by Peter Craven
EASTER is the major feast of the Christian calendar, outranking Christmas. Why? Because it recapitulates the saga that on Good Friday Jesus Christ redeemed the world by dying on the cross and that on the third day, Easter Sunday, he rose from the dead.
St Paul, who got Christianity established as a religion, said: ''If Christ be not risen our faith is vain.'' Easter is therefore an appropriate time to ponder the fact that these days Christianity is not just ''a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles'', again to cite Paul. It has always had a good chance of coming across like that to most people, believers and unbelievers, at least some of the time.
No, the difference is that religion is now thought of by a growing number of people as an abomination. The very thought of Easter is an offence to their fundamentalist atheism.
One proponent of this view was that old charmer, the late Christopher Hitchens, much missed. The other booming Down with God voice is Richard Dawkins, whose nose wrinkles in disgust at Dante's description of ''the love that moves the sun and other stars''.
The ABC's Q&A next Monday, Easter Monday, will have only two guests - Richard Dawkins and Cardinal Pell - and there are no prizes for guessing what they'll be talking about. It's a division that preoccupies people so much that Alain de Botton has recently published a book called Religion for Atheists, arguing the hardly controversial ground that some of the greatest art and music was done in the name of religion and that many of its social effects are benign.
by Russell Blackford
Matamagician and the Hellfire Club
Peter Craven is all over the place with this piece. At one stage he starts to put an argument that, on balance, Christianity was good for the world, but then he decides not to press it.
For the record, I don't know whether Christianity was good for the world on balance or not. There are too many imponderables as to how history might have gone in the absence of Christianity. No one knows the answer to that.
To ask a slightly different question, was it an improvement on what went before? In Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, I say what I think is the only sensible thing:
All things considered, the moral ethos of Christianity may or may not have been an improvement on what went before. This is a large and controversial question, and involves difficult value judgments that are far beyond the scope of this book. Classical Roman civilization had its own dark side, which the pagan cults did little or nothing to oppose. From a Christian viewpoint, the cults were implicated in such abhorrent practices as gladiatorial combat, crucifixion of rebels and criminals, and neglect of the poor and diseased. But whatever can be said in Christianity's favor, its obvious downside was its tendency to intolerance, demonization, persecution, and suppression.
I own a copy of the Geoffrey Blainey book that Craven refers to - as a matter of fact it was a Christmas gift from a friend. I haven't read it yet, mainly because it is a long and daunting volume that needs some time set aside. But I'll do so, and I'm looking forward to it. But even if it could be argued plausibly that the world, considered over historical time, has been a better place on balance because of Christianity, it would by no means follow that Christian morality (or some version of it) has been an unalloyed good, or that it is our best option now.
In any event, as I said, Craven does not press this point. So what is his real argument?