[The following is the first version of a book I intend to rewrite and update. Earlier versions of some sections can be found elsewhere on this website.]
Has religion been a bane or a blessing to humankind? In recent years we have seen the very religious-minded President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair lead a cohort of supposedly advanced nations into a horrific aggression against a poor, defenceless, and already brutally mishandled Third World people. We have seen them appeal to God as their judge and indeed as their supporter in this affair. We have heard them and their generals spout biblical language even as tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children were massacred, for no good reason, at their behest.
In the conditions of chaos created by Bush and Blair, we have seen Sunnis and Shi’ites turn on one another savagely, each side full of religious zeal. Religion has seemed impotent to restrain, much less reconcile, the warring factions, nor could the Christian invaders claim any higher moral ground than the local Muslims. God has seemed as bleakly absent as in the tsunami that swept away 300,000 lives on Dec. 26, 2004 – unless God is a God that revels in violence, delighting like the USA in showing his greatness in spectacles that ‘shock and awe’.
Looking at sacred texts such as the Pentateuch or the Bhagavad Gîtâ one could find support for that grisly supposition, for here the divinity uses language worthy of the most bloodthirsty mortals. Is religion then not only useless to prevent war, but an actual source of hatred and bloodshed? Do the worst instincts of humanity find their supreme expression when they clothe themselves in sacred language? Enda McDonagh speaks of ‘The Faith that Sets Free’ (The Furrow, January 2006), meaning God’s faith in humankind. One might risk the further question whether God's faith is troubled or shattered when He observes what humankind has said and done in his name, or even when He reads the sacred texts written in his name.
Still, there are correctives to the ills of religion within religious tradition itself. The Buddhist analysis of evil passions sheds light on the dynamics of violence, tackling the clinging to illusions that lies at the root of it. The philosophy of emptiness issues not in a weary scepticism but in a ripe compassionate wisdom that could bring some aspects of New Testament Christianity into a new perspective.
One place where this wisdom becomes concrete, both religions agree, is in the practice of forgiveness. If, following this hint, one were to subordinate all religious instruction to the creation of a culture of forgiveness, then religion would be at last a balm rather than a bane to humankind.
The noise of petty bickering that fills our churches today gives little hope that Christianity is ready to assume whole-heartedly this role that the times demand of it. Because of the lack of a culture of forgiveness, it is likely that we will fail as ingloriously the next time round as we have in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.