Archives 2015

The Meaning of Christmas, a Quantitative Analysis

I’ve often heard atheists say that the things people associate with Christmas are mostly secular, and so in a real sense Christmas has stopped being a religious holiday, if it was. But I’ve never seen anyone try to quantify that. Aha! A lacuna that I can fill!

Originally, I was going to google “What Christmas means to me”, see what people come up with, and sort that into “Religious”, “Secular”, and “Mixed” (or “could go either way, depending”). But then What Christmas Means to Me turned out to be a Stevie Wonder song, and I couldn’t be bothered to find the posts that didn’t refer to that song.


But what the hell. In the spirit of Christmas, let’s see what Stevie lists, and whether it’s religious:

  Rel Mix Sec
Candles burnin’ low    
Lots of mistletoe    
Lots of snow and ice    
Choirs singin’ carols    
little cards you give me    
runnin’ wild, as anxious as a little child    
Greet you neath the mistletoe    
Wish you a Merry Christmas baby    
happiness in the comin’ year    
deck the halls with holly    
Sing sweet silent night    
Fill the tree with angel hair[1]    
pretty, pretty lights    
Christmas bells are ringin’    

[1] A note says that “angel hair” means tinsel, so I’m counting it as secular.


After that, I googled “What I like about Christmas”.

Rozario Fernandes, Express Tribune, 8 Things I Love About Christmas:

  Rel Mix Sec
Listening to Christmas carols    
Fairy lights and pretty decorations    
Buying gifts for your loved ones    
Keeping a secret stash of holiday sweets    
Another reason to stay out late    
Family get-togethers    
Vacation time    
Attending the midnight prayer service    


Next on the list was a Yahoo! Answers entry, which I didn’t pick because honestly, it’s a discussion thread, so it’s not clear where it ends, or how the entries were chosen.


What Do You Like About Christmas by Carey Kinsolving is an explicitly-religious piece, a list of children’s answers to the titular question interspersed with Bible verses. The site was down when I tried accessing it, so I had to rely on Google’s cache. But let’s see how it fares:

  Rel Mix Sec
giving people presents    
celebrating Christmas[2]    
donees’ faces lighting up with joy    
celebrating Christ’s birth    
the lights, because of the light in the sky when Jesus was born    
spending time with family    
share Christ’s love    

[2] Could be either secular, religious, or a mixture, depending how the person celebrates.


Aprille Rose at allwomenstalk writes 7 Things I Love About Christmas:

  Rel Mix Sec
The smells of Christmas[3]    
Seasonal flavors    
Christmas movies and cartoons[3]    
Christmas songs on the radio    
Stringing up lights around the house    
Decorating the tree    
Baking cookies    

[3] All the examples listed are secular.


The 25 Greatest Things About Christmas by Belinda Moreira at Arts.Mic:

  Rel Mix Sec
Christmas trees    
Chance of snow    
Vacation time    
Hot chocolate    
Christmas parties    
Ugly Christmas sweaters    
Ice skating    
Carols and music[3]    
Christmas sales    
Gingerbread houses and men    
Time of giving    
Time with friends and family    
Classic Christmas movies    
Holiday cheer    
The chance to feel like a kid again    


I skipped this page at Amazon’s Askville, for the same reasons as the Yahoo! Answers one.


Jesse Carey at Relevant Magazine lists 7 Reasons Why We Still Love Christmas:

  Rel Mix Sec
Spending time with friends and family    
opening gifts    
getting away from work    
Celebrating the birth of our Savior    
Inflatable lawn ornaments[4]    
Christmas sweaters    
Claymation specials    
Family Christmas cards    
Advent calendars    
Christmas carols    
Office gift exchanges    

[4] I’m counting this as secular because I have yet to see an inflatable Jesus.


I count 6 religious, 11 mixed, and 56 secular things to love about Christmas. I think we can confidently say that you can give up religion without giving up the things that make Christmas special. Numbers don’t lie.

