This is the age of pick 'n' mix morality, of secular spirituality. So where does that leave the world's great religions? Paul Vallely made a journey through the Holy Land to hear representatives of Judaism, Christianit y and Islam make plans for survival. Photo-iIlustrations by David Hiscock
The guide was crafty. "Look at that rock behind you," he said. I turned to look back up the narrow fissure which some prehistoric earthquake had ripped through the rusty red rock. It was a spectacular sight. The 300-ft high walls of the gorge twisted and turned, creating an abstract of reds and dusty purples striated with yellows and ochres. I carried on walking backwards for a few steps, as he hoped I would. "Now turn round," he said. I did. And there in front of us was the first sight - partly hidden by the curving cliffside - of Petra, the city which 2,000 years ago was carved from the sheer rock of this remote outcrop in the southern Jordanian desert. It was a sight that no photograph could prepare you for.

As we emerged into a larger gorge, the full scale of the hidden city was revealed. That first temple-like building - with its towering Corinthian columns and massive pediment carefully cut from the rock and finely sanded to the appearance of smooth-faced quarried stone - was only one of scores that lined the gorge and spread out along its lateral gulleys and cliff faces.

Then I noticed something the photographs - or even the scenes from Indiana Jones, which was filmed amid these carved facades - hadn't picked up. There were niches everywhere - all along the walls of the winding mile- long crevice of the entrance and everywhere amid the spectacular facias. Some were grand, but many were barely a foot high. All were empty. Once, it is supposed, these recesses were occupied by images representing Dushara, the god of the Nabataean people who carved Petra from the soft Nubian sandstone. Today the alcoves stand vacant, in stone the colour of dried blood, and little more is known about the deity than his name.

God is dead elsewhere, too. We have known that since Nietzsche. "God is dead," said that great Romantic secularist, "but considering the state the species Man is in, there will perhaps be caves, for ages yet, in which his shadow will be shown." But the ages are long-gone since the Nabataeans filled Petra with the wealth of a trading empire founded on bitumen, aromatics, salt and copper, and which, for 700 years, came to dominate from its mountain fastness the trading routes of ancient Arabia, levying tolls on passing silver from Asia Minor, copper and linen from Egypt, gold and ivory from Somaliland, purple dyes from the Phoenician cities on the coast of Canaan, frankincense from southern Arabia and spices and silks from India. That all ended 16 centuries ago and, today, even the shadow of the god has vanished.

I was in Jordan for a conference under the patronage of the Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Sir Evelyn de Rothschild - a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew anxious to bring together their faiths in a dialogue with our pluralist era. It was an unpublicised private gathering of professors of divinity and sociologists, bishops and ambassadors, international financiers and former prime ministers from all over Europe and the Arab world. Its aim was to find a common agenda for the three religions which claim a common father in faith in Abraham. Here, on my day off from the conference abstractions, I was suddenly struck by the lack of novelty in our enterprise.

For the Nabataean era was, like our own, a time of pluralism. These people were multi-culturalists and magpies, as their architecture testifies. From the Romans, they copied columns and capitals, from the Greeks, they pinched the design of Hellenistic pediment, from the Egyptians, the obelisk and from the Assyrians, the model for their sites of sacrifice. Their alphabet and language was a bridge between the major Semitic languages and the Arabic which was to follow. They flourished as diplomats, renowned for their ability to mediate between the competing truths of the peoples of the time. It was an epoch of refined jurisprudence, humane government and technological progress. Yet what came of it? Today, its people are dead, its buildings are gone, its temples ruined and the grandiose monuments that remain are not treasuries and temples, as was once thought, but bare and empty tombs - hollow monuments to an extinct ideal.

Where, I wondered, would our modern project end? For ours is a time of syncretism, too, with an increasing range of religions and cultures jostling together under the influences of a globalising world economy and a liberal secular culture. Could three creeds represented at the Amman conference, all of which, in their own way, claim a monopoly on the truth, have more to say to one another than polite pleasantries? And did they have anything to say to the rest of society?

