The distressing decision by fundamental Islamists to immolate themselves (and take a lot of the rest of us with them), in the hope of a promised paradise after death is a major threat to western democracies. Islam of course has its roots in ancient Judaism, but the idea of martyrdom would have been as alien to the old Israelites as it is to us today. The god of the Old Testament promised to reward the faithful with beneficence today rather than glory tomorrow. It was only after centuries of disillusion with this idea, as Israel fell prey to succeeding military empires, that their hopes turned to the next life rather than this one. Jewish martyrdom became fashionable in the last couple of centuries before the Christian era and continued into the first century AD until two wars with Rome and the subsequent Jewish diaspora persuaded the rabbis that perhaps Judaism was about leading a moral life, irrespective of the political environment. Unfortunately, Christianity picked up the banner for martyrdom, as a little later did Islam, and the result has been slaughter and religious conflict ever since. To be fair, in more recent times, most of the endless varieties of Christianity have chosen to eschew religious persecution and Christian martyrs are an extinct species. But Islam has been through no parallel process of civilisation, and martyrdom continues to attract adherents, both in the cause of destroying the infidel, but just as commonly, in the cause of destroying other Moslems who happen to have a different take on what the Prophet intended. It seems a very strange deity that admires and rewards acts of violence, and in my view, merits on that ground alone, disobedience and rejection.
All very depressing, not just for the obvious reasons, but because of what it says about the attitude to life of these religions stemming from Judaism. If God went to all the trouble of making this infinite universe, and creating this very special place called Earth for mankind to live in, surely it was not just as a sort of entrance exam for eternity. He must have had a divine purpose for this life more than just an antechamber to the next one. OK – since Adam and Eve, we have lost the original paradise; but the Israelites did eventually find their way to a land of milk and honey, and the clear implication surely is that God wants them and us to enjoy life to the fullest extent possible in a fallen world. For those of us fortunate enough not to be weighed down with such religious dogma, the issue is even more straightforward. This is the only life we get, so we had better make the most of it. Religious people will argue that without life after death, this life has no meaning, but as many philosophers, much brighter than I, have pointed out, such pessimism is irrational. My enjoyment of an English summer’s day is in no way lessened by the thought that there may be rain tomorrow, so why should it be spoilt by the thought that for me, there may be no tomorrow at all. The fact we are bounded by time, not eternity, is cause for seizing the day, not worrying about the future. And if you want meaning beyond carpe diem, then engage in the great human project of making this world and this life, better. Whether by advancing economic wellbeing by participating in wealth creation, or by seeking ways to reduce suffering in the world, we can all participate in the project and by doing so, affirm the value of our own mortal humanity.