John Bowker: The paradox of religions

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World Religions


Religions are in the news. That's not surprising considering that most people alive in the world today belong to a religion, however little or much they do about it. That's more people than watch football or vote in elections. Yet it is only the extreme edges of religion that usually get reported, the religious right, for example, or those who fly planes into highrise buildings. So we do take notice when believers fight us or each other in different parts of the world - and we are right to do so, when we remember how many of them are now armed with weapons of mass destruction.

So what is religion? What does it mean to be religious? It means a great deal, because religions are involved in every aspect of human life -- and death. Religious belief appears in the earliest moments of human history, and no society has yet been found that does not have religious beliefs. Not surprisingly, therefore, religion means so many different things to different people that often their beliefs and practices contradict each other. In the book World Religions (London, Dorling Kindersley, 2003, p.6) I gave some examples of the contradictory things that religious belief and practice can mean:

"It can mean believing that God is the source and the goal of life, or that belief in God is at best a juvenile distraction; it can mean loving one's neighbour as oneself, or excommunicating him or her to a fate far worse than death; it can mean consulting witches for wisdom, or burning them alive; having a soul, or not having a soul; obeying the command to be fruitful, or taking a lifelong vow to be celibate; withdrawing into silence, or speaking in tongues; it can require shaving one's head, or never cutting one's hair; going to mosque on Friday, synagogue on Saturday, or church on Sunday; it can mean praying, meditating, levitating, worshipping, entering into trance and ecstasy; building St Paul's Cathedral, the Golden Temple, and the Great Pyramid; crossing oceans and continents to go on pilgrimages to holy places; to convert others; to fight crusades, holy wars, or jihads; it has also meant the inspired creation of music, art, icons, symbols, poetry at the very farthest stretch of human imagination, and yet it can also reveal itself as trivial sentiment."

So the problem of understanding religion is that it involves so much. It doesn't help that we are not quite sure what the word 'religion' means or where it comes from. It's a Latin word, and Cicero (a politician and writer in the 1st century BCE) thought that it comes from relegere, to gather things together, or to pass over the same ground repeatedly. Others have taken it from religare, to bind things together. And if that is so, it certainly draws attention to one of the most obvious and important features of religion: it binds people together in common practices and beliefs. Religions draw people together in a common goal of life.

Natural Selection and Survival

When we say 'life', we need first to take that word in its most basic sense, the life that we all live here and now, between birth and death. The point is that life is constantly threatened by death, so if we are to live and grow, then our lives, especially those of our children, have to be protected. Religions are the earliest protective systems of which we have any evidence that create the circumstances in which people are more likely to survive, have children and bring them up to be adults.

This means that religions have played a massively important part in the process of natural selection and evolution where human beings are concerned. Natural selection and evolution mean that unless individuals and communities are adequately protected, they cannot survive long enough to pass on their genes to another generation. All human beings are built by genes and proteins. It is only by passing on genes and looking after children well enough to bring them to maturity that human communities can continue through time. This is the process known more technically as gene-replication and the nurture of children.

So how are human beings protected? In detail, in many different ways ranging from tanks and battleships to hospitals and traffic lights. But in a general way, we are protected within three different boundaries. The first is the boundary of the cell, the second is the skin, and the third is the culture, including the family, in which we happen to live. Culture is the third defensive skin within which the gene-replication and the nurture of children are protected. Religions are the earliest cultural systems (of which we have any evidence) to provide this protection.

Culture and religions belong closely together. Even the word 'culture' is connected with religion since it comes from the same Latin word cultus, which refers to the worship of a supreme being, or of gods and goddesses.

So cult, in the sense of worship and belief in God or Goddess, lies at the foundation of culture. Obviously, what people have believed about God or Goddess has changed greatly through time as they have learned more of the One with whom they have had to deal -- much as their ideas, pictures and beliefs about the universe have changed very greatly indeed. Nevertheless, the fact remains: cult leads into culture, and culture is a powerful defensive system within which gene-replication and the nurture of children are protected.

Obviously, our early ancestors had no idea how gene-replication works, but that is beside the point. Evolution and natural selection are not an exam in which marks are given to those who understand it. Marks are given for success, and success is measured by survival.

Sex, and Food.

