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What is religion, and can it ever be a force for good? Religion is a notional series of beliefs that make sense of the world. For some people, it can help to answer questions about creation, life and death, and provides comfort and a system of belief in and worship of a supernatural power or god. Religion in the West (mainly Christianity) is now not what it once was, and in the East (for example Islam) has become rather distorted due to fundamentalism. Nevertheless, most of us would like to think that religion is a force for good. The basic nature of most religions should make them so, but when people abuse religions and use them as an excuse to make money, exert power, or even to wage war, they turn into a force for bad.
The Christianity of the past has sometimes seemed horrific to our eyes, but within the context of the times for many a Christian it was a force for good. We can see now that Christianity was good in the sense that it helped to inspire many good things in education, the rule of law, and culture generally – many paintings and musical compositions were enthused by the Christian religion, because people wanted to have illustrations of their belief in the transcendent.
The Ten Commandments were and still are a good way for people and groups to control their behaviour and have a clear moral framework. (It is interesting to note that the Christian idea of turning the other cheek is not what the Christian Americans will be doing if they decide to attack Afghanistan.) There were several things about Christianity in the past that nowadays we consider to be morally wrong, but the Christians at the time thought that what they were doing was right: the crusades, for example, where the European crusaders wandered around the middle east attacking Muslims, sometimes even mistaking Christian villagers for Muslims and slaughtering their families.
This would be considered as anything but morally right nowadays. The crusaders, though, thought that it was God’s will that they should slaughter those people, just as was the case was with dogmatic disputes within Christianity, with Christians fighting each other – the Christians thought that they were doing these terrible things for a just cause, just as bigoted and ignorant people in Northern Ireland still do. The good thing about Christianity these days is that the majority of Christian churches are benign give hope and something to rely on (for instance, the disaster in New York attracted many people to come to church to pray, even some non-religious people). Churches provide a focus in the community, and sometimes religious groups can act as a force to counteract bad elements in governments and societies.
In the western world nowadays, Christianity is being overtaken by materialism; learning and compassion associated with the Christian religion are being undermined, and in the Middle East and in Africa, fundamentalism, (which takes the words of sacred texts literally), is coming into play. There is the danger for examples of clashes between Protestantism and Catholicism, and between other groups, in particular, evangelical churches, which are fundamentalist in tone, and display for example narrow-mindedness over abortion. There is also a danger from semi-religious cults, which like sects in religion emphasize a few aspects, which are often of benefit financially to themselves, or at least to their leaders. It cannot be very religious that in these money-based cults, there is a wish to dominate financially as well as ideologically.
The Islamic religion was like the Christian religion in many respects – it was charitable, respected the individual and also helped to provide the foundations for things like education, law and the arts. However, the Islamic religion expanded too quickly over a wide geographical area, and could not keep up with the development of society, and there began conflicts within itself, and with Christianity. Jihads, (or Holy Wars, similar to crusades), were probably fundamentally more concerned with political and economical aims than with religious ones. Today, when it is part of more open and tolerant Muslim societies, such as Turkey or Pakistan, the Islamic religion does not present a major threat, and it is clear in these countries that there are a lot of similarities between Islamic and Christian principles.
But because it has failed overall to adapt and find a place in the modern world, and there has tended to be a large gap between the rich and poor in Muslim societies, then fundamentalism has taken hold among the more ignorant or manipulative elements, and often has strong nationalist connections, as in the Taliban. This is a reaction by the clerics and their associates against a pluralistic society, away from individual rights and especially those of women to the supposedly core beliefs of the religion. In most cases the more tolerant and benevolent aspects of the religion are ignored, and even the strictest are seen to be corrupt: the Taliban’s religious police can be bribed, and often loot the televisions etc that they confiscate. An example of the difficulty that some modern day religions face is the idea of a holy or a just war.
Most religions say that you should not commit murder, and should respect the individual, and it is often not easy to see why or how this can be overruled so that churches can justify a war, but the fact is that war is justified by different religions whether we like it or not. Generally a just or holy war should involve clear identification of an enemy, clear reasons for attacking the enemy, and some idea of what the outcome will achieve, even if it is only to the attacker’s benefit.
The CIA supported and trained Bin Laden and his followers in Afghanistan when it suited the USA to use him against the Soviet invaders. Now they have to face him as a dangerous enemy. An ex-Soviet general said recently that four soldiers in a tank were no match for an Al-Qaeda follower on a donkey. Bin Laden is now the arch-enemy of the USA. Because he is sheltered in Afghanistan, that country, which has suffered 20 years of terrible war, is likely to be attacked again. The Taliban, however, feels that they have reason to view the USA as the enemy. Is this to do with religion, a real jihad, or is it that because everybody in poor Muslim countries that have suffered a lot of war feel envious of the power and wealth of the world’s only remaining superpower? If President Bush can talk carelessly (or was it carelessly?) about a crusade, is it not understandable that many Muslims feel that this is anti-Islamic in general and not just anti-Bin Laden?
There is really no such thing as a justifiable holy war because no one should attack anyone else simply because they have different religious beliefs: the background to any war is always far more complicated than matters of doctrine – it is usually a power game and/or an economics game. Whether we are believers or not, we all have to hope that if used properly and in the right hands, religion can still be a force for good. In bad hands such as those of religious fundamentalists of an extreme kind it can be very dangerous.
It is difficult for us to enter the minds of extremists partly because their motives often seem mixed: for example, it is said that the night before the attack on the World Trade Centre a lot of shares were bought and sold by people with connections to Bin Laden, and he seems to be a rich man already. The West has not yet come to terms with what these types of religion can mean and that is why it was taken by surprise on September 11. Until we understand what lies behind the sectarianism of religious extremists we will not be able to deal with these forces which bring what can only be called evil in their wake.