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Religion and the History of Violence

Karen Armstrong


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.

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