Newsletter: 1998: December 1998
Internet Infidels Newsletter
DECEMBER 1998 - Special Christmas Issue!
In this issue:
That jolly old elf gracing the masthead this issue looks nothing like the historical Saint Nicholas, the bishop of Myra whose life first gave impetus to the myth we have today. We know very little about Bishop Nicholas, save for the church legends that grew up after his death in 350 CE. We're not even sure if there was a real Nicholas. Barbara Walker argues in her book The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (HarperSanFrancisco, 1983) that Bishop Nicholas was a Christianized fiction who replaced the pagan gods Artemis and Poseidon. Given the stories told about him by the early Church, this might very well be the case. Nicholas was said to have calmed violent storms, cured diseases, and resurrected the dead.
According to church tradition, Nicholas traveled extensively in his own Greek region of Myra (present-day Turkey) as well as in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. He earned a reputation for being extraordinarily kind to children. Other legends told the story of how he gave an impoverished father gold coins to prevent him from selling his three young daughters into slavery. Various versions of the legend suggest that Bishop Nicholas tossed the coins into an open window while another variation says that he threw them down the chimney to preserve his anonymity. Imprisoned as a martyr sometime during Emperor Diocletian's rule, he was later released when Constantine instituted the new pogrom of tolerance toward Christians. Bishop Nicholas participated in the Council of Nicaea (325 CE) and helped to craft the creed that confessed the historical Jesus as a divine god. Little did Nicholas realize at the time that he was himself to become immortal alongside Jesus as well.
An anonymous 11th century medieval manuscript The Translation of Saint Nicholas, tells a tale of how the church in Bari, Italy decided to send a ship to Myra to exume the relics and bones of Saint Nicholas for redeposition in their city. After meeting initial fierce resistance from guardian monks, one of the monks tells the others that he experienced a vision from the Saint in which the Saint assents to the relocation. After the tale, the monks allowed the sailors to take the Saint's remains. Thus, the remains of Nicholas (or probably some unknown crusader) were brought back from Myra in 1087 and installed in the church at Bari. The story also tells of the epiphany of a sea gull whose appearance from heaven blessed the ship carrying the Saint's remains, thus signifying divine approval of the enterprise. Once interned at Bari, and after several visions, appearances, and healings among the people, Saint Nicholas become known as the protector of children and widows. What this fanciful tale omits, however, is that Nicholas's cult replaced an older goddess cult in Bari after Befana (Pasqua Epiphania) or "The Grandmother." Walker describes her as "a female boon-giving deity" that "used to fill the children's stockings with her gifts." The cult that spread rapidly around Nicholas/Befana culminated in a pageant on December 6th of every year. Drawing upon the stories of his kindness to children and the giving of gold coins, followers gave each other gifts in honor of the Saint.
The Church eventually moved the pageant of Saint Nicholas to the winter solstice (the final day of the ancient Roman Saturnalia festival, now December 25th) to merge it with the celebration of Christ's birth. Before it became attached to Christ's birth, December 25th was the Mithraic winter-solstice festival called Dies Natalis Solis Invictus, Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. Mithras was known as the Light of the World, Sun of Righteousness, and Savior. The divine child symbology (as the sun) was celebrated on the winter solstice, the darkest days of winter where the sun's rebirth would lead to longer days and spring.
Nicholas's cult was gradually combined with German and Celtic pagan Yule rites to produce a Christianized "Father Christmas," a somber figure closer to the twinkling elf we know today. Father Christmas was traditionally old, bearded, wore a thick coat of furs, and rode a horse. Pagan celebrants lighted candles in trees and decorated their homes with ivy, pine, and holly. Mummers danced and small troupes traveled from house to house singing carols. The Yule rite of dragging a log through the streets represented the phallus, Walker writes, and invokes fertility magic associated with the cult of Frey. When pagans were Christianized by the Church, Frey would be changed to Kris Kringle, ("Christ of the Orb"), i.e., the reborn divine child of earlier Mithras cult.
