The Ambivalence of Easter

 

Scarborough from Cumboots Brow, Easter 1977

Scarborough from Cumboots Brow, Easter 1977

Easter occurs this weekend, although the event has almost zero importance for me now that I live in California. On reflection, the decline in its significance seems remarkable, given that Easter was, and still is, a national holiday in Britain, and holds many ambivalent memories for me from the days when I lived there.

The photograph above shows my birth town, Scarborough, on a beautiful day during Easter, 1977. My color slide was taken from the curiously-named Cumboots Brow, and displays a vista over lush farmland to the suburban village of Scalby, then Scarborough Castle headland beyond that, and finally the North Sea on the horizon.

In terms of positive memories of Easter, as a kid, I naturally looked forward to the break from school offered by the Easter vacation, and also to the abundance of Easter eggs, hot cross buns, and similar treats.

On the negative side, the Christian Easter festival, which was supposedly what was being commemorated, brings back memories of its absurd and macabre claims, which teachers at our schools drilled into us. In my case, I had the misfortune to have to attend a Church of England School for a couple of years, where such superstitious nonsense was particularly rife, but in Britain even state schools promoted the religious agenda to a lesser extent.

Is Easter Christian or Pagan?

Is Easter a religious festival, or merely a celebration of Spring? Should it or shouldn’t it be an official holiday for everyone?

Most people in Britain seem to take it for granted (as I did before emigrating) that Easter should be a recognized holiday.

Conversely, when I talk to people in California about it, they often seem puzzled that it should be recognized as a secular holiday at all.

People sometimes seem surprised when I remind them that, unlike the USA, Britain has no “separation of church and state”. Indeed, England has an official state religion (Church of England Christianity), the bishops of which still sit unelected in the House of Lords. Few people in Britain seem to see any problem in having a Christian festival as a national holiday, even though the vast majority now practice no religion at all and are de facto atheists, whatever they choose to call themselves.

But what actually is being celebrated? After all, the term “Easter” has a pagan origin, in that it is derived from the name of a goddess named Ēostre. Is it not really just a celebration of the Springtime renewal of life? As I recall, that inconvenient reality seemed to reemerge frequently. For example, at the state school, we were instructed to create Easter cards, but thankfully it was specified that these should feature eggs and chicks, instead of a man nailed to a wooden cross.

At the church school, the priests insisted that, despite its morbid associations, their Easter festival was supposed to be a “victory” over death rather than a wallowing in the gory details. Even as a child, it struck me that their resurrection story made no sense. Those adults insisted that their leader had physically risen from the dead. When we questioned the current whereabouts of this Jesus who had supposedly “conquered death” and thus must obviously still be living somewhere, we were told that we couldn’t meet this immortal individual in the flesh because he had somehow “gone up to heaven”. But we already knew that “going up to heaven” was just a euphemism for dying, so is he supposed to be dead or alive?

Easter in Scarborough: the “Season” Begins

Easter had a more practical significance for me during my schooldays because, in Scarborough, in the 1970s (and perhaps even now), the weekend marked the start of “the Season”, when tourists began arriving for vacations in the town following the winter shutdown. Typically, the major influx of tourists occurred from Easter to September each year.

For a few years during the 1970s, my parents owned the “West Lodge Guest House”, which they opened to guests each Easter. That building is still open as a hotel today. I took the photo below during a visit to Scarborough in 2006.

West Lodge Guest House in 2006

West Lodge Guest House in 2006

Easter: Goodbye to All That

Until I wrote this article, it hadn’t occurred to me that emigrating to California freed me to enjoy the positive aspects of Easter, revolving around the Springtime rebirth of life, without all the baggage of the macabre and primitive religious connotations.

It’s just one more good thing to celebrate…

Location of the Heading Photograph

Due to tree growth since 1977, it seems that it may be difficult to reproduce the view at the head of this article now. Here is the latest Google Streetview image.

Postscript

The Daily Mash has just weighed in with a report about Easter!

Applying Logic to Religious Claims

I’ve been thinking of creating some blog posts regarding my reactions to those who, from time to time, try to “convert” me to one religion or another. Such people never seem to have any original arguments, and instead trot out the same old, long-discredited, nonsense. Thus, rather than being forced to waste my time by offering the same old responses once again, I’ll just be able to refer them to my blog posts on the subject!

In the meantime, this Patheos article makes a good start, although most of it refers specifically to Christianity. Once you start analyzing religious claims logically, you’re soon forced to conclude that none of the competing and mutually-contradictory religions can be valid, which makes consideration of the claims of any one religion moot.

I also realize that many “believers” will never be swayed by logical arguments. They cling to their beliefs for emotional reasons, and will accept any contorted rationalization that allows them to avoid considering awkward facts. My goal, therefore, is not to try to proselytize non-belief, but merely to state my own considered views, in a form that avoids having to restate them every time the issue arises.

Michael Palin & the Life of Brian: Insights from my Interview

michaelpalinstoic2In 1983, while a student at Imperial College, I taped a video interview with Michael Palin, of “Monty Python” fame. At that time, the Monty Python team’s most famous—if not notorious—movie to date had been “The Life of Brian”, which had been released in 1979. Controversial at the time, the movie is perhaps even more famous now, having regularly been cited as the “greatest comedy film of all time”. If you can remember back to that time, you may recall that “The Life of Brian” was vociferously denounced in some quarters as being “blasphemous”.

As our interview progressed, I broached the topic by mentioning to Michael* that there had been controversy about the movie “where I was living”. His immediate response was, “You’re not from Harrogate, are you?” I laughed, but had to admit that I was in fact from nearby Scarborough (both towns being in North Yorkshire, England). He replied along the lines of, “Well, Harrogate seemed to be the worst when it came to the intellectual level of debate”.

Michael acknowledged that the team had anticipated some controversy when planning the movie: “We realized that some people would claim that Brian was supposed to be Jesus, so we deliberately included Jesus alongside Brian, to make it clear that he wasn’t.”

As it turned out, the reality was that all too many were willing to denounce the movie without even having seen it. In fact, as is surely obvious to anyone who takes the trouble to watch it through, the plot pokes satirical fun at religions, organizations, and many other topics that you’d expect the Monty Python team to address. The petulant reaction simply provided extra publicity for the movie, and discredited those who complained about non-existent offences.

Perhaps among the most insightful aspects of the movie is the lampooning of the way in which, having committed themselves to a particular belief, some people will go to extremes to avoid having to accept any evidence that the belief is wrong. Instead of reaching the logical conclusion, believers go out of their way to create and justify the most implausible rationalizations, redefining words and concepts as necessary to avoid admitting error.

I found Michael Palin’s comments during our interview interesting and personally thought-provoking, since he was correct that there had been much sanctimonious hand-wringing about the movie in my home town (and in many other places too). The end result of all that, in my case, was to make me realize that even some supposedly-intelligent people whom I knew couldn’t necessarily be trusted to behave rationally when it came to the “big issues”. That was a lesson that I’ve carried with me ever since.

(* Just in case it seems presumptuous of me to refer to my guest simply as “Michael”, I should mention that he gave me explicit permission to do that! He told me, “Only my parents call me Mr. Palin”…)