2006: a good year for religious conflict and atheists

By Gerard Baker (THE TIMES, 22/12/06):

As you enjoy your non-denominational pageants, trim your holiday trees and yell season’s greetings at each other, the defiantly secular among you could be forgiven for feeling a little smug about celebrating Winterval after all that has happened in 2006. As years go it has hardly been a great commercial for the idea that religion is balm for the soul. Depressingly it has rather reinforced the impression, developed over the centuries, that religious belief only deepens and strengthens Man’s propensity for hatred and self-destruction.

All year in Iraq, Sunni and Shia Muslims have been busy replaying the message that Christians have so effectively articulated through the ages — that intrareligious intolerance can be more bloody and murderous even than that between the followers of the great Abrahamic faiths. Rising Shia power across the Middle East, led by a resurgent Tehran, is causing friction and alarm among Sunni-dominant regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere. A millennium-old dispute about caliphs and imams can resonate as violently as the theological disputations about the validity of Martin Luther’s religious critiques 500 years ago.

Not that the traditional interfaith hatreds have been quiet this year. On the contrary. In Israel, Lebanon and Gaza, a political conflict that has religious differences at its core raged for much of the year. Within Lebanon, yet another civil war edged threateningly closer between a bewildering array of sects and ethnic groups that all seem to have religious affiliation as their defining point of difference.

Across Africa, religious-ethnic warfare consumes swaths of the continent. The outrage of Darfur, with its roots in a Sudanese war between Muslims and Christians, continues to mock the conscience of the world. Only this week, the embers of religious conflict in Somalia have burst into flames as extremist Muslim militias try to drive out the moderate Government. Across the border predominantly Christian Ethiopia appeared to be girding itself for outright war against its Muslim neighbour.

Before we congratulate ourselves that, in the developed world, we have left all this medievalist nonsense behind, we should remember that our own recent history continues to condition our present. In Europe ugly anti-Semitic sentiment seemed to be drifting from the lunatic fringes towards the mainstream of public discourse. Anti-Muslim attitudes and behaviour are on the rise too, stoked by a combination of crass apologetics for terrorism on one side and thuggish racism on the other. And the Pope looked for a while as though he might get the cartoon treatment after his mild disquisition on the philosophical differences between Islam and Christianity.

To the pathos of divisive religious politics around the world we can add the bathos of popular culture. Mel Gibson got caught ranting anti-Semitic bile at a Californian police officer. Judith Regan, controversial publishing maven, left her job at HarperCollins after allegedly making some objectionable observations about Jews. In the cinematic hit of the year, Borat, aka Sasha Baron Cohen, lampooned religious intolerance in the backwoods of Central Asia and the Deep South. Critiques of the movie dissolved into a fierce debate about who had the right to be more offended by it — evangelical American Christians or Muslim Kazakhs.

Even the most memorable sporting event of the year, the World Cup final, somehow seemed to provide an iconic stage for interfaith misunderstanding — when the Roman Marco Matterazzi clashed with the Algerian-Frenchman Zinédine Zidane over some uncivilised remarks tied apparently to the latter’s supposed religious background.

It’s all enough to make the disinterested observer inclined to endorse the age-old view, expressed again this year with renewed ferocity by Richard Dawkins, that religious belief is not only the irrational product of simple minds but positively life-endangering.

So what do those of us who still believe in the saving mystery of Christmas have to say for ourselves? How do we respond to the charge that we’re responsible, in our own sectarian way, for all this misery and suffering?

The first, obvious point that needs restating is that you don’t need to be religious to have a dangerous inclination to want to bend others to your own views. Professor Dawkins provided a timely reminder that belligerent intolerance of the beliefs of others is by no means the sole preserve of the faithful.

This is not the place for a discussion about jihad, but it is fair to say that human beings will claim divine sanction for their violence when at root their motives are more often distinctly to do with the kingdoms of this world than the one that may await in the next.

The two great global conflicts of the 20th century were not truly religious at all, despite some of the claims made for them. It was twisted ethnic, rather than religious, ideology that principally animated the Nazis. And it is worth noting that the narrowly avoided conflict which would have trumped even these tragedies — a nuclear war with the Soviet Union — would have been launched and prosecuted in the name of militant atheism.

And yet, as Christmas comes again to a world in religious strife, Christians cannot deny a particular responsibility — to ensure that religion is not used as a political tool.

That was after all the very essence of the Christmas story. The prophets had foretold the birth of a king who would, it was assumed, rout his earthly enemies in a reign that would represent the ultimate embodiment of worldly power. In the words of Isaiah, he was the Wonderful-Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father — sonorous titles that convey power and authority.

But the true message of the manger was different. A baby born in abject poverty and anonymity, attended only by a devoted mother and her husband, recognised at first, not by kings and generals but by shepherds and distant wise men. And in addition to all those titles he held the one that to this day, should resound across a violent world: Prince of Peace.