Making a secular holiday tree

For thousands of years, the winter solstice – the turning point of the year, with the end of increasing darkness and the beginning of the return of light – has been celebrated with feasts, log fires, and a tree decorated with shiny things and candles.  It’s all about light.

If you want a holiday tree, but want to make it very clear what your religious or philosophic position is, then why not let 300 or so books return temporarily to their roots (so to speak), and be a tree for a couple of weeks!

You make whatever statement your reading habits make.

You make whatever statement your reading habits make.

A holiday tree, full of light.

A holiday tree, full of light.

There are several places on the web where you can find instructions for doing this in an organized way.

We started with a circle of seven outsized books, spines out, and built up from there. At about two feet we started to fill it with pillows and cushions, and at about four feet we put an oversized book across the shrinking hole to stabilize everything.

After we wrapped 80 feet of lights round it, we inserted a bunch of white lights into a convenient crystal cone to top it off.

Happy holidays!

Unasked questions: How big was the Star of Bethlehem?

The story of the Wise Men following the star is in Matthew 2: 9 “When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.”

It led them, and stopped over where Jesus was.

Obviously, this star was very close to the Earth. Maybe as high as a modern skyscraper over the place Jesus was. Say 1,000 feet. If it was as far away as the Moon, it wouldn’t be leading them and then stopping over where Jesus was. It was a lot closer than the Sun is. A lot closer than the next star, which is 25,277,000,000,000 miles away (4.3 light years, yes, that’s over 25 trillion miles).

Here’s the problem: the smallest that a star can be is 80 times the size of Jupiter, and Jupiter is over 300 times the mass of the Earth. Smaller than that, and the object can’t undergo nuclear fusion. So, to be a star, it has to be at least 25,000 times as massive as the Earth, and even then it would only be a red dwarf. If you want a white star, it has to be 10 times larger still.

Unfortunately, if anything that size came anywhere near the Earth, our planet would be dragged right into it and disappear like a pebble tossed into a pond.

So either the story of “the star leading them, and then stopping over the house” is complete nonsense, or else you have to say “It wasn’t what we would call a star today – it was a light which they thought was a star, because they didn’t have our modern understanding.” Fine. And by the same reasoning you can say “The Burning Bush with the voice of God wasn’t actually a burning bush with the voice of God, it was a phenomenon that Moses didn’t understand and thought was a burning bush with the voice of God… and the vision of Jesus that Paul had wasn’t really a vision of Jesus, he just thought it was Jesus… and the thing called God all through the Bible isn’t really God, it’s just a series of experiences and phenomena that pre-scientific peoples thought was God, because they didn’t have out modern understanding.”

Congratulations, and welcome to the real world! You are now free of religion. Go in peace.

Best resources – Debunking myths

Humans have been very successful as a species through love of pattern-recognition activities and a broad search for cause-and-effect. This leads to a love of stories and constant search for ‘Meaning’. The easiest way to introduce a new concept to people is to connect it to a story, as Jesus did repeatedly through parables. The inherent danger is that, because people are programmed to seek a narrative, people prefer an incorrect model over an incomplete model. In the absence of a better explanation, they opt for the wrong explanation.

We all grow up at some point... if we live long enough...

So in the process of trying to debunk an incorrect idea, you have to be sure to provide a complete alternative explanation. You also have to be careful not to inadvertently reinforce the flawed idea – this ‘backfiring’ can be caused by various things: bad framing of the idea, or too many arguments and details, or threatening the listener’s worldview.

The Debunking Handbook, a guide to debunking misinformation, deals with these issues. It is now freely available to download, and offers practical guidelines on the most effective ways of reducing the influence of myths. The Debunking Handbook boils the concepts down into a short, simple summary, intended as a guide for communicators in all areas who encounter misinformation. It originated with climate researchers, but it has universal application.

I believe debunking myths of all kinds is important, because what we believe impacts how we make decisions. Bush foreign policy was informed with a lot of Messianic Christian mumbo-jumbo which contributed to the Iraq war as well as to anti-science policies on health care and stem-cell research. Science and government must be kept free of religion, or we end up with shorter and less fulfilling lives. But we can’t simply say ‘The Christian narrative is flawed; Jesus isn’t God, don’t be ridiculous.’ We have to provide a complete alternative story of who he was, and how we can understand his words and actions in a completely secular way.

That is what I have attempted in “The Gospel According to the Romans” – that Jesus was a Jew, and a fundamentalist Jew at that, who wanted to cleanse Israel by kicking the beardless, pig-eating, polytheist, idolatrous Romans out of Palestine and restoring the Torah as the source of law. He was connected to the Zealot uprisings which had been going on for 100 years before him and continued for another 100 years afterwards – his attempt to take over the Temple at Passover was a clear failure, and he was caught and crucified.

But this book is probably only half of what I need to say on the matter. Because Paul came along after Jesus and used him as the vehicle for creating the greatest syncretist religion the world has ever seen, blending Judaism and Mithraism with Egyptian and Greco-Roman practices to end up with the Christianity that we have today. In order to say that happened, and to be understood and believed, we need to tell it as a coherent and non-magical story – plausible even if we can’t know exactly what happened.

In short, we need a parable to debunk Jesus, Paul and Christianity.

Solstice, Stonehenge and Newgrange

The northern hemisphere’s winter solstice has been a major festival for the past several thousand years.

