Why is religious violence a defining aspect of our century?

The Big Questions (Templeton)

What we're seeing in the 21st century is a series of forces come together to create the perfect storm. One of them, I think, is the hollowing out of values as Western civilisation becomes increasingly secularised.

One of the things that neither science nor technology, or all the market economy or the liberal democratic state, actually do, is answer the three big questions every reflective individual must ask themselves at some time: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?

And religion, as it were, comes to enter and attempt to fill that vacuum.

The second thing happening some way away, in the Middle East, in Africa, and in Asia, is a kind of religious counter-revolution against secular nationalist regimes that have been seen in various countries simply not to have delivered on their promises. And if secularity won't work, goes the theory, let's get back to religion.

Normally this would happen and we would have little conflagrations, local bonfires if you like, this is not a forest fire, but something has happened to turn those little local bonfires into something huge and very threatening. And that something is the appearance of instantaneous global communication, the social networking media that allow very extreme voices to become amplified and to be broadcast across the world and pick up support across the world. This is the challenge of our time.

We are seeing not just climate change in the geographical and environmental sense, but in the spiritual sense. Religion that used to be a gentle breeze has now become a very dangerous hurricane.

So the real question is: what do we do, confronted by a threat of this proportion?

Number one, I think we have to go out to young people and deliver a message of love as powerful as the message being delivered by the preachers of hate. It really has to speak to young people today and we have to use the same social networking, the same technology, as the extremists. And we've got to do it as well and better than they do.

And that's not an impossible challenge because young people are naturally altruistic. They do not want to have to fight. They want to be able to build rather than destroy.

Secondly, we have to share a religious message across a much broader public. We have to make common ground with secular humanists who are equally concerned for the future of our world and its freedoms.

And thirdly, I think we really have to work at friendship and respect across the faiths. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have a fraught and troubled history. I call it a history of ‘sibling rivalry’. The time has now come to move beyond that; brothers and sisters do not have to fight. We can live together in peace.

I have tried to protest against what I see as a fundamental desecration of God's name. How much longer will we kill in the name of the God of Life, wage war in the name of the God of Peace, and practise cruelty in the name of the God of Compassion? We, from all faiths, have to come together and say, this is not the only way. It is not the best way. It is not God's way. And it is not the way that will allow us to build a gracious future together.