Anxieties always rise as civilisations decline, said the great Protestant theologian, Tillich. There can be little doubt that today a sense of dejection is evident in many sections of society. Widescale unemployment and a growing sense of job insecurity are only part of a feeling of pre-millennial tension. There is a general intuition of a society fragmenting under economic pressures and the anti-social philosophies of the market, and in need of rediscovering a sense of the common good. Yet the dynamics are in the contrary direction. The Europeanisation of the world is over; the Americanisation is in full flood and economic power is beginning to shift to the Pacific Rim. The values of the Enlightenment period are under threat and the fear is being articulated within the great pluralist exemplar itself, the United States, that its kids are growing up without spiritual values.

In the nominally Christian countries of the materialist West at a time like Christmas - once the noise and purchasing is over - there is still, for many people, enough of a moment of silence in which to wonder about the God-shaped hole in contemporary society. For all those who perceive the niche as empty there are many who perceive that the shadow lingers. Indeed religion, which in Europe was once in decline, seems everywhere else to be waxing - and, even in the UK, we read of conversions to Catholicism and even Russian Orthodox Christianity. With the advent of Christian socialism, we see the increasing reinsertion of God into the world of politics. There are revivals among young British Muslims, whose co-religionists are elsewhere gaining ground under the banner of fundamentalism. And if the massive and authoritative European Values Survey shows that most people don't expect answers from the Church, it is clear in everything from the eccentricities of New Age culture to the folk religion of the response to the death of the Princess of Wales that many people are in search of a spirituality of some kind.

Secularism, feeling itself under threat, is responding vociferously with a defence of classic liberalism. It goes like this: several religions claim to have exclusive access to universal truth; they cannot all be right; only what is universal is acceptable. So religion must be confined to private life and the public domain must be a pluralist and secular one in which things can be permitted only so long as they don't interfere with others.

Up to a point, this approach has served us well. A century of religious wars had preceded the Enlightenment in the 18th century when it jettisoned authoritarian religious orthodoxy and replaced it with an approach of rational scientific inquiry. Since then, the Western world has embraced scepticism, individualism and traditionless rationality. Church and state were separated and the freedom and tolerance enshrined by the new secularism freed the energies which produced the industrial revolution, the modern democratic state and a high culture of science, art and learning.

But the new secularism had limitations. Its emphasis upon individual self-interest created homo oeconomicus - men and women fired by the creation of wealth but apparently oblivious to the atomising effect this had on society. Its enthusiasm for science brought great technological progress but also an arms race and environmental pollution on a devastating scale. Its privatisation of morality increased freedom and choice - but in doing so, it has created a supermarket of values from which everyone chooses whatever suits them. And the nationalism it has nurtured has maintained the cultural patterns established in the religious era - so that the persecution of the Jews as the killers of Christ survived into the secular ideologies of nationalism, fascism and Marxism.

The trouble was that the advances of liberal secularism also eroded the communities and institutions in which peoples found common purpose. Thinkers in the Enlightenment tradition, trapped in their sense of progress and history, saw little value in cultural, linguistic, ethnic and religious diversity. They blinded themselves to the importance of the framework of personal relationships in families and communities and to the rules, rituals and traditions which sustained them. ("My grandmother believed in nothing," Sartre quipped, "only her scepticism kept her from being an atheist.") Thus, society has become a conflictual space in which ethnic communities, religious associations, single issue pressure groups and a host of others press their disparate claims on the state - which increasingly seems to lack the core of shared values it needs to adjudicate on disputes between such members.

The problem at the core is this. Moralities, as the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has put it, are like languages. By learning them, we take our part in a particular tradition which has long preceded us. Like languages, moralities are not universal, but neither are they the product of private and personal choice. For morality is not one human enterprise among many; it is the base which makes other enterprises possible and the vantage point from which they are judged. Though most of us are no longer convinced of the truth of religion, we are still drawing on the moral capital of centuries of a Judaeo-Christian tradition in which many of our secular truths find their origin.

