Religion Kills.

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence

By Karen Armstrong

You noticed the period in the headline. Empathic, absolute, and irrefutable—at least some would say so. And if you’re referring to Islam, well, factor the number up by 10, 100, you choose.

We’ll get to the point of all this in a second. First, however, consider the consequences of not thinking ideas through; or thinking them through and choosing the mendacious road anyway. For instance, just from the headlines of the past few days, mull over these examples of illogic:

Rudi Giuliani, a fellow who has a particularly skeleton-packed closet, even for a politician, declared: “…I do not believe that the president loves America.” He means the president doesn’t love America as he, Rudi, does, and isn’t praising America enough (though, given the space, citation of such praise by Obama would crowd out the book review to follow).

Lindsay Graham appeared recently on Fox News and exploded in a rant about getting in there on the ground and dealing with those IS, or ISIS, or ISIL radical terrorist murders “before we all get killed back here at home.” Pretty visceral stuff that probably had many Americans hopping out of their easy chairs and rushing off to the local gun store to reinforce their arsenals. In his own rant, Graham cited around a 30,000-person army. Okay, anything is possible, but not everything is probable. And history? Bah, forgetaboutit.

Here’s the thing: we cannot ignore illogical mongering because it influences us, and then stampedes us into actions that are against our best interests. You only have to read American history cursorily to see this time and again (Know Nothings of the 1850s; Red Scare of the late teens and early 1920s; Vietnam; and more before, after, and in-between).

Which brings us back to the book review, which seemed almost forgotten a moment ago. 

By way of introduction, Karen Armstrong, educated at Oxford, is a former Catholic nun who has been for years a respected commentator and writer on religion, with a focus on comparison and commonalities.

On the first page of her dense yet comprehensible and readable new book,  Armstrong states: “In the West the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident.”

Over the next 500 pages of text and notes, traveling back to the beginning of human civilization organized on agrarian foundations, she argues that violence arises from political necessities. Her argument rests on a compelling reading of history, that being the tightly integrated, coherent relationship of religion and authority, religion and government marching hand in hand, until the advent of the true nation states at the approach of the 18th century. Thus, it’s not religion that’s violent; it’s civilization, the entire agglomeration of authority, upper class, the masses, the military. Singling out any part unfairly places the blame for slaughter on one segment. Though, if you did have to name one it would be the state and its dual needs for constant expansion and tight-fisted grip on authority and riches.

Then, by the 18th century, the separation of religion and state as we know it today takes hold. Up until this point, religion imbues every aspect of managing society with the charisma of holy sanctioned action. From the 1700s onward, things change and religion separates from the state, becoming the champion of peace. Religion in the West takes on the personal aspect (in the Protestant sects) we know today. It’s not nearly as simple in the Muslim world, where Islam infuses the lives of believers, yet it’s still true that the religion preaches peace while some misinterpret and exploit the teaching for political purposes.

Of course, the above simplifies and relies upon an understanding based on a single reading. Best to read Armstrong’s argument yourself in total and not just for the theme but also for her survey of early civilization (Sumerian and the like) to the Middle Ages and pre-Enlightenment to modern times, from pagan religions to the big three of today, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. And for multiple recountings of stunning slaughters that jumbled up religion and politics, such as the Thirty Years’ War, resulting in death and devastation equaled only by the Black Death.

While you may not agree entirely with her conclusions, at the least you will take away a new understanding and an ear sharply tuned for the truth about today’s terrorist scourge, which may not be exactly what you see on television or read in papers or on the internet. c/w


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