Easter, Passover, Eid - suppose they were true

the uses of belief
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BANK HOLIDAY weekend again. Some traditions never die - for instance the weather is dire and the motorways are completely jammed. But one great Easter tradition has vanished: the Bishop of Durham no longer makes a provocative sermon challenging the meaning of Easter, and insisting that the whole original point of this holiday, the resurrection of Jesus, has been misunderstood. It is about more than "a conjuring tricks with pigs' bones", the phrase that launched a thousand editorials.. Like all traditions this annual event had a ritual pattern: the declaration was followed by a traditional dance of shock and outrage performed by media pundits, the Bishop's colleagues and anyone else who wanted to join in. After that, we had a ritual discussion about the role of religion in a multi-cultural secular democracy. After that an opinion poll revealed that 73.7 per cent of the population believed in God, but only about two per cent did anything about it. Then we could all return to real business - the appalling weather and the deficiencies of the M25.

Perhaps it was a useful tradition. Without this annual event there is no religious news. But religion continues - this weekend it is not just Christians who have a key festival. Four of Britain's major religions have important celebrations this week: It is Jewish Passover (the celebration of their freedom from Egypt) Moslem Eid (the Feast of Lights) and, of course, the great feast of the Easter Bunny worshippers (who are unquestionably winning the fight of faith). WH Smith has ten cards to honour this cult for every one with any Christian iconography.

Anthropologists would have no problems interpreting these festivals as fertility rituals linked to the renewal of spring time, the return of the sun, the annual crop pattern, are pervasive in all non-tropical cultures. But for the rest of us there is a question to be asked because we are privileging "faith". Most blatantly Britain privileges Christianity - and primarily a Lutheran-Erastian version of it called Anglicanism. National holidays - and the word itself is just short hand for Holy Days - are organised around the Christian calendar. We allow bishops to influence legislation. We require our heads of state to manage their sexual activities around Christian moral codes. But more fundamentally we privilege religion over secularism, theism over atheism. This is most marked in education; we have finally given state funding to a Moslem school, but rationalists, humanists and materialists have no safe space where their family values and traditions can be maintained and succoured.

One could of course argue that this is a conservationists issue; under the contemporary tide of secular rationalism we believers need all the help we can get; we are an endangered species. Scientific fundamentalists openly preach that their measure of truth is the only one; and that the absence of proof (as defined by them) must be treated as proof of absence. In the interests of the social equivalence of bio-diversity it makes good sense to support benign habitats and provide special attention. But this is a flimsy argument: taken world-wide, faith is not in the least endangered and virulent strains of it are alive and well and reeking social havoc, more like a virus than like the giant panda.

The Bishop of Durham pressed the issue - what do we mean by belief in God? Is it True? Is it metaphorical? Is it a personal habit that some of us enjoy? Personally would want to say that I believe in Christianity as I believe in the world revolving round the sun; that I believe in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, carpenter and God, exactly as I believe in World War II. But actually I don't, because when I encounter someone who for example denies the reality of the Holocaust I endeavour to correct them and tend to like them less for their convictions. Meanwhile I completely understand why non-believers disagree with me, I rarely try to persuade anyone, and by and large prefer rationalists to my fellow believers. My faith is more along the lines that "it is true that I love my children ". I see absolutely no reason why anyone should accord me social privileges because of that, and certainly they should not have to organise their long weekends around my children's birthdays.

We are in a social mess on this issue. If as a culture (not as individuals) we do not believe in religion, we should not be privileging those who do; we should not be insisting that children are inculcated with it at school, and we should arrange our national holidays around weather, convenience and the transport system. If we believe it is metaphorical then we should treat it like any other cultural society, from the Arts Council to the village amateur dramatic club. If we believe it is literally true we should be reintroducing a criminal penalty for those who fail to attend church on a Sunday for their own long term good.

The point is that a belief system, or faith, which has no consequences in the real world is shabby at best, and dangerous at worst. This may be the biggest fault with the Easter Bunny cult - it flavours anything we feel like doing with a mixture of sentiment and smugness without challenging our minds or our morals. If on the other hand the pressure of Easter, of a narrative of resurrection, repentance and forgiveness weighs even slightly in the balance between peace and violence, say in Christian Northern Ireland this weekend, then we may have to recognise another sort of truth.