People & Power

Christmas and what religion means to people

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A clown gives gifts to children during a Christmas party at Gaba Beach

A clown gives gifts to children during a Christmas party at Gaba Beach in Kampala. Many companies and organisations hold parties for children during Christmas season. Photo by Joseph Kiggundu.  

By Timothy Kalyegira

Posted  Sunday, December 22  2013 at  02:00

In Summary

Mankind has always sought to understand what lies beyond the grave and death. Death remains the most fundamental fact and dread in human society as it always has been since the dawn of time.

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In this, my second last column of the year, I turn my attention to the subject that interests me much more than the politics I usually comment about: The study of the human mind and society.

The traditional Christmas season is back. As is usually the case, the commercial and family visits side to Christianity dominates and pushes the spiritual aspect of it to the back of most people’s minds.

I have some views on the pagan origin of Christmas, but for the purpose of this article, I will take it at face value and seek to reflect on the role of religion in society and what it seeks to address.

Mankind has always sought to understand what lies beyond the grave and death. Death remains the most fundamental fact and dread in human society as it always has been since the dawn of time.
As we get older, we become ever more conscious of the futility of much of what we do. Time takes on a new urgency and with it, brings the question of our life’s purpose to the centre of our thinking.

The question of being good and holy, in fact, is secondary to life. Death is the crux of history. If we are going to die eventually and that it that, then in a sense it does not really matter whether we lived good or evil lives.

Human history for its first several thousands of years had emphasised the grandeur of empires and the heroism of kings and warriors.

Babylon, Egypt, Rome, Sparta, Greece, China, India, the Aztec and Maya empires, Kush and the Vikings all emphasised great, soaring, military glory and eternal greatness, often brutalizing conquered people and their citizens little more than slaves.

Athens, the seat of Greece, brought to the world a different set of values, stressing reason, culture and the pursuit of learning.

Human mortality
However, even Greece itself still did not answer many key questions of human society. Greek thought had a tragic and fatalistic view of life. Its famous theatre plays by Sophocles, Euripides and others stressed tragedy and fate overcoming heroic figures.

The great Greek thinkers, playwrights and philosophers tried to help Man come to terms with his mortality and while on earth live his life productively and pursuing virtue.

But as important as that was, the human being would not easily settle for this fatalism. If we are all going to die eventually, then what does it matter that one is educated or not, cultured or vulgar? There had to be a way round this fatalism.

This yearning for answers to our human mortality, seen in everything from the Egyptian pyramids to the Taj Mahal to statues of famous people, Hall of Fame celebrity entries and Madame Tussaud’s wax models in London, tell of mankind’s search for that which Otto Rank described – eternal life and meaning.

Religion and faith are not just for the superstitious and weak. I notice that even in Western society that has largely abandoned religion, the worship of celebrities is now at an all-time high. Many Europeans reacted to Nelson Mandela’s death as if a Messiah had died.
The religious and the atheists have one thing in common – a search for ultimate answers and survival beyond our physical death. This is where religion comes in.

As the American theologian William James accurately put it, “To scribe religious value to mere happy-go-lucky contentment with one’s brief chance at natural good is but the very consecration of forgetfulness and superficiality. Our troubles lie indeed too deep for that cure. The fact that we can die, than we can be ill at all, is what perplexes us; the fact that we now for a moment live and are well is irrelevant to that perplexity. We need a life not correlated with death, a health not liable to illness, a kind of good that will not perish, a good in fact that flies beyond the Goods of nature. (The Varieties of Religious Experience)

This is the existential issue and crisis facing mankind. If we all had a $100 million, we would gladly pay it if that could bring back our many loved ones back to life.

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