The importance of protecting and safeguarding survival is the reason why many religions are so concerned with sex and food. The rules developed in a cult/culture tell people what to do and what not to do. They tell them, for example, which foods are prohibited and which are allowed, which kinds of sexual behaviour are prohibited and which are allowed. In particular, they controlled the status and activities of women very carefully so that the genealogy (also important in religions) of each child is clearly known.

All this made sense when so little was known about reproduction and when life was hazardous, especially for infants and children. The fact that much of this has come into question, now that contraception enables couples to have sex without conceiving a child, or that DNA identifies parents much more accurately, does not affect the fact that for thousands of years religions have proved to be the best systems that human beings could devise to ensure survival and community.

This connection between religion, sex, and food (necessary and essential in the context of natural selection) explains why religions give to the family the highest possible value, even in religions where celibacy (giving up sex and marriage for a greater good) is seen as a higher vocation. Religions themselves have become extended families: initially they extended the family to groups of related tribes, but then some among them saw the whole of humanity as a single family (as Christians might say) or a single umma, 'community' (as Muslims might say).

Brain and Behaviour.

Turning from extended families on that universal scale, and returning to the most basic level of human survival, it is obvious why human beings devised systems in order to help to protect themselves. But the question still remains, why religious systems? Animals, birds, and fish gain protection by living in social organizations without saying their prayers (though actually in some religions it is thought that they do).

But that takes us at once to the equally obvious point that the emergence of the human brain shot humans into the stratosphere compared with other animals, not least because they developed consciousness and language. Among the new worlds that opened up were the beliefs and behaviours we describe as religious.

Those and other possibilities come with us when we are born with the kind of brain and body that most humans have. When the genes and proteins build our brains, they build them, not in a random way, but with great consistency from one generation to another. There are certainly many differences among human beings even though they come from much the same gene-protein process (for example, skin pigmentation, colour of eyes, average height), but there is much more that we all have in common. We are prepared in much the same way for eating and drinking, for sleeping and waking, for sexual development and behaviours, for speaking languages. We are prepared also for those behaviours that we call religious.

The way in which we are prepared for these behaviours does not in any way dictate or determine what we will do with our 'preparedness'. Biology does not dictate what language we will speak, let alone what we will say, nor does it dictate what food we will eat, let alone what we will have for dinner tomorrow. So also with religion: biology does not determine what we will do with our religious preparedness. We can decide, if we want, to give up religion altogether, just as we can decide to give up sex or (for short intervals) food. But perhaps to abstain altogether from something so fundamental as religion would be to make oneself less than fully human.

That point is reinforced by recent work in the neurosciences which throw entirely new light on the ways in which humans make their ethical and aesthetic judgements -- and their judgements about religion. This work and its application are summarised in my book, The Sacred Neuron (London, I.B.Tauris, 2005), and they show how innate and fundamental religion is for those who have our kind of brains and bodies.

This at once explains why there is much that is universal and common in religious behaviour, but why, nevertheless, there are many different religions and why there are radical differences among them. That is inevitable because what people do with their preparedness, either individually or in their societies and cultures, is not determined. It nevertheless means that religious belief and practice will endure among humans unless there are major alterations in the human DNA.

Exploration and Discovery.

So far we have looked at religions in a very basic way, and we have still not got back to the questions, What are religions and why are they so important? The first step to an answer is to realise that people living in successful protective systems are able, not just to survive, but to do many other things as well. They were - and still are - set free to explore their own nature and the family or society in which they live, as well as the world around them.

It was this that opened the way to the specifically religious, though it opened the way to much else as well. For example, the fact that our ancestors began to explore the world explains why the natural sciences are deeply rooted in religions. It is often forgotten that the natural sciences were originally a part of religious exploration. It is only in the last 2 or 3 centuries that they have come apart as distinct belief systems.

Equally dramatic were the explorations of what it means to be human, explorations, that is, of the human body and its nature, and of what it can experience and become. Even basic human necessities, like breathing, become in many religions a part of that exploration.

Some religions concentrated on exploring inward and on finding truth within the body in enlightenment, peace, emptiness, the Buddha-nature, and for that reason they are known as 'inversive systems'. This is the exploration of what the 19th century American writer, H.D.Thoreau, called "the private sea", the streams and oceans of our inner nature, and it has led to such religions as Jainism and Buddhism.

Other religions looked outward and discovered the importance of our relationships with each other and with One far greater than ourselves. This has produced religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in which the One greater than ourselves is recognised as God and as the uncreated Creator of all that is, the One who continues in being whether this universe happens to be here or not. These systems which explore the truth and value in relationship are known as 'extraversive systems'.

