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25 Dec 17

Happy Christmas Poses no Threat to Secularism

Borna Sor

A holiday based on a time of peace, mercy, hope and generosity is no danger to a secular society, as long as it is open to all people of good will.

Photo: Flickr/Shelby U

This holiday season serves as a civilizational anti-depressant, for thousands of years celebrating the battle against sickness, winter and death. In ancient times, the coming of snow and the shortened days were a real horror to our ancestors. However, as civilization developed, not only did the technology that beat winter conditions, but also our weapons of symbolic combat.

Our children are not afraid of snow. They build snowmen, ride on sleighs and throw snowballs. The dark winter night has been defeated by millions of neon lights, and poverty and hunger by feasts, gifts, and giving to those less fortunate. Our superiority is so great that we even decorate the trees in the parks, as if to say to winter: “Where are you now, loser?»

Of course, our main victory is the victory of life. All great religions therse days celebrate their own victories of light over darkness, of life over death and of hope over fear. The Christian Christmas has managed to conquer the entire world, so that apart from Christians it is also celebrated by atheists, communists, capitalists and all consumers of American culture.

So, not everyone celebrates the birth of Christ as our Saviour or the Son of God as much as they celebrate goodness between people, gift-giving and family love. However, it’s still a religious holiday of a clearly defined religion, Christianity, and, if you’re celebrating the birth of the Messiah in our parts, it means Catholic or Orthodox Christianity.

And so a question of secularism is raised, separation of Church and state. In the United States, there has long been discussion about this. While one side maintains that “Merry Christmas” is exclusive and needs to be replaced with “Happy Holidays”, the other side claims this represents a secular war on Christmas, an effort to de-Christianize the US.

And while we may leave Americans to their arguments, it is interesting that in these holiday times secularism - for many a problematic topic - is easier than arguments about religious symbols in classrooms, the influence of the Church on politics, discrimination against religious minorities, abortion, divorce or the status of women in society.

Perhaps that is because of the holiday spirit that, during Christmastime, we don’t mind the connection between state, the Church, religion and public space so much. Or maybe it’s about understanding secularity.

To understand that, we have to go back to the time of the first written evidence of secularity. Close your eyes and enter my time machine.

It is the 15th century. Before Christ. We are on Mount Sinai, the Egyptian penninsula. In our proximity lies the eponymous hill, also known under the name of Horeb. At its foot, the Jews are camping during their journey from Egypt to Judea, a journey that will prove important for the entire world. Their leader, Moses, is creating a code that will change the world; the basis of modern civilizations and all great religions – the Ten Commandments. A lot of these commandments reflected experiences of centuries of human living conditions. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Respect your parents, friends, neighbors. Everybody agreed on that.

But Moses decided that the first commandment must be more enlightening. There is only one God. And if that God is justice, he cannot be relative. If God is the law, he can have no exception. His name is morality and he is the root of our law.

It's something similar to today’s constitutions, human rights conventions and laws. Behind them stands a certain morality, bigger values about a better tomorrow and a hope for all people. Our laws, which prohibit murder, theft, purgery or slander, also correspond to that primary, fundamental rule. And when we change laws, we evoke those ancient values.

So Moses shared his thoughts with the rest and everyone agreed that it was wise to set this as the first Commandment. However, after a few days, strange things started to happen. First, a drunken man accused a woman of being a witch, supposedly hearing it from God himself. Moses found no evidence that the woman was a witch. The day afterwards, a greedy general called for the slaughter of a neighboring tribe, claiming God would be proud. Moses decided there was no reason for conflict. God’s name was suddenly summoned in courts. After that, a woman organized a referendum against gay rights, claiming that is how God wanted it. Moses shook his head.

He soon returned to the other priests and suggested a commandment that would be second in its importance of all the comandments in the world: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”

It was the first secular commandment in human history.

Its message was clear. The fact that God is Alpha and Omega does not mean that everyone can constantly call on his name to justify their own interests. If we have a God, we may not allow his name to be spread across all questions and problems that plague us. When we water our fields and feed our livestock, or start wars and sue each other, let’s not call on God as an argument.

That premise stands to this day. Secularity protects us from calling on the Lord’s name in vain. That is why these holiday days of peace, mercy, hope and generosity do not violate secularity, as long as they are open to all people of good will. That’s why we need to carry their energy throughout the entire year.

Because every time someone attacks secularity, let's remember that they’re attacking the second commandment of our civilization. [And you thought it was about cursing...]

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