Newgrange at the winter solstice: the upper slot lets sunrise penetrate 60 feet into the mound.

At Newgrange in Ireland, 1,000 years before Stonehenge (and 500 years before the Pyramids of Egypt), a 60-foot passageway was built with walls and roof of stone slabs, ending in a cruciform chamber, and the whole roofed over with an enormous dirt mound 50 feet high and covering an acre of land. Normally the passageway and chamber are dark, but for a couple of days at solstice a slot over the entrance lets the rising sun flood the chamber with light for a few minutes. A lucky couple of dozen tourists, chosen by lottery during the year, are allowed in for this magical moment.

This suggests that the alignment of stones at Stonehenge was for the production of similar effects. The mound at Newgrange is still standing, but we don’t know what Stonehenge looked like. There may have been a mound at Stonehenge (there are other mounds nearby, notably Silbury Hill near Avebury), or else walls of wood and animal hides could have kept the interior dark except at the astronomically significant moments.

Thousands of years later, during the rise of the Roman Empire, the Roman year-end festival of Saturnalia began to merge with the northern neolithic ceremonies and their Celtic and Germanic descendants, and with the virgin birth at solstice of Mithras the Unconquerable Sun-god.

As early Christians looked for a way to separate Jesus from his Jewish roots and to make him broadly acceptable throughout the Roman Empire, his birth (which had probably happened in the spring) began to be celebrated at the winter solstice too.

Merry Christmas! Io Saturnalia! Happy Solstice! – In the northern hemisphere, this is the time to celebrate that the tide of darkness has turned, and that light and life are beginning to return to our world. Peace!

Unashamed commercialism…

Pantera, a Roman legionary, remains a plausible biological father for Jesus

You have only minutes left to get an interesting gift – a stocking-stuffer for an intelligent, literate, argumentative teen, say.

You could order them a copy of The Gospel According to the Romans for $14.95 here, or from

or you can send it to them as an e-book for 86p in the UK, or 99 cents in the US, or EUR 0,99 at one of Amazon’s main European websites (for example Germany, but you can substitute other country letters for the ‘de’), where you/they can also get a free Kindle app for reading it (look on the right-hand side)

or you can simply point them at this blog,, where they can enjoy random religious rants and sniping year-round!

(Discussion of Pantera is at, fyi. And Merry Christmas!)

Gabriel and the birth of Jesus

Angels had sex with Earth women, says Genesis 6: 1-4

Here’s the Christian story: The angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her she was pregnant. She hadn’t had sex with a man.

How could this be? The Old Testament provides an answer: In Genesis 6: 1-4 it is told how the angels found the daughters of men attractive and had sex with them, and produced powerful men (or heroes, or giants, depending on your preference).

So Jesus can presumably claim descent from God through Gabriel. This is all so logical. I wonder why it isn’t a standard part of the Christmas story?


Best resources – Christmas, Mithras, and Paul

Merry Christmas! And the question is, if Jesus was born sometime in the spring (when the shepherds were in the fields with the sheep, and the animals’ area with the manger under the house kataluma wasn’t being used), why did Christians create a winter solstice celebration for him instead?

Paul has an epileptic seizure on the road to Damascus

The answer is that Paul caused it. Paul’s intent was to create a Judaism-based religion that would be universally acceptable; he was a Roman citizen, not just a member of a conquered nation, and he wanted his religion to be Roman as well as Jewish. Reputedly epileptic, his seizures gave rise to religious visions, the most famous being of Jesus (who he never met) guiding him along a syncretist path. Paul took popular elements of Roman, Egyptian and Persian religions, and expressed the message of his religion in whatever form was most acceptable to the Empire as a whole.

The most popular religion with the Roman military was Mithraism. It was exclusively male, a mystery cult with seven levels of initiation, and a clear-cut view of the world as the battle-ground between good and evil. It promised eternal life to its believers, and its god was Mithras, the Unconquerable Sun.

For an extensive review of the whole issue, I refer you to Ben Best’s enormous review of the roots of Christmas, from which I quote:

“Mithras was a divine being borne of a human virgin on December 25th (the Winter Solstice by the Roman Julian calendar), his birth watched and worshiped by shepherds. As an adult, Mithras healed the sick, made the lame walk, gave sight to the blind and raised the dead. Before returning to heaven at the Spring Equinox Mithras had a last supper with 12 disciples (representing the 12 signs of the Zodiac). Mithraism included Zoroastrian beliefs in the struggle between good & evil, symbolized as light & darkness. This militaristic black-and-white morality (including a final judgment affecting an afterlife of heaven or hell) probably accounted for the popularity of Mithraism among Roman soldiers. Mithraism was like an ancient fraternity: a mystery cult open only to men which had seven degrees of initiation — including the ritual of baptism and a sacred meal of bread & wine representing the body & blood of Mithras.”

The original December 25th Virgin Birth

The purple-robed priests, candles, incense, circular wafers and Queen of Heaven motifs were ideas that were familiar and attractive to Egyptians. The winter solstice greeting cards and presents, the greenery of trees and branches and garlands, the pantheon of saints to pray to – those customs were comfortable among Greeks and Romans. But the December 25th Virgin Birth (along with much else) was what would make Paul’s Christianity completely familiar and acceptable to the Roman Legions.

In The Gospel According to the Romans, the Roman military are Mithraists while Jesus and his followers are Jews. There weren’t any Christians yet, of course.