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                                             Holy Sites and Unholy Rows

                                                                  by A C Grayling


There is only one novelty - but it is a tragic one - about long-running and dangerous disputes such as those over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the site of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, India, and that is that when they take a violent turn, Kalashnikovs and Semtex have superseded more traditional clubs and daggers as the language of the fray. In all other respects the profound inter-religious animosities excited by these ‘holy sites’ - animosities scarcely flattering to the deities allegedly associated with them - are nothing new in the history of human folly.

When the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb demolished Hindu temples and forced conversions to Islam at the point of the sword in late seventeenth-century India, or when the Crusaders invaded medieval Palestine to ‘recover’ Biblical sites for Christendom by force, they were reprising well-established historical patterns. An examination of the religious complexities of ancient Greece, for example, shows that the Olympic pantheon, and the myths explaining the relationships among its members, records the imposition of one set of cults upon another. Thus Zeus, a sky god brought into Greece by northern invaders, conquered the earth gods and especially their queen, Hera. By the time assimilation had done its work, Hera was Zeus’s wife, and the sky-dwelling gods dined regularly with those who lived on and under the ground, at a suitable meeting point halfway between: a mountain peak.

Expert opinion does not now much endorse Frazer's Golden Bough theories, but there is innate plausibility in his account of how Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary has its roots in the great cult of Diana, virgin goddess, whose shrine at Ariccia on the shores of Lake Nemi was the Roman world’s most sacred and popular centre of pilgrimage - it was Lourdes, Delphi, Jerusalem and Ayodhya rolled into one. To seduce worshippers from Diana to Christianity, the Church in its post-Constantine flush of first power took the simple course of informing her votaries that a great secret could at last be revealed to them: that her real name was Mary.

To the secular view, squabbles over supposed ‘holy places’ constitute yet another dispiriting, not to say contemptible, chapter in the long and disgraceful story of superstition, stupidity and collective madness too characteristic of religion and the crushing burdens it imposes on mankind. To votaries of the warring faiths, the anguish of having their holiest symbols and places polluted and blasphemed by unbelievers is immense - a psychological assault so great, indeed, that they are prepared to kill and die to defend them.

The difference between these viewpoints is stark. The secularist longs to liberate mankind from the superstitions that divide and murder. The faithful long to enjoy the treasures of their faith secure from the depredations of others - and, too often, to erase the infamy of the others’ false gods and evil observances, especially if they claim to occupy the very ground on which their own sacred past has its habitation.

Of course the solutions are as simple as they are impracticable. One is to stop brainwashing children into the superstitions of their ancestors, so that they can grow up thinking for themselves. Rather few people would find any religion credible if first offered it for consideration when they are rational adults. (The lonely, the insecure, the frail of heart might always succumb to the easy, comfortable promises of religion in its contemporary disguises; they would not find its more traditional blood-and-thunder forms as tempting; think of, say, seventeenth-century Calvinism.)

An equally obvious and simple solution, and a more likely though still tenuous one, is for different faith groups to learn to live together and share sacred sites. Proof that this can be done lies in the fact that it has been done: ‘ab esse ad posse’, as the philosophers say. Jerusalem is itself a case in point. But of course the risk remains that when other factors - politics, events elsewhere in the world - go wrong, the place tensions are most felt is where there is too great contiguity. The Temple Mount and the site of the Babri mosque are the ultimate in contiguity: the very same pieces of ground, the very soil under the surface, are each the selfsame thing belonging to two different traditions whose claims to them (unlike the thousands of other places in the world where one religion has succeeded another yet adopted the same site) are still acutely alive.

The parenthesis in this last point is important. In the infancy of human understanding, when religion was mankind’s first science and technology - science because it offered explanations of natural phenomena, technology because it offered a means, by prayer and sacrifice, to influence them - certain places came to be deemed sacred, either for their special character or because particularly significant events occurred there. Sacredness implies what is set apart for the use of supernatural agencies and their intercourse with mankind; they acquire importance as the dread locations where communicating with the Gods or drawing down their power, or averting their wrath, seems possible. It is natural therefore that a site sacred in one religion should be taken over by a superseding religion brought by, say, conquerors. It would scarcely be surprising if a dark and dreamy grove on a mountain served as holy to peoples widely separated in historical terms, simply because it has that goose-pimple feel of a place where the murmur of wind-stirred leaves sounds to the credulous, nervous or admiring sensibility like the whispering of angels.

The only thing that can save the Temple Mount and Ayodhya from being excuses for further bloodbaths is if two bold, imaginative and magnanimous leaders arise, one on each side, who agree to put the tortured past behind them. The solutions cannot be particular to the disputed sites; their hope lays in general settlements of the wider tensions. While these persist, the sites themselves are merely running sores on which problems, like flies, accumulate. Putting bandages on them will not cure the larger disease - the sad and perennial disease of religion-inspired hatreds among men. For that, a new world is required.

                                                            From The Heart of Things [2005]


A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford -  and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com

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