It is important not to drive too hard a distinction between them, because all religions are concerned with both inside and outside. The differences are no more than a matter of emphasis or of priority. Nevertheless, these different priorities have produced the practices that are characteristic of different religions -- such things as worship, prayer, meditation, sacrifice, yoga, zazen and many more.

These practices, when they are undertaken with good faith, can lead people into experience and insight so real to them that all else in life becomes totally unimportant in comparison. The spiritual world becomes at least as real as the material, and for many it becomes vastly more important. Human spirituality takes an almost infinite number of forms, many of them outside the boundaries of the major organised religions. 'New Age' occurs in every age as people affirm their own 'take' on the meaning and practice of a spiritual life.

And far beyond that, far beyond the explorations of spirituality that we undertake, comes the realisation in all religions that human effort and human initiatives cannot achieve the furthest goals. They can only be attained with a profound help that is not of human making: God and Enlightenment cannot in the end be achieved by effort, they can only be received as gift.

On that basis, religions take off and carry people far beyond the stratosphere and stars. In The Oxford Dictionary of Religions, I tried to summarise it in this way (p.xxiii):

"Faith, as trust in the tradition and the teacher, then sets out on journeys which for many (not inevitably, and certainly not for all) reveal the truth of that for which it yearns. `Eternity in time', to quote the phrase of Henry Vaughan, is no longer a paradox but a persuasion. Meditation enters into meaning far beyond common senses, and rests in that supreme condition which leaves behind it even such treasures as beauty, excitement, and delight. Prayer is presence, before One who elicits praise, thanksgiving, and joy, as well as penitence and sorrow. Because prayer is the greatest of the human languages of love, it connects others to God as well."

We have moved here far beyond the baseline of biology.

The Inventions of Religion.

From this account, it can be seen that religions are among the greatest of all human achievements. When Christopher Hitchens launched his 'case against religion' (God is Not Great, London, Atlantic Books, 2007), he wrote (p.10): "The mildest criticism of religion is also the most radical and the most devastating one. Religion is man-made."

But what else could it possibly be? Religions are the consequence of human explorations of themselves and of their environment, as equally of their determination to protect and transmit to others (including the next generation) the extraordinary brilliance of their discoveries.

Among those discoveries was the realisation that while religion is clearly man-made it is much more than a human achievement. Certainly, God was invented and states of Enlightenment were invented.

But the Latin word invenio means 'I come into'. To invent something does not necessarily mean 'to make up some kind of fiction'. It may mean to come into something that was waiting there to be found. In that sense, Columbus invented America, but America was there waiting for him to come into it. The same is true of scientific invention. What our ancestors found, and what we can still find today, is that in the discovery of God or of Enlightenment, God and Enlightenment are already there waiting to be discovered.

Religions are important for just this reason: they are the context and the consequence of the most mind-blowing discoveries about human nature and destiny. Both God and Enlightenment offer themselves to us in such a way that they take us far beyond anything we could possibly have achieved on our own. There may be hard work and discipline involved, but fundamentally we have to receive them as gift. Religion is certainly man-made. Its consequence is beyond anything that we, in our transient generations, could construct: that which endures when all else passes away.

World Pictures.

The exploration of the human body is known technically as 'somatic exploration' (from Greek soma,`body'). Not surprisingly, the far-reaching consequences of somatic exploration were not left without interpretation, and that is the role of somatic exegesis, the interpretation of what has been discovered Somatic exploration and exegesis are combined in teaching and instruction so that others can move in the same direction.

From this come the elaborate belief systems and world pictures that we associate with religions, just as, from this also, come texts and teaching to sustain them.

In the world pictures of religions, the power and presence of gods and spirits, both for good and for ill, are pervasive Their actual existence has often been questioned, but they are real at least in their effect, in their consequences in human life. To enquire further (for example, whether, and if so in what form, they exist) leads into the human reflections of philosophy and theology which are so fundamental in the history of religions.

Among the religious world pictures are accounts of what the world or the universe is and of how it began. These are called cosmologies and cosmogonies. Religious cosmologies are not in competition with modern science, though they have often been used or portrayed in that way. If we seek additional information about the universe, we go (if we are wise) to science, not to a religious cosmology. Religious cosmologies serve an entirely different purpose: they show how the universe is as an arena of challenge and opportunity -- as much actually for science as for religion. The universe, far from being indifferent to our existence, becomes an invitation to discover its meaning as a demand upon us to act and live in responsible and accountable ways.

