Keep Saturn in Saturnalia

I have sort of a universalist view on Christmas. I was raised in a household with stockings hung by the chimney with care, but these days I spend the holidays more with the family I chose than the one I was born into, and my friends’ holiday traditions run the gamut. So I have warm memories of evergreen trees and candy canes, but the season, for me, isn’t really about any particular religious associations anymore. I love that so many different cultures choose this time of year to reflect and celebrate. I love that so many of our traditions – like feasting and gift-giving and wassailing (that’s your word of the day) – keep outliving the belief systems they get associated with. The “War on Christmas” crowd should breathe a sigh of relief – history would suggest that Christmas will go on long after even Christianity ends (although that may be exactly what they’re afraid of). If humanity makes it another ten thousand years, precedent says that regardless of what (if any) spiritual philosophies are en vogue, we’ll still be getting together with loved ones to eat, drink, and be merry sometime around the homeworld’s winter solstice. And that’s what I celebrate now – time with the people I love, another trip around the sun on this weird little rock with the rest of the earthlings. Remembering to be grateful for those I’ve lost and looking forward to another year with those who remain. It’s the season I find it easiest to embrace my shared humanity with everyone, everywhere; differences seem so much smaller during this time of intercultural revelry. Peace on earth and goodwill towards men, indeed. At least as long as I don’t have to go to the mall.

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My childhood exposed me to a unique blend of religious and philosophical viewpoints. My mother came from a deeply devout Southern Baptist household, but she met my father during a bit of a ‘prodigal son’ phase after she dropped out of bible college. My father probably would’ve identified as Christian if asked – he’d been to church when he was a kid, he’d said a “prayer of salvation” one time – but it wasn’t a very big part of his world view. I’d say in practical, day-to-day terms, he was really some kind of Apatheist Randian Objectivist back then, although probably neither he nor I would’ve been smart enough to know that in the dark ages before Google.

They worked really hard at trying to find a balance for how to raise me, while still trying to navigate what they believed, as well as find compromises on what kind of lifestyle we’d have as a family. I’m grateful that I had parents that were willing to make that kind of effort. But it did lead to some pretty unusual circumstances at times. Dad’s outlaw biker friends taking over our living room, throwing darts, and listening to Alice Cooper records on a Saturday night; then Mom getting me up the next day to go to Sunday School. Mom dropping me off at my Montessori kindergarten in the morning, Dad picking me up in the afternoon in his 60’s Dodge with a roach in the ashtray (I need to ask him sometime about that car – I think it was a Coronet, but he sold it when I was still pretty young, and I don’t really remember).

As I got older, my mother started exploring the charismatic movement, even though that put her at odds with her parents that, like most Southern Baptists, trended more towards cessationism. So even just within Christianity, I got exposed to a lot of opposing views on the nature of god and his relationship to humanity.

For my own part, once I was old enough to start wanting to make my own decisions about what I believed, I explored a lot of different avenues. I took a year of seminary classes. I read a lot of Classical Greek and 17th and 18th-century German philosophers. I had brief Tzu phases, both Sun and Lao. I was a LaVeyan Satanist for a while. At different times I’ve described myself as an atheist, an agnostic, or a Deist. I’ve argued on the internet both in support of, and in rebuttal to, the Epicurian paradox. I got ordained as a Unitarian Universalist. I joined a megachurch and played guitar in the worship band for a couple of years. I’ve been saged, baptized (dunked and sprinkled), anointed with oil, cleansed, and had my tarot read. I’ve been to enough different communions to have brand preferences about wafers. I may have memories of a past life. I’ve spoken in tongues, I’ve laid on hands, and I’ve handled snakes (although that last one wasn’t a religious thing, I just like snakes). I know the difference between a pentacle and a pentagram, but I’ve doodled both.

These days my stances don’t swing quite so wildly anymore. My pendulum has settled somewhere around the middle of the Dawkins scale, although it doesn’t really have an option to perfectly describe where I’m at (“Most of the time I feel like there’s some kind of god or gods, but I acknowledge there’s no rational evidence to support that”). The only thing I believe “beyond a shadow of a doubt”, as the Baptists used to say, is that nobody knows for sure if the divine exists or what (if anything) happens after we die, and anybody that claims to is trying to sell you something. And while I find lofty speculations about metaphysics and the supernatural fascinating, what I feel like is a lot more important are the tenets we live our everyday lives by.

Self-proclaimed comedian Steve Harvey had a lot of people rightfully annoyed at him a few years ago over his statement that you can’t trust an atheist because they don’t have any basis for morality (he actually said “Where’s his moral barometer? It’s nowhere.”, and I think the hilarity of the phrase ‘moral barometer’ had as much to do with the viral spread of that clip as the associated outrage did). I don’t want to veer off too much into discussing why he’s wrong – other people have done it a lot better – but, if you’re not going to take any supposed holy book or sacred text as.. well, gospel, you do have to decide for yourself what morality means – what do you base your ‘moral barometer’ on? Where do you look for meaning if you feel there’s a good chance life, the universe, and everything is just a happy accident and no one exists on purpose? Secular humanism is a big one, there’s some great stuff there, kind of the modern outcropping of some of the best ideas by those German philosophers I was talking about earlier. I like Utilitarianism a lot, as well. But after all the religious texts and philosophical works I’ve read in my lifetime, there’s one maxim I hold above all others when it comes to my personal sense of morality and the meaning of life.

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