'Blair must banish religion from public life'

A week after London was hit by a series of bomb blasts, the death cult struck again, unstoppable in its deranged religious mania. This time no deaths but a savage reminder of the unknown waves of demented killers lining up to murder in the name of God.

Whatever they intended, the message was loud and clear: they can and will do this whenever they want and it does indeed spread very real terror.

In the growing fear and anger at what more may be to come, apologists or explainers for these young men can expect short shrift. This is not about poverty, deprivation or cultural dislocation of second-generation immigrants.
There is plenty of that and it is passive. Iraq is the immediate trigger, but this is about religious delusion.

All religions are prone to it, given the right circumstances. How could those who preach the absolute revealed truth of every word of a primitive book not be prone to insanity? There have been sects of killer Christians and indeed the whole of Christendom has been at times bent on wiping out heathens. Jewish zealots in their settlements crazily claim legal rights to land from the Old Testament. Some African Pentecostal churches harbour sects of torturing exorcism and child abuse. Muslims have a long tradition of jihadist slaughter. Sikhs rose up to stop a play that exposed deformities of abuse within their temples. Buddhism too has its sinister wing. See how far-right evangelicals have kidnapped American politics and warped its secular, liberal founding traditions. Intense belief, incantations, secrecy and all-male rituals breed perversions and danger, abusing women and children and infecting young men with frenzy, no matter what the name of the faith.

Enlightenment values are in peril not because these mad beliefs are really growing but because too many rational people seek to appease and understand unreason. Extreme superstition breeds extreme action. Those who believe they alone know the only way, truth and life will always feel justified in doing anything in its name. If religions teach that life after death is better then it is hardly surprising that some crazed followers will believe it.

It is time to get serious about religion—all religion—and draw a firm line between the real world and the world of dreams. Tony Blair has taken the wrong path. He has appeased, prevaricated and pretended, maybe because he is a man of faith himself. But never was it more important to separate the state from all faiths and relegate all religion to the private sphere.

One-time British home secretary David Blunkett said he wished he could spread the ethos of religious schools everywhere and Labour has done just that. The 3% of the population who are Muslim may well feel excluded in a country that makes so many special allowances for Christians. A third of all state-run schools in Britain are religious. The National Secular Society reports that Labour has let 40 more non-religious state secondaries be taken over by the Church of England in the past four years, with another 54 about to go.

The Office for the Schools Adjudicator said in a recent report that the only reason faith schools often achieve better results is because of “their practice of selection from churchgoing families’‘. That attracts the pretend churchgoers, but selection, not religion, is the magic.

In the face of this hypocrisy it seems a small thing to let Muslims have more schools too. Last week the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly announced plans to go ahead in her white paper with more Muslim schools. Bombs, she said, would not stop her policy of offering more “choice’’ and allowing more faith groups to run schools.

So what do we do about the madmen? Bombs do change things, maybe not in the extremists’ favour. A shift in attitude seems to have swept through Muslim groups who signed a full-page newspaper statement last week headed “Not in Our Name’‘. It read: “We will not allow our faith to be hijacked by a few extremists. British Muslims should not be held responsible for the acts of a few individuals.’’ Entirely right. Yet like it or not they are stuck with responsibility for rooting out wild men hiding in their midst and questioning what elements of their religious practice have proven so lethal. But no one can police minds and no new draconian laws to silence thinkers and preachers will ever stop dangerous ideas.

All the state can do is hold on to secular values. It can encourage the moderate, but it must not appease religion. The constitutional absurdity of an established church once seemed an irrelevance, but now it obliges similar privileges to all other faiths. There is still time to stop this madness and separate the state and its schools from all religion. It won’t stop the bombing now, but would not encourage continued school segregation for generations to come. And it might clear the air of the clouds of hypocrisy, twisted thinking and circumlocution whenever a politician mentions religion.—Â