An atheist’s Easter

Christians always tell us that Easter is the most important holiday of the year, despite the fact that Christmas is vastly more influential. Everyone knows Santa could lick the Easter Bunny with both mittens tied behind his back.

Easter was an unreliable holiday for me growing up. Sometimes there was an Easter egg hunt, if someone took us to the park. Sometimes my Grandma brought Easter baskets, sometimes she didn’t. But Santa, or at least presents, always showed up on Christmas. Christmas was big enough to steal the thunder away from my birthday, over a month later.

Even though they have a Christian mother, I don’t think things have changed much for my kids. Christmas is anticipated for months; Easter is a pleasant surprise, followed by the inevitable church service.

My wife Greta has been dragging the kids to church and Sunday school every week for the past 11 years. When we moved to a small town with a regular church those 11 years ago, I agreed that I’d try it out and see what all the fuss was about. I tried it for a year, then gave up on it. I didn’t mind the sermons, and I could tolerate the singing, but what I couldn’t handle was the general assumption by the community that I was one of them, a fellow believer, just like — well, everyone. There are people in our town who’ve never met an atheist. Well, they think they haven’t, anyway — they’ve met me!

Over the years, my kids got older, and joined the church youth choir, and Greta would tell me how beautifully they’d sing. Then I’d hear from the kids or from neighbors when Greta played the oboe at church and how wonderful that was. A couple years ago, I decided I’d better at least get over to church when the kids were singing, or when Greta was playing. This turned out to be around once or twice a month. Greta’s playing really was wonderful, and even Jim has actually started moving his mouth when he’s supposed to be singing.

At Easter now, the kids and Greta all play in the Easter Band — a collection of young music students, a couple of serious players like Greta, and a few grown-ups who haven’t gotten around to eBaying their instruments. So naturally now I go to the Easter service. The people at church genuinely do seem excited to be there, even the kids. The preacher makes jokes about people he only sees once a year, but he’s hasty to add he’s glad to see them.

Finally we get to the sermon proper. I have to say I really do enjoy sermons: they’re fine bits of logic and textual interpretation. They’re really like mini lit term papers. But the Easter Sermon is one I have a lot of trouble with. In it, the preacher feels obligated to run through the Incontrovertible Proof that Jesus rose from the dead. The proof seems to be a few witnesses to the event: but only the “chosen” witnesses. If other people didn’t see it, it’s because God didn’t “choose” them. Next these chosen people banded together and formed an incredibly powerful charitable organization, and put themselves in charge. They wrote down rules for their group, and called them “sacred texts.” The most important rule is that only through “faith” will you be “saved.” If that’s true, why do we need the “proof”?

We also learn of Christ’s “sacrifice” in “dying” for our sins. Excuse me if this just doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice to me. I’d put up with a lot of pain and even a temporary “death” if I knew for certain the reward would be to be the supreme ruler of the universe. We’re supposed to “know” that we will earn a similar reward for living faithful lives. Because, you know, if it weren’t for that “heaven” thing, we’d all be a bunch of cheating, lying, fornicating weasels.

Easter sermons almost always suck, because they must needs cover the weakest aspect of Christian doctrine. If I was giving a grade for this “term paper,” it’d be a C-minus.

The Golden Rule, the ideals of humility, of charity, of honoring your family, and so many other good things that are part of being Christian, all of these are much easier for me to swallow. It’s just that big one, the part that’s supposed to be so central to Christianity, this Eternal Reward for simply living a good life, that always has been the stumbling block for me. Why not just do good things because they are good things to do?

Greta thinks I’ll be “saved” even though I’m an unbeliever, since I’m a good person. I guess she’d have a hard time living with me if I wasn’t. If I was a lout and going to hell to boot, why would she waste her time with me? I, of course, am certain that when we’re gone, we’ll both be really gone. We’re both equally certain in our beliefs, so I guess we’re compatible. Thank God for that.

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