|Anchor, fish and Chi-Rho symbols, catacombs of St Sebastian|
Had one been living in the mid-sixteenth century when Bloody Mary was on the throne, we would have had to have taken sides in much the same way as we do now. Mary apparently didn't just give her name to a spicy, vodka based cocktail but rather enjoyed watching heretics burn, asserting that it sharpened her appetite, much like the satisfaction Ayatollah Khameini might gain from hearing the news that somebody had finally taken him seriously and beheaded Salman Rushdie for making reference to dubious verses in the Qu'ran alleging that the founder of Islam might have been tempted by an attack of polytheistic fervour.
I found myself reviewing the bloody histories of domination and slaughter that have characterised the adoption of dogma since people first thought that it might be a good idea to worship the Moon. One overarching theme is reprised endlessly, that the prevailing realpolitik demands adherence and loyalty, both of which are satisfied by religious affiliation. I've never really liked the word 'religion' much. It suggests organisation, partisanship and the general notion that if you want to belong to the club, a few trifling personal prejudices, like not believing that wine turns into blood and small wafers metamorphose into corporeal flesh, have to be set aside.
The debate was, unusually, quite good-tempered, Hitchens having perhaps promised himself that he wouldn't use sarcasm, wit and plain ridicule to demolish what would seem to be a very obvious conclusion. Neither did he allow himself to deviate from the central theme - tempting as it might have been to assert with considerable justification that in matters of faith and dogma, most disagreements end up if not with tears before bedtime, more usually massive and senseless slaughter, a principle which, over a broad historical sweep, applies just as well to the behaviour of Hamas and the Holy Roman Church.
If a 'religion' fails to reinvent itself periodically it ossifies and loses touch with the cultural realities into which the march of history inevitably thrusts it. Yes, Islam needs a Reformation, as deep and far-reaching as Europe experienced five centuries ago. After the inevitable blood-letting, it may yet emerge as tolerant, forgiving and merciful as the Allah it worships. Until that time, wars and rumours of wars will continue without much reference to justice and truth.
Under the Eternal City, Rome, the catacombs were hiding places for Christians, and also burial chambers. The anchor is a symbol often found scratched on the ancient stones - both as a disguised cross and a reference to Christ being the anchor of the soul and the promise of eternal life. Some ideas stand the test of time.