The philosopher Simon Blackburn, describing Karen Armstrong’s attitude to religion, once remarked that it was “reminiscent of Alice after hearing the nonsense poem Jabberwocky: ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are’.”
As Easter approaches, some of these elusive ideas dominate radio talk-shows and a disproportionate number of column-centimetres in newspapers, regardless of the fact that everyone is usually saying exactly what they said last year.
Of course, the ideas are most often accompanied by some unpleasant facts, such as the increase in deaths and injuries on our roads resulting from herds of families heading to reunions, celebrations or simply vacations. But as for the ideas themselves – rebirth, renewal, sacrifice, atonement and the like – we see them infecting both unbelievers and believers.
The majority of those living in a society forged in a Judeo-Christian tradition end up partaking in ritualistic eating, drinking and general merriment, regardless of whether they are committed to any theological underpinnings for those ideas.
On one level, this is not incoherent for unbelievers at all, seeing as festivals such as Easter and Christmas were established traditions long before the Roman Catholic Church appropriated all the pagan shrines and claimed the festivals for itself, premised on a version of history that is now regarded as true by many, if only through being repeated often enough.
Some of us, though, will find ourselves at dinner tables shared by relatives and friends who do take these festivals and that version of history seriously, and who sometimes appear to believe that we can know exactly which ideas our heads should be filled with, and why. And those of us on the outside of this belief system may play along, sitting politely while prayers are uttered, not protesting when these relatives and friends say what might seem to us to be crazy things.
The extent to which the secular community has an obligation to play along – or the opposite obligation to protest – is a running debate. A key element of this debate is the possible incoherence involved in your lack of belief not standing in the way of allowing others to continue believing absurd things. The politics of these situations are complex, though, and I don’t mean to argue that one has an obligation to always burst the belief-bubbles of others.
After all, some of these religious ideas, as exemplified by Easter and Christmas, are noble and good: friendship, family, and the simple pleasures of a good meal come to mind, as does the welcome notion of having a few days off work. But if one gets the sense that these ideas – along with others not mentioned – are somehow premised on these festivals, the fear grows that they may become reserved solely for that time of year.
In other words, perhaps some of us – having done our duty in being nice to Aunt Sally around the Easter dinner table – might feel no obligation to be nice to her again until Christmas rolls around. In case this sounds implausible, note that a similar effect is being noticed with regard to “green” consumers, where recent research indicates that they are less likely to be kind, and more likely to steal, as a result of their perceptions of themselves as “good people”. As Dieter Frey, a University of Munich psychologist, observes, “At the moment in which you have proven your credentials in a particular area, you tend to allow yourself to stray elsewhere”.
As with resolutions at the start of each new year, or that month following a trip to the dentist where one flosses obsessively before reverting to more typical patterns, our plans and intentions count for little if they affect our behaviour for a trivially short time. More to the point, they count for little as indications of our characters when they affect our behaviour only when we are reminded to behave differently, due to the promptings of events on a calendar.
All these holiday seasons are invariably filled with both the best and the worst of human character – as are all days and months. For every heart-warming tale of families reunited, this Easter will bring another tale relating to a Catholic priest and an altar-boy, or another about a parent so in the grip of pseudoscience or some paranoia that she is unwilling to vaccinate her one-year-old child, thereby endangering his life (and the lives of everyone else on the planet, in a small way).
But it’s always this way – people do stupid things and clever things, they harm and they help, and they sometimes have no clue which they are doing, or why they have chosen one thing rather than another. And yes, perhaps the balance shifts towards the positive over Easter. Though I’m not too sure about that given all the lives traditionally lost on the roads at this time of year – sadly, too many in pilgrimages to venues such as Moria.
It won’t, however, make much difference if people are especially nice to each other simply because they are reminded to do so by a date on a calendar, and by what that calendar tells them about their metaphysics. As the secular members of South African society often remark, a definition of “goodness” which is premised on being accountable to Big Daddy hardly makes one virtuous – and by extension, being charitable and generally “nice” to one’s fellow humans because it’s Easter or Christmas is not the motivation I’d hope for, seeing as I then have no guarantee you won’t be a complete tosspot for the rest of the year.
Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy. When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.
"Joyfully to the breeze royal Odysseus spread his sail and with his rudder skillfully he steered." ~ Homer