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God and Christmas, Part One

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'Tis the season to man the guns if you care at all about your religion. Joseph Farah, who runs a conservative website called WorldNetDaily.com, was one of the lucky recipients of a Christmas card from the White House this year. Did he proudly display it among the other cards on his mantelpiece, like every other shit-kickin' cattle rancher and corporate friend on the Bush family list? No.

"I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it," Mr. Farah told the Washington Post today. Why? Because he was offended that the White House card fails to mention the words "Christmas" or "Jesus," but only wishes recipients "Happy Holidays."

William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights also slagged the Presidential card. "Ninety-six percent of Americans celebrate Christmas," he scoffed to the Post. "Spare me the diversity lecture."

For Mr. Farah, Mr. Donohue and others of the ilk - and their name is legion these days -failing to mention the mass of Christ in one's holiday greetings is tantamount to an attack - albeit passive aggressive - on their faith. These Christian soldiers will stand for it no longer.

These grown men are treating a greeting card as a shot across the bow. Why is it that 21st Century Christians living in the United States, arguably among the best-protected believers on earth right now, still feel that they are inches away from the lion's den?

I first recognized this bizarre psychological phenomenon on a black day shortly after the last Presidential election. A woman in Minnesota talked to some national reporters and described herself as an evangelical Christian, a member of the group credited with giving W his edge. She was elated by Bush's re-election because finally, after years of being "made to feel bad" about her religion, she had helped put someone in the White House who shared her brand of strong faith.

I saved that article for a long time on my desk, thinking about phoning the woman up and asking her exactly what she meant by being made to feel bad about her religion, and whether she had ever contemplated how atheists and Jews and Muslims in America were made to feel about their respective beliefs.

Until that point, I really had not felt much resentment toward extremely religious Christians. I might have disagreed with them, but I certainly would not have gone out of my way to make any of them "feel bad." After November 2004, however, I am sorry to say, I really did wish them ill. On what basis do these privileged people feel threatened, and how dare they foist their life-encompassing superstition on the public square?

A very important book was published this year that goes a long way toward explaining why modern day American Christians seem to feel so threatened: "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason," by Sam Harris. This book was notably and unfairly absent from the New York Times Notable books list, but honored with a PEN Award. It deserves to be stuffed into the stocking of every religious moderate on your list, and mailed in brown paper to the religious kooks in every family.

Mr. Harris argues cogently, pithily, wittily, passionately, that religious "faith" is leading humanity straight to a very earthly hell. He plants a stake on uncharted ground in the public discourse about religion, arguing that the world would be better off without the three major religions and that moderate people of faith - no matter how well-meaning and benign - are enablers, if you will, of the world's crazy, death-crazed, Paradise seeking fundamentalists.

The most important point he makes is that the three religions are de facto intolerant of each other, no matter how many rabbis, mullahs and priests break bread together at nondenominational prayer breakfasts. If you believe something as fundamental to your core as that you will live forever and not die, but ONLY if you believe in a certain book written in the era before printing press and wheelbarrow, you will naturally dis-respect those who believe otherwise.

I'm surprised Robertson, Falwell and bin Laden have not yet jointly issued a fatwa on Mr. Harris, for suggesting, for example, that the Bible and the Koran will end up on the same shelves with Ovid's Metamorphoses and The Egyptian Book of the Dead - if the religious factions don't incinerate the earth in pursuit of righteousness first.

"The Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology," Mr. Harris writes. "To rely on such a document as the basis for our worldview . is to repudiate two thousand years of civilizing insights that the human mind has only just begun to inscribe upon itself through secular politics and scientific culture."

Mr. Harris is a scholar of Eastern and Western religions and his aim with this provocative book is to begin the public discourse over whether faith in supernatural beings serves any hygienic usefulness in a post-nuclear world. Harris points out that this is such a taboo subject that a rocket scientist who doesn't read the Bible would lose a Presidential election to an actor who does, or at least claims to do so. The extremists didn't cause this, even though they have been baited out of their holes by the nasty combination of bin Laden's boys, Karl Rove's strategies and W's dry-drunk Christianity.

Harris argues that the religious moderates have let this happen. Yes, those very nice people who go to church once in awhile, who teach their kids the mythology and who wouldn't think of going on a political Crusade or suicidal jihad. "Religious moderation still represents a failure to criticize the unreasonable - and dangerous - certainty of others," Harris writes.

During this holiday season, I intend to think a bit more about Mr. Harris's book. In the meantime, buy Mr. Harris's book for yourself, share it with friend and foe, and, to borrow a phrase from the leader of the free world, "bring 'em on." It's high time for some serious questions about the thread of unreason in modern society, and what better place to bring it up than around the Christmas tree?