Is Religion Really the Root of Human Violence?

In a vast survey of human history and religion, Karen Armstrong insists that the link between religion and violence is greatly exaggerated.

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence

Publisher: Anchor
Length: 528 pages
Author: Karen Armstrong
Price: $12.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2015-09

As this review is being written, a leading candidate for the presidency of the United States has declared that, should he be elected, he would initiate “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims" entering the country until such time as Congress can “figure out what’s going on”. Why propose this imperial fiat that completely contradicts the principle of religious tolerance? In other words, what exactly does the candidate believe is “going on”?

The answer would seem to be that recent terrorist attacks in Paris, France and San Bernardino, California indicate that many Muslims harbor terrorist sympathies and an inclination to religiously motivated violence. The candidate apparently assumes that all Muslims are, until proven innocent, guilty by co-religionist association.

The individual in question is, of course, Donald Trump, who shows no signs of retracting his comments despite the media maelstrom they have caused. Whatever else this episode may say about the current state of contemporary American political discourse, it reminds us that the issue of religion and violence, and the potential relationship between the two, is still very much a part of the zeitgeist. For this reason, circumstances add a degree of urgency to Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, now out in paperback, which seeks to understand the relationship between religious conviction and violence across several millennia.

This is important because at first glance it would seem that Fields of Blood has arrived belatedly to a debate that had its heyday approximately ten years ago, when Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris (who collectively dubbed themselves, rather ridiculously, “the four horsemen of atheism”) enjoyed a fairly large public profile decrying religious belief as the root of virtually all human depravity, including mass violence. The ascendancy that the so-called “new atheism” enjoyed in certain circles has not totally passed, but with Hitchens’ death several years ago it seems to have lost a good deal of its panache and polemical energy.

There is an important difference here, though. Where Hitchens and company decried religion in general, recent events remind us that when it comes to determining its role in contemporary society what usually bothers people is other people’s religion. For this reason, it hardly makes sense to talk about “religion” as some abstract concept but, instead, as innumerable particular phenomena manifesting themselves in particular contexts.

For Armstrong, the most important context is the emergence of civilization itself. The opening section of the book is a masterful retrospective in which she makes a convincing case that the seismic changes in human psychology, social organization, and political ideology caused by the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to settled farming communities are at the heart of the relationship between religion and violence. Specifically, agriculture led to the creation of the state, which introduced new and difficult dynamics into the human experience—which, in turn, led to violence motivated by ideology and political grievance. This was so because while civilization made possible all kinds of human flourishing it also introduced a host of complex problems unknown to our nomadic forebearers—among them radical social and financial inequality in place of relative egalitarianism, ruthless political domination of some social groups over others, coordinated labor undertaken on a large scale (in, for example, agriculture capable of creating a food surplus) and, not least, warfare and empire building led by a distinctive warrior class constituted of predatory aristocrats who believed manual labor was beneath them.

Clearly, Armstrong is working with a timeline and historical scope utterly foreign to the 24-hour news cycle, but she's an excellent synthesist and moves easily and convincingly through huge swathes of historical and geographic territory, often drawing on the work of specialist scholars. Yet for all of the diversity of local subjects, a single comprehensive argument pervades the work. Religion has served two main, not easily reconcilable functions: to underwrite and endorse the prevailing social order (often by asserting that it corresponds to a transcendent cosmography); to critique the prevailing social order and present alternative values to those that give rise to the difficulty and cruelty of daily life.

Basically, in Armstrong’s view, religion has often sounded a note of protest, at the very least served as a kind of palliative for the ills of human existence, only eventually to be assimilated into the state machine and made to serve its ends—though never quite entirely. The religious violence we see is often political violence that justifies itself via claims of some version of divine authority. Armstrong fleshes out this claim by progressing through the world’s major religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and, finally, Islam—and demonstrating how their original counter-cultural aims have been compromised or even entirely deformed.

Each case is too complex to summarize here (at 528 factually dense pages Fields of Blood is hardly a quick read), but at the very least Armstrong successfully proves the ridiculousness of the broad anti-religious sentiment of Hitchens and his ilk. Religion is simply too complex a part of human experience to be categorically dismissed as all bad. Moreover, while human beings have used religion to justify violence time and again, the impulse to violence hardly has its source there. Contra John Lennon’s saccharine “Imagine”, belief that without concepts of the divine people would simply live in easy and spontaneous harmony with one another is simply absurd.

Does this mean that Armstrong is always convincing? No for, it must be noted, she sometimes strays into the realm of apologetic rather than impartial analysis (this seems more prevalently the case in the several chapters on Islam, which is likely to raise the ire of critics, including Bill Maher, of Armstrong who have accused her of glossing over the problem of terrorism perpetuated by “radical Islam”). Moreover, the volume tends to assert that genuine or “true” religion is that which adds to the well-being of human beings and inculcates positive values and that only false religion is the source of animosity, hostility, intolerance, and so on. This may or may not be the case but in the end there is no absolute standard for determining what constitutes genuine religion.

Still, Fields of Blood is a substantive and important book, which means it is exactly the sort of work that our contemporary media culture, and a certain would-be US president, will largely ignore—which is a loss for believers and unbelievers alike.





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