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The extraordinary tragedy in Norway points yet again to the dangers of extremism in any religion. 

I find it hard to comprehend that anyone can hold their religious beliefs so strongly that they are driven to carefully plan then systematically kill others.  Yet it seems to happen all to often.

The Norwegian murderer, Anders Behring Breivik, reportedly quotes Sydney's Cardinal Pell, John Howard and Peter Costello in his manifesto.   Breivik apparently sees himself as a Christian Knight on a renewed Crusade to stem the influx of Muslims to Europe; and to Norway in particular.

In certain sectors of the Western media 'Muslim bashing' is reaching a stridency approaching the anti-Jewish vehemence seen over much of Europe and the US in the 1920's.

In the bomb element of this atrocity there are similarities to the McVeigh bombing in Oklahoma City.   In some respects the shooting echoes the many in schools; predominantly by young men who have been marginalised by school communities.  Avenging angels?  Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye

Worldwide there have been more than twenty such school shootings in the past ten years; mostly where hand guns are readily available. Those shooters who left 'manifestos' or engaged in diatribes to others almost invariably expressed a religious or metaphysical motive: 'I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and defenceless people'.  At least one claimed to be acting against:  'immoral behaviour; use of abortion; and atheists'.

Who is to blame?  Clearly young men, and women too, are acquiring these beliefs at someone's knee.  Their parents?  Their teachers; their church; their peer group; a cult; a demagogue; the media?  

That this antagonism to Islam comes from Jews or Christians is in some ways extraordinary and in others simply history repeating itself. 

Islam is simultaneously the logical next step in the evolution of Eastern Christianity and Judaism in the context of the tribal Middle East, and a step back to earlier prophets and intellectual movements in each.  In the Middle Ages Islamic countries were well ordered and largely well run when conditions in Christian Europe were by comparison barbaric.

While unusual modes of dress or religious observance seem to provide a focus for alarm amongst other groups in society much of the conflict appears to be about the acceptance and standing of the law; particularly in developed countries.  Alarm at unfamiliar social customs and clothing is relatively easily overcome; as a visit to India, Turkey or the Middle East quickly teaches.  Similarly migrants to Australia need to get accustomed to topless bathers and outspoken and irreverent conversation. 

The law is a different matter. 

In western democratic countries social conditions began to change very rapidly from the 16th century onwards so that by the 18th century traditional law that once carried the force of religion had been heavily revised by secular courts and the Parliament.  This process has progressed very rapidly as technology and new social structures have evolved.  No longer is the law dictated or even endorsed by religion.  Even those areas until recently considered the last bastions of religious law like the laws around birth, death and marriage are now heavily revised and entirely secular.

For those who elect to come to Australia obeying our secular law is not negotiable; except as a citizen through the Democratic process.

Most Muslims, Christians and Jews are happy with this.  Some are not; and cling to the belief that ancient laws that were allegedly passed down, through the prophets from one or more supreme beings, have legitimacy or even primacy.

This assertion appears to me ridiculous.   When considered in the light of the historical context in which they were composed these laws were transparently authored by men.  But they do still form the basis for religious practice amongst many adherents. 

We have recently had this demonstrated in to outrage generated in Australia by explicit images showing the traditional killing of animals, as still practiced in Islam and Judaism; following the laws set out in the Old Testament.  But in Australia we now regard many Biblical and ancient practices like paedophilia; slavery; torture and human sacrifice to be very serious crimes.  We believe women and girls should be educated and have the same rights as men in respect of property; civil participation; education and professional standing.  We do not regard women as property; or trade them as wives.  We regard a person's sexual orientation and adult consensual practice to be their own affair.  We no longer practice capital or corporal punishment.  We are more likely to celebrate pagan feasts, like mid-winter (summer) and Easter, than those seven specified in the Bible; but we have labour laws that allow holidays for religious observance of all kinds. 

In dozens of ways we regard ancient teachings and laws to be outmoded; inadequate; and sometimes heinous.

In Australia's (as in Finland's) multicultural society we need to find a way around this clash of laws.  We have no established religion and freedom from religious test is one of the handful of personal rights explicitly provided for in our Constitution.  Our secular law attempts to enshrine people's right to live their lives freely; including the right to practice traditional beliefs, or indeed whatever belief they care to take up, provided that they do this within the law of the land and do not do harm to others or restrict their freedom; on the same terms. 

It seems to me that we need to engage all sectors of our society and to encourage discussion and debate about the fundamental realities of each of our perceptions of reality.  In particular we need ethics; philosophy and comparative religion to be discussed and debated in High Schools.

Without such an engagement, with free and open debate, we may well have to live through the same kind of horror that peaceful, and mostly enlightened, Norway has experienced.



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