With a regularity that never ceases to stun, Fox News megastar Bill O’Reilly manages to be simultaneously ignorant, pompous and preposterous, inciting outrage among his legions of viewers year after year over a collective right-wing delusion partly of his own concoction. For a decade now, on "The O’Reilly Factor," he has declared his opposition to the “war on Christmas” allegedly being waged against the good Christians of the United States by the godless, perverted and no doubt “pinhead” leftist-loon mavens of multiculturalism.
This year was no exception. O’Reilly announced on his show that “Every Christmas season, there are people who try to diminish the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. We all know it, but we do have a whole bunch of war on Christmas deniers who say that I and others are making the whole thing up.” His evidence: billboards sponsored by the American Atheists activist organization.
“Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is to skip church,” the billboards read. “I’m too old for fairy tales.” Accompanying these words is a photo of a preschooler grinning impishly at the prospect of avoiding the humdrum homily of Mom and Dad’s favorite priest or pastor, and, instead, doing something much more edifying and useful, like scribbling with crayons or playing Weebles Musical Treehouse. The organization’s website says the billboards have been placed mostly in Southern states, and are located “in more residential areas to be near schools and churches.”
O’Reilly cuts to a clip of Danielle Muscato, American Atheists’ P.R. director, who explains the billboard’s purpose: “A lot of atheists feel alienated at this time of year, and we want them to know that they’re not alone, and that it’s OK to admit that there’s no God and to be open about that.”
How tragic and telling it is that in 21st-century America those who stand by reason and abjure myth should need consolation and encouragement. But at least some do. Muscato’s measured, sane words, however, befuddle the pious O’Reilly. He brings on-screen Karen Ruskin, a psychotherapist and self-professed agnostic, who speaks as though miming and lip-syncing her own words, possibly to assist O’Reilly’s audience in understanding the turgid nonsense she is about to spew.
“When you feel like you are in the minority,” Ruskin says, “you feel the desire to push ... to sell your belief in a loud way to others in order to make yourself feel better, to validate your views.” And so on.
O’Reilly remains puzzled. He tells her that he finds the American Atheists’ signs “insulting” and therefore “counterproductive.”
“It’s horrifically insulting,” says Ruskin, “but not unlike the bully who tries to push other people down in order to make themself feel better. That’s what’s happening here.”
O’Reilly isn’t persuaded. The atheists who have appeared on his show (Richard Dawkins included) have evinced no symptoms of low self-esteem, and certainly none have tried to bully him. So Ruskin elaborates, opining that atheists who keep quiet about their nonbelief are not the troubled souls she has in mind. She is referring to the impudent faithless who put up billboards saying “skip church”; they are none other than ”a group of people all coming together in a gang-like format in order to push other people down.” O’Reilly probes further, wondering why “that bullying group” would “try to hammer down” the wondrous traditions of Christmas. For Ruskin, a pathological psyche is to blame. “There is an emotional confusion for some who are atheists in their need to push their product to others to help themself feel they’re right.” The interview then draws to a close, with those who disbelieve O’Reilly’s contention that there’s a war on Christmas likened to climate-change deniers.
Mirabile dictu: Bill O’Reilly has beclowned himself once again! At first it seems patently absurd that anyone would find anything “gang-like” and oppressive in the American Atheists’ wry billboards. But there is a simple explanation. By the standards of the rest of the developed world, the United States is a fanatically religious land where believers (especially Christians, in their multifarious sects and denominations), day in and day out, and most of all at Christmas, make public displays of their faith and expect universal, knee-jerk respect for rituals associated with the practice of their superstitions. There is compelling evidence that atheists are one of the most discriminated-against groups on earth, but if they raise their heads and speak up in the Land of Free Speech, they must be confronted and slapped down.
Let me say right away that I, as an atheist, have never had and do not now have anything against Christmas. To each his or her own. But the nonsensicality inherent in the right’s cries of “the war against Christmas!” as well as said war’s nonexistence, put me in something other than a Yuletide mood and prompt me to hit the computer keyboard. And for reasons that go far beyond celebrating this particular holiday.
Last time I checked, store windows were decorated with boughs of holly and blinking lights, their tinsel-strewn aisles thronging with folks eager to express affection for loved ones in the sole way many know: buying them stuff. Gigantic Christmas trees stand illuminated for all to see at the White House and Rockefeller Center and in state capitals across the country. Mangers on lawns pay chintzy homage to the laughable legend of a virgin birth. Partiers will soon be boozing up, with eggnog only one of many libations available. Christmas, thus, is proceeding apace in America, with all its customary tidings of hysterical commercialism and inebriated jolliness. The rare dissenters are dismissed as Grinches.
So, a few billboards do not a war on Christmas make. In any case, polls show that eight out of 10 Americans consider themselves Christian. If marauding mobs of nonbelievers were torching nativity mangers and impaling shopping-mall Santas, or even besieging lines of holiday gift seekers and attempting to Christmas-shame them, we could definitely say there’s a war on Christmas. And we would all know about it, and fast, and not just from Fox News. The resulting publicity would not favor anyone, least of all atheists.
So what, then, is O’Reilly actually saying? His allegations of a “war on Christmas” are really about seething anger over America’s ever more diverse confessional makeup. The Christian master should be able to do as he pleases on his manor. Being occasionally expected to wish others Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas is an intolerable affront to centuries of faith-based privilege. And that a tiny (but thankfully growing) minority – atheists – dare to so much as put up billboards manifesting something other than respect for this privilege ... Well, that’s an insult not to be tolerated. There must be something wrong with them, something suspect. It was not for nothing that back in 1987, presidential candidate George H. W. Bush wondered aloud if atheists should be considered citizens or patriots. After all, he said, “This is one nation under God.”
