Two days from now it would be Christmas, a day about three billion people worldwide belonging to different denominations of Christianity commemorate the historically controversial birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of Christianity.
Most times the clergy, especially Africans amongst them who behave as if they are more catholic than the Pope or more Anglican than the Archbishop of Canterbury, always deploy ad hominem arguments augmented with tedious, pedantic manipulation of narratives of dubious historicity to deflect valid criticisms of their religion. That is understandable: any person whose source of income and influence or power is threatened by penetrating criticism is likely to put up a spirited defence, no matter how illogical or irrational such defence might be.
Unknown to most believers, the fundamental doctrines of Christianity are not eternal verities inspired by a divine being believed to exist: rather, they crystallised from the blending of so-called pagan religions that evolved within communities around the Mediterranean Sea, notably Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome. As the British historian, Arnold Toynbee, remarks in his engrossing work, Mankind and Mother Earth, “Christianity devoured Syrian, Egyptian, Anatolian and Hellenic gods and goddesses and thereby made their powers her own.”
Now, because of the pervasive ignorance of Nigerians concerning the actual historical development of their faiths, it is important to periodically bring to limelight facts about religions that members of the clergy would not really want believers to know. It is clear that religious leaders benefit immeasurably from lack of knowledge precisely because of the pervasive influence of religious mentality especially in backward African countries like Nigeria. From experience, hypocrites and evil people hiding under the smokescreen of religion, including bishops, general overseers, pastors, imams, prophets and so on, can insult critics of religion like myself till the end of time – it does not matter.
The point is that suppressed information about Christianity and Islam which the clergy might consider too inconvenient or toxic to what they have been preaching must be dispassionately presented and discussed from time to time for reasonable believers to have a deeper understanding of their religion and make appropriate mental adjustments where necessary when it becomes obvious that the beliefs and doctrines they previously thought were unquestionably true are, at best, pious fictions intended to make them more susceptible to psychological manipulation. For sure, to those of us trained in philosophy nothing concerning religion is so sacrosanct that it cannot be interrogated or critically discussed openly irrespective how it might impact those using the name of God to exploit gullible Nigerians for their own bulimic benefit and aggrandisement. In my opinion, Nigerians have been manipulated and defrauded for too long by the clergy. Therefore, this Christmas provides another opportunity for a critical analysis of selected distinctive doctrines and practices in Christianity.
Sometime ago, a handful of shallow-minded people had challenged me for not criticising Islam the way I criticise Christianity. In their opinion, I am afraid to do so because of the completely irrational and violent manner Islamic fanatics respond to critics and criticism of their prophet and the Holy Koran. While conceding the need to be cautious with respect to Islam due to the primitive and savage attitude of Muslim fanatics, my relative silence about the religion is due to my limited knowledge about it and Prophet Mohammed, its founder. When I eventually acquire adequate knowledge of Islam through research, I will write about it as long as the editor is willing to publish my script. Muslims that attacked critics like Ibn Warraq and Salman Rushdie are a disgrace to the religion because they responded to a matter that requires intellectual sophistication in a manner appropriate to Australopithecus boisei or Homo Pekiniensis. Now, Christians tend to forget that during the Inquisition and Crusades, Christianity was as violent as Islam is today, that the relative non-violent nature of Christianity is not because the Holy Bible does not contain incitement to violence or severe reprisals against both unbelievers and adherents who disobey alleged commandments by God. In fact, the history of Christianity, just like that of Islam, is littered with sordid accounts of unspeakable violence, cruelty and brutality.
However, over the centuries, courageous men and women, some of them genuinely devout Christians, defied all odds to criticise practices like discrimination, cruelty, and violence which they rightly thought to be radioactive to true, spiritually mature, religion. They began to emphasise the primacy of love over hatred, tolerance over intolerance, and mercy or forgiveness over vengeful justice, in accordance with selected biblical narratives in which Jesus emphasised the centrality of love if one truly wants to serve and please God. Additionally, the Enlightenment period in Europe which witnessed the steady rise of science, machine production and secularisation, gave rise to an intelligentsia that insisted on the cultivation of tolerant attitudes towards religious differences which ultimately weakened the stranglehold of Christianity in people’s minds and hearts.
