We can be certain of one thing in 2004. Unless there is some unimaginable breakthrough, we will see more religiously inspired terrorism. It often seems that we might be better off without religion. A cursory consideration of the crusades and persecutions of Christian history shows that religious violence is not confined to the Islamic world. If the different faiths really are committed to peace and goodwill, why do they inspire such hatred, and why are their scriptures so aggressive?
Religion is the creation of human beings, who are biologically programmed for aggression. We dream of peace but slaughter our own kind, and from the very start our faith systems have reflected this tragic dualism. In the earliest religions, most gods were militant, including Yahweh, worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Humans were able to enjoy security only by fighting other groups, so they assumed there was also perpetual warfare in the divine world, in which the gods opposed the forces of disorder.
The world religions that developed during the first millennium BCE rejected this bellicose theology and preached empathy, compassion, even non-violence. But they all emerged in societies devastated by war, and this pervasive aggression seeped into their new scriptures. Judaism, for example, was born out of the wrenching experience of political annihilation, deportation and exile - a trauma that left its mark on the Hebrew Bible.
Some of the biblical writers responded to the violence in kind. Their God commands Moses and Joshua to massacre all the native inhabitants of the Promised Land. But others spoke of reconciliation and of respect for the stranger. They reminded the people of Israel that God was not reflexively on their side, and their own unjust and irresponsible behavior had contributed to the disaster.
Jesus told his followers to love their enemies, but the New Testament was also affected by the turbulence of Palestine during the first century: the resentment of Roman occupation and escalating tension between Jews and Christians. Later, the emperor Domitian's persecution inspired the vengeful fantasies of the Book of Revelation.
The Koran also reflects the brutal tribal warfare that afflicted Arabia during the early 7th century. For five years, the Muslims were threatened with extermination and had to fight for their lives. The Koran tells Muslims how they should behave on the battlefield, but these militant passages always end with exhortations to reconciliation. Eventually, Muhammad brought peace to the peninsula by adopting an audacious policy of non-violence.
The scriptures all bear scars of their violent begetting, so it is easy for extremists to find texts that seem to give a seal of divine approval to hatred. War affects all aspects of human behavior, so when conflict becomes chronic, it should be no surprise that religion is also infected. This is certainly what happened at the time of the Crusades.
In a similar way, the Christian right today has absorbed the endemic violence in American society: they oppose reform of the gun laws, for example, and support the death penalty. They never quote the Sermon on the Mount but base their xenophobic and aggressive theology on Revelation. Osama bin Laden is as just as selective in his use of scripture. Most of the Muslim extremism that troubles us today is the product of societies that have suffered prolonged, hopeless conflict: the Middle East, Palestine, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kashmir.
Religion, like any human activity, can be abused. You can have bad religion, as you can have bad cooking, bad art and bad sex. From the very beginning, religion got sucked into conflicts that were originally secular. In the past, however, prophets and sages recalled their co-religionists to the prime duty of compassion.
Today, we need religious people to be proactive in reforming their own traditions away from extremism. It is not enough simply to condemn other people's violence. We need bishops, rabbis and imams to search for the seeds of aggression in their own scriptures, admit that their own faith has a history of hatred, and revise bigoted, self-serving textbooks. We should also question the efficacy of the current war against religious terror. By increasing violence in troubled regions, we contribute to the conditions that have always mobilized the faithful in their pernicious holy wars.
· Karen Armstrong is the author of 'A History of God'
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003