Christmas Reflections of a Nonbelieving Scientist, 2015

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It has long been my habit, even though I am a confirmed agnostic (I recognize that this is something of an oxymoron), to pause on Christmas and consider the spiritual message of the holidays. This year, doing so seems even more important than ever. Around the world, religious and ideological differences seem to be deepening in intensity, widening in breadth, and boiling with a rage that too often erupts into violence. In my own country, I see broad public support for a right-wing demagogue’s proposal to ban all Muslim’s from the country. I hear the political rhetoric surrounding a psychotic loner’s attack on a women’s health clinic echoed in presidential debates. I witness the terrible consequences of the systematic perversion of an ancient religion to exploit a troubled people to violence in cities around the world. And, among all this madness, even progressive leaders have failed to offer any compelling alternative to rage, hatred, and destruction.

I find myself searching for some counterweight to the forces that have left our society so out of balance.

Certainly, the challenges are great. The pressures of population growth and the disruptions of technology have brought long-stable cultures and faiths into collision. Economic shifts have left countless people without the means to build a life for themselves or their families. Corporate greed and governmental complicity have allowed arms manufacturers to flood the world with terrible weapons, all the while denying any responsibility for the destruction that follows. Easy travel and telecommunications have made it possible for the smallest, most irrational political movements to threaten the entire planet.

Although the civilized world’s diplomatic, military, and intelligence organizations are responding to the best of their ability, we must recognize that they cannot by themselves reverse the forces underlying this violence. Lasting answers must come from changes to the human heart. In spite of the divisive rhetoric that dominates our politics, we must learn to embrace the diversity of culture and belief that now fills the world.

In spite of the differences that separate people, all of us – all the people and animals on our planet – are bound in a web of interconnections, a deeper, universal fabric of life. It is the divisions between us that are illusory, delusions fostered by men and women of meager imagination and even less compassion, who see these divisions as a way to gain power, wealth, or simply to spread their egotistical ambitions through the world.

This interdependency is biological: we all draw life from the same air, the same water, and the same biosphere. It is also cultural: my humanist beliefs have been shaped by the same religious and secular thinkers who have articulated the hopes of all men and women of good will.

So on this day of shared winter celebration, even as I remain the irreligious individual I have become, I will open my heart to this deeper unity. I will embrace the knowledge that I am part of this broader fabric of human and animal life.

Today, I will recognize that I am indeed a humanist, but also I am a Christian, and I am a Jew, and I am a Muslim. Today, I am a Buddhist, I am a Hindu, and I am an atheist, and I will embrace all the good these diverse philosophies have created, just as I will continue to reject the evil that too often grows within them.

Today, I am the Catholic who finds a new Pope’s embrace of love has strengthened her own faith.

I am the Jew that rejoices in my spiritual home in Israel, but longs to bring a similar home to the Palestinian people living on its fringes.

I am the young Muslim man who rejects the call of violent Jihad, and embraces the harder struggle of building a world of peace.

I am the Native American sitting in a drum circle, resurrecting an ancient culture from the ruins left by genocide.

I am the displaced worker in Iowa who finds comfort in the words of Christ, while rejecting the poisonous ideologies coming from the pulpits and podiums around me.

I am the feminist imprisoned for speaking out in a country that sees her and her sisters as little more than cattle.

I am the Tibetan monk who faces the end of my ancient way of life with patience and compassion.

I am the Chinese soldier who longs to build a life with the girl he left in a factory in Guangzhou.

I am the fourteen year-old Nigerian girl, abducted by Boko Haram terrorists and given as a prize to their soldier, who sits nursing the rapist’s baby in a locked room, waiting for her tormenter to return from his mission of terror, and praying for a deliverance that will not come.

I am the architect who sees all she has created turned to rubble by a terrorist’s bomb, and gathers herself to rebuild.

I am a pregnant teenager, homeless and alone in a winter city whose name has lost all meaning.

I am a young black man, imprisoned for a crime of no consequence, reading books of law in a prison library.

I am the tribesman working to stop poaching in a nature reserve in Uganda, while my own survival remains uncertain.

I am the billionaire who chooses to use his wealth to help the lost and powerless, rather than to spread the ideology of privilege.

I am a starving polar bear searching a receding glacier for food, and I am a lost cat, prowling garbage for scraps in an alley in Los Angeles.

I am an honest cop in Chicago, facing mistrust in the eyes of everyone I encounter.

I am the scientist who refuses to stop warning of environmental catastrophe, and struggles against politicians who would silence those warnings.

I am a gay teenager struggling to understand the emotions that have set me apart from my family.

I am a wife and mother in Paris who finds herself on the front lines of a war that has shattered the city she loves.

I am the artist who seeks to express the legacy of the past and the promise of the future, within the chaotic forms that surround me.

I am an old man in a mid-sized city in the southwestern United States, hoping to face my final years with wisdom, compassion, and the love of the woman beside me.

I am harmless, powerless, frightened, unheard, but on this day of celebration, I pray for compassion and safety for all the creatures of the world.

Christmas, 2015.

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