(Of course, it is most assuredly not, according to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The words “One nation under God” were added to the pledge of allegiance in the 1950s, as a way to draw a distinction, for the schoolchildren reciting it, between the United States and the Soviet Union. The word “Christian” appears exactly zero times in the U.S. founding documents.)
But back to Christmas. No matter what O’Reilly says, as December drags on, nonbelievers enervated by all the obligatory comfort and joy might indeed consider taking up figurative arms against the holiday. They may wish to patiently explain to the votaries of Christ that there is no evidence that their putative savior was born on the 25th; the Bible mentions no such date. Early Christians did not recognize it as special, nor did they observe Christmas. In his 2012 bestseller, "Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives," none other than Pope Benedict XVI disputes the date, and raises the strong possibility that the monk charged with creating the first Christian calendar blundered, positing Jesus’ birth as occurring several years before what we accept as year zero, A.D. And he was probably not born in winter. Based on astronomical calculations, scholars have more reliably assigned the Nativity to the summer. An Australian astronomer posits June 17 as the fatidic date. So, Santa may well want to ditch his bulky robes for a Speedo, and lather up with bug repellent. There is no evidence that Dec. 25 should be anything more than just another day.
But then, it’s not surprising that Jesus’ birthday should be so hard to pinpoint. Some 2,000 years after the alleged event, religious scholars, despite their best efforts, have still found no proof that Jesus even existed. Although it might seem reasonable to suppose such a one as he walked the earth in the Middle East, historical records kept by the Romans (then in charge of Judea and Samaria) and contemporary chroniclers make no mention of him. The Gospels are not historical records and don’t count; they were composed decades afterward. It has even been credibly proposed that Paul and his cohorts created the savior with strokes of their quills by mythologizing history. Footnote: If you’d still like to believe in a prophet whose existence has been established beyond the shadow of a doubt, try Muhammad.
Then what originated Christmas? Why would the church propagate such a holiday? In all likelihood, to win converts from among pagans and help Christianity go viral. What do pagans like doing? Carousing, of course. Christmas roughly coincides with the great Roman celebration of Saturnalia, a festival around the Winter Solstice involving gambling, drunkenness and gift-giving performed in honor of the deity Saturn and the mighty god-letch Bacchus, and rung in with the cry of “Io, Saturnalia!” A “Saturnalian prince” led the festivities, and his orders, however lewd or ludicrous, had to be obeyed by the partiers. For people not quite sure if the sun would necessarily return from its winter hibernation, Saturnalia was a big deal. The tree, the twinkling lights, the eggnog – they too are all of purely pagan provenance.
Now drunken satyrs shouting Io Saturnalia! didn’t sit well with the abstemious, flesh-averse early church fathers. So it took centuries before Christians began observing their own version of Saturnalia, Christmas. And nota bene, pious minions of the Christian right! The über-religious Protestants, including our own Puritans, even outlawed it. Killjoy English Puritan William Prynne demanded to know why Christmas celebrants couldn’t do “without drinking, roaring, healthing, dicing, carding, masques and stage-plays? which better become the sacrifices of Bacchus, than the resurrection, the incarnation of our most blessed Saviour." So dissipate had the holiday become that in 1647 the British even tried to ban it. The result? Rioting in the streets. The prohibition didn’t last long.
Now to return to the war on Christmas of today. Would anyone truly mourn the holiday if we did without it? How maddening become the carols, how cloying the endlessly proffered Seasons’ Greetings, how depressing the relentless tidings of joy, how un-silent the night! And all this over what? If you do not believe, what are you supposed to celebrate? Mistletoe? Overcrowded highways and airports? Reunions with estranged family members you studiously avoid the rest of the year?
Mean-spirited as it might seem, impressing the truth about Christmas on children is just the right thing to do in the run-up to Dec. 25, an eminently “teachable” time of year. Doing so would not preclude gift-giving, (desired) family gatherings, or expressing love for one’s fellows. But tying these things to the fictitious birth of an alleged man-god amounts to indoctrination in falsity. Best to explain to the young the holiday’s pagan roots, the absurdity of notions of human parthenogenesis, and the cynicism inherent in the early church fathers’ decision to bank on the gullibility of the masses.
(That gullibility is by no means a thing of the past. Remember, 58 percent of Christians in the United States believe that Jesus will be returning in their lifetime.)
Once one grasps the untruth of Christianity, the whole societal edifice built to shelter believers from reality and impose their way of thinking and living on the rest of us should come tumbling down. Imagine what such an awakening, such a wising-up, would conceivably herald: an end to the child-abuse teaching of creation fables instead of facts in some schools; a cessation of guilt and conflict over sex and the female body; a questioning of millennia-old misogynistic patriarchal beliefs buttressing the maltreatment of women; the probable death of the pro-life movement and campaigns to restrict access to abortion and birth control; the collapse of shyster evangelists and their hugely profitable “ministries”; the release of billions of previously tax-exempt dollars into public coffers; the discrediting of the End Times nihilism that permeates the country’s discussions on a range of problems urgently requiring rational solutions; and a peaceful demise of the decoy culture wars the Republicans wage to persuade ever-more economically disadvantaged Americans to vote against their interests.
Sorry, Bill, there is no Santa Claus. But something better awaits us, and one day it will come to pass: a saner world in which finding remedies for the ills that ail us will be, if not a snap, then certainly easier than it is now, in our faith-benighted age.