Although this entry is being posted on Christmas day, I'm actually writing it on Christmas eve for the obvious reason that I have better things to do on Christmas than update a fairly modest blog - things like spending time with family and opening presents and stuff. So Merry Christmas from the past.
Here in the past it's pretty cosy, or at least it is where I am. The fire is on, I've sank a tasty pint of John Smiths, Prince Caspian is on TV, and I've been reading 'The Atheist's Guide To Christmas'. It was a well chosen joke gift given by a mate who graduated with me (she inisted that I opened it there and then, don't worry; I don't break the sacred Christmas gift-opening rules lightly). I've got a soft spot for inter-religious (or counter-religious) banter so I was keen to get stuck in, and true enough it's been a pretty funny read that's had me laugh-out-loud at parts.
Naturally however, when you get some folks to contribute to a volume that centres around a specific viewpoint, they'll now and again slip in some disparaging comments about the opposing viewpoint: in this case, Christian theism. I got no beef with this, I expect and in fact welcome it (though I do wish that in a book which is clearly meant to be humourous, there'd be a bit more, dare I say it, grace, given by the authors; the dichotomy between atheists as cool dispassionately reasoned fellows, and theists as irrational loons is a tiring canard that appears through-out the book), but what's bewildering is how downright silly some of the objections are. Uh-oh, I sense your unease. Now I know it's Christmas but that doesn't mean we can't get our philosophy hats on, does it? Just pretend the paper hat you got in your cracker is a bit more profound and a bit less naff than it actually is. Sorted? Good. Let's check out an objection that's particularly relevant to tomorrow (err, today), that is, Christmas, which for Christians is a celebration of the virgin bith of Jesus.
Science disproves the virgin birth?
If only Joseph had known about modern science. Poor guy. If he had he would have known that Mary could not be both pregnant and a virgin. Sadly he didn't have a clue about the birds and the bees so he accepted Mary's story about angels and the Holy Spirit and was duped by the cunning lass.
What's ridiculous about the above reflection is that it didn't take the advent of modern science for people to discover that virgins don't get pregnant. Believe it or not, the ancients knew that you didn't get the bump without doing the business. They weren't any more prone to believe that a virgin just happened to get pregnant any more than we are. Unsurpringly we read in Matthew that Joseph was going to leave Mary until an angel appeared to him in a dream and comfirmed Mary's story to him (whether or not you believe this actually happened is irrelevant to the point that Joseph clearly knew that virgins don't get pregnant). Despite this, Mitch Benn, in his otherwise intelligent contribution, scoffs at the "scientific implausibility of virgin births", as if the fact that virgin births can't occur through natural means is a blow against Christianity. Of course they don't occur naturally! I don't know any Christian who disagrees. Our claim is not "Mary got pregant through some natural cause even though she was a virgin", but rather "God caused Mary to be pregant even though she was a virgin."
There is a world of difference between these claims. Do you think the fact that virgins can't become pregnant through natural means establishes the impossibility of a all-powerful being who created nature causing a virgin to be pregnant? Clearly not. Even if there are concrete and binding entities called natural laws, if God exists he created them and thus can over-rule them. Benn has merely assumed that the Christian God doesn't exist, the very thing he was supposed to be arguing for.
On the plus side he does convincingly argue that atheists need not shun Christmas because of its religious association, something I wholly agree with. Christmas is what you make it, and if you're a non-religious folk who just wants to have a good time with a little wine and some mince pies, be my guest. Have a merry Christmas!