46 years ago John Lennon wrote and recorded his song Imagine. For many, it has become a hymn for today, and continues to resonate with people who long for freedom and peace in an unsettled world. Lennon invites us to imagine life without religion, countries or possessions, with everyone “living for today”, free from hunger and war.
Mercifully, no major international war has occurred since then, and significant steps have been taken to prevent famine, but his dream now seems more distant than ever. The global “brotherhood of man” is no nearer being realized; the threat of violence fuelled by religious passion or national ambition is, if anything, growing stronger.
Many, like Lennon, think that religion is at least partly to blame for this. If only we could grow up and abandon outdated superstitious beliefs, they say, we could all get along much more happily, perhaps quoting Pascal that “men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”. But, as Jonathan Sacks points out in Not in God’s Name, religious faith itself is rarely the cause of conflict. The major wars of the twentieth century had nothing to do with religion, even if the protagonists sometimes sought to recruit it to their cause. Even in earlier times, when religion was an all-pervasive feature of life, and war was couched in religious terms, the underlying causes almost always lay elsewhere. The pursuit of peace and reconciliation was also done in the name of religion.
The recent growth of Islamic extremism highlights the connection between religious faith and violence in new and dramatic ways, but to argue it caused by Islam itself is unconvincing and unfair. Different religious groups have lived together harmoniously for centuries in many Middle Eastern countries, and most Muslims are as horrified by the violence perpetuated in the name of their faith as anyone else.
Why violence and war happen is complicated and hard to explain – debates still go on over the causes of the world wars of the last century. Extremist Islamic violence has arisen partly, no doubt, as a result of political and military events in the Middle East, but it can also be understood as a reaction to Western secular materialism, in which individual choice is valued above all else in the search for material well-being, and people struggle to find a sense of personal meaning and identity. This explains the readiness of young Muslims in the West to join the cause. Maybe it is the very absence of religion – John Lennon’s dream – that has spawned an extreme and destructive version of it.
Religion of one kind or another has been a central feature of every human society until very recent times. It seems to meet a fundamental need, holding communities and countries together and providing a coherent moral framework for living. Where traditional forms of religious life have lost their appeal, they have usually been replaced by substitutes of one kind or another, such as political ideologies, nationalism, alternative spiritualities – even shopping and sport! – each with its own equivalent of temples, rituals and creeds. Some of these have proved just as destructive, if not more so, than any religious system of belief.
The real answer to the destructive possibilities in religion is not to eliminate it, but to recognize its significance and value and to prevent it being commandeered by other less worthy causes. There are many examples in history of political leaders recruiting religion for their own purposes. This kind of politicized religion has always been a disaster. Religious faith can also, of course, be used to serve and justify our own personal ambitions and desires.
From a Christian point of view, this means resisting the temptation to mould Jesus in our own image so that he serves our interests, rather than we his, and being alert to attempts by others to distort the call of Jesus so that it becomes a call to follow them instead. Just as important, to refuse to heed the siren calls of those who would call upon us to dream of a life without religious faith. The vacuum thus created will inevitably be filled by something worse.
Peter Shepherd (July 2017)