A Modest Proposal

Another day, another shooting two shootings. As usual, people will shrug and say that as long as the Second Amendment (peace be upon it) guarantees the right to carry a gun in your pocket (especially if you’re not glad to see me), these sorts of massacre will continue to happen.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from conservative discussions about abortion and voter registration, it’s that just because a right is in the constitution doesn’t mean that it should be easy to exercise. So herewith, I present a few suggestions on how to curb gun violence, without actually repealing the Second A:

  • Gun sales are limited to registered weapons dealers. Close the gun-show loophole.
  • All gun dealers must have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Just in case something goes wrong during the sale.
  • To purchase a gun, you must first attend a series of counseling sessions showing the aftermath of all of the mass shootings in the past year.
  • Purchasing a gun also requires a transvaginal (or, for men, anal) ultrasound. Yes, it’s medically unnecessary. So what?
  • No federal money shall go to any organization that advocates for gun ownership, or is involved in weapons sales, or conducts weapons training, or has a gun range.
  • To purchase a gun, you must complete a gun safety course and demonstrate proficiency at an approved gun range. I think there’s one in Billings, Montana. Hurry while they still have some slots open for 2020.

Update, Dec. 4: Alert Reader LP points out that Missouri state legislator Stacey Newman has proposed a bill along the same lines as above. I wish her luck.

Such Customer Service

Some companies really know how to make their customers feel valued as individual people:


f019673cef7b434090970e0e3fac10953fb720b370fc2b1beff12d550da1c797 C28AC3,

Do we have to be so formal? Just call me c79dc749.

What If Intercessory Prayer Worked?

What if intercessory prayer worked? What if, when you or someone else had a disease, and you prayed, there was a significant chance that the disease would be healed, either by one or another divine being, or by some other mechanism?

And yes, I realize that a lot of people think that it does; but I’m going to look at this in the way a science fiction writer might, and see what happens.

One of the most obvious attributes of prayer is that it’s cheap and easily-accessible by anyone. It’s also said to be as safe and side-effect-free as, say, homeopathy. That means that it should be everyone’s first recourse, not their second, third, or last. People wouldn’t say “there’s nothing to do now but pray” after an operation; they’d say “prayer didn’t work; there’s nothing to do now but operate”.

Insurance companies would refuse to cover the cost of, say, blood pressure medication or chemotherapy unless you’d already tried cheap prayer first. In this, they would be joined by doctors, because medications have side effects (to say nothing of surgery and similar operations), so it’s best to try side-effect-free prayer first.

Then again, maybe insurance companies wouldn’t bother: they’d just assume that everyone would pray before resorting to medical professionals, that there wasn’t any real money to be saved by screening out the vanishingly few die-hard antitheists, and they’d get rid of that particular bit of paperwork.

At the same time, though, assuming that not all prayers are equally effective, we’d see a new profession: prayer therapist. These would be people whose job it is to help you pray in the optimal way: do you need to be on your knees, or can you just sort of wish for recovery while sitting in traffic? What are some good ways to achieve the purity of heart that gives the best odds of recovery? Is it okay to take painkillers so you can pray without being distracted by the pain? For that matter, are Catholic prayers more effective than Buddhist ones, or doesn’t it matter? (Yes, it means that some people would stay with insurance companies that they hate simply because their favorite prayer therapist is in-network.)

Naturally, in addition to the well-informed professionals, there would be the fakers, posers, and spouters-of-BS. Hollywood celebrities would hire celebrity prayer therapists and would compare notes on morning talk shows about the latest trends and fashions in intercessory prayer.

None of this even addresses the wider theological repercussions: if prayer really worked, there would be an awful lot fewer atheists, and a lot more members of whichever faith had the most effective prayers. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide how well this little flight of fancy corresponds to the world we live in.

Thanksgiving Pho

Yesterday, around dinner time, we started digging through the Thanksgiving leftovers to see what looked good. M wanted soup. Great. Except that we didn’t have enough noodles for a decent soup, but we did have maifun rice noodles, so we used that instead.
Basically, J combined the noodles with leftover turkey, plus carrots, onions, celery, and the herbs and vegetables used to stuff and flavor the Thanksgiving turkey. I called the result Thanksgiving pho, and it was surprisingly good. I added Sriracha to mine; the others didn’t, for some reason.
Try it. You know you want to. Plus, you’ve got to do something with that leftover turkey, right? Might as well put is in a dish that tastes good no matter how you make it.

