Just Enough Religion to Make Us Hate?

I've always thought it rather ironic that religion, the one thing that should  surely bring humanity together, is so often the tool used to prise us apart.That some of the people who you would hope were preaching universal love and respect for our fellows are instead encouraging mistrust and even hate.

Jonathan Swift, the great Irish writer and satirist of the early 18th century, wrote: "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another."  Actually, as clever a man as Swift was, I don't agree with him. I believe that the vast majority of the planet's population are good people who, when pressed into action, will go out of their way to help people - even complete strangers. There are days it doesn't seem like it, but you only have to read reports of major disasters or during crises to see that it is the case. The people who use religious belief to draw lines of division between us are much the same people who use race, or sexual orientation or even, on a much less dramatic stage, team affiliation to do it. It is not about religious hate. Indeed, it's not really to do with religion at all. It's just about hate.

And, of course, those who seek to spread religious or racial hate are well versed in using tabloid sensationalism and our natural suspicion of what we don't understand to their advantage.
The truth is that the religious extremists that choose to enlist terrorists and fire up hatred represent only the tiniest minority of the believers of any of the world's religions. So there is simply no point blaming religion, or those that practice it, for the evils that human beings do to oneanother. Surely the recent plans of the American preacher to publicly burn Korans on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has taught even the most skeptical among us several important lessons: that any religion is open to manipulation by extremists; that no extremist who calls upon his  supposed beliefs as a reason to commit wicked acts is a true believer of any religion; that an extremist can in no way be accepted as a proper representative of the religion he or she claims to follow; and that true believers of any religion cannot be held to account for the actions of extremists.

It's always bewildered me that anyone should choose to see the differences between themselves and others, when they could look for the similarities. I grew up in a very multicultural area and as a child had friends from many different religious and cultural backgrounds. I attended a Christian Sunday School while many of my friends attended religious schools and services for their own faiths. It was something we had in common, not which divided us. When I went to senior school there were no hymns and prayers of course, but we did have compulsory RE lessons. I had three RE teachers - one of whom was an atheist and taught us about the world's different religions. Ironically, by the time our RE lessons were taught by a born-again Christian, they no longer mentioned God. Instead we discussed moral issues.

Perhaps I was fortunate because my schooling, my parents and my experience taught me to see the person not the label. But I'd like to think that I would have come to this conclusion myself. After all, it's plain common sense (something which often seems sadly lacking if you believe the tabloid headlines) isn't it? 

Whatever the reason, however, I've always been rather encouraged with the idea of coexistence.The theory that God is God no matter what we call him (or her!). That no religion is better or more important than any other. And that being a good person is not reliant on having any religious faith at all, just as being religious is no guarantee of being a good person  After all, those extremists manage some heinous atrocities despite their supposed religious beliefs. Surely that is something we should all remember? Because, whether we believe God is an old man with a white beard, Mother Nature herself or the figment of a fertile imagination, it's our moral compass that guides us, not a book of rules.