Secular liberalism, it seems, has no source from which to replenish this. The offspring of the Enlightenment - science, capitalism, individualism and democracy - are all enabling mechanisms, but none of them contain values. They are what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has called "second order moralities": they create a framework within which virtues can flourish, but they do not create those values. Not to recognise this is to run the risk of turning pluralism into an ideology. It leads us to a world of amorality in which capitalists will do almost anything to make money, scientists will acknowledge no limits on where they may push the bounds of technological achievement and democrats drift into a relativism in which morality is simply a way of expressing preferences. Liberalism, as the political philosopher John Gray has put it, is hollowed out and has nothing left to teach. It has created a mono-culturism disguised as multi-culturalism. It has led to the Coca-Cola-isation of the world's soul.

Religion is, as we have noted, fighting back. Motives and style are mixed. There are traditionalists - of all faiths - who lament the demise of the traditional attitude to Christianity in schools and society. It must be restored, they say, to help form spiritual and moral values, develop in children the ability to know right from wrong, give support to family values and foster a sense of honesty, trustworthiness and tolerance. Then there are those politicians who find it expedient to use the vocabulary of religion. There is nothing new in that. Religion has always been seen by some as a useful mechanism of social control. The various modes of worship in the Roman world, as Gibbon tells us, were all considered by the people as equally true, by the philosopher as equally false and by the magistrate as equally useful. And even avowed atheists like Voltaire declared that he wanted his attorney, tailor, servants and even his wife to believe in God, so he should be robbed and cuckolded less often.

Then there are the New Agers, many of whose beliefs would once have been dismissed as sheer superstitions, but which in a secular society must be accorded equal status with the insights of the great faiths. Thanks to them, we may once again say, in the words of Charles Dickens, that this is the epoch of incredulity. Or as G K Chesterton put it, "when people cease to believe in something, they do not believe in nothing; they believe in anything".

Most striking of the religious responses is that of fundamentalism. The term was invented in 19th-century America as a term of approbation by right-wing American Christians who insisted that the Bible was to be taken literally. Just as the original Christian fundamentalists were prompted by what they saw as the laxity of modern society - they reacted against historical biblical scholarship and the teaching of evolution - so contemporary Muslim fundamentalists, or Islamists, react against the modernism of Western culture. Like other fundamentalisms, it arises out of a sense of subjugation (which explains why 70 per cent of black Americans who go to jail come out having embraced what they think of as Islam). Muslims throughout the world feel humiliated by Western culture and, in particular, the economic and military power of the US, which is widely regarded throughout the Arab world as "the Great Satan". The West is frequently seen as engaged on a new crusade to crush European Islam in Bosnia - a caricature about as accurate as the Western idea that most Islamists belong to violently unstable movements bent on driving out moderation.

In the UK, the revival of Islam has similar roots. The Islam to which many young British Asians are returning is stripped of the customs and traditions their parents brought from the Indian sub-continent. They are reading the Koran not just with fresh eyes but against a background of comparative deprivation, exclusion, unemployment, low earnings and poor housing. Islamism is particularly strong among those Asians who were the first generation to enter higher education; they developed expectations of material progress which have been disappointed. The pattern is repeated throughout Europe, with alienation and racism inducing a "widespread feeling of paranoia" among the Muslim community, as Dr Tariq Ramadan, a lecturer at the University of Geneva, told a conference in Leicester recently.

"When people are deprived not simply of democracy but of any means of expression, they turn to religion and find a voice there," one of the Muslim world's most senior diplomats said in private at the Jordan conference. It happened in Poland under Communism, in Latin America under the US-backed generals, and now throughout the Arab regions under dictatorial governments. It is among the more educated that the return to Islam is most marked. "The secular, socialist, old-country discourse of parents is tired," I was told privately by another prominent Muslim. "It has not produced the goods. They are looking for new methods."

