Saturday, December 28, 2013

Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays?

I'm always careful not to wish non-Christians a Merry Christmas for fear that they might not be entirely pleased with such a greeting.  I always wish Christians a Happy and Joyous Christmas and non-Christians "Happy Holidays". Are non-Christians really offended by Christmas greetings?  Or if you exclude them completely from any sort of greeting, would they feel slighted?  After all, nobody wishes non-Muslims Eid Mubarak or Eid Fitr.  You would never dream of wishing non-Buddhists a Happy Vesak.  If you did, the non-Muslim or non-Buddhist would think you have an odd sense of humour or even downright rude.  Why then is there a need to greet non-Christians anything at all on Christmas day?

The truth is Christianity has become a victim of its own incredible success as the world's foremost religion.  The entire world follows the calendar fixed by the church and we date everything from the approximate Incarnation of Jesus Christ which is essentially a Christian theological doctrine.  By merely recognising the year 2013, we are effectively saying it's the year of the Lord two thousand and thirteen or in Latin, Anno Domini or AD 2013.  I need not explain which Lord is being referred to.  The whole world except for pockets of deeply Muslim states rests on Sunday or the Lord's Day, the Christian Sabbath.  It is not surprising that some people rebel against this Christian hegemony and insist on replacing AD with CE or "common era" but that's ridiculous.  Who are we trying to kid?  The whole world uses the Gregorian calendar, also known as the Christian calendar and it's dated from the approximate date of Jesus' Incarnation and calling it "common era" doesn't alter that fact one bit.

But the truth is most non-Christians don't mind Christianity and are happy to adopt for themselves Christian heritage quite willingly.  Christian morality and values are generally accepted as consistent with our modern understanding of what is just and right.  Christian morality is hugely applicable and relevant in today's world.  It may come as a surprise to most people but monogamy which has become so universally accepted and "natural" has Christian roots. Even in Singapore where polygamy used to be the order of the day among the three major races, the government decided to adopt the Christian concept of monogamy and enshrined it in the Women's Charter and overnight, Christian monogamous laws were instituted in a country that sees only a tiny percentage of its population embracing the Christian religion.

Apart from Christian morality which is universally accepted even in countries that are not Christian, we see Christian culture similarly embraced.  Anyone who has been to Asia knows that the names of Christian saints are extremely popular.   If you look at the list of Board members of any Buddhist or Taoist temple, you are sure to see a large number of them with the names of Christian saints and biblical characters.  You find Andrews galore but not a single Ananda.  You see Stephens by the dozens on the Temple Board but not a single Subhuti.   Even those who were not given Christian names by their parents somehow adopt them for themselves and would rather be known by their Christian names than their more traditional names.

Let me now turn back to Christmas.  A simple survey of homes in Singapore will show you that almost all households celebrate Christmas.  Almost every home has its Christmas tree and serves a lovely Christmas dinner.  Even in the workplace, every office celebrates Christmas complete with the turkey and Christmas hymns.  And I'm not just talking about "Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer" which by itself already establishes the strong influence of Christian culture.  I'm talking about "hardcore" hymns that everyone sings because they are so popular and universally acceptable such as "Silent Night" the lyrics of which are so deeply religious and theological that singing it is as good as reciting all the Christian creeds.  Just think of any other holiday in Singapore and you will immediately see that it does not have even a fraction of the wide appeal that Christmas has.  Woe betide any holiday that comes within two months before Christmas - it instantly gets eclipsed and sidelined.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not taking sides here and I'm not saying one religion is superior to another. Those who know me well enough will know that I do not subscribe to the view that any one religion is more "correct" than others.  Every religion is based on evidence-less irrational belief and it's wrong for me to say Christianity or any other religion is the "correct" one.  But for the purpose of answering my question whether non-Christians are offended when they are wished "Merry Christmas", I have to examine how appealing the Christian religion is in the first place.  What we see so far is it's extremely appealing to non-Christians.

One is tempted to draw the compelling conclusion that it can't be offensive to greet a non-Christian "Merry Christmas" when you consider that he gives himself and his children names of Christian saints and he celebrates Christmas in his house and sings Christmas hymns.

In politically correct Europe, there are many who prefer to say "Happy Holidays".  Obviously, there is this reluctance among politically correct Europeans to exert the imperialistic influence of Christianity on other cultures.

