In recent years, archaeologists and historians have made mincemeat of some of the most cherished ideas in all religions. The Exodus from Egypt, supposedly led by Moses, has been erased. There’s simply no evidence of it, either in Egypt, the Sinai Desert or in Israel. Muslim claims of a single, sacred Koran have been discounted with the discovery of a second version of their holy book.
Christian history has been thoroughly undermined by extensive research that demonstrated the resurrection story was a much later addition to the original text. Throw in the fact Jesus wasn’t born in December or under extraordinary circumstances, and there isn’t much left. Faced with overwhelming evidence, the Roman Catholic Church has now endorsed the Big Bang theory of the world’s creation and evolution, knocking the two remaining props from under Christian belief.
I’m reminded of such realities whenever I’m annually invited to celebrate some religious holiday with friends and family. There are plenty of them directly connected to non-historical events: Passover and Purim in Judaism; Easter and Christmas in Christianity. I usually decline to participate, but have started to consider the value of such festivals.
For starters, religious holidays bring people together. In our hectic-paced world, we rarely have a chance for that. I can recall multiple family dinners with my only close relatives, an aunt and uncle, my father’s brother. They did not get along, but, nevertheless, we invariably drove to Detroit to celebrate Passover together. The holiday served as a viable reason to share a meal when no other reason would suffice.
Christmas has the same effect on my Christian friends. Animosities and disagreements fade.
Then, too, these holidays have secondary messages that outweigh any historical deficiencies. Passover and Purim are about seeking freedom. In Passover, enslaved Jews supposedly were led from Egypt to achieve independence in Canaan. In Purim, based on the canonical book of Esther, Jews in ancient Persia were able to evade the Holocaust-like views of the reigning prime minister. Although neither event happened, the concept of freedom remains viable. In fact, Purim became increasingly important because its message buoyed Jews trapped in the European ghettoes and Russian shtetls. The holiday became a raucous party in which a downtrodden people annually rose up against their oppressors in words, songs and comic routines rather than with weapons.
That tradition continues today.
The Christian religious holidays serve as reminders of a higher ideal – irrespective of whether there is a god or not. They encourage all of us to think of a greater good and something beyond ourselves. We can all use that reminder, particularly in a time of sharp divides over often-insignificant issues and the ardent demagoguery that fills our airwaves.
Finally, they are happy occasions. There is not enough of that as bad news -- transported so swiftly around the world – increasingly becomes everyday fare. The internet is a wonderful invention with multiple applications, but it is a better vehicle for scaring people than cheering them. Every tidbit of potential disaster, from global warming to acid oceans, gets full play, including the foibles of our “celebrities.”
We can all use a chance to escape such realities for the innocence of a religious celebration. Our secular holidays – President’s Day, Independence Day, Labor Day etc. – do not carry that cachet. Only a religious holiday can do it.
Some scientists argue we are programmed to accept religious beliefs, no matter how absurd. After all, there are still people who believe a former musician -- who changed his name to David Koresh, took over a religious group and led them to a mass immolation-- is really God. Researchers claim that religion enforces the socialization process that enabled humans to rise to the top of the food chain.
That’s why that, if we didn’t have religious holidays, we would have had to invent them.
Which is exactly what we did and why we should continue to celebrate them.