Leading Article: Why religion is not a laughing matter

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The Independent Online
IN THE English mass media religion is either Protestant, in which case it is about Sunday trading and sex; or Catholic, in which case it is about sex and snobbery. If not Christian, it is an affair for cranks or barbarians. Through such an atheistic prism you could never see that religion was for many people the whole point of life.

This leads the English to misunderstand great swathes of the outside world, starting, perhaps, with Ireland.

Outside of northern Europe, religion matters a very great deal, and will matter more and more as the century draws to its close. Millions of people around the world believe with greater or lesser intensity that the coming millennium will usher in the end of the world and the last judgement. It is perfectly possible for sober observers to fear the prospect of war between nuclear-armed states divided and to some extent defined by different religions. That might not be the end of the world, but it would come uncomfortably close.

The religion that is growing all around the world is idealistically authoritarian, full of the vigour and intolerance of youth. 'Liberalism' is now a term of abuse. This is so foreign, and could be so dangerous, that we should try to understand it sympathetically.

It is easy to see some of the reasons for this rise of fundamentalism and its allies. One is that liberalism has often, though not always, wasted away into unbelief.

A more serious criticism is that liberalism tends to ally with the powerful. One of the greatest well-springs of religious faith is a longing for justice. Yet a liberal, humane and educated faith is likely to be the possession of the comfortable and sophisticated classes. They will never see the injustices of the world with the vivid fervour that motivates poor Muslims today. They may never see the cruelties of the world as did the man who said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.

In this, religion appears as a largely anti-capitalist force. It may be the case that free trade and ever freer markets will in the end offer a decent life to almost everyone on earth. But the way there is paved with horrors. We need only look at the rise of the Russian Mafia and the immense suffering brought about by the disciplines of the market economy in parts of Africa to grasp this. Capitalism is an immensely disruptive force, and much of what it disrupts was worth preserving. In the disruptions of traditional authority, much of value is lost, which religion seems to offer the chance to preserve. And from the Vatican to Tehran, religion provides consumer capitalism with its most unyielding opponent.

It is not merely economic alienation that religion tends to answer. All over Eastern Europe, where the fall of Communism has been followed by the rise of older barbarisms, religion has emerged as the force which unites people into workable political units, and hence as the force that divides them, often violently, from their neighbours of a different religion. In the Middle East, the battle lines are still more clearly drawn along religious lines.

A Martian looking around our world would say that religious fervour was most to be found wherever there is injustice, oppression, war, nationalism, bigotry: he might wonder which came first. He might think us happy in England to have so little of any of these evils, and so little religion.

The Martian would be wrong to do so. The message of Easter for Christians is not that faith can avert suffering but that suffering without faith is meaningless and so unendurable. Religion flourishes and has always flourished around misery because it has been found to be an effective balm, one which not only reduces the pain of life, but also gives people the strength not to despair. It is countries where faith is weak or dwindling, like ours, that are full of fear and emptiness. We do not just misunderstand the outside world by laughing at religious impulses: we also fail to understand ourselves.