The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

What An Atheist Believes In This Christmas

Posted by | December 20, 2015

mythic

Santa visited the Wells Reserve at Laudholm this summer. One of these statements is false.

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition, 12/20/2015.

[Trigger warning: the following paragraph may contain troubling information for preteens]

Like many parents, my wife and I get a real kick out of the Santa thing. There’s something delicious about a full month of lying, straight-faced, to our eight-year-old and five-year-old. Usually we’re trying to dispel myths, convey science, explain the world, and correct pronunciation. Come Christmas season, we just start making @#$# up. The holidays are a wonderful vacation from reality, aren’t they?

While one son is starting to explore “logical” explanations for Santa’s fantastic feats (“If he’s moving near light speed, time goes slower for him, right?” or “he must make his atoms transparent”), our younger boy is still hook-line-and-sinker on The Red Guy. I’ve spent hours concocting increasingly ridiculous Santa stories, endowing him with NSA-esque eavesdropping abilities and superior avionics. It’s harmless fun; my wife and I know it’ll be over far too soon. Long live Santa.

But subordinating my sons to the Claus, plus holding a degree in philosophy and also paying too much attention to the presidential campaign, do make me wonder about our fluid relationship with truth. Lying is the deliberate telling of an untruth with intent to deceive. That doesn’t sound good, does it?

I think the circumstances behind a lie are important. In Twitter-ese, one might say: #WhiteLiesMatter. Telling our children a fable meant to reinforce good behavior, promote charity, and bring life to the polar region is lovely. Lying to spare another’s hurt feelings, or to deliver a surprise, is kind, even fun.

Some other fibs flying around lately aren’t as much fun. They can be downright dangerous. But rather than being the millionth person to decry the demonstrably false “misstatements” of Mr. Trump and others, I’ll instead talk about a recent victory of truth over falsehood.

But first, another myth: In tales from Ancient Greece, Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam of Troy, could accurately foretell the future, but she was cursed by the god Apollo to never be believed. She predicted the fall of Troy, but no one listened. “Oh, don’t be such a Cassandra” can still be heard today, as an insult; the prophetess’s accuracy has been forgotten. I love the Cassandra story for its resonance with scientific discovery.

Scientists from all manner of disciplines have been warning of a steadily warming earth and disrupted climate for generations. Little heeded, even openly scoffed at here in this country, they felt for years that no one was paying enough attention to their inconvenient truth. Better-funded special interests waged a disinformation campaign against climate science and succeeded, temporarily at least, in convincing nearly half of Americans that global warming was neither human-caused nor a problem. (Only China, the world’s largest CO2 emitter, has a lower opinion of the severity of the problem.)

But the scientists kept at it. They had faith in the truth. Their thousands of research projects continued to add evidence, modelers fine-tuned their models, and communities and activists across the world stood with them. And so, earlier this month, 40,000 delegates – bureaucrats, politicians, scientists – from 195 countries met in Paris at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) to hammer out a global treaty to finally address the worldwide problem of climate change.

And they did it. It’s not a perfect deal, it’s not a legally binding agreement, it will take decades more to work out… but it’s more than nothing, and it’s something to believe in. At least it is for me, a father of two children who will live through the second half of this warmest century on record. Now I don’t have to lie to my kids when I tell them that we did everything we could for them, because at least, in 2015, we started to. I feel like the COP21 agreement was a triumph for truth.

Christmas is a time to celebrate things like truth and hope. As an atheist, I’m tempted to bypass the spiritual meaning of these December “holy-days.” But I prefer to believe in what should be unarguable to faithful and faithless alike – that love and kindness, family and peace, will make a better future and a civilization in balance with its world. A non-believer, I still believe in that truth. Happy 2015th birthday to that brilliant, charismatic teacher from Nazareth who originally shared that gospel.

Merry Christmas to all.

 

Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His attempted biweekly Sunday column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, truth and fiction, deadlines and headlines. More at wellsreserve.org/twoworlds.

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