‘Dear God. Save us from those who would believe in you.’ Not long after the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11 last year, those words were sprayed on a wall in New York. Knowing what provoked them, I sense fear of religion in them. Their wit does not dilute the fear, nor does it render its expression less unsettling. To the contrary, it makes the fear more poignant and its justification more evident.
Enough people have been murdered and tortured over the centuries in the name of religion for anyone to have good reason to fear it. Is it, therefore, yet another example of the hyperbole that overwhelmed common sense and sober judgment after September 11 to sense something new in the fear expressed in that graffiti? In part, I think it is. But the thought that makes the fear seem relatively (rather than absolutely) novel is this: perhaps the horrors of religion are not corruptions of religion, but inseparable from it. To put it less strongly, but strongly enough: though there is much in religion that condemns evils committed in its name, none of it has the authority to show that fanatics who murder and torture and dispossess people of their lands necessarily practise false religion or that they believe in false gods. At best (this thought continues), religion is a mixed bag of treasures and horrors.