Americans will come to see Father Christmas as riding a reindeer. In the nineteenth-century, Saint Nicholas rides a sleigh pulled by a team of reindeers. Now Santa Claus, that jolly old man with a pipe, is immortal. He lives at the North Pole among elves and continues to respond to greedy little urchins all over the world on Christmas Eve. Unlike the Christ story, however, children usually outgrow this evolving bundle of myths.
To this day Saint Nicholas's cult competes alongside Christ on the same holiday in a strange mixture of commercialization, paganism, excess and holy reverence. This has led some Christians in recent years to proclaim the slogan, "Jesus is the reason for the season." However, the prior enduring history of Santa Claus, Mithras, Yule, and The Grandmother, prove that this slogan is quite incorrect. Jesus has been clumsily papered on top of deeper rituals and the fact that these rituals cannot be contained and often overshadow the Christian cult reveal the tremendous power that these older myths still possess.
[This story was written by James Still. Ho! Ho! Ho!]
The FreeThought Contacts Page has a new facelift thanks to Ben Sutter. Visit the page at <URL:http://www.infidels.org/people/contacts.cgi> to see if there is someone in your area you can get in touch with and be sure to put yourself on the page for others to see. I think you'll agree that Ben's tremendous work is a boon to the freethought community. Thanks Ben!
By Michael Ruse
This month mathew tells us how he became a Saint of The Church of Elvis, and looks at Elvis worship in fact and fiction. Also, the Raelians are back to clone your pets, and they'll be returning later for your children. Plus cloning Jesus and dedicating your meal to Satan . . .
It has been a month since Hurricane Mitch ripped through Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, but tens of thousands of people are still without homes, many desparately needing medicine, food, potable water, and basic supplies such as blankets and clothing. It is difficult to relate to the magnitude of the loss and pain the hurricane caused. Many rural areas are still cut off and without aid.
Mercy Corps International is a relief agency with integrity that is doing all it can to assist Central Americans in need. They have been actively involved in the region, providing help to storm victims as quickly as they can. Also, 92% of Mercy's resources go directly to the programs that help those who need it. The hurricane is gone, but the misery it left in its wake remains. Won't you take a moment, call Mercy Corps, and provide a small donation to help out? You can call them at +1 (800) 292-3355, Extension 223, or by post:
Mercy Corps International
According to THE DENVER POST ONLINE (Nov. 8), John Walton, "an heir to Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton's estate and a nationally known voucher advocate", donated $250,000 to support the failed Colorado Amendment 17, a back-door voucher-proposal disguised as a tax credit plan. Source <http://www.denverpost.com/news/election/tax1104.htm>, spotted 4 Nov 98.
CHURCH & STATE (November 1998, p. 19) reports, "a foundation controlled by the Coors brewing empire has donated $50,000 to the Promise Keepers." The name of the foundation is the "Castle Rock Foundation". According to CHURCH & STATE, "Castle Rock now has assets of $63 million. It was given the name Castle Rock specifically to distance itself from the Coors beer empire, although it is totally controlled by Coors family members. The Coors family has long been active in right-wing politics and had recently turned its attention to a variety of anti-Clinton efforts."
According to American Atheists, Inc., past and present financial supporters of National Bible Week have included the heads of PricewaterhouseCoopers, Chase Manhattan Bank, Amway, Equitable Life Assurance Society, Gulf Oil, AT&T, J.C.Penney, Chrysler and General Motors. See <URL:http://www.atheists.org/flash.line/bibwk6.htm>.
[This report was prepared by Jeffery Jay Lowder.]
