Why we should all know the reason people celebrate Easter

Opinion: Christianity is one of the most influential forces in all of Western history and is therefore something worth knowing about, regardless of religious affiliation.

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I have a good friend, a man with a master’s degree, who once asked me why we celebrate Easter. He knew that he had something to do with the crucifixion of Christ, but not much more. I must also say that his origins are European. You’ll understand why that’s important now.

At the time, he was in his early 30s, which made his question even more surprising. How could a man with a graduate degree who had lived almost 40 years in Canada not know why we celebrate Easter? When I asked him, he said that religion played no role in his upbringing, so, needless to say, he never went to church.

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When I asked another friend, about five years older, if he knew why we celebrate Easter, he said yes. “As?” I asked, since he never went to church either. From watching epic ’50s movies like King of Kings and The Robe on TV, he said.

Despite my atheism, I learned the old way. I went to Sunday school until I was 12, so I knew everything about Pontius Pilate, Mary Magdalene, King Herod and Judas Iscariot. He knew when and why Christ said, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” And I learned of the miracle of his resurrection and of Thomas’s doubts.

I don’t believe any of that anymore, but billions of people do. More and more live in Africa, but originally Christianity, despite its Middle Eastern origins, was primarily a European belief, which is why I mentioned my friend’s background. If he were a Hindu or a Muslim, his question would not have surprised me.

According to a 2021 Statistics Canada census, 19.3 million people, or 53.3 per cent of Canadians, identify as Christians, up from 77.1 per cent in 2001. Muslims make up 4.9 per cent. percent of the population, Hindus 2.3 percent, Sikhs 2.1 percent and Jews 1.4 percent.

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But about 12.6 million people, or just over 33 percent, declared no religious affiliation. That doesn’t mean they’re atheists like me, just that organized religion doesn’t figure in their lives. So, they may or may not know the story of Easter, but if they celebrate it, it will probably be with chocolate eggs and not with hymns of praise.

I am the first person to say that whether you believe in God is your business. Never mind that one of the tenets of Christianity is “spreading the word.” If people want to know, they will ask. Otherwise, fire.

But I do believe, articles of faith aside, that a basic knowledge of the history of Christianity is essential to being an educated person in a Western nation like Canada. In other words, we should all know why people celebrate Easter (and Christmas) regardless of whether and how we do it.

Because without that basic knowledge, how are we to understand much of Western literature, art, music, history, and even politics? The religious right is a potent force in our southern neighbor. It can help decide many of that country’s elections. Vladimir Putin relies heavily on the Russian Orthodox Church to give legitimacy to his war against Ukraine. At the same time, Christianity can move other people to acts of tremendous sacrifice and compassion. Martin Luther King was a preacher. So the least we can do is understand some of what Christianity says and teaches.

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Or, on a much lighter but pertinent note, if you tour Europe, what will you get from all those magnificent churches, art galleries, concert halls and museums if you’ve never heard of Mary, John? and Pedro?

But in an increasingly secular Western world, how can we make that happen? I admit I don’t know. In Canada, schools must provide some form of religious education, but there is no national curriculum for this. It is up to local authorities to decide how much and what type of religious education pupils receive.

Again, this is not about the merits of Christianity, a topic far beyond the scope of this column. Nor is it about Easter itself. It is about recognizing Christianity as one of the most important and influential forces in all of Western history and, therefore, something worth knowing.

But how many people do it?

Nicholas Read is the author of a dozen books on animals and the environment and a former reporter for the Vancouver Sun.

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