There once was a religious leader who issued a rousing appeal. The holy sites of the Middle East, he told his listeners, were defiled by the presence of the infidel. An effective response to this catastrophe was undermined by schisms in the faith and the disagreements between secular leaders. Now was the time for artificial and man-made political divisions to be set aside. An army in the service of God was to be raised with the aim of giving the faith the power and control it craved and believed to be its right. A new world order would be forged as a result.
Tens of thousands of people, many of them rootless young men, renounced their previous lives and swore passionate allegiance to the cause. An international force was assembled which embarked on its mission, massacring unbelievers, destroying shrines and becoming a by-word for terror. Its use of military tactics unfamiliar to its enemies gave it some spectacular successes, despite the power-struggles and ideological differences within its shifting leadership. It was, its adherents all believed, divinely ordained: ultimate victory was thus assured and, for those who fell in the struggle, eternal joy awaited them in the afterlife.
Sounds familiar? Well, perhaps. I’ve just described the First Crusade, instigated by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1096, which had within four years conquered Jerusalem and established four Christian states in the Middle East. The crusades were one of those periodic collisions of cultures which undermine the shallow fabric of human security. The collapse of the Roman Empire, the Mongol invasions and Napoleon and Hitler’s disastrous attempts to invade Russia are other instances of this. We’re living through one now.
Why these events happen is a big question: too big for me. Leaving aside the others and considering just the First Crusade, I find it very hard to see any significant difference between its causes, aims, motivations and effects and those of Islamic State today. This doesn’t make what happened in Paris recently easier to justify but perhaps make it easier to see that it’s part of a process which is an inescapable consequence of our humanity.
Religion combines two fundamental human imperatives: the desire to define who we are and the need to believe in our immortality. The crucial twist that monotheism, first expressed in Judaism, gave to this cocktail was to assert that unbelievers were wrong. It was black or white, ‘with us or against us’ as George Bush put it after 9/11. Gone were the days of the pantheon of Greek or Roman gods who mirrored human diversity and where a fondness for one was not to deny the existence of the rest. Now, all unbelievers were in error. It was thus a short step to believing them to be unworthy of anything approaching equal human status, even if one regarded them as being human at all.
Hang on – am I tainting every such religion with this accusation? Even Judaism, whose obscene persecution in every age, the mid-20th century in particular, has led to its being almost beyond criticism? Absolutely. The early history of the Kingdom of Israel was a carnival of conquest and persecution. The Jews have been spared the moral responsibility of Islam and Christianity, partly because a series of historical accidents deprived them for nearly 2,000 years of a nation state from which any predations on their neighbours could be based. Their diaspora created both a remarkable self-reliance and a stupendous level of creativity: not a combination that always leads to popularity. In the 70 years since its foundation, the state of Israel, admittedly under considerable provocation, some of it justified, has done its best to undermine this reputation and provides evidence of how that religion, given a freer hand and a power base, might have conducted itself.
All religions, monotheistic or otherwise, have a creation myth which establishes its god or gods at the beginning of time and at the centre of the universe. As that which starts must also end, each also has a complementary vision of the great last end and final judgement. If any movement on earth can cast itself as the human instrument of this millenarian event – as many have tried to do, as the crusades did do and as Islamic State is doing – then the call becomes almost impossible to resist. A belief in the imminent end of the world is easier to accept if your part of it is in turmoil, full of inequality and offers you no sense of hope: a situation sadly all too common in many parts of the planet today. What happened in Paris last Friday, in New York in 2001 and in London in 2005 happens every day in Syria. All three of these powerful nation states fought back immediately with every weapon at its disposal, often against the wrong enemy and often with unintended or ill-considered results. Is it any wonder that others should not have the same reaction?
For any leader, this combination of large numbers of followers with little to lose, a faith which both demands obedience and asserts that it and it alone is the true one and the ability to invoke a cataclysmic act of destiny makes for a powerful weapon. Only Stalin during the defence of Russia in WWII managed, without religion, to create anything remotely as compelling. Like a beautifully wrought double-edged sword, it cut both ways: we’re right in this world and we’ll be even more right in the next. The sword is not a random image, for although there was a certain amount of genuine spiritual conversion by all three religions, these would have carried little weight without the threat, and often the reality, of conquest.
Violence is not, of course, the only reaction in troubled times. Many of us, faced with problems that are not on an international scale and with neither the will nor the means to turn our frustrations into a holy war, find that a period of quiet reflection can solve much. Religion has attempted to formalise this through the concept of prayer. Such moments are, however, less susceptible to external control, being times when we are in silent communion with someone or something that may be divine or may merely be some less vocal part of our own personality. (It was exactly this emphasis on the direct relationship between us and God, without the intercession of priests, that was the primary appeal of the Reformation in the 16th century). Music, meditation, poetry, exercise and even recreational drugs can perform this function as well as prayer. None has a monopoly of access to what is, depending on our point of view, our soul, our creator or our inner self.
Of all the unfortunate things that religion has accomplished, its annexation of morality is perhaps the most pernicious. Phrases such as ‘the Christian moral code’ are trotted out and accepted as if the one was the father and mother of the other. Were the Ancient Greeks and Romans bereft of morality? Once the two great pillars of identity and immortality have been established, any other useful idea is encouraged to cling to these like ivy. Most humans share a general sense of morality which flows from the need to co-exist. It owes nothing to religion, highly moral though many religious people are. One might as well argue that the English language was invented by Samuel Johnson merely because he was the first person to compile an English dictionary.
Religion is a highly effective way of formalising human instincts – the good and the bad, the immediate and the metaphysical – and creating a structure to control the mass of contradictions from which we are all composed. The religion that happens to dominate each society is a matter of historical and geographical accident, just as is the language spoken, the clothes worn and the football team supported.
It’s as pointless imagining life without religion as it is life without air or water. There’s no escape from it. Let’s assume we abolish it now and wipe our minds clean: five minutes later, someone will say ‘who am I?’ and ‘what happens to me after I die?’ and the whole cycle will repeat itself.
There may well be an afterlife and there may well be a god, but if so a bit of guidance might be useful next time round. Left to ourselves, we can arrive at no consensus about anything. Religion is predicated on our fundamental feelings of doubt, fear and the desire to distinguish ourselves from others. It is us, formalised and immortalised. We’re stuck with it, just as we’re stuck in these bodies and stuck on this planet. All we can do is to follow our moral codes and deny and repress what is bad and accept and share what is good in what we see around us. We all aspire to, and perhaps even deserve, this much, be we French or Syrian, English or Iraqi, Christian or Muslim, Anglican or Sunni, atheist or agnostic. Don’t we?
Religion pour tout?