In the October 1998 issue of Readers Digest, the front cover proclaims: "Doctors Report: FAITH CAN HEAL YOU." I have never been a reader of the Digest, but I am familiar with the format and direction the Digest takes in presenting its articles. Most invoke some feeling of optimism and hope thereby leaving the reader with some positive thoughts or a warm and fuzzy feeling about their lives or the world around them. This article is no exception to that rule and ventures further in a presentation of a wholly Christian perspective, ignoring any opposing voice or offering any back-up to the studies and research cited. The article, by Malcolm McConnell, who is listed as an contributing editor, proclaims "Faith can help you heal" is a deceptive and unscholarly attempt to use subjective surveys, anecdotal evidence and appeals to authorities to present a case that, prayer, specifically Christian prayer and church going has 'healing potential'. First let me say that I do not believe that a healthy life style (low fat diet, exercise, etc.) is not important for good health both physical and mental. Or that relaxation techniques or types of meditation cannot relieve certain stresses. I also believe that naps are important and fishing is a great stress reliever. However this article goes beyond that scope of what is reasonable for promoting good health and healing directly to the Christian god who has a personal interest in the health of his churchgoers.
Five medical doctors, three studies and one nurse are cited to bolster this claim. The problem with this article is apparent from the start: no pertinent background information is provided to the reader about the doctors or the studies. Take Dr. Harold Koenig, an associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University. The article says "his research team, studying thousands of Americans since 1984, has compiled powerful evidence that religious faith not only promotes overall good health, but also aids in recovery from serious illness." Koenig states that in a study of 455 elderly hospital patients, that those who attended church more than once a week averaged four days in the hospital and people who never or seldom went to church spent ten to 12 days in the hospital. This study has many accountability and verification problems with it as do the others stated in this article that I will outline below. But what about Koenig? How objective is he? In Catherine Clabby's article from the News and Observer dated May 10, 1998, Koenig describes himself as a "Conservative Christian" and "Born Again". In addition, he encourages patients to pray with him.
Clabby adds, "...it's obvious that religion dwells at the center of his family life. A poster at the kitchen door announces that Jesus Heads This Household. The radio is tuned to a Christian station. A delicate cross bought years ago in Bethlehem hold a prominent spot in the professors small study." One can conclude Koenig can hardly be considered an "objective observer". The other doctors (all peddling books) include Dr. Herbert Benson, whose book Timeless Healing proclaims people are "wired for God", Dr. Dale Matthews, author of The Faith Factor and Dr. Dean Ornish author of Love and Survival. Ornish may be the only objective and non-biased source cited. The article also quotes Sue Moody, a parish nurse at Overbrook Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Ohio, who "visits hospitalized church members daily and acts as their personal advocate within the health care system", and Dr. Iris Keys, an ordained minister, also an internist at Coppin State Nursing Center. Keys says she "never imposes her religion, (but) always listens for 'church talk.'" However in the one case related in this article, Keys "sensed the woman was sicker in spirit than in body" and asked her patient "(S)hall we have a word of prayer?"
Keys then led her patient in prayer and subsequent visits included prayer. Just how objective can this group be? McConnell never even suggests there may be opposing voices or non-Christian views. Besides Konig's study, the article cites the following studies:
A Dartmouth Medical School study where "heart patients were 14 times more likely to die following surgery if they did not participate in group activities and did not find comfort in religion. Within six months of surgery, 21 patients had died--but there were no deaths among the 37 people who said they were "deeply religious." In Israel, researchers "studied 3900 people living on kibbutzim over a 16 year period. Their findings: the religious had a 40 percent lower death rate from cardiovascular disease and cancer than their secular peers."
And finally, Yale University's "study of 2812 elderly people found that those who never or rarely attended church had nearly twice the stroke rate of weekly churchgoers."
The problem with this entire article is apparent: none of these "sources" provide any objective evidence, quantifiable, by scientific standards for the claims that prayer, whether intercessory or not, and faith had any effect or efficacy when dealing with patients. Anecdotal evidence aside, none of the cases cited had any confirming evidence. In the studies listed, the problems are more numerous: Who did the study? What were the controls and protocols? Was there independent confirmation of the results? Were the results peer reviewed? Were the results duplicated in different parts of the country? The world? How can a control group be truly established when you are dealing with the efficacy and ecumenical nature of prayer? Are the studies available for examination?
