Heracles, son of Zeus, is one of the great heroes of ancient Greek mythology. His most famous feat was to slay the fearsome Hydra, a multi-headed creature whose breath could kill instantly. Even the Hydra’s smell was said to be so poisonous that anyone who approached it died in agony. In his effort to kill the Hydra, Heracles smashed at its heads with his club. However, no sooner had one head been destroyed than two more grew in its place, an expression of the hopelessness of his struggle. Realising that he could never defeat the Hydra alone, Heracles called for help to his charioteer Iolaus, who burned the stump of each head as soon as it was struck off to prevent others growing in its place. In this way Heracles was able to finally cut off all the heads, including the final immortal head, of the Hydra.
In his writings on science and religion, Albert Einstein remarked that while it is not difficult to come to an agreement as to what we mean by science, definitions of religion do not come so readily. Dictionary definitions of religion generally refer to beliefs and practices based upon supernatural and moral claims about reality. Religions differ radically, however, both in their beliefs about the supernatural and in what they profess to be acceptable moral behaviour. Discussions on religion, therefore, often achieve little because the multitude of religions, along with the internal inconsistencies within faiths, means that any assertion can be quickly contradicted. Religion too is a hydra with many heads.
One common characteristic of many religions is the claim that their particular version of supernatural and moral reality is the absolute, unchanging truth as revealed by God. However, as former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway has pointed out, a close reading of history shows that religious ‘truths’ – like cultural values – change over time. Catholic theologian Hans Kung has shown that Christianity, Islam and Judaism, far from being unchanging, have all undergone profound changes in their foundational beliefs. Rather than being a monolithic, unchanging and unalterable code, Kung demonstrates that mainstream Christian belief has adapted to changing circumstances throughout its history and has continuously reinterpreted previous beliefs in the light of new knowledge. The histories of other major religions demonstrate similar evolutionary processes at work. Religious beliefs, like the Earth’s continental plates, are slowly but inexorably moving beneath our feet. And just as evolution by natural selection has resulted in the diversity of animal and plant species in the world today, so the cultural evolution of religious ideas has resulted in a bewildering array of religious beliefs. The diversity of peoples, histories and cultures in the world means that the branches on the tree of religious evolution constitute a richness of human thought, hope and wisdom. Unfortunately they also constitute a litany of violence, prejudice and hate. Alongside the many positive aspects of religion, some features of religious belief, like the heads of the hydra, have breath that can kill.
In the world’s religious texts, alongside numerous quotes about love, we find many exhortations of hate. The Christian Bible tells us that Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.’ (Matthew 5:44) The Bible, however, also recounts that Jesus said, ‘But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.’ (Luke 19:27) In the Koran, the Prophet Muhammed tells us, ‘From morning until night and from night until morning keep your heart free from malice towards anyone.’ But the Prophet also says, ‘Slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them,’ (Koran, 9:5) and ‘Make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites! … Hell shall be their home, an evil fate’ – lines that were used by the September 11 hijackers to prepare for their attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. The Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita tells us, ‘God does not love one living being more than another; he loves all equally. God does not love one religion more than another; he loves all equally.’ However it also says, ‘Killing of a woman, a Shudra or an atheist is not sinful. Woman is an embodiment of the worst desires, hatred, deceit, jealousy and bad character. Women should never be given freedom.’ (Manu IX. 17 and V. 47, 147) The Jewish Torah says, ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.’ (tractate Shabbos 31a), but it also states, ‘Whosoever disobeys the rabbis deserves death.’ (Erubin 21b)
While this mixture of love and hate is not as marked in all the world’s religions – the language of violence is much less prevalent in the Eastern religions of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism – in many religions contradictory beliefs coexist within and between faiths on issues as fundamental as violence, prejudice and inequality. This confusing mix makes any simplistic analysis of religion impossible. Author Sam Harris’s view, for example, that there is ‘much that is wise and consoling and beautiful in our religious books’, can be taken as equally valid as his remark that ‘the Bible and Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish.’ Unfortunately this mix gives religion tremendous power as a propaganda tool in the hands of pathological zealots.
Read about the rise of ISIS here.
 Richard Holloway, ‘The Sixth Paradigm’, available at http://homepages.which.net/~radical.faith/holloway/index.htm
 Sam Harris, The End of Faith, Free Press, 2005:23,35