Christmas is a time of renewal. As my pastor put it, each Christmas is a little different because each year we are a little different.
While it may be overcommercialized, Christmas – and more importantly, its message – are deeply embedded in our culture. It is interesting to contemplate a world without it.
The late Christopher Hitchens had an implacable hostility toward religion and like most militant atheists seemed to think that once people got over their sky-god, the world would be a better place.
The thing is, we know what that world looks like. It looks like North Korea.
If there is no higher authority, then it is up to men to police their own impulses. Given human nature, this is an impossible task. While the belief in the afterlife may animate a handful madmen to blow themselves up and cause carnage, it motivate a far larger population to do good deeds.
Based on the historical record, it is pretty clear that Christianity has been an enormously positive force for humanity – so much so that it allows atheists to assume that they could dynamite the churches and everything would stay the same.
Consider the pre-Christian world. It is a place of arbitrary and often capricious gods, where mercy is almost nonexistent. Rivals are killed in brutal fashion and there is nothing to be gained by tithing to help the poor. Slavery is widespread and an accepted part of life.
If one had the world to choose from in 300 B.C., probably the best place to live (from a moral standpoint) was Judea. The Israelites had the Law of Moses, which laid the foundation for Western morality. Whereas the pagan essentially believes that kings may do what they will (after all, Jove does all sorts of crazy things), the Jews hold to a higher law, and none are exempt from God’s final judgement (King Herod’s fate being a fine example of this).
The problem with Judaism as a global belief was that it is limited to the Chosen People. What Christianity did was extend the promise of salvation to everyone: rich and poor, free and slave. This universal appeal is why it has been so successful around the world.
If I want to do a Marxist analysis, I would say it is because it appeals to the vast underclass in the way that other religions do not. Pre-industrial societies tend to significant stratification and their religions recognized and legitimized this. Whether we are speaking of the entrenched Chinese bureaucracy or the Brahmins of India, the lot of the poor was to simply accept their lowly place.
Christianity offered an alternative, one that could appeal not just to the powerful (who could claim divine sanction) but more importantly to the masses.
This is not to say the pagans were without morality, but it was simply not the same as ours because the divine underpinnings were not as rigid. When Caligula wanted to bed his sister, he could point to the gods doing it all the time. The taboo wasn’t all that firm.
The big knock against the Catholic Church is of course the Crusades. But these are widely misunderstood and distorted. They were a defensive campaign, initiated to save the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire from being overrun by the Turks. It's not as if the Levant peacefully converted to that noted religion of peace – or that its pacifist disciples didn't conquer Constantinople after a desperate siege and bloody aftermath.
Anyhow, the atrocities committed during the Crusades were routine for the period – so much so that they weren't considered atrocities at the time. Siege warfare was ugly. President Clinton talking about Jerusalem’s streets running with blood was describing the fall of just about every city in recorded history.
Indeed, I defy a reader to indentify a fortress taken by storm where the defenders weren’t massacred. That was the bargain one made: Open your gates and there will be minimal harm, defend them and if we get inside, we’ll kill you all.
The medieval Church did more than preach crusades and launch inquisitions – it was a center of learning and knowledge, and also provided critical care for the poor. The Knights of St. John – the Hospitallers – founded medical facilities for the poor across Europe and the St. John’s Ambulance Company is their direct descendant (the Order is still around, in fact). The Church also attempted to outlaw warfare altogether, or at least “civilize it.”
I cannot leave the topic of the Crusades without mentioning Louis IX of France – St. Louis. One of the last Crusaders, he was pious in the extreme, going so far as to wash the feet of the poor outside Paris.
This notion – a king who serves as father to his people, just as God is the father to all – is a wholly Judeo-Christian concept.
Much of the morality we take for granted comes from our Judeo-Christian civilization. Take that away, and life gets a lot more savage.
There are still good and bad people, but without the commandment to love one’s neighbor, to forgive the trespasses of others, mercy becomes a very rare commodity.
Atheism takes this to its logical end: For if people are just another form of good, they can be expended as needed. The Soviet Union put this into practice, sacrificing some for the “great good” of material gain. After all, if there is nothing other than the here and now, what better cause than to sacrifice the few for the many?
Thus we see political dissidents becoming “unpersons” and sent to camps where they were worked to death. Meanwhile the elites – and there are always elites – live the good life because they can. Why not? Life ends in nothing but darkness, so if you have power, enjoy it while you can.
Even the immortality offered by a good life can be substituted through control of the history books. Stalin was a great man because anyone who said otherwise is dead, and their works are burned.
Atheism can only work if it is practiced in a Judeo-Christian way. This is because human nature craves inspiration from the divine. If no god can be found, we place ourselves on the heavenly throne – and inevitably create hell on earth.