Christmas message from the prime minister
Tales from the kiap times – An expatriate Christmas

Christmas for atheists


I WAS about eight years old when I realised that organised religion was a giant confidence trick.

The thing that made me aware of this was my mother’s plan to send me to the local Catholic school. We’d just moved out of the migrant hostel after arriving in Australia from England and I was bound to a new school.

Although my father was an atheist he was a nominal Catholic, and had succumbed to family pressure to marry in the church.

My mother, abiding by church rules, had converted from Methodism to Catholicism. That marriage and conversion carried a mandatory commitment to raise children as Catholics. Such was the power of the church in those days.

I rebelled and refused point blank to attend the Catholic school. I wanted to attend the local public school where my mates from the hostel were going.

To rebel successfully, I had to present a cogent argument to my mother. That is, I had to investigate and think about religion.

My conclusion was simple. How could anyone with reasonable intelligence believe this rubbish? It is a conclusion I have carried with me since.

That is not to say I object to anyone believing what they want, no matter how illogical and fantastic it might seem. If it helps deal with life and harms no one that’s fine by me.

I’ve developed my own theories about spirituality and often think it could reside in certain places and things. Not so much in a supernatural sense, like religion, but in a psychological sense - the sense that we might feel something in those places where those things exist.

For instance, I think that forests, deserts, the sea and trees and certain animals have an intangible spirituality.

I can therefore sympathise with the old animist religions that were prevalent in Papua New Guinea before the missionaries arrived. Indeed, those old beliefs seem not to have diminished in the face of the Christianity taught by the churches.

Apart from claims of supernatural intervention, the other thing that bothers me about religion, especially the organised kind, is its overt political nature.

I can’t for the life of me see much difference between popes, mullahs, shamans, priests, rabbis and pastors and other trumped-up appellations of rabid capitalists and mercenary politicians. To me, they all try to manipulate people for their own benefit.

To do this they have taken the teachings of naïve prophets like Jesus and Mohammed and subverted them into political systems. Men were busily doing this even while Jesus was alive before the Peter O’Neill of the time, Pontius Pilate, disposed of him.

I think people might be better off listening to the purported words of those prophets, who all seem to have been good men, rather than the words of the churches’ spin doctors. Those old historic words are still echoed by humble men and women of the church who believe in goodness above all else.

The evil that is apparent in what those religious spin doctors devised is perhaps best summed up by the photograph of that crazy Muslim police officer who recently shot the Russian ambassador in Turkey.

Or perhaps not, perhaps he was just outraged at the awful carnage that has been wreaked in Syria in religion’s name.

So this Christmas don’t celebrate the mad doctrines of the Christian churches. Celebrate the goodness of that naïve prophet called Jesus, who was, after all, just human like the rest of us.

And if you don’t want to do that, celebrate the life of that great Greek Bishop of Myra in Turkey called St Nicholas (aka Father Christmas), who used his inherited wealth to alleviate the suffering of his flock.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

The older I get the more I discover what I don't know. I've gone from not knowing much to not knowing a lot. An interesting journey nevertheless.

I find that when I read things like 'The Mind of God' I have to do it very slowly and carefully to avoid getting a headache.

That's when I'm thankful for fiction. It makes a lot more sense and contains a lot more truth I think.

Although, having said that, I'm still trying to figure out what Yann Martel's 'The High Mountains of Portugal' is all about.

`Robin Lillicrapp

The recent references to Physics and Science publications challenging orthodoxy etc encourages me to throw in a contribution.

An interesting Aussie who has majored in the study of speed of light issues for decades has a website for the curious who might seek to Illuminate their literary libido.

Anyway, I picked a sample from the many papers there that befitted a little Light reading:

Chris Overland

Despite being a card carrying atheist, I am careful to avoid getting too carried away with humanity's supposed cleverness, as reflected in the triumphs of science.

