Writing in the Guardian newspaper on July 22, commentator Polly Toynbee called for a defense of "Enlightenment values" against the threat of violence inspired by religious extremism. "If religions teach that life after death is better," she warned, "then it is hardly surprising that some crazed followers will actually believe it."
"It is time now to get serious about religion -- all religion -- and draw a firm line between the real world and the world of dreams," declared Toynbee.
Matthew Parris, writing in the July 23 issue of the Spectator magazine, declared: "What unites an 'extremist' mullah with a Catholic priest or evangelical Protestant minister is actually much more significant and interesting than what divides him from them."
Parris says that the crucial difference between those who are secular and those who are religious is that the latter teach about a new life after death and try to help people have faith. The divisions between religions, such as whether or not they instruct followers to kill innocent people, is of little importance, he argued.
For Muriel Gray, writing in the Scottish newspaper Sunday Herald on July 24, "The cause of all this misery, mayhem, violence, terror and ignorance is of course religion itself." Gray lumped together extremist Islam with "fundamentalist Christian insanity" and described all religion as "Dark Ages nonsense."
"For the government of a secular country such as ours to treat religion as if it had real merit instead of regarding it as a ridiculous anachronism, which education, wisdom and experience can hopefully overcome in time, is one of the most depressing developments of the 21st century," according to Gray.
These sentiments are not new. In the Times newspaper on March 19, long before the London bombings, Sam Harris wrote: "Incompatible religious doctrines have Balkanised our world and these divisions have become a continuous source of bloodshed."
He rejected the idea that such conflicts could be avoided through promoting religious moderation. "In so far as religious moderates attempt to hold on to what is still serviceable in orthodox religion, they close the door to more sophisticated approaches to human happiness," according to Harris.
"If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith," he concluded.
Listening to Catholics
The difficulty for Catholics of following their faith in the midst of a hostile secular world was amply documented in a report released by the bishops' conference of England and Wales. Published on July 18, "A Report of the Findings of Listening 2004: My Family My Church" collects the results of a series of "conversations" held at the diocesan level.
The consultations held last year were designed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the U.N. Year of the Family and, according to the organizers, aimed "to hear what families say about the reality of their lives, their needs and the means by which our church community can offer effective support."
The highest number of responses to the question about difficulties experienced as a family in the world centered on the challenges presented by consumerism, selfishness, materialism and individualism.
Many families noted the harmful influence of the media. The media were often blamed for promoting negative portrayals of families and unrealistic expectations of life. Peer pressure was another difficulty identified for all ages: teen-agers, young adults and families.
Many respondents strongly identified Christian values as a source of strength for family life. Gospel values, prayer, and the support of the parish community were seen as important elements in helping families.
Nevertheless, many also noted that the younger generations lapse from religious practice, a source of grief for many parents. To overcome this problem the report noted that there is a great need for pastors to place more emphasis on family holiness and family spirituality. In fact, the report concluded: "There appeared to be little awareness of the vocational nature of marriage and parenthood or of the specific spirituality of the home (domestic church)."
The report also concluded that after examining the commentaries from many dioceses, "we see a huge need for better communication and deeper understanding of Church teaching in the area of marriage and family life, especially as it applies to real family experience. Families seem to be able to endure hardship if they can make sense of it in spiritual/religious terms and if they can see it as just."
As well, the Church needs to greatly increase the means it offers to parents, so that they can hand on the faith to their children. And the report further recommended a reassessment of the role of young people play in the Church, so that they can feel at home.
Faith in today's world
Benedict XVI recently addressed the challenges facing religion in today's secularized culture. During his vacation in the Italian Alps he took time July 26 to speak to a group of clergy from the local Diocese of Aosta. The Pope said that in the West, particularly Australia and Europe but less so the United States, there seems to be little evidence of the need for God or Christ.
In this climate of rationalism, he said, the scientific mode of looking at things is considered as the only way of really knowing reality, and all the rest is merely subjective. In this way the Christian life is seen as just something not only subjective, but also purely arbitrary.
The Catholic Church is not as seriously affected by this as the mainstream Protestant denominations, which are in deep crisis. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church is also feeling the effects of this tendency, the Holy Father said.
Benedict XVI suggested some ways in which the Church can face up to this difficult situation. It is important to have patience, he said, and to be certain that the world cannot live without God. This means having certainty that Christ is the answer. Without the presence of Christ the world will self-destruct, warned the Pope.
There is already evidence that the attempt by a rationalism that is closed in on itself cannot fulfill its promise of building a better world, he added. The promises made in the cultural changes unleashed in the events of 1968 have not been fulfilled, and in the younger generation there is a growing awareness that there is another reality, more complex, that requires the transformation of our hearts, the Holy Father said. We need, therefore, to have the conviction that God is the Truth and that only by following in his path will we be going in the right direction, he added.
Further, the Pope insisted that we need to build a deep personal relationship with Christ, so that our certainty about him is not based on mere rational considerations. Whether that message impresses the secularists remains to be seen.