Matters of life and death.

The world pictures that religions create and sustain include accounts not just of cosmology, but also of time, human nature and destiny. It is often claimed that religions came into being because they promised to believers a good life after death. For many people this life is unbearable in its suffering, and for all people it ends in death. The claim is therefore made that religions came into being and gained extensive power over human beings by their offer of a way through death into a better life.

That claim is completely wrong. The major religious traditions, both East and West, had in origin no belief whatsoever that there will be a worthwhile life after death. The most that could be hoped for was that the dead might have some vague or shadowy existence particularly when they are remembered by the living. The belief that there will be some kind of continuity through or beyond death did come into being eventually, and it was described in different ways in different religions. That belief was developed by our ancestors as a result of their experiences and discoveries, but it does not alter the amazing and astonishing fact that the major religious traditions are founded on a this-life, this-worldly experience of God and of Enlightenment. There was no 'pie-in-the-sky' compensation about it.

Religious organisations.

The discoveries that our ancestors made were far too important to be left to chance. Religions are organised systems for protecting information and for passing on valued information from one generation to another. Religions are certainly much more than this, but that at least is what they are.

'Information' is, of course, not confined to words alone. Indeed, most religious information is never put into words: it is conveyed in signs and symbols. Thus Hindus can put the whole of the universe into a diagram the size of a mat, and Christians can put God into a piece of bread as small as a coin. Information can be held and transmitted in gestures, pictures, rituals, art, decoration, even in silence.

But no matter what form the information takes, it has to be organized if it is going to be saved and shared. Religions are systems to monitor, code and protect information which has proved to be of the highest possible value, and to transmit it from person to person and (even more important) from generation to generation..

The ways in which religions are organised are extremely varied. Religions may be large-scale and strongly defined for those objectives with hierarchies and systems of control. An example is Roman Catholicism, with centralised control in the Vatican, and with a clear hierarchy of Pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, male religious orders, female religious orders, laity, all running in parallel with a spiritual hierarchy of apostles, saints, martyrs, confessors, doctors.

Religions may be equally large-scale but loosely organized, as for example in Hinduism. In a sense, there is no such thing as 'Hinduism' (the word itself is a 19th century invention) since Indian religion is really a family of religions sharing many beliefs and practices, but often differing greatly from each other. There is no centrally organised religion with hierarchies of authority and control, but even so there are among Hindus extremely strong subsystems based on gurus, temples, revealed scriptures and the like.

In contrast, religions may be small-scale and local, extending no further than the shores of an island of the borders of a village. Even then, they will have their own principles of organisation.

Organisations requires people to run them - for example, priests, witches, shamans, gurus, imams, rabbis, monks, nuns, bhikkhus - an almost endless list of religious specialists who not only transmit the traditions of belief and practice, but who also, often, act as 'maintenance engineers': they monitor the system and keep it robust. For some of them, the maintenance of the system becomes the most important thing in their lives, and the harsh face of religion can easily be produced by those who forget that there is a purpose in the system beyond simply keeping itself in good order. Monitoring the system easily becomes monitoring the beliefs and behaviour of those who belong to it, and that is one reason why religions often give the impression of insisting on inflexibly strict codes of behaviour. Ethics and the creation of a good life become a matter of conformity.

Religion as Story.

Organisations are clearly necessary to protect and transmit the information that people need. But how is all this information to be secured and conveyed? The family is of paramount importance, but so too are the social gatherings that emerge in such forms as the village assembly, synagogue, church, temple, mosque and gurdwara. Religion binds people together in a common enterprise, and it is in the forms and modes of religious assembly that much of the transmission of religious information takes place.

It takes place also when it is put into words. It is true, as we have already seen, that 'information' can be entirely non-verbal. But in all religions it is also put into words, and especially into stories. That is why storytelling is supremely important in all religions.

But the word becomes even more important when it becomes the Word, the revelation of truth understood to come from God or from exceptional teachers. The Word in this sense of revelation has a different kind of authority, as in the familiar words, "The Bible says...". But so also does Tanach (Jewish Scripture), the Qur'an (Muslim scripture), Shruti (Hindu scripture), the Angas (Jain scripture), the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scripture), the Book of Mormon, and so on.