I am impressed that Garry Roche is game to explore things like quantum mechanics, where the suspension of disbelief is an indispensable requirement and scientific hubris is found in abundance. I suspect that he will find that this is an area where science and his personal philosophy collide quite noticeably.

Mind you, even as an atheist I find aspects of quantum mechanics pretty hard to accept, let alone understand. Things like the ability of light to behave as both a wave form and stream of particles, the existence of apparently massless particles and the mystery of quantum entanglement where information apparently travels instantaneously between two widely separated "twinned" particles, all serve as serious challenges to the imagination.

However, the so-called standard model of quantum mechanics seems to work pretty well otherwise our computers, mobile phones, tablets, satellites, smart TVs and a good deal else besides simply would not work. So I accept that, mad as it seems to be, the standard model is broadly correct.

In the face of science's towering achievements, not to mention the insufferable hubris of some of its practitioners, may I offer comfort to a man of religion like Garry by proposing that he read two books which ought to chasten those who believe that science can or will explain everything.

These antidotes for scientific hubris are "The Mind of God" by Professor Paul Davies and "The End of Science" by John Horgan. The former is a compelling argument for reconceptualising God as something other than the anthropomorphic figure many believe in, while the latter is a pretty good debunking of the idea that science can and will soon know everything worth knowing.

If anyone in PNG is game to read these books, I can assure you that they are (mostly) accessible for a reasonably literate person but do contain some pretty tricky ideas to get your head around.

Garry Roche

Phil, I am corresponding from PNG, - from Madang more precisely. But I see your point. Bernard, I will continue to delve into Quantum Physics, reality is complicated, and a sense of mystery can help us to cope with this world. Perhaps education and health are two areas where the Churches have had positives outcomes in PNG.
At the same time there is some evidence that religion thrives on oppression. If any group of people is being oppressed, there is a strong inclination to adhere strongly to a religious belief both in order to cope with the oppression and attempt to overcome the oppression.

Joe Herman

Organized and cultural religion has very little to do with following Jesus. Unfortunately many people have been turned off by the behaviors of some of organized religious folks. The difference between humans and other creatures is that we grapple with the spiritual element of humanity.

Bernard Corden

Dear Garry,

I can recommend several books, which may help clarify:

Richard Feynman's Six easy pieces is a free download:

Carlo Rovelli's Seven brief lessons on physics

Manjit Kumar's Quantum: Einstein v Bohr

I read Quantum during an Easter weekend at the Jais Aben resort in Madang back in 2009.

If you want some balance and a break from the epistemology you should also try CP Snow's The Two Cultures but his best book is The Physicists.

Philip Fitzpatrick

This blog is for both Papua New Guineans and Australians.

It is interesting to note that so far there have been no comments from PNG. This occasionally happens with other topics.

I have no desire to disabuse anyone of their beliefs but another part of me wonders at the effect of the Christian onslaught into PNG, not so much in the past but nowadays with all the radical sects represented.

This was brought home by the crazy actions of the Speaker destroying the carvings on the lintel of Parliament House and in the import of an old bible with such fanfare. Peter O'Neill's recent statement about PNG being a Christian nation is also somehow unsettling.

I can see the cultural reasons why PNGs have adopted Christianity with such fervour, it fills a void created by the destruction of old customs. It is what it will eventually lead to that bothers me.

Our own prime minister in Australia has made a similar statement and that too is troubling.

I believe neither Peter O'Neill or Malcolm Turnbull. I imagine it would not be hard to expose them as blatant hypocrites.

The separation of church and state exists for a very good reason. These expressions of religiosity are rank misrepresentations and somehow seem to threaten that caveat.


Allow me to recount my experience with religion. I was born into a Church of England household. Dad was a non-church attending believer, and Mum turned to Christian Science later in life. I was christened as an Anglican (I suspect to be christened was to have the kid “done”.)

I attended the local church (which was “low” church) and believed everything I was told. But 7 year old children lack the facility of critical analysis, and in any case, what was told to me came from the mouth of a “man of the cloth”, and he would only speak the truth (surely ?). There was a fair bit of mumbo jumbo, but it all went over my head.

