Monday, April 21, 2014

An Atheist’s Easter address to “A Christian Country”

Easter is in the air and, to celebrate the Great Christian Zombie Festival—in which a roaming rabbi, now god, conducted an early experiment as Schrödinger’s cat—Prime Minister David Cameron has resurrected one of the great zombie myths of Western nations: Britain, he tells us, is a “Christian country”.

Attempts to convince us of our christian essence usually await the winter solstice. Given its name, Christmas is a vaguely plausible time to pretend that we, at large, are christian—christians, that is, who festoon our homes with lights and greenery, pagan salves against the longest night. But Easter, Mr Cameron, is still named for Ēostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of dawn, whose worship reaches back to the pre-christian Proto-Indo-European Eden.

Of course, Britain has a christian history. But that’s how history works: accidents happen and then stick around for posterity. Pronghorns run at cheetah-defying speeds, though their world is free of cheetahs. Near Angkor Wat, silk-cotton trees meld their roots with the temple walls. And, like mosquitos trapped in amber, Britain’s public holidays fall when christians go to the church.

But, historically, Britain is pagan too. Each week, we live through Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday: days named for Tiu, god of war, for Woden (Odin), chief of gods, for his son, the protector, Thor, and for Freya, goddess of love. And as said, our spring festival still bears the name of the goddess of dawn and our winter solstice (renamed) revels in pagan rites. (Not to mention that many nation-defining landmarks hark back to a pagan past: Wood Henge, Stone Henge, the white horse of Uffington, …)

The trappings of christianity may be more numerous or pronounced than those of paganism. The head of church is the head of state, for instance—because a pope said no to a Henry once—whereas pagans lack the kudos of a Druid Royal. However, if Ēostre and Tuesdays aren’t enough to make the country pagan, then Easter and a priestess-queen aren’t enough to make it christian.

The truth is, we are far more greco-romans than we are christians. Our democracy is Greek. Our legal system is Roman. Many of our art forms—poetry, drama, painting, sculpture, architecture—stem from both cultures. Our concept of history is a Greek invention. We still use recognisably Roman surgical instruments. Our modern mainstay and economic sine qua non, science, comes to us from the Greeks, along with the mathematics and philosophy on which it rests. And our progress in ethics lies chiefly in rejecting blind conformity to prepackaged precepts (at one time fit, perhaps, for the belligerent herder-farmers of the confederated Israelite tribes) and embracing the Greek mindset of asking what makes an action, person, or whole life good.

Greco-romans don’t vote, and few pagans do. But enough Britons who like the reassurance being told we’re christians do. So, no prizes for guessing why Mr Cameron has gone public and political on his personal faith. But wouldn’t recognising where our real debt lies be the truly christian thing to do?