The appeal to a fundamental and non-negotiable authority gives rise to exactly that, fundamentalism. The fact that the different scriptures do not all say the same thing, and may indeed contradict each other, does not diminish the appeal of fundamentalism. It gives to people the security of knowing that they are right. Not surprisingly, it reinforces the radical divide between religions.

The creativity of religions.

The divisions between religions are serious indeed, since they have led to conflict and wars. Some religions have been destroyed or have disappeared. Despite this, there has been recognisable continuity through the extremely long history of religions. In general, religions have created worlds in which people can understand who they are, how they should behave, where they are going, and what the meaning of life is. All this has been tested and winnowed through time, and as a result religions have changed greatly. True, there is a kind of fundamentalism which resists this and which tries to recreate a golden age in the past when everybody believed and acted as they should. It might be the age of the apostles for some Christians, or the age of the arRashidun (the first four caliphs after Muhammad) for some Muslims, or of the Vedas for some Hindus. That such 'ages of perfection' did not ever exist does not alter the fact that for such believers the way forward is the way back.

Far more important has been the ability of religions constantly to change and still to be the context in which humans produce many of the achievements which we value and treasure most, in art, architecture, drama, poetry, music, dance, literature, education, even in the natural sciences. All these come directly from the context of religions, no matter how much they may more recently have entered a separate life of their own. And in addition to all those, all the major religions have some version of the Golden Rule as an obligation: act towards others as you would have them act towards yourself. Religions may have done great damage, but they have also done great good. It is, for example, surprising how many of the schools and hospitals around the world were, and still are, brought into being by religions.

Myth and Ritual.

Among the many achievements two of the most valuable in human history have been myth and ritual. It is true that the word 'myth' has now become a word of abuse, meaning something that is made up or false -- as in 'the myth of female weakness'.

Yet myth in its proper sense is one of the greatest of human inventions. Myth might simply be a particular example of our delight in storytelling. But myths are stories that carry with them an enormous weight of meaning. They speak of truth that cannot be told in other ways -- for example, in the languages or the equations of natural science. That is why in the 19th century myth became so important. Some scientists at the time were claiming that they would be able to explain everything. The very influential John Tyndall once claimed: "All schemes and systems which infringe upon the domain of science must, in so far as they do this, submit to its control, and relinquish all thought of controlling it." Huxley, who coined the word 'agnostic', once wrote of him: "A favourite problem of his is -- Given the molecular forces in a mutton chop, deduce Hamlet or Faust therefrom. He is confident that the Physics of the Future will solve this easily."

In reaction against this, poets, artists and musicians insisted that no matter how brilliant the achievements of science and technology are, they can never capture and explain what human life actually feels like. Why does the experience of love transcend the biology of lust? Why do people suffer? How are their sufferings related to what they have done in the past, as also to the far larger story in which their lives are caught up? And if they have done things that are wrong in the past, how can they be healed, restored, forgiven?

Those happen to be the questions that Wagner asked and tried to answer in Parsifal. Neither he nor others in the so-called Romantic Movement in the arts denied the impressive achievements of science, but they did deny, in practice as much as in theory, that science alone can tell the whole truth about humanity and the universe. William Blake (1757-1827) attacked Newton fiercely for his limited perspective which left so much unseen, but he nevertheless regarded him as a genius, "a mighty spirit", and at the climax of Jerusalem, he placed Newton with Bacon and Locke among "the Chariots of the Almighty".

The importance of myth, therefore, whether ancient or modern (and a modern example would be The Lord of the Rings), is that it can explore the meaning and significance of events and individual lives, and it can place them in a much larger and transcendent context. Local and immediate events or circumstances, which might be hard in themselves to understand or explain, are taken up by myth and placed in a far wider and perhaps even timeless setting.

Myth is closely connected with ritual. Myth may even explain why a particular ritual came into being and why it is important to perform it. But rituals can exist in their own right, without necessarily needing the support of myth. A ritual is an action performed repeatedly in much the same way according to a particular pattern. Rituals are not necessarily connected with religion at all -- in other words, they may be completely secular: thus rituals are performed on such occasions as New Year's Eve or the opening of an Olympic Games. In fact, the word 'ritual' is often used to describe the regular and patterned behaviour of animals when they are engaged in such things as seeking a mate.

