A well-known preacher was kept waiting outside the pearly gates while his credentials were checked on the celestial database. A rascal he knew knocked on the holy doors. He was admitted right away. Enraged, the preacher demanded to know why he, a prince of the pulpit, was kept waiting while a mere bus driver got in right away. ''Because the bus driver put the fear of God into more people than you ever did,'' was Saint Peter's laconic reply.

On this criterion, Saddam Hussein and George W Bush will have reserved seats in the upper chamber. The stand-off has helped push the sales of religious books through the roof. Bibles, Korans, and books of prophecy about the end of the world have been flying off the shelves as if there were no tomorrow, so to speak. Saddam and Georgie boy will soon have produced more converts than Saint Paul and Billy Graham.

Historically, religions have flourished in times of uncertainty and fear. Now that the biggest superpower in history, equipped with a fearsome array of weapons of mass destruction, has started reshaping the world in its image - Iran is reputedly next on the hit list - the foundations of global order are being shaken. As new martyrs are made daily and apocalyptic shadows lengthen, we are, in Matthew Arnold's words, ''swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight''.

It's understandable, then, that people reach for religious books as they attempt to make sense of the world. But is religion part of the solution, or a restatement of the problem? Both. At its best, religion provides illumination, inspiration, and generosity. At its worst, it poisons the wellsprings of human life. Allah was invoked by the terrorists who flew the fated planes into the twin towers. Wearing a white hat, George W Bush calls upon his pal, Yahweh, to help him defeat the ''axis of evil'', as it is defined in the whiter than White House. The thought that America might have drawn hatred to itself not because of its biblical righteousness but because of its domineering approach to much of the rest of the world is not given house room.

It's worth looking more closely at some of the new literature. Much of it makes the hair stand on end. The big rise in the sales of religious books is

largely attributable to the Left Behind series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. It has sold an incredible 50 million copies since the first of its 12 volumes appeared in 1995. There are also comic-book versions, and editions for children. Its dodgy, pseudo-biblical theology is junk food for the mind. It is Nostradamus without the charm.

The material is based on the tired work of nineteenth-century English cleric J N Darby, who cobbled together disparate biblical prophecies and turned them into an influential system with the snappy title ''pre-millennial dispensationalism''. Left Behind presents the United Nations as a satanic world government - a popular theme on the American religious right. These same Christian right-wingers believe that Israel is entitled to fill the west bank with settlers, and that Jerusalem must be controlled exclusively by Israel. End of story.

Paul S Boyer, professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, points out that when Bush portrays Saddam as a demonic, quasi-supernatural figure, he is echoing the rhetoric of the religious right. What is worrying is that what was once freaky is becoming mainstream. The fact that such material is quoted in the upper echelons of the US

government is something to frighten the apocalyptic horses.

According to recent polls, more than 30% of all Americans believe that Bible prophecies, torn from their historical context, provide a predictable sequence of end-time events. Today, for instance, Saddam Hussein is seen as a harbinger of the antichrist, and getting rid of him is in the divine endgame. The assumptions are part of the ''born-again'' culture which George W Bush and many of his key operatives inhabit.

Tonight, in Renfield St Stephen's church in Glasgow, two good men - one a Jew and the other a Palestinian Christian - will talk quietly but passionately about peace in the land called Holy. Bernard Wasserstein, professor of modern history at Glasgow University, is the author of Israel and Palestine: Why They Fight, and Can They Stop? and Raja Shehadeh, has written When the Bulbul Stopped Singing: A Diary of Ramallah Under Siege. Both thoughtful, excellent books, published this week by Profile Books, are an outstanding contribution to understanding the Middle East conflict. Now this is nourishing literature.

Will it ever be possible to produce a workable, enforceable plan which makes room for a Palestinian state and a secure, acknowledged, Israel? It should not be beyond the wit of human beings to achieve a just solution, despite all the complexities. But we may have to abandon religion, so that religion may flourish.

The expansion in the sale of religious books is not universally good news: it's time for some destructive religious baggage to be Left Behind. If not - now here's a fruitful scriptural phrase - the sins of the fathers may be visited on future generations.