What is the rest of society to make of all this? There are those who take the line that all religion must be extirpated. It is the cause of bigotry, grief and killing. The religious, they say, have just enough religion to make them hate, but not enough to make them love. Certainly, history shows that, socially, religion has been as much a force for war and enmity as it has for order and harmony. But these have been wars - as in modern-day Bosnia or Ireland - in which religion was merely a badge for ethnicity. People were not killed for what they believed, so much as for what others thought they believed. The trouble is that religion does its good in private and its bad in public.

In the face of this diversity and complexity, the question facing the Interfaith conference in Jordan last month was whether the three major faiths had anything in common which they could usefully offer to a post- liberal secularism. The Amman gathering of the great and the good - only one in a sequence of unpublicised meetings over the past 15 years - brought together just 10 representatives of each of the three faiths. Held under Chatham House rules, the deliberations were secret, but the agenda took as its starting point Hans Kung's epithet, "no peace between the nations without peace between religions".

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all talk about love, compassion and the just society, but they all claim a monopoly on truth of the kind expressed in St Augustine's insistence of "salus extra ecclesiam non est" (there can be no salvation outside the church). And all have scriptural texts which call to violence. The first question was: How might such awkward texts be reconciled? The Jewish response offered grounds for optimism. Historically, Judaism has responded to other religions in a variety of ways. They have been regarded, by turns, as idolatrous, or as preparing the way for the Messiah, or as evidence that each nation is sent its own prophet. More than that, the Hebrew scriptures were not to be read as a coherent statement of dogma but as a series of documents which chart different groups of peoples' changing relationship with God. The Almighty's covenant with the Jews did not negate the possibility of other covenants with other peoples.

Christians could adopt a similar historical perspective. Moreover, they had recourse to the concept of a "hierarchy of truths", which insists that the mutual connections between dogmas, and their coherence, can be found by study of the whole of the revelation of the mystery of Christ.

But Islam has a greater difficulty because all Muslims - not just so- called "fundamentalists" - believe that the Koran must be taken literally because it is the word of God dictated to Mohammed by the Angel Gabriel. Scope for interpretation is, therefore, more limited and though there are mechanisms for applying scripture to unprecedented situations, or even to reconcile tensions within the Koran text, the chief method of interpretation, known as ijtihad, was closed to subsequent generations some three centuries after the death of the Prophet. Even so, it was clear that many of the views which we in the West hold about Islam are mythical, outdated or simply ignorant. Historically, Islam has been a more tolerant religion than Christianity. Many of the practices which are frequently described as Islamic are local customs; much of what outrages the West as sharia law in places such as Saudi Arabia would be better described as Saudi law, much of which is regarded elsewhere as decidedly un-Islamic. And even groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hizbollah in the Middle East are now beginning to engage in discourse on human rights, social justice, democracy and gender which 10 years ago would have been dismissed as a Western plot. Yet it was also clear from the discrepancy between the ways individuals in Amman spoke in public and private that moderate Muslims feel highly susceptible to emotional blackmail from extreme members of their 'ulama (clergy), many of whom are "very uneducated - it is the poorest people who go to sharia schools", in the words of one distinguished Muslim participant.

In such circumstances, it is tempting to open dialogue between the faiths, and with society, on the basis of a lowest common denominator. The logic here is that all religion is about overcoming ego and its manifestations - hatred, greed and delusion - and responding to the transcendent reality which is God. All religions provide different but valid paths up the same mountain. No particular beliefs are requisite for the final attainment of a wholly fulfilled human life. All can be saved by adhering to their own traditions. (This line can even be extended to embrace non-believers by saying "given the ambiguous nature of the world, both atheists and theists adopt a rational position".) I must, therefore, admit the fallibility of my own views and accept the equal right of all to hold whatever view they do. Or as the Buddhists would put it, "don't be too attached to your own views".

