Joan Bakewell: We need the philosophy, not the creed

It is the church that gets in the way, exerting power and control through doctrine and punishment
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The Independent Online

Respect? Ah, yes, I remember it well. At home, it came with a clip round the ear for anything from burning the toast to not cleaning my shoes. At school, it came with being sent to stand outside in the corridor of detention after school and a hundred lines of "I must not talk in class". At church, it came with something harsher ... the threat of some undefined punishment from God who, many church paintings indicated, was particularly rough on sinners.

The three forces in a child's life - church, home and school - all endorsed the same values. No wonder "respect", an outward veneer of obedience inculcated through fear, won out every time. Real respect was saved for those who could defy the hierarchy and survive, trounce the opposition at sports, or schmooze the vicar into letting us use the school playing fields after hours.

Much has changed: hardly anyone cleans their shoes any more; talking in class is no longer forbidden; and the playing fields have all been sold off. The world Tony Blair's father knew and for which his son has such lyrical regard was a pyramid of power, exercised through traditional sanctions which fell before the enlightenment that came with education, information and democracy. The domestic sanction - smacking - even Tony Blair abandoned with his fourth child.

Nonetheless, there is a hankering for an imagined Golden Age, even a stirring around the thought that things would be better if we were a more religious country. Since the arrival of Bush, religion has been central to America's political agenda. With Middle Eastern politics, it is even more so. Britain is altogether more secular, but even here there is the beginning of a more engaged debate, an examination of why religions persist. Nothing could be more welcome. Why should the encounters of Victorian intellectuals have the best of it? Bishop Wilberforce famously debated Darwinism with TH Huxley in the hallowed halls of the Atheneum. Today such debates are on radio and television and in the press.

The atheists have got in first. "What makes you think that's true?" asked an incredulous Richard Dawkins on being shown the stone that had rolled away from Christ's sepulchre?" "Oh," replied the black-clad and bearded priest with confidence, "it's been handed down by mouth from person to person". "Ah, yes, tradition," said Dawkins with a sigh.

Last autumn, we had Jonathan Miller's Brief History of Disbelief on BBC 2; now comes David Starkey on Radio 4 naming the guilty men in a series called Who killed Christianity? First on his list: St Paul. But soon there will be redress against all this scepticism. Soon it will be the turn of the historian Michael Burleigh, on More4, to explain the views in his book Earthly Powers that humanity needs religion and when communities strive for utopias of their own they fall into disarray and collapse. Marxism and socialism will be his prime targets.

But do we need a religion to be good, to hold societies together, to motivate our better impulses and give us, even as we disregard them, a set of values we believe to have eternal truth? Hitler, we must not forget, was a professing Christian who admired the Oberammergau passion play, especially its anti-Semitic dialogue about the blood curse upon the Jews for murdering Christ.

Theatre is often the place where challenging ideas take fire. Not only are there two plays about Sir Thomas More running in London right now, but a new play, Paul, by Howard Brenton, at the National Theatre brings brilliant insight into how religions happen and why.

The story it tells is of the rift between the apostles, who knew Jesus, and Paul, who did not. The play proposes that the resurrection never happened, that Jesus met and inspired Paul on the road to Damascus and escaped to live and die in Syria. The play's argument - between Peter and Paul - focuses on how to live in the world having known the experience of Jesus.

Paul, played with incandescent power by Adam Godley (was ever an actor more aptly named?) begins as a thoroughly orthodox Jew, subject to epileptic fits and virulent in his hatred and pursuit of Christians. Then converted, he becomes the extremist, the fanatic. Told by Peter that the encounter on the road to Damascus was not more than that, just a meeting, Paul pleads with Peter to go along with the story that Jesus rose from the dead. Peter concedes, and the Christian narrative is born. Paul's conviction is that the message of Christ is not enough. It needs the visionary element of human sensibility to carry it forward. Brenton - the atheist son of a Methodist minister - writes in a programme note that "Paul invented and defined the concept of love. He was a moral genius. The ideas in his letters are the bedrock of Western culture ... He was profoundly wrong but also mysteriously right."

I go along a good way with Brenton on this. Although I hate St Paul's view of women, of marriage and of homosexuality, his emphasis on guilt and sex, nonetheless his greatest epistles carry a Christian philosophy that has the power and truth to help us live in peace, both globally and personally. It is the church and the tradition that gets in the way, exerting power and control through doctrine and punishment. In the secular world, we don't need the supernatural any more. After all, the existence of God is beyond proof or evidence. What we do need is the philosophy without the creed.