Cradle of fanaticism

The fashion for denouncing liberalism and giving respect to religion is wrong. If you disagree, try a visit to Jerusalem...
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Liberalism is dead, the Enlightenment is over and we live in its post-modern wake. With glee a number of thinkers in recent months have denounced old liberal values - tolerance, reason, scepticism and the scientific temperament. John Gray, the Oxford political philosopher, declares that "liberalism has nothing left to teach".

But it has. It saves us from fatal error, dogmatism and delusions of possessing absolute truths. Let those who doubt it take the same trip I did last week to Jerusalem - the metaphor for all Utopian and transcendental dreams made horrible flesh. Here they will find a brisk reminder of the alternative to boring old liberal values.

Here in the old city in election week, on every side passionate belief presses in - Jerusalem, the white hot epicentre of supreme unreason. Crammed one against another, cheek by jowl, the great shrines of three world religions jostle for attention. The sight of one another's ardour serves only to stoke up their own.

Jerusalem for me was the middle-aged man in a floral shirt who stepped briskly out of St Anne's basilica to pick up his lifesize crucifix that was waiting for him outside the church. His wife trotted along behind, stooped to pick up the back end of the cross and adjusted her luminous pink cap with a big bow at the back.

Watching them set off down the Via Dolorosa, I noticed he had a mobile phone in his back pocket. If only I had his number, I would have telephoned him as he trundled along the narrow winding street. What exactly are you doing, I would have asked? What does this ostentatious spectacle signify? What meaning, what intent?

The cross, though, was not very heavy and the couple did not stumble under its weight as they passed the station of the cross where Simon of Cyrene carried it part of the way: later I spotted a young Arab boy jauntily carrying two crosses back to the starting point for other pilgrims, like returning supermarket trollies.

Nowhere is the mystery of religious belief more puzzling than here. Down by the Wailing Wall the crow-like rows of ultra-orthodox men in black sway back and forth as they pray, as if in severe pain. Their sepulchral palour suggests some subterranean life inside their dark yeshivas. Is the sun unholy? And why the garb of Eastern Europe of two centuries ago? Why did the sartorial clock stop just then and not with the robes of Abraham and Moses? Heavy fur-trimmed black hats for a winter in a Polish shtetl make curious headwear in this blazing Mediterranean heat. Informed that these ultras require a ritual cleansing if they so much as brush against a woman in the street, it is tempting deliberately to touch them as they pass. Of the many things these great world religions share,their traditional view of the disgusting uncleanliness of women binds them closely.

On top of the Wall is Temple Mount, occupied by the Muslims. Inside the resplendent Dome of the Rock the shoeless faithful salaam and pray upon the rugs, contemplating the great stone that fills the centre of the mosque - the very spot where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac, and where the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.

Shrines that mark The Very Spot abound in Jerusalem and pretty unpleasant spots many of them are. Standing on Golgotha is a good place to contemplate the perversity of a religion that has sanctified a particularly disgusting Roman torture. It is as if Jews had decided to wear miniature gas chamber replicas around their necks, turning the horror of the holocaust into a revered symbol of holiness. (It is not, incidentally, the "Green hill far away" of Sunday school biblelands. You find Calvary up some dark steps inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where there is a greenish bit of rock under a glass case, surrounded by tarnished silver icons - no agony here.)

What does elevation of such suffering impose upon its believers? All three religions share admiration for Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, all share the God who teasingly demanded it. Intolerance, violent gesture, extreme, self-induced suffering for the sake of an idea are the rocks on which religions have to be built. In their extremism is their strength and once they try to incorporate tolerance, they lose the plot, like the Church of England.

I sought out the Christian shrines, their symbols embedded in my own culture and psyche. The tiny locked Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives had a curiously neglected and down-at-heel air, though it marks the most important tenet in Christianity. On the floor a small, yellow stone is the place where He rose, and it is also the spot where both Christians and Jews expect the Messiah to be beamed down again some day. (Just below is buried, among many others, Robert Maxwell, vying to be first out of his grave when that Day comes.)

Most of the important shrines are oddly seedy, decked with dusty hangings like dirty antimaccassars, murky paintings of astounding crudity and fetishes to defy the credulity of even the most ardent. The idea that great art is a justification for religious belief is surely dispelled here where aesthetics have no place.

But no - great swarms of obedient worshippers, elderly parties in matching tour hats, delegations with video cameras sent by their churches, queue patiently for their brief airless moment in the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem. There pilgrims will find a tin star, some plastic candle holders and a round hole in the marble to mark the spot.

Stranger still was the Milk Grotto, where on the Flight into Egypt Mary let a drop of milk fall on the floor of the cave, turning it white (actually, dark grey.) There the Franciscans sell small packets of powdered white Mary's milk. Down steep steps into Mary's tomb, near Gethsemane, spotlights inside her empty sarcophagus illuminate dust and a few dollars. How does faith survive these things? Surely no one who has been to this traffic- choked, tense and turbulent West Bank town will ever sing "Oh little Town of Bethlehem" with quite the same sentimental gusto....

Now all this could be just embarrassing or comic. What does it matter if people want to believe in angels? Perhaps good liberals should simply shrug and tolerate - it is what we are good at.

But standing on the Mount of Olives last week and looking down on the beautiful old city with the golden Dome of the Rock gleaming in the sunset was a moment to contemplate the extraordinary damage religion has done the world. On that day the election in Israel had just delivered more power to religious fanaticism, no doubt to be retaliated against in like vein. Fundamentalism marches onward around the globe and much of it sprang from blood-soaked Jerusalem.

Liberalism has grown complacent and lazy. It has taken to tolerating its enemies, but now it is time to stop. The intolerant should be intolerable. It is polite to mouth "respect" for religion - but why? Even if religion is partly just a tribal battle banner, it provides a fearsome moral justification for savagery and hatred. With the light of divine love shining in their eyes, they reach for their automatics.