The gospel according to Mel Gibson

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My men of the week? George W Bush and Mel Gibson, without a doubt, for reminding us how intolerant, sex-obsessed and sado-masochistic the Christian religion can be - a great way to begin Lent, guys. All over the United States, Christian fundamentalists have been booking entire cinemas and inviting their friends to watch Gibson's new movie, The Passion of the Christ, which shows the torture and execution of Jesus in excruciating detail. One Texan businessman shelled out $42,000 (£22,500) on tickets and told his wife: "Honey, we've got to get as many people as possible to see this film because it's changed my life".

Frankly, if I had that amount of cash in my bank and wanted a life-changing experience, I'd donate it to Oxfam. But evangelical Christians are more interested in conversion than philanthropy, with some of them going so far as to describe the film as "perhaps the best outreach opportunity for 2,000 years". They are also keen to impose their notion of morality on others, as the President confirmed when he announced his intention of changing the USconstitution in order to outlaw gay marriage. This shameless electoral ploy was aimed at the people who are likely to love Gibson's film, naive zealots who get fired up by the nastier elements of Christ's story.

The movie, which has already been accused of encouraging anti-Semitism for its portrayal of Jews, will almost certainly get a cooler reception when it opens here next month. Britain, I am happy to say, is one of the least devout countries in the world; a poll carried out for the BBC2 debate What The World Thinks of God, screened on Thursday, suggests that 52 per cent of us believe that God created the universe, compared with a staggering 85 per cent in the US. Less than a fifth of Britons would die for God or their beliefs, which is something else to be thankful for.

The figure for the US and Lebanon is 71 per cent, rising to 90 per cent in Indonesia and Nigeria, which naturally brings me to the subject of Islam. This column has a policy of complete equality when it comes to religion: I dislike the lot of them. Nor do I have much time for the fashionable charge of Islamophobia, which is used to cow critics of Islam in much the same way that accusations of anti-Semitism are employed to silence people who oppose the policies of Ariel Sharon. There are perfectly sound reasons for being phobic about any religion and having opposed Christianity most of my life, I am not going to pretend that Islam is any better. On the contrary, I wish more people would stand up and declare the obvious: that Sharia, the Islamic legal code which operates in Saudi Arabia and that some militant Muslims are trying to introduce in Iraq, is incompatible with the Enlightenment ideal of universal human rights.

In Nigeria, where Sharia has been imposed in some northern provinces, almost 50 people died in religious violence last week and there has been an outcry over death sentences handed out for "offences" such as adultery and homosexuality. These reflect the period in which Sharia law was assembled, drawing on the Koran and the practice of the prophet Mohammed, but I would no more want to live under it than I would a system of jurisprudence based on the Old Testament. Several of the penalties it imposes - stonings, lashes and amputations - are forms of torture that some of the world's nastier dictatorships would hesitate to use in public.

Over the last couple of centuries, the supposedly "Christian" nations of Western Europe have minimised the influence of religion on morality and public policy, while allowing freedom of worship. This is right and our countries are more tolerant, civilised places as a result; I am not one of those who sneer at the Enlightenment or undervalue its achievements, which are under sustained attack from Christian and Muslim fundamentalists. Homophobic statements by the US president; demands that schoolgirls wear the headscarf in France; Gibson's ghastly film, which is stirring up old hatreds: make no mistake, religion is entering a new phase of militancy. It may turn out to be the defining conflict of the new century.

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