I am sure that these studies are as prejudiced as their Christian authors. Another problem with this approach is also evident: The doctors and studies are ignoring the millions of people in different countries and environments that do not have belief in the Christian God and live better and healthier lives than those in Christian countries or that there are deeply religious people, including non-Christians, whom do not regularly attend churches. Japan is a good example. Also ignored is the question that, if, Christian faith and church going are so good for the human physical condition, why are these deeply religious, consistent churchgoers having strokes and heart attacks in the first place?
This article belies its prejudicial insistence that there is a Judeo-Christian preference by god for healing and good health by taking a very narrow spectrum the population and applying a Christian standard to it and completely and conveniently ignoring the rest of us. Usually the Digests' pollyanna approach to subjects are not objectionable to a secular view but this article crosses the line of scholarship and presents a generalization of Christian bias. McConnell and the Digest should recognize their literary responsibility in an ever diverse and changing world and not just taking at face value controversial subject matter and invalidated studies catering to the Christians in society. The religious right's propaganda machine is certainly working overtime here.
Yet there is another aspect of this subject that has been completely (and perhaps conveniently) ignored by the articles author and esteemed doctors and researchers: in thousands of nursing homes and assisted care centers across the country are tens of thousands of people suffering from Alzheimer's, senile dementia, diminished capacity, Parkinson's, palsy, cancer and a myriad of other disabling and tragic diseases and conditions that affect the human mind and body. Many of these centers (as well as home care organizations) are church sponsored and some are reserved exclusively for church or denominational members. Thus, it cannot be said that these patients are not receiving massive faith and prayer support nor can it be maintained that they were not church-goers or persons of little faith. Yet no amount of faith or prayer will change the outcome of these human lives once diagnosed with a chronic and crippling condition. Once healthy bodies and minds, some deeply devoted to god and their religion now totally dependent upon others for the most basic necessities of existence. The typical Christian (or religious) party line usually inserted here is about god being mysterious and, ironically praying to god to ease the pain and suffering! This, appalling and shocking as it is represents the dichotomy and uselessness of religion. It suggests a minimizing of the human side of these tragedies. It is no wonder that Koenig and his cohorts go for the "soft" numbers: they cannot face the reality and cold hard facts of incapacitating diseases in which faith and prayer haven't the slightest affect.
Seen in this light, this article should be an embrassment to any thinking person, Christian or otherwise.
[This article was furnished by John Hill, Kettle Falls, WA.]
In many ways the Internet is still much like the Wild West of nineteenth century America. Web sites pop up and disappear quicker than a booming mining town gone bust. Webpreneurs set up online magazines hoping to attact enough readers to justify their advertising rates. But like the fake storefront façades of a western B movie, most online magazines are all flash and graphics on the outside with no content on the inside to back them up. Even worse, how can the reader be assured that an editor has fact-checked the content for accuracy rather than succumbing to just another net.rumor?
Harvard professor Marvin Kalb complains that the Internet contributes to the "New News," a curious blend of information and entertainment that blurs the lines between objective journalism and mindless titillation. In an interview on the Jim Lehrer Newshour, Kalb points an accusing finger at the rapid-pace of twenty-four news cycles made possible by technology:
Of course, avid readers of the Secular Web have been familiar with this phenomenon for quite some time. Gunslingers ride into town, hastily set up a web site, and take pot shots at freethinkers and atheists with poorly-researched web content full of grammatical mistakes, erroneous claims, and faulty reasoning. The on-line reader is faced with the daunting task of separating out the wheat from the chaff and cannot always tell the difference between a well-researched article with good argumentation and a religious right rant. Thus, the responsibility for making sense of this new marketplace of ideas rests upon the reader. And in this marketplace, let the buyer beware. Still, most readers do a splendid job of picking out the good material from the bad. Web search engines have become an enormous boon, allowing the reader to filter out the noise by going exactly to the information he or she wants. The concept is simple: if you are a content provider you post a web page on your topic (let's say widgets). Sooner or later, a search engine's robot visits your page and scans it for keywords like "widgets" that help to categorize the page in its search engine's database. Finally, a reader interested in widgets, enters the keyword "widgets" in the search engine to find your page. Writer and reader connect.
