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Does religion make everything worse?

Religion is a power that can be used for good or evil, writes Monica Furlong. Whether in Britain, Northern Ireland or Bosnia, we need imagination to use it to 'make all things new'.
As a frequent visitor to the United States I often notice with interest and amusement how the people in the next state, wherever it may be, are the objects of ridicule. New Yorkers mock the inhabitants of New Jersey, and in Kentucky, where I once lived for a few months, all the ills of the world were blamed on the people of Indiana. The "other lot", whoever they may be, are always, all of them, reputed to be terrible drivers.

Actually, I can never see any difference between the speakers and those they denigrate. What I am observing is the old mental tic we all suffer from, the British certainly as much as the Americans, the need to define ourselves over against our neighbours and to find ourselves better, smarter, handsomer, richer, nicer, or holding better beliefs.

What is a joke, however, in New York or Lancashire turns into genocide in the Balkans, as those who are "other" are turned upon with vicious anger. To us who are lucky enough to be witnessing rather than taking part, the broken men and women, the traumatised children, the weeping elderly we see on our television screens, all seem indistinguishable from each other in their hopeless distress. But to those involved they are recognisable as being, unforgivably, Muslim or Christians, and no suffering seems to be too terrible to inflict upon them.

Part of the nightmare of this, as of many conflicts throughout European history, is that religion is part of the engine that drives the war machine. As a Catholic priest from Northern Ireland once said to me in the 1970s, "The symbols which were meant to heal are being used to drive people apart. It makes me despair." In order to whip up feeling, the Protestants then were using Old Testament imagery of the Hebrews righteously striking the Amalekites, and the Catholics were using the image of Christ on the cross, except that the face was the face of Bobby Sands, the hunger striker. Neither side could find a way to mend their sense of hurt and grievance, any more than Muslim and Christian can in Bosnia. A belief in God didn't make a scrap of difference.

Does religion make everything worse? - that is the unavoidable question. It may not originate conflict - the reasons are usually more complex than that - but it can foment hatred, as the great internalised myths and symbols are invoked to incur righteous anger. Righteous anger is appallingly dangerous stuff. It can be used to justify anything.

Religion is a form of power and, like all power, it can be used for good or evil. When its influence is evil, it is because it has had a narrowing effect on believers. Instead of teaching the complexity of things, it has insisted that everything is simple. It has imposed rigidities, especially moral rigidities, playing into the bad human habit of wanting to feel better than others. It encourages stereotyping, so that "the others" cease to be people like us and gradually turn into monsters. The dragon seeds of conflict have been sown.

But must religious power be used like that? Some religious believers show already that it can be used generously and creatively. The wonderful thing about them, as it was the wonderful thing about Jesus, is that they manage to make the great creative leap of standing in the shoes of people Not Like Them.

It takes an awful lot of imagination, and imagination has not always been popular around the churches. It is subversive stuff, lifting us out of the neat little flowerpots of class, and education, and church and nation, where we felt cosy, forcing us to recognise that the world is a bigger place than we had thought. The possibilities are more various than we may wish.

Last week I met a woman who had been dismissed from her job as a lay reader in her local C-of-E church because she had let it be known that she was "living with" her partner. Although her relationship damaged no one, the congregation could not tolerate it - it violated their sense of what was proper - and in rejecting her they inflicted great hurt, so great that she has now left the Church. Such wounds are nothing like the whirlwind of Bosnia - they are quiet, hidden, under the counter. But like Bosnia they show a desperate, pitiful failure to use religion creatively in a way that might "make all things new", as the gospel says. Or at least a damned sight better than they are now.