practices I find unobjectionable about the holidays, and we need not wait for Christmas to put them to work:

1. Take a moment with friends and family,

2. Give to those who are in need.

Reason’s Greetings!

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The Value of Skepticism

November 27, 2009

When we look at the whole of human history, there is no doubt that we can find a plethora of beliefs that were held by a majority which proved themselves to be false upon closer inspection.  I think here of some very obvious examples: that the Sun went round the Earth, that illnesses could be relieved by bloodletting, or that enslaving another human being was a moral action.  In recent history, claims of paranormal or supernatural experience, dubious claims of alternative medicine, or even simple things like a fear of going into the basement, should give us pause to wonder if the beliefs on which we are taking our actions are reasonably true.  I doubt very seriously that any reasonable person wants to take an action that is unjustified, and I am sure you are in agreement when I say that we want to believe things because we have our own reasons for believing them, rather than accepting those ideas that are passed on to us by our social environment without critical analysis.

The best way to accomplish these two goals is to apply critical thinking and skepticism to all claims put forth.  Here I think of the 17th Century French philosopher René Descartes, who brought about a revival in skepticism when he sought to establish truths in life that were indubitable; that is, ideas that could not be doubted.  Though I think in practice we need not subscribe to a form of radical skepticism that would leave us in a state of complete lack of knowledge (a state of epistemological darkness), I think the best way to ascertain truth is to withhold assenting to a claim until we have been presented with supporting arguments or evidence that we consider sufficient.

This question of sufficiency is a tough one to answer, as it relies on a subjective view of what constitutes as good evidence, and the grey area between certain knowledge and complete lack of knowledge leaves a lot of room for each of us to determine what is sufficient for us to believe.  Still, I think there are tools we can use to prevent ourselves from being deceived by other people and our own internal biases and psychological make-up.

Namely, I think understanding what constitutes good science and what constitutes good reason will allow us to separate the wheat from the chaff.  When assessing arguments, it is important to be able to identify logical fallacies and poor evidence.  If we can use these tools to determine what arguments are good and what arguments are poor, we can proportion our beliefs to the evidence and reason that warrants such a belief.  By doing so, we can be relatively confident that our beliefs are our own, that they are reasonably true, and that any action we take based on those beliefs is justified and rational.