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Why do we celebrate religious holidays - without religion?

This has been a complicated season for devout worshippers of the monotheistic deity known to His various adherents as Yahweh, God or Allah: a holy time that has been seized by us heathens. For most of us, this month of nominally religious celebrations has become an awkward but generally happy compromise between the sacred and the profane.

On December 26th, I will celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen, nominally a Christian holiday honouring the first man to be stoned to death for denouncing Jewish authorities, but which has been turned into a day (known in Canada and Britain as Boxing Day) devoted to two near-universal virtues: commerce and charity.

Likewise, I happily dined, decorated trees and lit candles on the 24th and 25th, originally a time for Christians to mark the birth of their Saviour (a Jew who became a living god in Christianity and a prophet in Islam) but, for almost everyone in the West, a time given over to family, contemplation and acts of largesse, things worth doing with or without God. On the night of Dec. 6, we made latkes and cheered our friends on Hanukkah, officially a ceremony marking the violent beginnings of widespread monotheistic worship 2,200 years ago, but now marked as a time of community, continuity and warmth. Likewise, I joined neighbours in celebrating Milad un-Nabi, the birthday of the Islamic Prophet, which has similarly become a feast far enough removed from religiosity to be protested by some fundamentalists.

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And much of my spare time this week was devoted to preparing housing for Syrian refugees, an act of charity that some of my companions were doing because their Jewish, Christian or Islamic faith compels them to do so, and all of us because basic human decency does.

For followers of all three faiths, nothing could be as symbolically meaningful as coming to the aid of refugees from the Fertile Crescent – home to the people who, more than 2,500 years ago, invented God. It's worth asking, as we clean up from all this feasting and contemplate all the misery currently being delivered in His name, why they created this figure – and whether their invention needs some tinkering.

I highly recommend reading The Invention of God by German-Swiss biblical scholar Thomas Roemer, now available in English. In a meticulously neutral dissection of archeological and documentary records, he is able to trace the people who thought up God.

Yahweh, or Yhwh (as the scripture shows him) was one of many gods worshipped by nomadic peoples under Egyptian rule for almost 1,000 years before Hebrews found him – a god of wilderness, war and storms. For almost the entire history of Judea chronicled in the Torah, Yahweh was one of many. The First Temple probably contained a statue of him, likely surrounded by other gods, among them his wife (or rather, his "accompanying goddess," his parhedros, Asherah, the "Queen of Heaven") and the sun god El, who is the "divine judge" and, until about 900 BC, was worshipped as Yahweh's father.

It was, Dr. Roemer finds, really only the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC that caused the Jews to turn to monotheism and begin worshipping Yahweh as the single, only God, without a wife or father, whose name must not be uttered nor his image displayed. "The absence of a king, of a functioning temple, and of an autonomous country made it impossible to worship Yhwh as a national god or as the tutelary god of a royal family," Dr. Roemer writes. The translation of the Bible into Greek, at that time, turned this very portable monotheism into something that could become global.

And that allowed God to become mixed, in surprising ways, with the cultures and politics of diverse places. "In a certain sense, incipient Judaism invented the separation of political power and religious practice and also the distinction between religious practice and a specific territory," Dr. Roemer writes. It meant that the three religions following this God could dribble their faith into almost anything – but it also meant that we could begin to think beyond Him, and separately from Him.

We are the animal that created God. He was one of our most popular inventions – one which, in his very universality, renders himself optional. Let this season be an example: Whether you love Him or leave Him, let it bring out the best in you.

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