An earlier version of this article published in Rendezview The Daily Telegraph 17/04/17 – Christianity no longer a central part of Australian life
Last week, in the Courier Mail, Dr Kevin Donnelly felt the need to remind us that celebrating Easter proves the influence of the Bible.
Having taken off the bunny ears and coaxed our chocolate-filled bellies off the couch, most Australians observe the unfastening and remoteness of family Easter festivities from the biblical story of a risen Christ.
And, if Easter really did prove the importance of the Bible, why would we need reminding?
Because, it’s not due to short term memory loss that 9 out of 10 Australians no longer attend church regularly. Nor is sudden memory-failure the reason non-belief will soon overtake Catholicism to become Australia’s largest religious affiliation.
Quite simply, the Christian church is no longer a central part of Australian life, and gentle reminders will be insufficient to revive it.
Increasingly unmoored from religious rituals, it’s worth noting that Easter – a word derived from Eastra, the goddess of spring – was originally a celebration of the spring equinox, with the date determined by the cycles of the moon.
Resurrection and rebirth myths go back as far as recorded history. Cuneiform tablets from 2100 B.C document the resurrection of Ianno, who was judged and killed in the underworld, raised from the dead after three days and restoring fertility to the earth.
And that’s not denying the importance of the Bible in understanding western civilisation. Without it, it’s difficult to comprehend how we got here. Since Constantine adopted Christianity in the 4th century, it has been integral to the character and fabric of western civilization.
But acknowledging our history, does not imply that we should deny the pluralism and diversity of our current society, nor make us intransigent against change. Further, one cannot help but detect a “culture war” theme motivating Donnelly’s argument.
Why for instance does he quote Professor Higgins, from My Fair Lady, saying that English is the language of “Milton, Shakespeare and the Bible”?
The Bible was written in Aramaic, and Jesus was a Palestinian. The Bible was finally translated to English by Protestant reformer William Tyndale in the 16th century amidst theological outrage. The original translations were burned, and Tyndale was finally rewarded for his efforts by strangulation and burning at the stake.
Western civilisation began long before the supposed virgin-birth of Jesus. Rather than being founded upon the New Testament, western culture integrated Christianity into a milieu of Jewish wisdom, Greek philosophy and Roman law.
Again, I would not wish to understate the value of the Bible as part of western literature, but it is a prism through which we understand the past, rather than a light that guides the way in the future.
The recent furore over Coopers Brewing and their support for the Bible Society over same sex marriage, demonstrates the increasing chasm between biblical beliefs and modern secular values.
The idea that our society is somehow held together by the teachings of Jesus, is decisively undermined by the Enlightenment – the secular project, which finally wrested control of government and science from the church.
Finally, secular values allowed different sects and different religions to coexist without endless conflict. The era of science conforming to theology was over, and progress was thereafter swift.
Moreover, the Ten Commandments retain little influence on the modern Australian legal system or indeed modern ethics. Nor were they particularly innovative moral teachings in their time. Surely, it wasn’t the meeting of Moses and God for 40 days and nights on Mt Sinai, which convinced humanity that murder was inadvisable. The prohibition on murder, along with other values such as the golden rule, all appear in the civilisations of India, China, Athens and Rome, predating Christianity by thousands of years.
Raising his Bible to ward off Islamic terrorism, like a crucifix to a vampire, Donnelly suggests the antidote to religious violence is yet more religion. But promoting conformity to Christian teachings will only infuriate and isolate those from other cultural traditions. What we need is a broadening of cultural tolerance, not a narrowing.
What we should remember at holiday times is the things which unite us, not those which divide. Namely, the Enlightenment values of tolerance, secularism, freedom of thought, the rule of law, and democracy. If we owe a debt to Christianity, it’s because of the excesses and dogmas which necessitated modern secular values.