The fervour of religion

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 May, 2006, 12:00am

Bookshops are among my favourite places, especially when I'm stuck in an airport. At Changi Airport in Singapore recently, I noticed a curious phenomenon - Dan Brown's blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code, which has sold 50 million copies in more than 40 languages, has spawned a major industry. On a special display, I counted 20 titles all linked to his success, including Secrets of Judas, Holy Grail, Holy Blood, The Magdalene Cipher, and The Secret Supper.

Time magazine reports that 44 books have been published refuting Brown's novel. They range from reasonably learned tracts, to conspiracy rants and pure fantasy. Does this represent a return to religion, or are these just clever marketing tools to entertain and worship Mammon? Both, I think. God sells, and always has.

Half of America's pastors have planned an organised response to The Da Vinci Code, such is their concern. A British poll reveals that two-thirds of the book's readers believe Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene, and 36 per cent think the Catholic Church is involved in a conspiracy. The movie's producers expect their blockbuster to do well in India, China, Japan and the Arab world, that is, the non-Christian world.

But something else is happening. Most best-selling book lists published in the west include the latest view of Islam - books like What Went Wrong? by the scholar Bernard Lewis, which Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf countered with What's Right With Islam.

After September 11, Iraq, and the much-vaunted theory of the clash of civilisations, there is a deep, profound and important impulse of many in the west to try to understand Islam. This is an answer to US President George W. Bush's lament after the twin towers tragedy: 'Why do they hate us?'

All this is healthy as we try to come to terms with our differences and make sense of what seems senseless.

All the great faiths have common themes. Confucius said: 'Do not do unto others what thou wouldst not they should do unto thee'; Jesus of Nazareth said: 'Do unto others as you would have others do unto you'; in Islam: 'None of you is a believer as long as he does not wish his brother what he wishes himself'; in Buddhism: 'How can I impose on another a state which is not pleasant or enjoyable for me?'; and in Hinduism: 'One should not behave towards others in a way which is unpleasant for oneself'.

Abraham is the common father of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Jesus is a powerful prophet in the Muslim faith. Indeed, a fascinating book, The Muslim Jesus, writes explicitly of the convergences between Jesus' teachings and those of the Prophet Mohammed.

Many critics say the church and religion are now irrelevant. If that is so, why do they spend so much time attacking religion?

The industry surrounding The Da Vinci Code shows that people everywhere are still posing the earliest and most profound of all questions: Is there more to life than this?

But remember, it's just a novel.

Mike Moore is a former prime minister of New Zealand and was director-general of the World Trade Organisation