From the renowned and best-selling author of A History of God, a sweeping exploration of religion and the history of human violence. With deep learning and sympathetic understanding, Karen Armstrong sets out to discover the truth about religion and violence in each of the world’s great traditions, taking us on an astonishing journey from prehistoric times to the present. While many historians have looked at violence in connection with particular religious manifestations (jihad in Islam or Christianity’s Crusades), Armstrong looks at each faith—not only Christianity and Islam, but also Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Judaism—in its totality over time.
New York Times
Religion has long been a scapegoat for violence and conflict, Karen Armstrong argues.
Just after finishing Karen Armstrong’s new book, I happened to hear a discussion on television about the latest outbreak of violence in the Middle East. “We have to hope that this disagreement stays on the political level, rather than becoming a religious dispute,” one of the experts said. “Political differences can be resolved. Religious ones cannot.”
“Fields of Blood” can be thought of as a long, wide-ranging and overall quite effective rebuttal to the outlook expressed in that comment. “In the West, the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident,” Armstrong says on the book’s first page. It follows that the main hope for peace is to keep faith and statecraft separate.
Armstrong, a onetime Roman Catholic nun and the author of several influential works on religion including “A History of God,” argues that this is an incorrect diagnosis leading to a flawed prescription. The page-by-page detail of the book is much of the reason to read it, but if you reduced its complexities and tangles to their essence, they would amount to these three points:
First, through most of human history, people have chosen to intertwine religion with all their other activities, including, notably, how they are governed. This was “not because ambitious churchmen had ‘mixed up’ two essentially distinct activities,” she says, “but because people wanted to endow everything they did with significance.”
Second, this involvement with politics means that religions have often been tied up with violence: Crusaders, conquistadors, jihadists and many more. But — a point Armstrong cares about so much that she makes it dozens of times — the violence almost always originates with the state and spills over to religion, rather than vice versa. This, she says, is because any governing body, democratic or tyrannical, peace-loving or expansionist, “was obliged to maintain at its heart an institution committed to treachery and violence,” and because “violence and coercion . . . lay at the heart of social existence.” The earliest states required force to maintain systems of agricultural production; mature ones found that the threat of violence — by police within their borders, by armies between them — was, sadly, the best way to keep the peace.
Third, citizens thus face the duty of confronting and trying to control violence carried out in their name by the state, without blaming religion for it or imagining that the solution lies in a cleaner separation of church and state. This extends to understanding the roots of violence or terrorism directed against them: “As an inspiration for terrorism . . . nationalism has been far more productive than religion.” And religions face the dilemma of whether to accept the protection of a state, and the threat of violence that necessarily entails, or to live in hermetic isolation.
Armstrong develops this argument through the interacting evolutions of religion and government from Mesopotamian times onward. She has sections on the rise of Zoroastrianism in Persia, on the Sanskrit-speaking Aryans four millenniums ago in India, on the early formation of the Chinese state — and that is before her multichapter examination of the development of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. She then explores the best-known examples of violence involving each of these faiths, from the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century to the Islamic (and other) extremists of the 21st, including ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. In nearly all cases, she argues, violent impulses that originated elsewhere — with nationalism, struggles for territory, resentment at loss of power — may have presented themselves as “religious” disputes but really had little to do with faith.
I doubt many readers will be able to assess Armstrong’s handling of every bit of this vast saga. Certainly I cannot. But when she touches on areas I do know about, mainly involving the histories of the United States, Japan and China, she seems careful, fair and true. This naturally inclines me to trust her elsewhere.
Apart from its larger argument, the book is packed with little insights and discoveries. For instance, on the “especially psychotic” nature of the First Crusade, about 1,000 years ago: “From all accounts, the Crusaders seemed half-crazed,” she says. “For three years, they had had no normal dealings with the world around them, and prolonged terror and malnutrition made them susceptible to abnormal states of mind.” Armstrong makes the following observation about Jews in the time of Jesus, but it applies to the modern tragedy of Tibet and elsewhere: “Once colonized, a people often depends heavily on their religious practices, over which they still have some control and which recall a time when they had the dignity of freedom.” And through a connection too complex to explain fully here, she traces many of today’s bitter American faith-versus-science disputes on evolution, same-sex rights and climate change to world events a century ago. “Their horrified recoil from the violence of the First World War also led American fundamentalists to veto modern science,” since the science of killing had reached new heights in the Great War.
