'Religion has given us wars, pogroms and civil strife'

The Home Front: 6 The non-believers
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The Independent Online

It's hard to believe that the Archbishop of Canterbury isn't missing a trick. He spent Monday and Tuesday at a meeting of the Archbishops' Council, then the rest of the week leading an ordination retreat in Kent. The council debated the present crisis and concluded, among other things, that church pronouncements were likely to be "few and far between". Wrong move. This is another example of how the Church's leadership can be out of step with the public mood.

For at times of international crisis, people do turn to the Church – or, more accurately, turn up at a church. In the first week after the attacks, the emphasis was on prayer, pure and simple. Most priests, especially at the cathedrals and big town churches, reported attendances up between 50 and 100 per cent on that first weekend. Even so, several reported their surprise at people's readiness to come. The clergy at a church close to my home concluded that their response to the attacks could be successfully incorporated in their normal Sunday services. As a result, when people started to turn up shortly before 11am on that first Friday, it was left to a resourceful verger to open the church, turn on the lights and place a candle on the altar.

All that was a fortnight ago, when people were looking for quiet and space in which to let the reality of the television images sink in. Now there is a different demand on the Church. Put crudely, people are looking for moral guidance.

Fortunately, two Roman Catholic archbishops have not been listening to the same advice as Dr Carey. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor and Archbishop Patrick Kelly have produced one of the strongest statements since the attacks. "Military action must be a last resort . . . Whole peoples must not be attacked and punished for the actions of small and unrepresentative groups . . . Nothing can justify the taking of innocent life."

Of course, not every sermon delivered today will be so punchy. Nevertheless, most preachers will at least attempt to set the threatened conflict in the traditional Christian context, in which peace and justice are inseparable. The other attractions on offer in church will be a cluster of similarly apprehensive citizens, and, if you are lucky, the reassuring timelessness of ancient liturgy, which has seen our ancestors through countless wars.

This might explain how non-attenders find themselves turning up at church at a time like this; but it doesn't explain the forces that prompt them to do so. For this we must consider the three circles of those who start coming at such a time. You can do a rough calculation based on depth of trauma multiplied by ecclesiastical familiarity. The first circle contains the occasional attenders: weddings, baptisms, Christmas and Easter. A rail crash or a well-reported overseas earthquake might bring them in. Next are the vulnerable, those who are overwhelmed by news of violence and war. Last week, I was in the street with my wife, a priest, and she was stopped and questioned by somebody who was clearly upset. What did she think was happening? What was the person to do? Events in America have already drawn in this second circle.

This weekend it feels as if we are on the edge of the third circle, which contains almost everyone else. The threat of conflict and the sufferings of unimaginable numbers of refugees are added to tales of body parts found in the New York rubble. How can we bear it? We shall soon see how successful the Church has been in its mission, which is to make sure churches are accessible and welcoming to strangers at times of need. Open would be a start.

The point is that belief doesn't have much to do with it. The key word is helplessness. When people are rocked by traumatic events, they stop believing in themselves quite so confidently, and look for something bigger to believe in. At such a time, priests and ministers belong to anyone who wants to stop and quiz them in the street. They, too, are helpless; but if they do their job properly, they will point enquirers towards a God who chose to make himself helpless. Divine reassurance does not always come out as expected.

Paul Handley

We need a word like evil: it is a good enough description of those who set themselves to maim and kill and destroy. It expresses our outrage and horror. However, evil is no part of an explanation of why people set themselves to do these things. It is not the name for a force or power, only for a result. People can become evil for many reasons. They may have been taught how to hate, or be flushed by self-righteousness and a desire for vengeance against real or imagined wrongs. These motives come out in the conviction that it is the others who are evil, and to be exterminated.

The main religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, all foster this worldview. For any religion, the fundamental question about a person is whether you are a believer or one of the others: faithful or infidel, sheep or goat, saved or damned. Some atheists, notably Richard Dawkins, conclude that religion is itself responsible for the problem. This seems to me to be only a half-truth, like the idea that Islamic suicide-bombers are motivated by the desire to meet their promised 72 virgins in paradise.

The other half of the truth is the view that religion is the whistle on the engine: the symbolic or mythical expression of our tribal identity, and our right to hate those of the other tribe. Religion may be more than just a badge, but that is one reason why it exists. Dietary codes, dress codes and sexual mores divide the world into us and them. The function of these things is to exclude and demonise the others. Religions, however pacific some of their words (and it is never more than some), give us the literary expression of these exclusions. But the literary expressions have their own power: they are not just the whistle, but become part of the steam. Myths make warriors and martyrs.

Yes, Christianity talks of universality and brotherly love and peace and forgiveness. But by their deeds ye shall know them: when it has commanded civil authority there have followed massacres and pogroms, sectarian wars and civil conflict. Christians who could do so have enthusiastically burned each other for getting on the wrong side of questions like whether what is chemically wine can really be blood.

It has been fashionable for half a century or so, in playful academic circles, to decry the Enlightenment. We are supposed to feel guilty about naive, old-fashioned liberalism, and universalism, and the attempt to improve the world by using other things we are supposed to feel guilty about, like truth, or reason, or science. Philosophers, to their credit, have generally been reluctant to join this breast-beating. My own view is that it would be far, far better if people could be brought to feel guilty about some other common words: words like faith and orthodoxy, or God, Allah and Jahweh. But I am not holding my breath.

The writer is professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge