The winter holidays are here, and that can only mean one thing– debates between atheists and believers about how to refer to the well-deserved break we’re enjoying. Should we stick with tradition and say “Merry Christmas”, or go with the more politically correct “Happy Holidays”? The current political climate seems to favor the more secular greeting; after all, the new president doesn’t take office until late January. But before the atheist camp starts celebrating a victory in the culture war, it’s wise to ask whether this side of the debate really lives up to its claims of being more objective than their opponents.
It’s a pretty safe bet to say that the predominant religious tradition in North America, Europe, and Oceania is Protestantism, a religious tradition which is part of the Abrahamic family of religions. The primary scripture of this tradition is the Bible, composed of both the Old Testament which documents the interactions between ancient Israelites and the surrounding pagan tribes and the New Testament which documents the life and teachings of the birthday boy himself, Jesus of Nazareth.
Modern secularism, in turn, traces its origins to Classical philosophers such as Socrates and Plato. Both thinkers were citizens of ancient Athens, credited with the development of democracy and a worldview which emphasized reason. At least, that’s what Zack Snyder wanted audiences to think when he directed 300. This view of Classical Greek society, which originated during the European Enlighenment, does not stand up to scrutiny.
In Histories 1.199, Herodotus describes a custom among Bablynonian women, which appalled him to no end, where they would visit a temple of Ishtar and have intercourse with a stranger. The process at work here was most likely a rite of passage for young girls; several societies, both in ancient and modern times, have held rites of passage to mark formal entry into adulthood, and for young girls, this rite was often sexual in nature, because they were deemed physically incapable of participating in the same strenuous physical activities as young males. The fact that these young women were choosing random men for this activity implies some sort of postmodernism at work, due to the fact that there was no requirement of a committed relationship.
Herodotus’s reaction to this practice showcases the ethnocentric worldview of the ancient Greeks, often heralded as paragons of a rationalist worldview, who considered every foreign people and their customs to be “barbaric”, a term which incorporated strong value judgement in addition to its literal definition as a term describing non-Greek peoples. Ancient Greek usage of the term “barbaric” was roughly analogous to contemporary use of the term “Negro”, which includes a racist component in addition to its literal meaning as an ethnic indicator.
Whereas the Bible refers to cults engaging in this practice as “demonic”, Classical writers are not significantly less biased in their opinions, especially when one remembers that they had no appreciating foreign practices like philosophy that conformed with their values. Ancient Greek writers were willing to acknowledge Celtic Druids and Hindu Brahmins as barbarian philosophers, even if they didn’t consider their teachings to be of the same quality as Greek philosophy, inspite of the prevalence of human sacrifice in pre-Roman Europe, officiated by the Druids, and caste discrimination in India, condoned and sanctioned by the Brahmins.