The sermons often had a mild anti Catholic theme, and I believed all that.

I graduated to a large cathedral in Brisbane and was being prepared for CONFIRMATION by a senior minister (name withheld to protect the guilty) of the church. Over a period of 3 months, the minister ramped up the anti Catholic rhetoric. He became more strident with each lesson.

Towards the end of the Confirmation period, he started raving about good Anglican boys like me associating with Catholic girls. Catholic girls were filth personified, and we were advised to wash our hands should we unfortunately come into contact with one. There was even a hint that we should carry a hip flask of Dettol as disinfection that would rid us of all Catholic germs.

The minister would get into a frenzy, and froth at the mouth. I thought I saw him cross eyed and severely red faced (he was a pale faced Pom), and we were worried that he would punch the one metre thick sandstone walls of the vestry where we took the lessons.

Anyway I was confirmed and I was invited to be an altar boy. This had “dressing up” in it, and sometimes I would be given the task of carrying the tall cross behind the leading minister, as we proceeded down the aisle at the commencement of a service. The minister would cast out the demons with the incense as we proceeded down the aisle.

I suspect I was being groomed to consider “taking the cloth” later in life. Good reports were sent home to my parents, suggesting this.

Later in life, I had girlfriends who were Catholic, and I did not catch any dreaded disease. They seemed perfectly good and healthy to me. There was no need for the hip flask of Dettol.

Today, I am a happy atheist (with a certain fondness for the “dressing up” of my youth).

I am not surprised that many middle aged people have lost their faith (or at least do not practice the religion of their indoctrinated youth).

I have come to terms with my own mortality, and have directed that my ashes be spread as fertilizer somewhere.

Garry, good luck with your QUANTUM PHYSICS. You are to be commended for your sense of enquiry, but be careful you are not burned at the stake for heresy.

Garry Roche

I find this a very healthy discussion. There is no harm in challenging our beliefs and our presumptions. Recently I have been reading about Quantum Physics, and trying to understand it, - and not succeeding too well. But it has made me aware that all reality may be much much more complicated than we have previously thought.
As Shakespeare would write in Hamlet “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. –“

Chris Overland

In relation to Arthur's post,a point of clarification is needed.

When I criticise organised religion, I am not automatically criticising all adherents to such religions. Many, perhaps most, are decent, honest people whose intentions are entirely good.

My criticism is reserved for those who either exploit religious faith for their own personal ends or use it to manipulate and control the faithful in ways that are illiberal, inhumane and antidemocratic. There are numerous examples of this across many religious faiths.

With respect to Kapuna Hospital, when I was stationed at Baimuru the resident doctors were Peter and Lyn Calvert, who I believe originally came from New Zealand.

I want to put on the record my undisguised admiration for these two doctors, who essentially spent their lives in the service of the people living in one of the poorest areas in PNG. In doing so, they turned their backs on the opportunity to pursue very lucrative careers in NZ or Australia, instead living in relative poverty to serve others.

I understand that Peter died in the 80's but that Lyn remains at Kapuna.

They fit the classic model of the heroic missionary bringing both faith and service to others. Another example known to me was Father Alex Michelod, a Catholic priest. I have good reason to be thankful for his kindness and charity.

Sadly, while these people were exemplars of their respective faiths, they are the exception, not the rule.

The lamentable history of religious persecution and intolerance across most of human history reveals the true political and authoritarian nature of all organised religions, not the heroism of the few who have tried to live up to its lofty but much ignored moral and ethical teachings.

Perversely, it is the actions of the saintly few true believers who allow religious leaders to falsely claim that they represent the true essence of their faith, all the while knowing that the pursuit of power, influence and control lie at the heart of that faith.

The truth is before the faithful, yet they cannot or will not see it.