But ritual is particularly important in religion, because it creates a pattern of recognisable familiarity in life, and it brings order and predictability into dangerous or uncertain situations. Among rituals, therefore, are the so-called rites of passage that mark the transition of individuals or groups through significant moments of life and death -- such occasions as birth, coming of age and marriage. Other rituals express so much that it is simply not possible to summarise all that they mean and do. Some bring people into membership of a religious group through initiation, others expel people and bring their membership to an end; some are weapons of attack against enemies, others are procedures of defence against threats like disease; some renew the fertility of the earth, others acknowledge the winter, not just of the seasons, but also of our discontents.

Evil.

Our discontents are not simply those of misery and distress. They include the wicked and destructive evils which people do to each other. Those evils are all too often done by religious people in the context, and on occasion with the encouragement, of religion. For example, on the basis of the Bible witches have been burned or drowned, homosexuals executed, Africans shipped into slavery, women treated as children who are subordinate to men, and wars justified in the name of the Prince of Peace. The Bible is far from being religiously unique in this respect: other religions have kept women under the control of men, and slavery is still sanctioned in the Quran. However, it was of the Bible that Thomas Paine (1737-1809) wrote in The Age of Reason:

"Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalise mankind."

Religions are very far from being exempt from evil. But at least it is recognised and given a name. So real is the power of evil that it is seen as the work of destructive agents like the Devil or Mara. Life becomes contest and warfare against the evil that seeks to corrupt and destroy it: "Be sober, be vigilant," says the same Bible: "Your adversary the Devil goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour; whom resist steadfast in the faith."

So the attacks on religion, whether those of Lucretius in the first century bce, of Thomas Paine in the 18th, or of such people as Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris at the present time have much to justify them. Religions can be extremely bad news. But what those attacks don't grasp or understand is that religions can also be extremely good news. In fact, we can put it like this, in what I have called the paradox of religions: religions are such bad news only because they are such good news.

Borders and Boundaries.

What creates that paradox? The answer goes back to the way in which religions are systems organised to protect information. Religions have protected so much that is of such high value to people, in areas ranging from sex to salvation and including the furthest stretches of creativity in between, that people will die to defend the system, particularly if it comes under attack, and they will also monitor the system to make sure that people do not weaken it from within.

The basic point is that systems protecting information require boundaries if the information is not to dissipate and become incoherent noise. The boundaries are often literal, surrounding particular land or territory, or they may be metaphorical, the accepted system of beliefs and practices that confer and maintain identity. Either way, the existence of boundaries will inevitably lead to border incidents when the boundary comes under threat.

The threat may be a literal attack -- an invasion, for example, or a persecution -- or it may be a threat to the continuing practice and belief of a religion -- as, for example, in what is known as secularisation, especially when the attack comes from a secular ideology as in Burma or Tibet. When boundaries are threatened, some at least within those boundaries will die rather than surrender or give way; and they may well themselves go on the attack. All religions, including those like Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism that are committed to ahimsa or non-violence, justify war in some circumstances.

The point is that religions are not matters of trivial and juvenile belief. They protect so much of such immense importance that people would die rather than lose this inherited treasure.

This means that religions (or some religious people) can be extremely dangerous. It is the reason why they are involved in so many of the most intransigent and bloody conflicts in the world -- as we have seen in recent years in Northern Island, Cyprus, Bosnia, Kosovo and the Balkans, Chechnya and Dagestan, Palestine/Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Xizang/Tibet, the Punjab, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and East Timor, Sudan and Darfur.

So this is the paradox of religions that politicians, economists and others need so urgently to understand: religions can be such bad news, only because they are such good news.

But even if they did understand, and even if they acted on the basis of their understanding, what would that mean? It would mean fundamentally recognising that religion is not about to disappear, not least because of the way in which the genes and proteins prepare us for the beliefs and behaviours that we call 'religious'. Consequently religion should be taken far more seriously by those who are taking political or economic decisions -- not just because religions and religious people can be so dangerous, but also because religions are a massively important resource for good. Religions can lead to wicked and destructive evils, but equally religions have the power to contest evil, to raise up the wrecked and desolate from their despair and to commit themselves to the renewal of the earth.

John Bowker is an author, broadcaster, professor of religious studies who has taught at Cambridge, Lancaster, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, and an Honorary Canon of Canterbury Cathedral

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The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes