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karen armstrong's

reviewed by



Appleby is the author of The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation (Rowman & Littlefield 2000) and Church and Age Unite! The Modernist Impulse in American Catholicism (Notre Dame 1992). This review originally appeared in The Tablet.

It’s not only the New Atheists who take this assertion as an article of faith (though perhaps they have been the most assiduous in using it as a self-marketing strategy). Scanning today’s headlines, replete with horror stories about the butchers of IS, the kidnappers of Boko Haram, the murderous Christian militias of the Central African Republic, and the anti-Muslim Buddhist rioters of Burma, it’s difficult to avoid the suspicion that they might be right. At least since the rise of the Iranian ayatollahs in the late 1970s, religious fundamentalists have elbowed their way into the front ranks of perpetrators of ghastly and largely indiscriminate acts of inhumanity. In response, secular fundamentalists have demonized religion more generally, and even observers with no particular axe to grind have been led to wonder if there might not be an ugly link between religion and violence.

In her new book, Fields of Blood, the prolific public intellectual Karen Armstrong seeks to debunk this “myth of religious violence,” a term she borrows from the theologian William Cavanaugh. “In the West, the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident,” Armstrong declares in the opening passage. But positing the “essential belligerence” of religion is both ahistorical and counterproductive, she continues. Modern society “has made a scapegoat of faith,” thereby obscuring and thus partly exonerating the far more massive crimes of modern secular states and armies, while also defaming the majority of religious believers who work for tolerance, justice and peace by nonviolent means.

On the face of it, her argument is incontestable. According to The Encyclopedia of Wars, of the 1,763 major conflicts in recorded history, only 123 of them were classified as having been fought over religious differences. That's just under seven per cent. Armstrong’s survey of four millennia of organized violence with religious overtones, characteristically eloquent and instructive, aspires to put historical flesh on the bare bones of these facts. She ranges from the structural violence embedded in ancient Sumerian society by the aristocrats and astrologists of the day to the atrocities committed by the Taliban. As her many faithful readers know, Armstrong is an accomplished synthesist of academic research on religion. It looks easy – until you try to do it yourself. She has a flair for the dramatic turn of phrase that succinctly makes her point. Here’s her fresh twist on the familiar metaphor of the scapegoat driven into the desert for the sins of the wider community: “In some societies attempting to find their way to modernity, [secularism] has succeeded only in damaging religion and wounding psyches of people unprepared to be wrenched from ways of living and understanding that has always supported them. Licking its wounds in the desert, the scapegoat, with its festering resentment, has rebounded on the city that drove it out.”

There is a fly in the ointment, however. Armstrong is not alone in struggling to give religious complexity its due without reinforcing the very myth – religion is all about revenge, expiation and other forms of bloodletting – that needs debunking. She is a popularizer in the best sense, and it’s hard to blame her, but something like Religion and Murder: a complicated relationship would have been a more accurate title than the eye-catching but unhelpful Fields of Blood. A much more serious problem lies with the theoretical scaffolding she uses to support her historical narratives. Not quite up to the job, it leads Armstrong to a self-contradictory interpretive stance. Following Cavanaugh, she argues that religion only became functionally separated from the state (and from other dimensions of social and political life) with the onset of modernity in the sixteenth century. Only at this point could religion be seen as an independent variable, eligible for scapegoating as a cause of violence in itself. Like Cavanaugh, however, she falls into the trap of accepting this (imposed, artificial, legal) dichotomy – religion vs politics, religion vs statecraft, etc. – as if it accurately describes the actual relationship between violence and the sacred. It does not, as is demonstrated by virtually every modern episode she describes.

Armstrong looks at several concrete examples of violent historical episodes with presumed religious roots. Her accounts labour to minimize or elide altogether the religious dimension. So, for example, she presents the Spanish Inquisition, the American Civil War, and the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as essentially socio-political events with a thin religious varnish. This was almost exactly the way some western diplomats and analysts described the Iranian revolution in 1979. The assumption seemed to be: “These successful revolutionaries can’t really be religious zealots, for they have mundane economic and political goals and effective means of attaining them.”

The very posing of the question, “Which is to blame, religion or the nation state?” misses the fundamental reality of our modern situation. With very few exceptions, religion, culture, politics and economics remain intertwined, mutually constitutive, inseparable in fact if not in theory. Modern violence, like pre-modern violence, is the province of neither political or military rulers alone, nor of zealots or religious leaders alone. As Armstrong herself recognizes, the religious and the secular are relatively recent inventions. They describe different objects of worship (God or the nation) – but not necessarily different sorts of behaviour. Extremists of both kinds consider violence their sacred duty. The Muslim Brotherhood, the Confederate Soldiers (devotees of the Religion of the Lost Cause) and even the jihadists seeking to establish a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, are neither purely secular nor purely religious.

Regrettably, perhaps, we are all hybrids. And we are all awash in ‘fields of blood.’ Karen Armstrong’s engaging new book makes that case eloquently, its interpretive confusions notwithstanding.



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