Christmas has now become merely a giant festival of consumerism, an obscene expression of the very worst of capitalism's promotion of over consumption and waste on a truly grand scale. Any religious significance attached to it is a mere after thought for most people.

In a society where too much stuff is never enough, religious festivals are now just an excuse to promote consumption and excess.

I know that this is a very bleak view but it is the truth nonetheless.

Philip Fitzpatrick

By the same token and with a bit of a stretch of your logic we could tell Christians to stay away from secular hospitals Arthur.

There are lots of atheists doing good charitable work too.

Perhaps we need some new categories for people, good people and bad people.

Christians, Muslims and all the other religions, along with the atheists, could probably be divided into both categories.

Maybe we also need two more categories, good people who do bad and bad people who do good. Such is the complexity of human kind.

Lindsay F Bond

Really Chris, is it religion that is so organised to be 'anti' this or sumting that?
Protestant experience touché, but touches on a wider human trait of holding to known territory and relationships.
Any and all, such clichés and human collectives invite care, no less than that of altruistic giving of trust and technology that came to PNG by those 'religious' or indeed other rigours.
This season of Christmas amid human celebration, for you and all readers, thanks for your sharing. Joy with peace for you.

Arthur Williams

I wondered about the anti 25 Decemberists take on the Christian calendar.

I found this 08/08/08 article quite enlightening.

Why December 25? by Elesha Coffman (Christianity Today')

For the church's first three centuries, Christmas wasn't in December—or on the calendar at all.

It's very tough for us North Americans to imagine Mary and Joseph trudging to Bethlehem in anything but, as Christina Rosetti memorably described it, "the bleak mid-winter," surrounded by "snow on snow on snow."

To us, Christmas and December are inseparable. But for the first three centuries of Christianity, Christmas wasn't in December—or on the calendar anywhere.

If observed at all, the celebration of Christ's birth was usually lumped in with Epiphany (January 6), one of the church's earliest established feasts. Some church leaders even opposed the idea of a birth celebration.

Origen (c.185-c.254) preached that it would be wrong to honor Christ in the same way Pharaoh and Herod were honored. Birthdays were for pagan gods.

Not all of Origen's contemporaries agreed that Christ's birthday shouldn't be celebrated, and some began to speculate on the date (actual records were apparently long lost).

Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) favored May 20 but noted that others had argued for April 18, April 19, and May 28. Hippolytus (c.170-c.236) championed January 2.

November 17, November 20, and March 25 all had backers as well. A Latin treatise written around 243 pegged March 21, because that was believed to be the date on which God created the sun.

Polycarp (c.69-c.155) had followed the same line of reasoning to conclude that Christ's birth and baptism most likely occurred on Wednesday, because the sun was created on the fourth day.

The eventual choice of December 25, made perhaps as early as 273, reflects a convergence of Origen's concern about pagan gods and the church's identification of God's son with the celestial sun. December 25 already hosted two other related festivals:

Natalis solis invicti (the Roman "birth of the unconquered sun"), and

The birthday of Mithras, the Iranian "Sun of Righteousness" whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers.

The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell just a few days earlier. Seeing that pagans were already exalting deities with some parallels to the true deity, church leaders decided to commandeer the date and introduce a new festival.

Western Christians first celebrated Christmas on December 25 in 336, after Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity the empire's favored religion.

Eastern churches, however, held on to January 6 as the date for Christ's birth and his baptism. Most easterners eventually adopted December 25, celebrating Christ's birth on the earlier date and his baptism on the latter, but the Armenian church celebrates his birth on January 6.

Incidentally, the Western church does celebrate Epiphany on January 6, but as the arrival date of the Magi rather than as the date of Christ's baptism.

Another wrinkle was added in the sixteenth century when Pope Gregory devised a new calendar, which was unevenly adopted.

The Eastern Orthodox and some Protestants retained the Julian calendar, which meant they celebrated Christmas 13 days later than their Gregorian counterparts. Most—but not all—of the Christian world now agrees on the Gregorian calendar and the December 25 date.

