After the deluge of articles and media comments about the true nature of Islam which were prompted by the events of September 11th, it was a considerable relief to turn to the American satirical news site and find a leading article headed: "Hijackers Surprised To Find Themselves in Hell". In the report which followed, the suicide bombers expressed confusion at finding themselves in the lowest plane of Na'ar, Islam's Hell. "We expected eternal paradise for this," said one of them. What made the piece so refreshing was its happy juggling with theology, its neat demonstration of the manner in which religious belief systems can be used to justify almost any activity or outcome. It was, in other words, a happy antidote to all those pronouncements about how the suicide bombers were or were not acting in accord with the true spirit of Islam. Have we not already learned from several thousand years of conflict that religious beliefs of whatever nature can be used to justify, and indeed bless, almost every kind of bellicosity?

But before we become too smug about the enduring capacity of theological systems to breed hatred of the other and the consequent need for a humanistic perspective, we should pay some sustained attention to the manner in which commentators on the American disaster have persistently contrasted the religious non-materialistic sentiments of the Muslim world with the secular materialism of the West. Although it is not always explicit, there is a persistent tendency to suggest that godlessness is synonymous with the individual pursuit of profit and the consumption of material goods. Even writers who have little sympathy with the content of Islam argue that at least its adherents are displaying a commitment to spirituality that stands in dramatic contrast to our own cultural obsession with getting and spending.

This is, of course, a bogus contrast. The notion that only those who expect to be rewarded for their good works in some form of after-life can absent themselves from here-and-now materialism is a gross slander on the millions of people who devote themselves to all forms of public and charitable service because of their abiding secular belief in the dignity and value of their fellow human beings.

We do live in a society where merit is often conflated with the accumulation of material goods, but there is plenty of hard evidence that the majority of the citizens in this 'godless' society still have firm ethical notions of justice and equity. We dislike the growing gap between the rich and the poor either at home or abroad; we value and respect those who work in the often underpaid public services or who devote their time to humanitarian causes. We may relish individualism in the sense that it allows us to make up our own minds about how we live our lives without instruction from some higher authority, but we remain highly critical of selfishness and egoism.

All of which means that our response to recent events in America must go beyond a resigned 'told you so' reaction to yet another example of the horrors that can be perpetrated in the name of religion. We must actively resist the facile link between secularism and materialism and continue to argue that the best hope for human happiness lies not with either the advocates of rampant here-and-now materialism or the prophets of eternal bliss but with those who treat their fellow human beings with respect and love for no other reason than a recognition of their common humanity.