So convincing is Armstrong’s overall case that I wish she had not tried to make it airtight. Even in episodes that would seem to have some religious element, she is at pains to say that the origins must be seen as wholly political. The Muslim-Hindu violence that followed the end of the Raj and the partition between India and Pakistan? “Muslims and Hindus would both fall prey to the besetting sin of secular nationalism: its inability to tolerate minorities. And because their outlook was still permeated by spirituality, this nationalist bias distorted their traditional religious vision.” The massacre of Muslim Bosnians, by Orthodox Serbians, in the Bosnian war of the early 1990s? “Despite the widespread assumption in the West that . . . the violence was ineradicable because of its strong ‘religious’ element, this communal intolerance was relatively new” — and based, again she argues, on political disagreements. If the Taliban or Islamic State marauders cite their faith as justification for their killing, that is, Armstrong says, a sign not that they’ve spent too much time with the Quran, but too little — and have ignored (among teachings that are as internally contradictory as those of the Old and New Testaments) the many passages exhorting mercy and tolerance. The argument comes right to the edge of tautology in suggesting that if a religion seems to provoke violence, then it’s not properly a religion at all but rather a manifestation of state power.
But only to the edge. Armstrong demonstrates again and again that the great spasms of cruelty and killing through history have had little or no religious overlay. In modern times Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all atheists, and the power behind the Holocaust, Armstrong says, was an ethnic rather than a religious hatred. An overemphasis on religion’s damage can blind people to the nonholy terrors that their states inflict.
I generally end up judging books in two ways: by whether I can remember them and whether they change the way I think about the world. It’s too soon to know about the first test, but on the basis of the second I recommend “Fields of Blood.”
KAREN ARMSTRONG believes that religion “does lots of different things”. It can inspire people to altruism or ruthless cruelty, and can have both effects at different times.
Dissecting this paradox should come naturally to Ms Armstrong. British-born and a former Roman Catholic nun, she has written more than a dozen books on religious history at its broadest, expounding her view that faith is a legitimate, necessary part of human experience, whether or not its claims are true.
In her latest work, “Fields of Blood”, Ms Armstrong does not add to the many existing theories on offer. Instead she presents a vast overview of religious and world history, sketching the early evolution of all global faiths. Then, with giant strokes and plenty of (not totally accurate) detail, she studies the influence of the Christian West on the world over the past 500 years. It is not obvious how all this coheres, until you realise which demons she is fighting.
Ms Armstrong is not trying to prove anything; more to disprove several things. First, the idea that religion is a gratuitous cause of violence, whose elimination would promote peace. And second, the view that Islam is an egregious case of a religion that inspires violence. Her third bogeyman combines the first two: the idea that because the “Christian” West has shed more religious baggage than the Muslim world has, it is a more benign global force and must, therefore, restrain an incorrigibly violent Islam.
All these views exist, so Ms Armstrong has a right to challenge them. As one part of her multi-pronged counter-attack, she denounces violence practised by Western Christians against others, be they native Americans or Indian Muslims. Violence, as she rightly observes, has through history often been legitimised by churches.
In her zeal to play down religion as a cause of war, Ms Armstrong also espouses a kind of technological Marxism. She stresses that certain forms of violence are endemic to conservative agrarian societies, others to industrial societies as they innovate and accumulate. Other sorts of bloodshed occur in transitional periods. The Reformation, she suggests, was a by-product of economic and political change, not a purely religious phenomenon.
Yet another part of Ms Armstrong’s counter-attack stresses the violence which secularist regimes have practised against religion. She empathises with Christian peasants whose faith was assaulted by French revolutionaries or Bolsheviks; and with the humble Muslim in Turkey or Egypt who is horrified by moves to limit the role of religion, whether by indigenous elites or at the behest of foreigners.
Strikingly, she describes the 1981 killing of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, by extremists who later morphed into al-Qaeda, as a response to dislocation caused by his Westernising policies. (She might have considered another view: that Egypt breeds extremism because of its stultifying economic rigidity, in other words the lack of Westernising reform.) As she puts it: “Almost every secularising reform…would begin with an aggressive assault on religious institutions, which would inspire resentment, anomie, distress and, in some cases, a violent riposte.”
Ms Armstrong denounces authoritarian secularism with eloquent passion. The repression of religion, whether by the Bolsheviks or Turkish or Arab leaders, always misfires, she says. The ideologies promoted in its stead assume the worst features of religion—personality cults and intolerance of dissent—without any of its saving graces. But many readers will feel that she also overstates the merits of traditionally religious societies and underestimates their ability to incubate violence, whether domestic or public.
Some of the pathologies of the Muslim world have indeed been exacerbated by Western meddling, from Anglo-French colonialist divide-and-rule to drone attacks on Pakistan. But this language of collective victimhood does not help people (especially women) who are born inside traditionally religious societies, and have to free themselves from the violence, physical or psychological, which they face in their own families and communities.
To be fair, in “Fields of Blood” Ms Armstrong does a good job of explaining why people who are deeply invested in traditional beliefs and social systems feel threatened, and inclined to fight back, when outsiders try to “reform” their attitudes and lives. But that does not mean that old-fashioned theocratic societies are generally healthier, and less conducive to violence, than modern ones.