Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pagans are Snakes

Atheists and Agnostics tend to get a “party pooper” image for ruining everyone’s fun on holidays by pointing out the not so fun aspects of said holidays. So I find it interesting that, in the usual forums, I have heard so little regarding the darker side of St. Patrick’s Day.

Obviously I can’t let this go by un-downered! Don’t worry I have some good things to say about it too. I actually celebrate this day a little more than some. My ancestry is primarily Scots-Irish. My kids set traps for leprechauns, we wear green, and we attend parades (when convenient). So don’t think it’s all anger and objections at my house. I will go into why I celebrate the holiday at the end, but first my issue with the main tradition of the holiday that I don’t celebrate - the story of St. Patrick himself.

There isn’t much in the way of actual historical fact regarding the person of St. Patrick. The short, short version that is celebrated as the fundamental basis for the holiday is that as a Catholic missionary in Ireland he performed a miracle and drove all the snakes off the island.

There never were snakes in post glacial Ireland.*So what was it that St. Patrick is really being credited with driving out? The pagans. There isn’t any real history that I can find in my superficial researching (I intend to do more) on the spirit in which this was done. It may have been a peaceful conversion or it may not have been. Considering the common methods of the time I am inclined to assume the latter, but my assumptions are irrelevant. There are some indications and publications from the time period that indicate that the Christian attitude toward non-believers wasn’t too congenial, but that doesn’t mean anything about how St. Patrick approached his mission. What is relevant is the imagery. The druids were snakes to be driven out. It smacks of the religious persecution that was just gearing up as Christianity was starting to come into real power.

That having been said I still like St. Paddy’s day. Why? Because, like Christmas, I have infused it with new meaning, separate from its Christian origin story. I enjoy it as a celebration of the Celtic culture of my ancestry. I also like the role the holiday played in helping overcome the terrible prejudice the Irish faced in America after the potato famine migrations of the mid 1800’s. This is discussed in an excerpt from below.

So, yet again we have a holiday where there is good reason to question the claims and the morality of its origin story. And yet again we can still enjoy the “spirit of the holiday” – not sure what that is really in this case, except to drink lots of green beer.

No Irish Need Apply
Up until the mid-19th century, most Irish immigrants in America were members of the Protestant middle class. When the Great Potato Famine hit Ireland in 1845, close to a million poor and uneducated Irish Catholics began pouring into America to escape starvation. Despised for their religious beliefs and funny accents by the American Protestant majority, the immigrants had trouble finding even menial jobs. When Irish Americans in the country's cities took to the streets on St. Patrick's Day to celebrate their heritage, newspapers portrayed them in cartoons as drunk, violent monkeys.
However, the Irish soon began to realize that their great numbers endowed them with a political power that had yet to be exploited. They started to organize, and their voting block, known as the "green machine," became an important swing vote for political hopefuls. Suddenly, annual St. Patrick's Day parades became a show of strength for Irish Americans, as well as a must-attend event for a slew of political candidates. In 1948, President Truman attended New York City 's St. Patrick's Day parade, a proud moment for the many Irish whose ancestors had to fight stereotypes and racial prejudice to find acceptance in America.


  1. As a heavy metal fan, I'm fascinated by the fact that a lot of the anti-Christian sentiment in Northern European metal is rooted in the fact that Christians converted or killed a lot of pagans, essentially uprooting entire cultures and distorting most of their traditions. And I'm reminded of the Hitch frequently remarking that while Christianity is often spread by charity and goodwill these days, for most of its history it was spread by the sword.

  2. Here is another quote from Hitchens that says essentially the same thing and it's one I think of often:

    "Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar. They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse."

    Here is a excerpt from the recent debate with him and Sam Harris discussing the question "Is there an afterlife?" with Rabbis David Wolpe and Bradley Artson Shavit where he makes the point again but even better I's in the second half of the clip.