It’s Easter. Once again, the masses will gawp in awe at a bizarre and unbelievable story…because it is such a good example of how religion will piggy-back on our cognitive biases.
You all know the Easter story: a god turns into a man, gets tortured and killed, rises from the dead, and somehow this act makes us all better. It’s a tale best left unexamined, because it makes no sense. We are supposed to wallow in an emotional thrill that taps deep into our social consciousness, not think about what the story actually says.
The part of the story that works for us is the idea of self-sacrifice. That’s potent; we are social animals, and an individual sacrificing him or her self for the greater good has a lot of impact, materially and symbolically, and also stirs up powerful and conflicting emotions. Think about a real example, a soldier throwing himself on a hand grenade to protect his compatriots; it’s a noble sacrifice, it means that one dies so that others may live, it makes us wonder whether we would be brave enough (or crazy enough, or despairing enough) to do the same. We look at someone who does that as a genuine hero, someone who cared so much for his fellow human beings that he would make the supreme sacrifice to spare them.
So that’s the aspect of the Easter story that the Christian faith milks for everything it’s worth. The suffering of Jesus is amplified: look at the weird obsession Catholics show for graphic portrayals of the bloody, twisted, tormented Christ on a stick; look at Gibson’s horrible torture porn movie, The Passion, that lingers sickly over every lash of the whip, every beating, the long slow bleeding death. This isn’t just a quick self-sacrifice, Jesus suffered a long lingering death, just for you. He must have cared about you so much!
Uh, except for one thing. Where’s the grenade? What is he saving us from?
This is where the myth falls apart. Don’t look! Be distracted by the crown of thorns and the spear and the nails, and by the magic trick on the third day! Whatever you do, don’t question the sacrifice!
Because, unfortunately, Jesus isn’t saving us from anything real, and he made no change in the world with his death. Ask a Christian, and they’ll tell us he’s saving us from Original Sin, our flawed, weak, inherently wicked natures. But what that sin is is an act committed by a pair of mythological ancestors (they didn’t even actually exist), and the sin was being willful, curious and disobedient to an imaginary man in the sky — it was a non-existent crime. I don’t believe in being held accountable for my ancestor’s weaknesses (as Patti Smith sang, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine”), and in this case I don’t even consider what they did to be wrong. So Jesus suffered for an act that I would consider a virtue, committed by myths against a myth? That’s no hand grenade, that’s a fairy tale. Nobody needs to die to protect me from a fairy tale.
Next problem: what Jesus did didn’t even protect me from that fairy tale! Imagine that in some metaphorical sense it was true that there was some heritable taint infecting the entire human race, passed from generation to generation and making us more prone to do wickedness. Instead of a hand grenade, we’ve been fed a poison that’s going to hurt us slowly and horribly.
How does having the sick butcher the doctor make us better?
I can guess how it will be rationalized: that having the doctor make such a sacrifice will make us believe more sincerely in his prescription. But again, that’s religion leeching off a cognitive shortcut our brains take, that we’ll assume it must have been a very, very important message if the messenger was willing to die for it. That’s invalid — people die stupidly for bad reasons all the time. The only test that matters is whether the doctor actually helps people with his actions.
Another problem: Jesus cheats. We’re supposed to believe that he’s saving us from an imaginary ancestral sin, and that he’s doing so by dying…but he doesn’t! He comes back three days (OK, actually a day and a half) later, perfectly healthy except for a few holes which don’t seem to perturb him much, and he gets to magically zoom up into the sky and live forever in his dad’s palace. This is no sacrifice at all.
Now, if our hypothetical soldier who threw himself on a grenade turned out to survive the experience hale and healthy because, for instance, the bomb was dud, he’d still be a hero — he didn’t know it would fizzle, and the intent was there. This doesn’t help Jesus, though. He’s omnipotent and omniscient and knew his own nature, and knew that you don’t kill a god by hanging him from a tree and poking him with sticks. Jesus faked his heroism. He’s no hero at all.
Finally, there’s a layer of the story that doesn’t resonate with modern audiences much at all, the idea of the propitiatory sacrifice, which is where the appeal of these spring sacrifices arose. Got a problem that you think is caused by a god? Take your strong king or your beautiful virgin and kill them, giving them to the god, so he’ll reward you with a good harvest or fortune in war or the return of tasty game animals. Most of us know this doesn’t work. Even Christianity tends to steer clear of this claim any more, even though it is sprinkled throughout the Old Testament. But on another level, the Easter story is the tale of God giving his only begotten son in a blood sacrifice to propitiate himself and grant us forgiveness for having crossed him once in 4004BC.
It doesn’t work logically or emotionally. It’s the action of a psychopath with a grudge over a petty slight; it’s what a demented monster would do. We don’t regard as heroic the soldier who throws the fellow next to him on top of the grenade, and we especially condemn the soldier who first pulled the pin on the grenade, then smothered the explosion with his bunkmates body.
This is how you should think about the holiday today. Selfless sacrifice for the greater good is a social virtue, and it’s nice that Christianity has imbedded the idea in its heart. But what’s revolting is that they’ve taken this simple idea and spindled it up into a sick, twisted, confusing botch of a story that guts it of its power if you use your brain and think about it. Easter is a holiday for the mindless, with a grim horror at its center.