This is the approach that finds general acceptance in Western secular society. Everything that is not anti-social can be tolerated. Further to that, all scriptural traditions can be radically revised in the light of advances in science, biblical scholarship and post-Enlightenment critical thinking. Religion will then move to a more universal phase, in which insights are selected from many traditions, while, as one Amman participant put it, "most of their differences are relegated to the museum of dead beliefs".

The trouble with this superficially attractive approach is that people don't really believe it for long when they think hard. "It cannot be true," said another participant, "that whatever you think will lead you to God. It only works if you revise each religion to be so vague that everyone can agree and reduce all incomparable beliefs to metaphors." If all religious language is metaphorical, there can be little serious disagreement; metaphors don't disagree, they are just more or less apt or attractive. The other problem is that it gives equal status to the insights of the major faiths and the beliefs of organisations like the murderous doctrines of David Koresh or the Aum Shinri Kyo cult, which released poison in the Japanese subway.

More than that, this retreat into a religious Esperanto requires all faiths to give up something - "Christians must forget the uniqueness of the Incarnation, Muslims have to concede that the Koran is a fallible document, Buddhists that re-incarnation is a myth," as one participant put it. In place of this sloppy pluralism something is needed which is able to accommodate the beliefs of the orthodox and yet which still speaks to the rest of society. A more realistic pluralism would hold that it is possible to believe some false things and still be truly related to God. That would mean Christians accepting that there are truths about God which have not been disclosed to Christianity but have been disclosed to others. Other faiths would have to make similar concessions and admit that each faith may embody a final revelation about God - but because we humans are partial and fallible, our understanding can never be final. In that sense, each tradition is incomplete. There may be timeless codes but there is no timeless interpretation. As St John puts it, there is more yet to be revealed. And God allows so much diversity and disagreement because he intends us to learn from it. Truth about life can be singularly portrayed through poetry, philosophy and physics but a work which tries to do all three at once may fail in each.

What is then required is not a search for a lowest common denominator but, instead, one for the highest common factor. Instead of looking for the minimum on which all can agree, faiths should be looking for the maximum. Only then can religions contribute to the moulding of shared values for our wider society. That would build a pluralism which is not mere tolerance but which gives every minority a feeling of participation - and in which the majority feel sufficiently secure to tolerate even those whose cultural paradigms do not coincide with theirs. Only with such a post-Christian liberalism might the great faiths secure the prospect of a constructive debate with secular humanism.

The reward might be a marriage of the benefits that secularism has brought us - like the emphasis on the freedom of the individual - with the overriding sense of the common good which religion brings. Domestically, it might help find a better balance between the conflicting claims of the individual, the group and society as a whole. On a wider stage, the West may even discover that the international solidarity of Muslims in many lands offers insights to help counter the deficiencies of the nationalism which has proved the great acid of the 20th century.

It was perhaps not a lesson that the Nabataeans were able to learn. The consequence is empty niches among the empty tombs of an abandoned civilisation. But there is another place not far away that offers a better paradigm. At the top of a long dusty climb across the grey desert wasteland outside Madaba is the tiny monastery of Mount Nebo. It marks the spot at which Moses - a figure sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike - ended his journey through the wilderness. Today, little seems to have changed on the mountaintop. Outside the Franciscan shrine, tranquil in the cool early morning, lies the view that Moses saw.

Almost 3,000 feet below lies the valley of the Jordan, a broad, green ribbon set between the hard dusty ridges of the mountains of Moab and the hills of Judea and Samaria on the far side. The Dead Sea shimmers, an opaque, dull green, to the left. To the right lies the town of Jericho and in the distance the spires of Jerusalem of which Moses would have seen nothing. But the flat fertile valley looks as much a promised land today as it must have then. Only one thing is different. In those days, the Chosen People set out to seize it by force from those who already held it. Today we look down and know that we have to share it with others, and find a mechanism for living there with them