Barbara Smoker
Lecture to the Ethical Society, April, 2009

LIKE Christmas, Easter is pagan in origin; and its movable date is even based on the older lunar calendar. Children enjoy the surviving ancient pagan customs, such as Easter eggs - which, of course, originally symbolised fertility.

Though Christmas has become the most popular (and expensive) festival in the Christian calendar, it is Easter that is both theologically and traditionally by far the more important, for it commemorates the victorious resurrection of the divine Jesus, following his willing propitiative sacrifice on the cross, said to have been required for the reconciliation of God and sinful humanity, so as to open up Heaven to believers. The week preceding Easter, culminating in the oppressive observance of Good Friday, is therefore known as Holy Week.

Vicarious Atonement

The qualifying test for entry to Heaven is not, strictly speaking, leading a decent life but being baptised and "accepting Christ as Saviour". Other gods who had taken human form date back to the ancient Egyptians. Human redemption through the god-man's suffering is called "vicarious atonement" - the word "vicarious" deriving from vicar: that is, one who stands in for another, as Christ is supposed to stand in for us. It is meant to assuage God's anger against us, though punishing one person - especially an innocent person - in place of others is hardly what we would count as justice. In fact, it undermines the whole civilised notion of justice. (In the religious Middle Ages, however, it was acceptable for high-born boys who were too important to be punished for their own misdemeanours to employ whipping-boys!)

Even if, as we are told, there is to be compensating justice in the world to come, God remains unjust in this, the only world we know. And not only vis-a-vis the sacrificial victim; the whole human race is subject to the chances of disease, disability, and disaster.

Nonetheless, the whole theological raison d'etre of Christianity is the vicarious atonement of Jesus, to offset the guilt of the first man's disobeying his creator - that is, of Original Sin. Though it is difficult to imagine anything more unjust than inherited guilt, let alone eternal punishment for it, orthodox theologians maintain that Original Sin persists to stain the soul of every newborn baby until the stain is removed by Christian baptism. The modern survival of more attenuated forms of Christianity is down to belonging, rather than believing, though it may retain the comforting hope of a blissful after-life, with family and friends reunited - but not usually fear of damnation.

Debaptism Certificates

Even baptism is no longer a sine qua non for salvation except among the more rigorous sects. In the past few weeks there has been a surge of atheistic debaptisms, and I am proud to note that the National Secular Society's promotion of debaptism certificates, based on my wording of a decade ago, has made sensational news and comment in the international media.

The Atonement theory derives from the ancient annual custom of animal sacrifice, which was a modification of prehistoric human sacrifice. As sanctioned by the bible story of Abraham, the sacrificial animal was a substitute for the favourite son - though God "the Father" apparently stuck to the previous tradition. Fortunately, the majority of Christians do not honour him by following his bloodthirsty example. If, in Old Testament times, the head of a Jewish family neglected to slit the throat of a Passover lamb "without blemish" and to smear its blood on the portal of his house, Jehovah was sure to punish him by the death of his eldest son.

The Sacrificial Lamb

To the early Christians, Jesus was the infinite sacrificial lamb: Agnus Dei, "who taketh away the sins of the world". For, said Christian theologians, "without the shedding of blood there is no Redemption". Don't ask me why! An omnipotent god, by definition, must be able to do without blood sacrifice. What good does it do? The only possible need for it is to appease a sadistic and unreasonable tyrant - - who, perversely, is said to be "perfect".

In the first few centuries of the Christian era, depictions of the crucifixion were less sadistic - more triumphant - than they became in the later Middle Ages, when the emblematic royal crown worn by the crucified Christ was transformed into the biblical crown of thorns. This burgeoning emphasis on the agony suffered by the Saviour is a form of pornography, which stimulates heightened religious emotion - an extension of sexual emotion, especially in highly-sexed young people. It is the main reason why some of them, wallowing in sado-masochistic fantasy, choose Jesus as their soul-mate and pledge themselves to lifelong celibacy as priests or nuns. Indeed, a nun will often refer to herself as a Bride of Christ.

Those who have seen the video of the Ecstasy of St Teresa will recall the odious blood dripping from the crucifix. A similar exemplar from our own time is her namesake Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who unknowingly revealed her sexuality in youthful descriptions of her religious visions. As her hormones aged, these naturally diminished in intensity - and I think this decline is what is really meant by the phrase "the dark night of the soul", said to be suffered by many Christian saints.

It was in the year 1224 that Francis of Assisi, though no longer in the first flush of youth, was said to exhibit, while in an ecstacy of prayer, the wounds of the crucified Christ in his own body, so starting a craze for manifesting the stigmata, as it is called - now recognised medically as a symptom of hysteria. Certain reiterated phrases in Christian brain-washing - such as "He died for me" and "By His stripes are we healed" - carry this strong emotive charge, which is deliberately triggered by hymn-writers, in both their lyrics and musical cadences, so that any relevant analytic questions are swept away in a flow of feeling.

Having carried out a little research into popular hymns of the 19th and 20th centuries, I am able to quote the words of a sado-masochistic verse from the Methodist Hymnbook, as follows.

There is a fountain filled with blood 

Drawn from Emanuel's veins -

And sinners plunged beneath that flood 

Lose all their guilty stains.

(Presumably emerging horribly blood-stained instead!)

Even more reprehensible, from the same collection, is a hymn that is actually designated a hymn for children. Here is one of its verses.

He died that we might be forgiven - He died to make us good - That we might go at last to Heaven, Saved by His Precious Blood.

Apart from its emotional seductiveness, its string of non-sequiturs is intrinsically anti-educational.

As for the hymns that I remember from my own Catholic childhood, some of those in English from the Westminster Hymnal were remarkably similar in their sado-masochistic sentiment to the Methodist ones quoted. Here is a verse from one of them - which, I am now rather embarrassed to say, was my favourite hymn as a convent school-girl.

Blood of my Saviour Bathe me in thy tide. Wash me ye waters Gushing from His side.

(At least with this one the blood gets washed off in the end.) Needless to say, I was unaware in those days of its Freudian sexual implications. Only in maturity did I recognise that the religious feeling was identical to sexual arousal. How many believers who do recognise it will admit it?

Simply being born human is clearly what makes us all miserable sinners bound for Hell, at least until baptism has washed away our Original Sin. But apparently any subsequent personal wrong-doing, being a sin (however venial) against the majesty of the godhead, somehow adds to the suffering of the incarnate god-self (or son?) in his earthly death throes. Contemplating this martyrdom often activates in susceptible believers a wellspring of sado-masochistic emotion (even in the so-called "happy-clappy" churches), together with irrational ideology and varying degrees of mental instability.

Let us expunge the toxic religiosity, simply enjoying the (far less unhealthy!) hot cross buns and Easter eggs.