Turning this concept on its head is Goto.com. Goto seeks to tame the marketplace of ideas by putting its search results up for sale. For a small fee, charged to the advertiser by counting the click-throughs, a content provider can buy a keyword like "widgets" to place its own page at the top position. For example, I initiated a search on "infidels" at goto.com. Those results are below. This newsletter placed second on goto.com's search results, pushed down by SongSearch's advertising of a new release for a popular music CD:
For every click-through on the SongSearch link, goto.com is paid a penny. Goto.com argues that consumers win because "they locate only the most relevant Web sites on their unique topic of interest." So if the Internet Infidels wanted to take the top spot, we would have to bid the price up, going to two cents per click-through. This sounds innocuous enough until you think about the integrity of such a system. No longer is the search engine a link between the content of a page and its readers, but now the link becomes merely a transaction between the highest bidder and potential readers regardless of the content of the page. Just like free e-mail and other portal gimmicks, if Goto's advertising strategy works, the other competing search engines will likely follow suit. With the "portal wars" currently raging, as Infoseek, Goto, Snap, and other search engines fight to become the home page for millions of consumers, the unfettered access to all information could become compromised in the process. This is because portals like Infoseek, which is 43 percent owned by Disney Corporation, would much rather you click on Mickey Mouse than something with real substance that might make you think. Similarly, NBC recently purchased a large share of CNet's Infoseek-clone Snap Online while General Electric, NBC's parent corporation, invested a whopping $26 million into CNet itself. Who controls the search engine controls the information, and who controls the information determines how the search results are presented to you. If this strategy works, smaller sites could get squeezed out as the big boys control who goes through the portal and where they go. Goto.com's idea of giving the top spots on a search result to the highest bidder rather than to the content provider who best meets the informational need of the web reader plays right into the hands of corporate-controlled media. The Internet may be rapidly moving toward Noam Chomsky's "manufacturing consent," the phenomenon where large amounts of information rests in the hands of a powerful few and whose own self-interest tends to dictate how that information is presented to the public.
Web.scan columnist and Internet activist mathew points out another danger in that someone like the Christian Coalition can spoof the system by purchasing the first ten search results on keywords like "atheism" or "secular" in order to redirect traffic away from content-rich sites like the Secular Web and toward their own stealth pages set up to preach against atheism. The way this would work is simple. The Christian Coalition would set up a web page named something innocent like "Atheism Today" and populate it with testimonials of ex-atheists who converted and became born-again Republicans. Then Atheism Today would be mirrored on several different domain names on the same server. Once established, they would outbid everyone else for search keywords like "atheism" and "atheist" and direct the paid links to each mirror site, effectingly pushing all other search results down to the 20th or 30th spot.
Of course, the way search engines currently work this is already possible on a smaller scale. For example, a Christian Coalition or Scientology front group could set up "Atheism Today" and place meta tags loaded with keywords such as "atheism" or "secular" in order to boost their placement at the top of search listings. As Goto.com points out, selling top spots results in an "open system by which advertisers vie for consumer attention." Thus, there are no "hidden tricks with phantom keyword placement and other methods of forcing a Web site to the top of a results page." Clearly, since most of the brute work is done by web crawlers and robots with only a handful of editors to oversee the process, this remains a problem. But the answer is not to begin selling keywords to advertisers. As mathew points out, "the person with the most money is not always the one who's in the right, or most deserving of being read." Breaking that link between the actual content of a page and the reader has unintended consequences that may ultimately make the search engine another in a long-line of useless commercial gadgets.
