Sunday, August 31, 2014

The truth about Christmas

For those societies and people who observe Christmas, it plays a significant role in establishing the basis in their children for a belief in God and the miraculous generally. And, although there comes a moment in every child's life when he or she discovers that there is no Santa Claus, the same does not happen on anything like a predictable basis in the case of the existence of God, despite the fact that these two entities are ontologically of exactly the same ilk.

So it happens that people go on believing in God all of their lives but not Santa Claus, contrary to the sort of evidence presented on a fateful day to adolescents as proof for the non-existence of the eternal old man from the North Pole, elves, flying reindeer, etc. Why? Because such societies very much need to uphold the existence of God; whereas Santa is expendable. (Well, at least non-commercially.)

Why do people see fit to inculcate a belief in the Santa Claus myth among their young children? Ok, definitely not because they see an immediate connection with a belief in God, but rather because they see value in the pleasure that such a powerful and benevolent narrative bestows upon innocent minds. For as long as it is deemed appropriate this grand farce is entertained, because it brings joy to children and increases their powers of imagination. And because parents and grandparents and so on benefited in the same way from believing in this myth when they were young.

Yet inevitably a child learns the truth about Christmas (or rather part of the truth, the secular part). When it is revealed that Santa does not exist, why is it not taught at the same time that Jesus the son of God was not really born of a virgin woman, that he did not perform miracles, that he did not come back from the dead? Because these are stories of very different social significance.

It is interesting how established Christian religions play along with the Santa Claus myth as seamlessly as they do the religious portion of Christmas, whereas on other matters there is a strict distinction held between the secular and the religious. Or is there? Think again about how such religions are essentially cheerleaders for their host nations when waging war, how they work to influence state birth control policy, etc. and then one might seriously reconsider the notion that there is any genuine separation of church and state.

The heart of the normative and political role that religion plays in maintaining social structures is that they cannot possibly dispense with fantastic metaphysical deities and their earthly interventions, because to do so would break apart a foundation of orderly belief and behavior among masses of individuals. So Christmas is an acceptable myth (up to a point), because it helps train us to believe in things that are at face value not true. This faculty plays an essential social function, although generally we take pains not to bring the full scope of it to light.

Finally it is also difficult to accept that those who reportedly say they believe in God, Satan and the like actually do, given that most folks in the same group would almost categorically say they do not believe in Santa Claus. But this apparent contradiction is resolved in realizing that the one and not the other is a socially viable position.

Saturday, May 24, 2014


Preface to the Fifth Edition
The word history carries two meanings in common parlance. It refers both to what actually happened in the past and to the representation of that past in the work of historians. This book is an introduction to history in the second sense. It is intended for anyone who is sufficiently interested in the subject to wonder how historical enquiry is conducted and what purpose it fulfils. More specifically, the book is addressed to students taking a degree course in history, for whom these questions have particular relevance.
Traditionally history undergraduates were offered no formal instruction in the nature of their chosen discipline; its time-honoured place in our literary culture and its non-technical presentation suggested that common sense combined with a sound general education would provide the student with what little orientation he or
she required. This approach leaves a great deal to chance. It is surely desirable that students consider the functions served by a subject to which they are about to devote three years of study or more. Curriculum choice will be a hit-and-miss affair unless based on a clear grasp of the content and scope of present-day
historical scholarship. Above all, students need to be aware of the limits placed on historical knowledge by the character of the sources and the working methods of historians, so that at an early stage they can develop a critical approach to the formidable array of secondary authorities that they are required to master. It
is certainly possible to complete a degree course in history without giving systematic thought to any of these issues, and generations of students have done so. But most universities now recognize that the value of historical study is thereby diminished, and they therefore provide introductory courses on the methods and
scope of history. I hope that this book will meet the needs of students taking such a course.
Although my own research experience has been in the fields of African history and gender in modern Britain, it has not been my intention to write a manifesto for the new history'. I have tried instead to convey the diversity of current historical practice, and to situate recent innovations in the context of mainstream
traditional scholarship, which continues to account for a great deal of first-rate historical work and to dominate academic syllabuses. The scope of historical studies is today so wide that it has not been easy to determine the precise range of this book; but without some more or less arbitrary boundaries an introductory work of this length would lose all coherence. I therefore say nothing about the history of science or environmental history, and there are only passing references to the history of the body and the history of consumption. In general I have confined my choice to those themes that are widely studied by students today. Even within these limits, however, my territory is something of a minefield. Anyone who imagines that an introduction to the study of history will express a consensus of expert opinion needs to be promptly disabused. One of the distinguishing features of the profession is its heated arguments concerning the objectives and limitations of historical study. This book inevitably reflects my own views, and it is appropriate to declare them at the outset. The salient points are: that history is a subject of practical social relevance; that the proper performance of its function depends on a receptive and discriminating attitude to other disciplines; and that the methods of academic history hold out the promise not of 'truth' in an absolute sense,