The pagan origins of the Christmas date, as well as pagan origins for many Christmas customs (gift-giving and merrymaking from Roman Saturnalia; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year; Yule logs and various foods from Teutonic feasts), have always fueled arguments against the holiday. "It's just paganism wrapped with a Christian bow," naysayers argue.

But while kowtowing to worldliness must always be a concern for Christians, the church has generally viewed efforts to reshape culture—including holidays—positively.

As a theologian asserted in 320, "We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it."

- - - - -

Sadly The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.

So it is that most of us can recount the atrocities of not only our lifetimes but often hundreds of years ago. Yet the wonderful loving kindnesses shown to the ill; the poor; the homeless by unremembered men and women are lost for eternity.

In my lifetime i recall the sisters at the Leprosy Hospital on Anelaua island who had ministered there for over thirty years..apart from hurried evacuation ordered in 1942. They were soon back.

I first visited there..scared to put my foot on the wharf or shake hands with some of the many loved victims.

Read Paul Brand's [who's he??] 'Ten fingers for God' or
read Catherine Hamlin [who's she?] 'The Hospital by the River'

There must be millions over the last 2000 years of unsung Christians who never started any war in the name of their denominations or faith.

There are quite a few testimonies to the humanity shown by that oft maligned sect The Jehovah Witnesses who during their internment in Nazi war camps tried to help others worse off than themselves.

When you are ill why not make sure you get treated at a non-religious health wouldn't want to be thought hypocritical.

I say God bless all the good Christian men and women who keep PNG health system functioning especially in remote aidposts. Ask yourselves why no ones wants to build the international hospital away from Moresby.

If you're ill in the murky backwaters of Baimuru get quickly to the Kapuna Hospital built and run by Christians for nearly 70 years serving over 20,000 people.

Remember atheist expats in the Highlands rushing to send their lovely pregnant wives to SIL's Aiyura hospital or in the Islands sending their ladies to the Pope's hospital at Vunapope.

Think about the street people and recall that WeCARe! goes back to 2002 some years after Fr John Glynn, an Irish Catholic Priest had left New Ireland where he had been a poor Parish Priest, to begin to try to assist orphaned, abandoned and vulnerable young women and children on the streets and in the settlements of Port Moresby.

Keep well and if ill steer clear of any Christian health facilities too. Happy new year.

Bernard Corden

My mother was a Roman Catholic yet attended Orange Lodge marches to Southport on the 12th of July each year and before she passed away insisted that she be buried with her rosary beads.

My father's family were pure William of Orange and he was ostracised from his family for marrying a catholic. Several relatives refused to speak to him and did not attend his funeral.

During my childhood I visited the local catholic church with several friends one Sunday. My father found out and I have never set foot in a catholic church since.

Needless to say religion somewhat confuses me and I am pleased to say my parents are buried in separate cemeteries.

Paul Oates

Christmas? Bah Humbug!

The exclamation by the character of Old Scrooge in author Charles Dickens very austere and class riven Victorian world could well have summed it up for those who see the glass half empty.

For those who see the glass half full there may well be however another viewpoint.

It is absolutely true that the main Christian celebrations or religious ceremonies are an extension of previous pagan ceremonies and beliefs. As an example, visiting the ruins ancient city of Aphrodisias in Turkey led to the Turkish guide Mustapha, explaining the reason why the female god Aphrodite was worshiped by the citizens over 2,000 years ago. Previously, many pagans worshiped the ‘Earth Mother’, a mythical figure who apparently enabled the ‘rebirth’ of everything when no one actually understood or knew about the specifics of the creation of life.

So when a new religion emerged around 2,000 years ago from the breeding ground of many religions, the so called Middle East, the adherents asked who should they turn to if they were to forsake the ‘Earth Mother’?

‘Simple’, they were told, ‘ just redirect your prayers to the ‘mother figure’ associated with the new religion.’

