“Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” by Karen Armstrong (Alfred A. Knopf, 401 pages, $30)
How much blame should religion incur for all the violence committed throughout human history?
“The answer is not as simple as much of our popular discourse would suggest,” asserts Karen Armstrong, a British author whose previous books about religion include “A History of God,” “The Case for God” and “The Great Transformation.”
Coming to grips with Armstrong’s views about religion in her latest book, just as with her previous ones, isn’t an easy task. A former Roman Catholic religious sister, Armstrong has been called “a prominent and prolific religious historian,” while others criticize her as a “pop theologian” whose statements of fact about religion and history are often questionable.
These polar opposite descriptions of her immediately raise a caution flag when reading her latest tome on religion and violence. Nonetheless, Armstrong charges ahead in “Fields of Blood” to take on the challenge of disproving conventional wisdom that says “religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.”
The topic of religion and violence is particularly compelling in recent years with countless examples of extreme brutality often committed in the name of religion. To set the stage for decoupling the two, she provides historical background about the use of violence in various cultures.
Starting with the third millennium BCE in southern Iraq with Gilgamesh, a warring Sumerian king who ruled in what she says is the world’s first civilization, Armstrong traces the roots of discontent in which agricultural surplus created a privileged ruling class. That domination could have been achieved only by force, she says. And what was religion’s role?
“All political communities developed ideologies that ground their institutions in the natural order as they perceive it,” she says. Because the cosmic gods were inseparable from the forces of nature, the political arrangements of their society imitated their gods. Thus, a god who controlled the harvest in one area, for example, had to be defeated so that the conquerors could reap the benefits.
“Premodern religion had no separate institutional existence,” she says. “It was embedded in the political, social, and domestic arrangements of a society, providing it with an overarching system of meaning.” In other words, religion defined today as a separate category from nature and society, does not equate with how ancient peoples understood the sacred in their societies.
As Armstrong explains, civilization is the story of one group confiscating resources and land from another by force, whether it was the Sumerians, Indo-Europeans or their posterity – Hittites, Celts, Greeks, Romans, Germans, Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons. “Religious mythology may have endorsed their structural and martial violence, but it also regularly called it into question,” she says, underscoring the duality of how religion was understood and expressed.
Armstrong recounts the history of those on the Indian subcontinent and the subsequent development of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist traditions. While their writings often glorified warfare, she writes, they also “helped people to confront tragedy and even devised ways of extirpating aggression from the psyche, pioneering ways for people to live together without any violence at all.”
Moving through this period, Armstrong then focuses most of her attention on the three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each has a history of engaging in violence, both initiated by its adherents as well as endured by them. Armstrong traces their genesis and development on the basis of historical-critical methodologies. As a result, her conclusions based solely on historical science often are at odds with scholars who contend that the revelatory nature of God is central to understanding a religion.
Armstrong outlines in detail the history of each religion to explain how violence was both perpetrated and mollified through the centuries by a religion’s teachings and adherents. “In religious history,” she writes, “the struggle for peace has been just as important as the holy war.”
The rise of the secular as distinct from anything religious in the 19th and 20th centuries sought to provide a check on religion’s influence in public institutions and to limit what some saw as its controlling and aggressive nature. That effort was shattered by World War I, which was fueled by secular, not religious forces. The War to end all wars, Armstrong says, “heralded a century of unprecedented slaughter and genocide that was inspired not by religion as people had come to know it but by an equally commanding notion of the sacred: men fought for power, glory, scarce resources, and above all, their nation.”
What soon would follow was a pushback by those who felt their religious beliefs and activities were being suppressed. Whether it was the rise of the Moral Majority in this country, or the Islamic revolution in Iran by Muslims, trying to confine religion to the private sector was bound to fail. Sept. 11, 2001, and its aftermath highlight how there have always been those who have used religion in violent ways for corrupted ends to extend their reach.
So, is violence endemic to religion? Armstrong offers a cautious “no.” When it comes to violence, she says, “the problem lies not in the multifaceted activity that we call ‘religion’ but in the violence embedded in our human nature and the nature of the state, which from the start required the forcible subjugation of at least 90 percent of the population.”
“Fields of Blood” requires at least a basic knowledge of world religions as well as a critical eye for detail. That said, Armstrong’s massive work will undoubtedly inform the careful reader about one of the timeliest and most challenging issues in our world today.
Tom Schaefer is a former columnist and religion editor for The Eagle. He lives in Wichita.