Mixing ad copy with search results is also a breach of trust. "Newspapers and magazines separate out their advertising from their articles," mathew notes, "they don't insert paid copy masquerading as a review, then put a footnote saying 'By the way, we were paid to pick this manufacturer's product as our Best Buy choice.' When search engines mix paid ads with actual search results, they are fundamentally being dishonest to the consumer." Goto.com's ad policy tilts the playing field away from the hobbyist publisher and toward the larger sites who have the corporate backing to pay for increased web exposure. By tricking the web surfer into clicking on advertising rather than a valid search result, Goto.com has fundamentally altered the fabric of the web. And unless net denizens speak out, they just might get away with it.
For nonbelievers, Christmas can either be an unmitigated disaster or a relaxing and enjoyable time with the family. The holidays can also be a stressful time. Should one go to worship services with the rest of the family or stay home in protest? What does one do when the family prays before meals? The last thing you want during a time of joy and sharing is to get into a silly argument over belief in God.
The first thing you should do at the start of the holiday season is take a deep breath and ask a serious question. What do you want to prove? If your goal is to highlight your newfound activism at every opportunity, realize that your parents, grandparents, and siblings might see your rebellion as a direct challenge to family unity. When grandmother asks everyone to pray and you storm out of the room in protest, your family will be hurt, offended, and confused all at the same time. There is a right way and a wrong way to bring your nonbelief into the family dynamic. The wrong way is to hurl it at them in outbursts of emotionally charged fits or to sulk in a moody "silent treatment." To be a nonbeliever in a society of believers requires an extra level of maturity and responsibility. It requires that you understand the spiritual needs of others although you no longer share those beliefs yourself. It also calls for you to respect the traditions and beliefs of your family even though you do not believe in God. When the time is right you can tell your family why religion is no longer meaningful to you, but choose a time when everyone is socializing and relaxed.
After the wine has been opened, toasts made, gifts exchanged, and grandmother asks everyone to give thanks to God, it is a time to act mature and responsibly. Recognize that such traditions are meaningful to your family and say nothing. If you think about it, prayer is not really about God anyway. Prayer is a highly-ritualized interpersonal communion, a sociological bonding between people, which expresses gratitude that the family is together sharing each other's wellbeing. Later, when Uncle Charlie asks why you did not pray with them, there will be time enough to explain your convictions. It will be far easier for Uncle Charlie to understand your position if you stood with your family during prayer than if you left the room to pout. You will be in a position to point out to him that you deeply respect the family traditions (although you do not personally share them), so it is now his turn to respect your personal beliefs.
Should you attend mass or a church service with your family? It depends on how comfortable you feel about the matter. Some nonbelievers attend worship services with their family out of respect. Others prefer to draw the line at actual attendance and ask that the family go on without them. It is really up to you. If you are young, your parents might see worship service as a tool to bring you "back to your senses" after the "nonsense" that you've been exposed to at the university. This is a situation in which the family does not go to worship services for the intended purpose, but rather goes as a means to a secular end: to change you and to make you conform to their way of thinking. This is very unhealthy. It is likely that if you attended with them and did not change your mind about God, it will lead to a bitter argument. That is the last thing you want during the Christmas holidays. Another family might see worship services as a time of family unity and a genuine means to give thanks to God. Although they respect your nonbelief, they consider worship service to be a time when the family shares quality time together. This might be a case when attendance is a sign of respect to your parents that shows you care about them and are ready to stand with them in an important moment. Again, you will have to decide what is best. Protect your feelings, do what feels comfortable, and remember that the holidays are a time of family love, unity, caring, and unselfish giving. The wise nonbeliever chooses his or her battles carefully and knows when to retreat for the sake of the family. Enjoy yourself, don't drink too much eggnog, and have a great Christmas holiday!