Sunday, April 04, 2010

Hallelujah Harvey

Still from the film Harvey

Easter Sunday and I have a lovely white chocolate rabbit to eat so naturally my thoughts turn to religion and what Richard Dawkins calls 'belief in an imaginary friend'. I have been following with great interest the speeches and papers that have come out of the recent Global Atheist Convention held in Melbourne. Dawkins says that we may be hardwired with a predisposition towards theism which may carry a survival advantage.

Well, we certainly have a propensity to make stuff up and it's surprising how often white rabbits feature in all of it. As someone brought up on Peter Rabbit and Alice in Wonderland, I can confirm that my first imaginary friend was indeed a rabbit. Unlike Elwood P Dowd, the likeable alcoholic played by James Stewart in the movie Harvey, I didn't extend the friendship into adulthood. Harvey has always been one of my favourite wet Saturday afternoon movies. Elwood is a happy flake but his dyspeptic sister Veta just wants him to be a standard white-collar schmoe so she commits him to a sanitorium where a Harveyectomy is planned. Elwood agrees to drug therapy which will separate him from his pooka pal because it will make Veta happy. After a conversation with a taxi driver who tells her he'll come out, 'just a normal human being and you know what stinkers they are,' Veta rushes in and stops the injection. Elwood's friendship and his individuality survive. But Harvey is not a god. He's far too intelligent and fair-minded.

I was wondering how Easter came to be connected with rabbits and eggs, which are not even physiologically compatible. It turns out to be one of those convenient festive conflations tying the Christian legend of the resurrection in with a number of traditions celebrating the Spring Equinox. Rabbits and eggs are both symbols of fertility. Edible sugar eggs date from the Nineteenth century. The chocolatisation of Easter is simply an extension of the confecting of every possible commemorative occasion. And the rabbit and egg connection? Apparently, in the days before Springwatch, some folks couldn't tell the difference between a hare's form and a plover's nest.

Dawkins also says religion has traditionally filled the gaps created by scientific ignorance. The natural world is a phenomenon for which we all seem to require an explanation. Even though advancing knowledge is satisfying that curiosity and therefore continuously eroding the need for religion, desire for it remains strong. Why? One reason is it's quite handy to have an amorphous being to which any unwanted buck can be passed. A sort of ecclesiastical too-hard file if you like. It's also convenient to have someone on whom any act of vengeance against humanity can be blamed. This is presumably why gods are usually wrathful. Belief enables you to engage in a perpetual game of the Prisoner's Dilemma. Everything is the fault of this celestial puppet-master. As a child you try to brazen your way out of anything you haven't been caught red-handed doing by shifting responsibility to person or persons unknown. Perhaps this instinct simply transfers to your nominated deity. As I recall, it was usually Harvey's idea to slip into Charlie's for a drink.

So, I have my white chocolate Lindt Easter bunny courtesy of Sis Pants and Niece Pants. I would make friends with it but it is not really polite to befriend something you're about to eat.