25 December 2005

Some Thoughts for the Day

What idiot was it said that 'those who fail to remember the past are destined to repeat it?' (Having consulted my reference books it seems it was George Santayana, whoever he was.) My conclusion over the past few days, or possiby weeks, listening to the radio, reading newspapers, watching occasional television, is that the opposite is true. Those who remember the past are destined to regurgitate it for ever, and never to do anything original.

Next year could we perhaps have a christmas without the endless carolling, without endless versions of Scrooge, without the ridiculous nativity story, and without that fat bumbler in the fluffy beard and red suit? Perhaps such a ban would result in some original work. In my search for the source of the quotation I also found a counterblast, from George Eliot: 'The happiest women, like the happiest nations, have no history.' I must read her sometime.

The biologists have been trying for some time to encourage us to celebrate Darwin Day, 12th February. It will be a particularly big day in 2009, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. However I should imagine literary folk would prefer to celebrate Dickens Day, 7th February (but the bicentenary of Charles Dickens is not until 2012). We already celebrate Shakespeare Day, 23rd April, as England's national day, though it also claimed by the mythical St George.

In similar fashion I have advocated that secularists, and scientists and mathematicians generally, should celebrate 25th December as Newton Day, since Isaac Newton was born on christmas day 1642. (This fact, and that his father died before he was born, could well explain his fascination with biblical chronology, and perhaps much else of his personality.) Some biographies of Newton give the date of his birth as 11 days later, in January 1643, but this is because the calendar reform instituted by Pope Gregory XIII, on the advice of the astronomer Clavius, in 1582 was only adopted in England in 1752.

It may be argued that Newton, as biblical scholar and unitarian, is not a suitable person for secularists to celebrate, but his ideas on mechanics and gravitation have been the basis for the scientific worldview ever since, including the electromagnetic phenomena later formalised by James Clerk-Maxwell, and are still sound for most purposes, only superseded by the 20th century theories of relativity and quanta on much larger and smaller scales.

Like many other heroes of secularism, enlightenment and reason, he wrote before the epoch-making discoveries of Darwin, and lived at a time when the claustrophobic mediaeval religious world still cast a long dark shadow, into which, as Alexander Pope's famous verse tells, he cast much light. To return to my first thought: It is time, in the 21st century, to turn up the lights even brighter and to dispel the religious darkness for ever.

The Bishop of Leicester in his First Person column in yesterday's Leicester Mercury wrote that 'We seem to be wanting to forget who we are. We are a nation with a story shaped and symbolised by christian values, among others.' But most of the 'christian' customs that he mentions, trees, cards, and santa, are pagan or commercial ideas. And the tolerance that he so much values, is in fact a rational, secular, humanist value. The Church of England is in many respects now humanism at prayer. It is he who has forgotten what the church used to be; and still is among many of his intolerant evangelical brethren.

All this carolling and other such customs emanate from the 19th century when there was a massive drive to impose conformity on society. Not for the first time, ordinary workers were organising and seeking change and, to make matters worse, interesting new ideas about how it might be were coming forth from the likes of Marx and Engels.

These customs stay around and dominate our media for the same reason. It is bizarre that the tv schedules and every newspaper I've picked up this week focuses on the christian nativity story. Meanwhile, most people are living their lives blithely impervious to these desperate attempts to use religion to gain compliance.

From a day to day perspective religion has less and less relevance to ordinary people, they are less tied to it as a source of succour, socialising, information and education. It'll continue to be driven out as it has been for the past 150 years by an increasingly secular (leisure) world.

Unfortunately, religion is used as a tool by those in power and wanting power. So even though the ceremonies and rituals are ignored by all except those unable to make friends and feel a sense of belonging in any other way, or who prefer to abdicate responsibility for their own and others' lives, everyone gets this nonsense thrust down their throats to the death.

I detest the blatant exploitation of feasts and festivals from times when people's survival was much more precarious, the continuing feeding on people's vulnerability and the manipulation of people's psyche and desire for order and meaning in an uncertain world, through propaganda and rituals.
I'm not sure what a Darwin Day or a Newton Day would look like. Would it encompass the coming together for celebration in the cold short dark days of winter? Would we develop our own signs and language and rituals? Would we become a quaint sect, tolerated, or not, by others, lumped in the same category as Trekkies and the Jedi? Or would we be dour and puritanical, dull and worthy?
I suppose it's mainly the media that I'm getting at in moaning about the almost inescapable religious carols and pagan santas. I'd just like more variety. The Royal Institution Newton Day Lectures for example (though it's a bit talking down to noisy children this year).
Dave Ray has sent me some comments. Here is a slightly edited version:

//Some other thoughts for the day;-Re; Those who remember the past are destined to regurgitate it for ever, and never to do anything original.

//The idea that history repeats itself is OK and to some extent true BUT the concept of 'nought', or Newtons theories regarding light and gravity are indisputable historical facts and yes we regurgitate them almost by the
second simply in the way we live. The buildings we sit in are a testimony to it. Almost everything around us is the product of history so to mock it is
in many ways to mock our very humanity which I'm sure George isn't setting out to do.

//Writing is an invention that goes back about five or six thousand years so the bible is no older than that and is effectively a garbled mishmash of ill
matched and contradictory ideas that was systematically proven to be so by various supporters of Bradlaugh. From this it's clear that those who are selling
Christianity must have established their relation with god relatively
recently. Science tells us that men have been around for about sixty thousand years at least.

//Christmas is a celebration of the winter solstice. Something that has been celebrated by civilizations the world over since the beginning of civilization itself. The lengthening of the days is something I look forward
to avidly, even now, when I have no crops dependent on the coming of spring upon which my livelihood depends. So for me Christmas is a time of great celebration, and for almost all other people.

//In this life we don't get nearly as much to celebrate as we might. So don't knock it Celebrate. Just let the god squad know it's OURS to celebrate.

//On that note I think we ought to have a competition to design some winter solstice celebration cards to let people know that christmas isn't a celebration of the rebirth of some tinpot messiah. But the birth of a new year that bodes well for the continuation of our human society.
In response to the above I wrote:

Thanks for the comment Dave, ... I was trying to be a bit ironic, or something like that, but don't think I got it quite right. I agree with most of what you say.

You might be interested in the talk on "The Evolution of Belief" being given by Lewis Wolpert at Leicester Science Cafe meeting on 31st January. He "argues that
belief in religion and the paranormal evolved from toolmaking". With which I
think we are both inclined to disagree - but I'll be interested in his arguments.

To this, on further thought, I will add: Most of the things I was objecting to being 'regurgitated' are customs and traditions where people are stuck in the past, rather than knowledge.

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