This secularisation has continued to the present day, such that in several European countries majority of the population do not identify themselves as Christians. Now, Islam is yet to undergo the same effect of continuous questioning, adaptation and change that would wean it of the brutality and incendiary excrescences of its primitive origin. Millions of enlightened human beings worldwide will continue to loathe the faith until a sizeable percentage of Muslims muster the courage to interrogate their religion critically in order to separate the rational from what is purely superstitious, replace morbid fear of alleged contamination by non-Muslims with the attitude of tolerance, and recognise the absurdity of justifying violent conduct in the name of Allah and the Prophet.
Let me be more forthright on the question of Islam: I am repelled by the religion because fanatics Muslims tend to interpret certain texts in Islamic scriptures literally rather than metaphorically, an attitude that inoculates them from the natural feeling of revulsion towards cruelty and violence. Moreover, although there are passages in the Holy Koran and the Hadith that preach peace, love, and justice, there are many others that explain cruelty, violence and war against unbelievers. Given the existential fact that it is easier for human beings generally to commit evil than do good, it should not be surprising that fanatic Muslims and terrorists ignore the benign teachings of their religion and act more in accordance with passages that endorse violence and war or jihad.
Again, the dominant strands and tendencies in Islam lead to ridiculous gender segregation by blowing out of proportion the differences between men and women, to the level that in Islamic countries women are compelled to dress in a certain way that gives the impression of subjugation, forced into early marriages, occluded from several professions and sporting activities, in addition to a whole range of restrictions that prevent them from actualising their latent productive powers to the fullest. Therefore, I am convinced that the more Islam loses its hold on the mental infrastructure of Muslims throughout the world, the better for humanity in general.
Back to Christianity: it is important to point out that Christmas is not rooted in the Holy Bible. The New Testament does not contain the exact or actual date when Jesus was born, neither was there any narrative in it about celebrating his birthday. In the scripture, Jesus did not at any point in time celebrate, or instructed his disciples to celebrate, his birthday. So, how did Christmas come about? To answer that question, we must go beyond the Holy Bible to ascertain what historians and interested scholars have said on the matter. Before we do that, however, it must be mentioned that our question presumes that there was an actual historical person named Jesus whose activities were accurately recorded in the gospels, a presumption that has been disputed by scholars especially from the time Christological research gained ground around the eighteenth century.
To the average Christian, the gospel narratives about Jesus of Nazareth are unquestionably true. But we cannot operate like the average believer, since such a person hardly subjects his or her religious beliefs to ratiocinative scrutiny. We shall keep the question of the historicity of Jesus in abeyance for now and explore the pagan origin of Christmas. Of course, some enlightened or knowledgeable Christians know that Christmas has no biblical warrant. Yet they are willing to play along mainly because of its recreational and pecuniary benefits.
Hans J. Hillerbrand, in his article entitled “Christmas Holiday,” states that the English word, Christmas (“mass on Christ’s day”) is of fairly recent origin. It is connected to an older term Yule (from where the term Yuletide was coined) which probably originated from the Germanic j?l or the Anglo-Saxon ge?l, and denotes the feast of winter solstice. Since the early twentieth century, Christmas has been transformed into a secular holiday, observed by Christians and non-Christians alike, bereft of Christian elements, and celebrated by an increasingly elaborate exchange of gifts that indicates the profound influence of capitalism on what is supposed to be a core spiritual event. An interesting accretion or addition to the secularisation of Christmas is the mythical character called Santa Claus, who plays the exciting role of dispensing gifts often in a grotto to children.
There is a broad consensus among researchers in New Testament history that the precise origin of assigning December 25 as the date when Jesus was born is unclear. Even so, the early Christian community distinguished between identification of the date of Jesus’ birth and the liturgical commemoration of that event. In the first two centuries of Christianity, the idea of recognising the birthdays of Christian martyrs or, for that matter Jesus, was vehemently opposed by top ecclesiastics. Actually, as Hillerbrand observes, numerous Church Fathers made sarcastic remarks about what they thought to be the pagan or un-Christian custom of celebrating birthdays when, in fact, saints and martyrs should be venerated on the day of their martyrdom – their true birthdays, from the church’s perspective. To be continued.