The PNG PM has issued a Christmas message specifically calling PNG a Christian nation. Australia’s PM has also issued a Christmas message as does the Queen. It is therefore worth remembering that there are some cogent reasons why today, some view our nations as Christian. Is it just to do with religious beliefs or is there something else important here that could easily be overlooked?

Our so called ‘western societies’ seem to be ever more caught up in the feeding frenzy of ‘buying’ material consumer goods rather than the original intention of concentrating on the benefits of ‘giving’.

Locally where I live, Christmas shopping was extended just before Christmas to having the stores and shops continuously open all night to ‘give’ shoppers every chance to ‘spend’ their money. Is this really such an advancement in civilisation?

Our western style society evolved over many centuries and is still evolving. Yet one of the basic benefits we now accept as ‘given’, was purely due to dedicated Christians toiling very hard to change their society’s rules. The abolishment of slavery was purely due to Christian beliefs even though it finally took decades to get rid of the stigma of child labour and the oppression of women. The notion that ‘all were created equal’, enunciated by Abe Lincoln in his Gettysburg address, is basically a Christian belief.

So perhaps as we sit down to our orgy of whatever we choose to indulge in, we should pause a second or two and consider whether we aught to be very careful not to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ at a time when we our society is in danger of being radically changed, primarily due to conflicting beliefs and by what we see as uncivilised behaviour?

William Dunlop

Saw an interview on online from Telefis Erin on my laptop recently: an Anthony Andrews type interviewing Sir Bob Geldof.

They were in total agreement that the Irish Roman Catholic Church had totally brainwashed the Irish people.

By the way I am an Irish passport holder and have been for a number of years.

On that note, wishing all a happy Xmas and New Year from a brought-up Presbyterian in Northern Ireland (Scottish austere mode, great uncle being a Right Rev Dr).

Chris Overland

While Phil was raised a Catholic, I was raised as a Scottish Presbyterian, then amongst the most austere and radically protestant brands of Christianity.

A significant feature of Presbyterianism was a profound loathing for Catholicism. My father, while a professed agnostic, detested the Catholic Church, believing it to be a world wide conspiracy to dominate and control people.

Not surprisingly, in my early years, I regarded Catholics with suspicion and latent hostility. This was probably heightened by the fact that Catholic children tended to go to a separate school run by the "Brown Joeys", a common nick name for the Sisters of the Order of Saint Joseph, who wore brown habits.

As time went by I discovered that Catholic kids (along with Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, etc.) were much like anyone else and gradually came to understand that monotheistic religious faiths based upon "the word" are riven with pseudo-profundities, internal contradictions, virulent prejudice against the supposedly apostate and a great deal of just plain nonsense.

By the time I arrived in PNG I had basically ceased to be active in a religious sense although the last vestiges of belief in a God survived for a few more years.

In PNG, I observed how missionaries from multiple faiths had swarmed into the country, anxious to save (or capture) souls. The savages needed to be rescued from their ignorance and folly.

Missionaries brought along with them some good things like medical services and education, plus some of the more sensible moral rules like "thou shalt not kill". Unhappily, they also brought with them their own brands of sectarianism, intolerance of difference (such as gay and lesbian people) and rigidity of thinking about gender roles and much else beside.

I think that most Papua New Guineans who first embraced Christianity did so for the perfectly rational reason that they thought that there had to be a link between the Christian faith and the technological mastery and great material abundance enjoyed by the European colonialists.

This was a mistake of the first order: the truth is that organised religion has always been and will remain profoundly antiscientific, anti-liberal and authoritarian in nature.

History is replete with examples of the depredations committed in the name of religion, including the current crop of Islamic fascists whose appalling and ultimately futile crimes are justified by interpretations of the Koran that the huge majority of Muslims reject out of hand.

Bearing this sad history in mind, I join Phil in saying that Christmas (itself derived from the former Roman religious holiday of Saturnalia) should be a celebration of friendship, family and the many good things we are so fortunate to enjoy in this life.

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