It is widely accepted that attendance in churches across much of the western world is in terminal decline. Some of the so called happy-clappy churches buck the trend but in the mainstream sects, numbers are dwindling rapidly and especially so among the young. Similarly, many nominal Catholics are no longer prepared to follow many of the churches' doctrines. For example, reproductive rates among Italian women are the lowest in Europe and lower than that necessary to sustain the population. The use of birth control in Italy must be universal unless there has been a sudden infliction of national barrenness. In the United Kingdom many churches have been put into mothballs while alternative uses for them are found. Try going to Evensong a Sunday in the average village church. Such services, once routine, have disappeared.
The decay of Christian practice is not matched in the Islamic world. Religious observance is still the norm. However, even here there are straws in the wind that suggest that all is not well. The recent Egyptian revolution has been followed by an election for president. Two candidates were available for the run-off: a party hack representing the ancien régime and someone from the Muslim Brotherhood. Many educated people in the large cities were dismayed to realise that they could end up under the control of a conservative, theocratic régime. In the Muslim heartlands, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Yemen islam is doing very well and woe betide anyone who choses to question it.
During the past half century a large, Islamic diaspora has established itself throughout Europe, North America and Australasia. Most of its members have clung firmly to their religion. Many reports suggest that Islam is the fastest growing religion in those areas. At the same time, the problem of 'Islamic terrorism' has arisen. After the Twin Towers outrage a decade or so ago, the United States in its infinite unwisdom is waging an unending and probably futile war against terrorism.
The causes of islamic terrorism are many and varied. Many young, dispossessed Muslims fear that their religion is under threat and that its icons: Mohammed, Allah and the Koran are disrespected in the West. Another, important cause is revenge or pay-back for Western imperialism. As late as 1950, almost all of the Muslim world was occupied and controlled by Western countries.
So, in 2012, the West, the seat of Christianity, a religion in sharp decline is ranged alongside the Middle East, much of Africa and Asia where islam holds sway. It could be said that these two major faiths are at war with one another.
The Christian establishment continues to exert great influence in spite the manifest decline among the faithful. The Vatican, whose political skills have enabled it to survive for millennia, shamelessly uses the pulpit to promulgate its views. It interferes in democratic elections by threatening its nominal adherents with excommunication if they do not toe the party line on such matters as abortion, the use of birth control, gay marriage and assisted suicide. Just this week in Australia, the catholic pulpits were inveighing against current proposals to change marriage laws in that country. Yet, recent history reveals that that same Catholic Church has strayed from the paths of righteousness over child sex abuse, perpetrated for decades and its unwillingness to unmask known pedophile priests, preferring to shield the good name of the church rather than provide justice for the abused. The Vatican Bank has been an instrument for money laundering for years and only recently has allowed civil authorities to investigate its affairs. The Vatican is guilty of major tax fraud, refusing to pay tax on its purely commercial operations. Catholic cardinals, archbishops and priests are responsible for countless deaths in East Africa through their refusal to allow HIV/AIDS sufferers to protect their partners from infection by the simple use of condoms.
In the UK, twenty six unelected, Anglican bishops occupy seats in the upper house and are thereby permitted to stick their unwanted oars into any piece of legislation that offends them.
Christian doctrine can be summed up in one word: love. Jesus enjoined his followers to love one another. Popes, past and present along with their henchmen have shown little love for their flocks, choosing instead to place their treasure, reputation and prestige far above the needs and expectations of the sheep.
Two words are necessary to summarise the core Islamic philosophy: peace and justice. How far current, sanctioned practice strays from these ideals is shown by the espousal of violence against ordinary men and women on the streets in the shape of terrorist activities, by its treatment of women: veiling, inferior status in legal matters, disallowing female education and withholding the right to vote. How much peace and justice is shown towards those who are stoned to death for adultery, apostasy, disrespecting the Prophet or blasphemy? Many Muslims regard such practices as repellent but few speak out against them and so by their silence, they assent to them.
Who could argue against the notion of a code of behaviour founded upon ideas of love or on peace and justice. The high priests of Christianity and Islam have lost the plot. They have taken unto themselves the right to interpret the religious doctrines they espouse and to use them to control the laity.
Lastly, there is dispute among learned circles as to the origin of the very word 'religion'. In very early societies every daily occurrence and action was assumed to be something to do with the gods and thus there was no use for a word for religion. Everything was religious. By the time of the Romans, different views prevailed and a word was coined from which the English term 'religion' arose. It seems that the word can be construed to mean placing an obligation upon or to bind. Either meaning implies control and modern practice most certainly emphasises this aspect of religious life: no contraception, no divorce, praying five times daily, adopting certain postures while praying, no female priests, castigating homosexuals, no abortion, no permission to allow the terminally ill to escape by means of assisted suicide, stoning to death of apostates, subjugation of women, genital mutilation of both boys and girls, ostracising those who transgress the rules of the sect, giving money to the priesthood and the list goes on. There is much more about what thou shalt not do than there is about love, peace and justice.
Religion:boon or curse? Out of the hands of the hierarchy and allowed to spread love, peace and justice, what a boon it could be. Tightly controlled by priests, mulhas and other assorted 'holy men', it turns out to be a curse standing in the way of those who might seek comfort by trying to approach the unknowable.