Bruce Anderson: As a post-religious society, England has forgotten how to cope with religious fervour

I doubt if one Englishman in a thousand has wondered why Thomas More had heretics burnt
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The London bombing was a shock, not a surprise. Anyone who had given thought to the matter knew that, sooner or later, there would be an outrage in London and that the Underground was an obvious target. Eighteen months ago, a senior figure involved with security in London told me that he would not use the Tube at peak hours. We can only be thankful that there were so few casualties and that an anxiety has been assuaged.

It was hard to predict the public reaction to terrorism and death; there were fears of mass hysteria. Those, thankfully, proved wholly unjustified; a libel on the British public's common sense, courage and moral stamina. In Spain, terrorism brought down a government and its foreign policy. In Britain the terrorists did not secure any leverage on public opinion or government policy.

That is as it should be. In other respects, however, the way ahead is less clear. Over the past few days, there has been a wide-spread determination that good must come out of evil; that the causes of these terrible events must be identified, in order to prevent a recurrence. If only that were as easy as some commentators have implied.

The English have one problem in dealing with terrorism inspired by religion. England is a post-religious society. The English are also largely ignorant of their history. I doubt if one Englishman in a thousand has wondered why Thomas More - generally regarded as a good egg - had heretics burnt. Even fewer have heard of Edmund Campion or Robert Southwell, let alone tried to follow the reasoning that led them to risk and embrace a hideous death, in order to save England from Protestantism.

Southwell's few poems make one lament his early death. Had his talent been allowed to flourish, it might have fructified into genius. Campion comes across as an enormously attractive character. Yet if those two luminaries had succeeded, with England recaptured for Catholicism, the conqueror's baggage train would have included the Inquisition, heresy trials, the stake and the flames.

For most of its centuries, Christianity was a religion with an appeal to fanatics; men who would destroy other men's bodies in order to save their immortal souls; men who would martyr themselves for their faith. "I came not to send peace but a sword"; many Christians have acted as if that had been the defining tenet of their faith.

All successful religions cater for the whole range of the vagaries of the human personality. Christianity has usually had its Rosicrucian wing: gentle, contemplative creatures who pluck a rose from the Cross while following the gospel of love, redemption and heaven. But there have been other versions of Christianity, to appeal to harsh, austere characters, who follow the gospel of sin, judgement and hell.

There are parallels with Judaism, and above all with Islam. Though it has a rosy Rosycrescentian side, as in Sufi mysticism, it has been a religion of desert, hardship, war - jihad - and conquest. It has also been a religion for peoples enduring conquest after long periods of decline and defeat.

In England, it is widely assumed among people who know as little about Marx as they do about Christ that political expressions of religion are always a cover for social or economic grievances. In the case of individuals, this is obvious nonsense. How would the vulgar Marxists explain John Calvin, Ignatius Loyola or the Prophet Mohammed? Yet it would be equally foolish to ignore the historical picture. When societies fail and individuals find themselves under stress, the appeal of religion increases. One Second World War padre said that he had never yet come across an atheist in a slit trench under fire. Equally, when societies seem to offer most of their peoples a comfortable existence, religion is pushed to the margins.

In much of the Islamic world, that does not apply. We all enjoy gloating over France's geopolitical humiliations. But think how much worse it must be for Muslims. Proud peoples with even fewer reasons for national pride than the French have: no wonder there are difficulties.

Young men always have a struggle to establish an identity and a sense of self. In societies such as England, where so many of the traditional disciplines have broken down, that can be especially hard. Too much choice can lead to confusion. But if the English young knew anything about their history, they would at least be able to take pride in it. That is so much harder for Muslims (as it is for blacks: an unacknowledged cause of a lot of young black criminal alienation, both here and in the States.)

Caught up in bewilderment; prone, in the priggish fashion of adolescence, to impute hypocrisy to the older generation; it is not surprising that some young Islamic males are drawn to certainties of fanaticism. Nor is it easy to lure them to a better way.

There is certainly no point in passing new laws. Thrashing around for a response, the Government is talking of making it a criminal offence to glorify terrorism indirectly. How, pray, could that be enacted in legislation? Anyone who wishes to be incited by glorifications of terrorism need only find the right website. Ministers are also proposing to engage with alienated Muslim youth. Will they try to make it a crime for young men to be alienated?

Fortunately, those who wish to encourage young Muslims away from terrorism will find allies where they are most needed: in the Muslim community. Many British Muslims are intelligent, articulate, self-confident and successful. Appalled by the bombings, many of them have expressed feelings of guilt. They will be far more effective in providing leadership among their own communities than any government minister promising ill-thought-out new laws.

They may also help with the intelligence. The authorities are already studying the biographies of the four bombers and trying to work out why they became who they were. This is a vital task for the police and the intelligence services. Suicide bombing is not an impulse crime. If patterns can be established, it may be possible to intervene earlier. The authorities ought to be drawing up lists of young British Muslims who have gone abroad for religious training, and especially to Pakistan. Not all of them will be guilty, but it would be useful if they were all on file.

If we are to be realistic, that is the best we can hope for: sustained dialogue with Muslim leaders, in order to reassure the moderate Muslim majority and to help with intelligence gathering about the fanatical minority. But there is no panacea in Christian-Muslim relations which will guarantee that young men living among us, and offered all the advantages of being British, will not reject them in favour of fanaticism, terrorism and martyrdom. There will be more bombers. Some of them will already be preparing themselves for their dreadful task.