Happy Holidays in a French village

I don't know about the situation in other countries but in Singapore, I'm particularly careful about greeting two groups of people "Merry Christmas".  The first group consists of those who are steeped in an exclusivist religion such as Islam.  That's fair enough - they have every right not to have the Christian culture forced down their throats.  Unlike many non-Muslim Singaporeans particularly those of Chinese descent, Singaporean Muslims usually don't name themselves after Christian saints and they don't take on all the appurtenances of the Christian lifestyle and so it's natural for me to respect their separate religious identity and I have a high regard for their desire to be true to their own religion.

The second group comprises the New Atheists.  These people are a varied group but a large number of them are not atheists from birth.  Many that I know were once Christians who at one time believed in Christian myths but when they lost their belief in the mythical part of the religion, they threw away the baby with the mythical bath water.  Many of them are influenced by the books of New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and they sincerely believe that all religions are evil and the world would be a better place if there was no religion at all.  John Lennon's "Imagine There's No Religion" is their Doxology.

I will confine myself only to what's been happening in Singapore.  I'm aware that there are outspoken and violent religious groups in other countries.  In Singapore at least, all the different religions have co-existed harmoniously for centuries and they will continue to do so under the watchful eye of the Singapore government.

Recently, I attended the Orchard Road Christmas Light-Up celebrations and I was pleased to see many Muslims and other groups of non-Christians joining in the fun.  There were dance items by talented youths from the Malay-Muslim community.  Nobody took objection to the fact that this was a Christmas celebration and the word "Christmas" appeared on the stage itself.  In Singapore, nobody is really offended by the "Christ" in "Christmas".  Even a three year old child knows that Christmas is a religious festival celebrated by Christians but nobody would insist on posting banners that their religion is superior to Christianity on Christmas day or during celebrations in Advent leading to Christmas.

I just saw a link on Facebook to this report of radical Muslims in Denmark holding a demonstration on Christmas Eve shouting Muslim slogans and "Conquer".  As far as I know, this is just the sort of thing that won't happen in Singapore.  There is mutual respect for one another among the followers of the different religions in Singapore even if they misbehave in other countries.

Just as those of other religions do not post their religious banners on Christmas day next to Christmas decorations, no Christian would post biblical verses next to the Hari Raya or Deepavali decorations in Geylang Serai and Little India during the religious festivals of Muslims and Hindus. What is beautiful in Singapore is we are respectful of all religions.  As I have said, it would be ridiculously arrogant of me to say that Christianity is superior to other religions when I am fully aware that ALL religions are based on evidence-less beliefs and are largely cultural.  How can I denigrate someone else's myths when my own religion is full of its own myths?  Who am I to say that a flying horse is any stranger than a talking snake or a talking donkey?  And even if I recognise my myths as merely myths, I can't be so blind as not to know that there are millions of my fellow believers who look upon myths as reality.  In other words, religion is so steeped in culture and is such a personal thing that the only right approach is to show it the same sort of respect that we accord to other people's culture.  Of course I agree that religion must not impinge on the rights of other people who do not choose to subscribe to it.  I am totally opposed to clergymen in my religion who try so hard to enforce their understanding of Christian morality on the other non-Christian citizens.  As much as I would respect religion, I would all the more want to guard against religious imperialism which I can see so clearly particularly in the Abrahamic religions such as my own.

As long as we keep our religions to ourselves and we respect the holy days of all religions in Singapore, everything is fine.  We who have our own myths won't laugh at the myths of other people.  In other words, we who live in glass houses would be the last people to throw stones.  But there is a group of people who don't live in glass houses and they have no myths of their own.  They are solidly rational and logical.  They are the equivalent of Star Trek's Mr Spock.

These are the New Atheists who allow themselves to be guided only by logic and scientific evidence.  I've already explained that many of them are of the view that religion is bad and a world without religion is a better world.

My friends who know me are perfectly aware of the fact that I have a lot of respect for atheists.  I have read the books of many famous New Atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens and I have to admit that even though I am a religious person, I agree with almost everything they say.  They can't be faulted as far as logic goes and we have to admit that religion, like any cultural construct, is fraught with myths and legends.  But we who are religious don't want to tear down our myths and legends.  We want to hold on to them even in the 21st century and beyond.  We want to continue the rituals that we are familiar with because we've been doing them all our lives just like our parents and grandparents before us.  We may be honest enough to admit that atheists are sure to trounce us in a rational debate but that doesn't affect our loyalty to our religion.

Here is where I envisage a likely problem.  New Atheists (as opposed to just atheists) are atheists who are outspoken and strident.  I am fine with them.  I like atheists to be loud in their rational approach to religion.  I enjoy listening to debates between atheists and religious people even though atheists emerge the victor in every debate.  But I draw the line when they attempt to disrupt our rituals and traditions.  I am offended when they step out of the logical debate arena into our religious space and on our holy days too in order to insult and desecrate what is holy and sacred to us.

In Chicago, New Atheists who call themselves the Freedom from Religion Foundation erected a large "scarlet A" next to the nativity scene for Christmas.  The scarlet A is just a by-the-way suggestion once made by Richard Dawkins for a symbol for New Atheism which is essentially a kind of organised "religion" (I'm using the word "religion" loosely).   It's more an organisation that has as its final goal the destruction of all religions and they do what is lawfully permitted to insult religion and desecrate what religious people hold sacred.

In front of the scarlet A, they posted this banner:

Notice the perversion of Christian beliefs in what they posted.  Jesus, the Son of God, is the Reason for the Season and of course that is altered to refer to the Sun.

The Nativity scene is a traditional part of the holy season of Advent that leads to one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar, Christmas, the Birth and Incarnation of God Himself, and is observed all over the world together with other Christmas rituals such as the Christmas pageant and the Blessing of the Crib.

Images of Nativity scenes taken from churches all 
over the world including one from my church.

Atheists have no tradition of their own.  The scarlet A is something suggested by Richard Dawkins a couple of years ago.  It's not a focal point of prayer (unlike the crucifix) because atheists don't pray and they don't perform any ritual.  The only purpose of the scarlet A is to tell religious people that there is no God.  The scarlet A does not appear in any other places except next to holy symbols revered by religious people because its sole function is to desecrate, insult and offend.  Do you think the New Atheists would have bothered to erect the scarlet A if there had been no Nativity scene?  Of course not.  The sole function of the scarlet A is to offend religious people and if there is no religious symbol that it could stand offensively next to, there is no point having it in the first place. It is the battle cry or the bugle call to arms of New Atheism.

In the West where freedom of speech is revered, people are free to desecrate religious symbols and we have seen how some people burn holy books such as the Quran openly in the name of freedom of speech.  We cannot have that sort of thing in Singapore.  It's already a great achievement that all the different religions can exist harmoniously next to one another and the mutual respect we have for one another is crucial.  We cannot allow people who truly desire a world with no religion to destroy the peace that we have.

Those who have read my other posts must know that I can hardly be considered representative of most Christians.  What I take to be mere myths are revered by many of my fellow Christians as absolutely real and true.  Many Christians object to my position and many have even accused me of being a closet atheist.  Yet when I read of the erection of a scarlet A next to a Nativity scene, I get so enraged and furious and my only relief is that it's happening in a country that is half a globe from where I am.  If such an affront to my religion affects me so badly, what about those who truly believe in the myths of my religion?  I wonder how much more offended they would be if they see a scarlet A next to our holy symbols.

Nobody is saying that you can't have a scarlet A.  You can have any symbol you want but all I'm saying is you should not place it next to someone else's religious symbol and on his holy day too. No Christian or anyone of any other religion would place their own religious symbol next to a decoration that is meant for someone else's religion.  I would never dream of placing a crucifix next to Hari Raya decorations in Geylang Serai or the Deepavali lights in Little India.  Neither would a Muslim or a Hindu place his religious symbols next to a Nativity scene on Christmas day.  We have mutual respect for one another.  It would be a sad day if New Atheists spark off a religious riot in Singapore.  It would be a sad irony if those who decry religion as the cause of evil and wars are the ones who trigger off a religious riot by their inherent pugnacity and insensitivity to the religious feelings of the rest of us.

This is one of the most heartwarming sights you will see in Singapore.
A Chinese Taoist temple adjacent to a Christian church which is next to 
a Sai Baba temple.  Perfect religious harmony in Singapore. 
Is New Atheism, the militant version of atheism, tolerant enough for Singapore?

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