Thanksgiving Rules

This year, I’m hosting Thanksgiving. Hooray! I’m a grownup! I’m looking forward to it.
There are, however, some rules:

  1. Smoking: As the saying goes, there is no heaven or hell; just smoking and non-smoking. To that end, there will be two designated smoking areas, one out front and one on the patio out back (but feel free to release your inner buffalo and roam). Thanks for understanding.
  2. Donald Trump is a clown. Also vain, a demagogue, and possibly a fascist. But that’s just me. If you would like to voice a contrary opinion, there will be two designated areas, one out front and one on the patio. Please don’t bother the smokers.
  3. I’m told there will be a game on Thanksgiving. Football, I think. If you’re a football fan, I’m sure all the major news media will report the score tomorrow.
  4. I will not guarantee that any given foodstuff is free from gluten.
  5. The cat comes and goes as he pleases. Don’t try to force or coerce him. If he bites you, I will laugh, take pictures, and call 911, in that order.
  6. There will not be a separate kids’ table this year. Please don’t make me regret it.
Young Americans Are Finally Figuring out Evolution

According to Slate, a Pew Research poll has found that a bare majority of millennials accept evolution as described by scientists. This is in contrast to findings from the last few decades, that a significant number of Americans favor a magic-based or -friendly explanation of where human beings came from. Oddly enough, this seems to go hand in hand with the fact that young people are increasingly non-religious. Go figure.

Vatican Values

From AP and the Washington Post, the latest on the Vatileaks story (that I mentioned earlier)

MILAN — A Vatican judge on Saturday indicted five people, including two journalists and a high-ranking Vatican monsignor, in a scandal involving leaked documents that informed two books alleging financial malfeasance in the Roman Catholic church bureaucracy.

I’m surprised at how quickly the Catholic church is moving in this case. I mean, the alleged crimes occurred less than twenty years ago!

I guess the lesson here is that it’s okay to rape kids; it’s okay to be a Nazi. But don’t you dare talk about the Vatican’s finances.

Is ISIS’s popularity low? Hard to Tell

The Washington Post reported on a Pew survey of countries with a significant Muslim population, asking whether people there have a positive or negative view of ISIS:

Pew survey of countries with a significant Muslim population, spring 2015.

As the graph shows, in every country, ISIS is unpopular, by huge margins (and I find it interesting that according to the same survey, attitudes vary more from country to country and between religions; but I’m not sure that’s important right now).

But there’s low, and then there’s low. I wouldn’t drink water that was “only” 1% arsenic (the EPA limit is a million times smaller than that), and if there were “only” a 1% chance of crashing every time I got on the Beltway, I’d likely be dead within a year. So there’s small and then there’s small.

If the KKK enjoyed the same level of popularity in Alabama as ISIS does in Turkey, above, it wouldn’t be reported as “KKK only has minority support”. It would be reported as “One in 13 Alabamans still supports KKK”.

So I’d like to see some figures for comparison: how popular is ISIS compared to, say, the Lord’s Resistance Army, or Nazis, or the Tutsi army? Maybe they have comparable levels of popularity, and the double-digit favorability numbers are statistical artifacts. And in fact, it seems that the fact that its popularity varies more from country to country, than from religion to religion within the same country, points at this explanation.

But my fear is that ISIS really does enjoy insufficiently-low popularity.

Hey, the Vatican Has Jail Cells! Who Knew?

The Associated Press reports (via WaPo): “Vatican arrests 2 people in latest probe of leaked documents“. In brief: a few years ago, a monsignor and a collaborator leaked documents relating to pope Benedict 16’s finances.

A Vatican spokesman said Vallejo Balda was being held in a jail cell in Vatican City, and that Chaouqui was allowed to go free because she cooperated in the probe.

This is news to me. I didn’t realize that the Vatican had jail cells, and I’d never seen the words “Vatican arrests” before.
But this raises a further question: evidently the Vatican sees leaking documents as a crime serious enough to warrant arrest and imprisonment. But raping children or covering that up? Not so much. Why is that?