Karen Armstrong, one of our preeminent scholars of religion, opens Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence by observing that during her speaking tours, she constantly encounters people who assert that "religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history." She closes the book by insisting that when "people claim that religion has been responsible for more war, oppression, and suffering than any other human institution, one has to ask, 'More than what?' " Between those two statements is nothing less than a tour of the whole of human history, from ancient times to the present, establishing the political, social, and economic dimensions of warfare and demonstrating that for much of history, the notion of "religious war" would have been an anachronism, if not a tautology.
Armstrong, as ever, writes lucidly and elegantly, but a work of such massive sweep will inevitably feel superficial in parts. As the author, best known for A History of God and The Case for God, blazes her way through ancient Mesopotamia, India, China, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and beyond, the information pileup can be dizzying. Still, her argument in the early chapters is clear. She demonstrates that for most of human existence, up until the Enlightenment, religion was thoroughly embedded in society in a way that's foreign to us today; "dissociating them would have seemed like trying to extract the gin from a cocktail," Armstrong writes. To the extent that war had a religious element, every other human pursuit did, too, as people strove to imbue their lives with meaning.
While religion was woven into political and economic arrangements, politics and economics in turn influenced the development of religion. Take Christianity, for instance. Constantine's conversion in the fourth century made him the first Christian emperor, but the rise of Christianity did not turn Rome into the peaceful utopia its followers expected. "It was clearly easier to imperialize the faith than to Christianize the empire," notes Armstrong of the ensuing persecution of pagans. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all "began with a defiant rejection of inequity and systemic violence," she observes later, "yet this militated against the way Western society was heading." Armstrong looks at conflicts that we reflexively regard as religiously inspired from the Crusades to the Inquisition to the Thirty Years' War and shows how they resulted as well from complex political struggles. (She also, of course, mentions the many devastating conflagrations of the modern age in which religion did not play the primary role, among them the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and most of the genocides of the twentieth century.)
As the book made its way to more recent history, I found myself turning the pages expectantly, as though I were at last arriving at the main event. And indeed, in its final chapters, dealing with the roots of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the wars that have been waged since, Fields of Blood begins to feel more urgent. One of Armstrong's themes is that rapid change often leads to violence, and she notes that in the Muslim world, "modernity arrived as colonial subjugation," imposed from without rather than developing organically from within. Muslim fundamentalism "has often though again, not always segued into physical aggression . . . because Muslims had a much harsher introduction to modernity," she argues.
Armstrong has sparred with critics like biologist Richard Dawkins, who insists of terrorism that "only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people." She counters that nationalism, which often has a quasi-religious quality, has inspired a great deal of the violence of our secularized age and maintains that terrorism is "fundamentally and inherently political," even when religion is implicated. She cites a trove of research to broaden our beliefs about Islamic terrorism. Forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman has found that most terrorists are motivated not by religious fervor but by the desire to escape feelings of insignificance and achieve glory in heroic death. He's also found that most of the 9/11 terrorists were either secular before they joined al-Qaeda or were recent converts to Islam, concluding that perhaps "the problem was not Islam but ignorance of Islam."
The fact that the 9/11 terrorists claimed a religious cause, though, no matter how distorted, certainly contributes to the persistence of the link between religion and violence in the popular imagination. But by the end of the book, when Armstrong poses her question Religion has been responsible for more war than what? she's provided enough other causes, from imperial ambition and greed to ethnic hatreds and secular nationalism to at least unsettle such simplistic formulations.
Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.
Reviewer: Barbara Spindel
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Fields of Blood
Religion and the History of Violence
By Karen Armstrong
Random House LLC Copyright © 2014 Karen Armstrong
All rights reserved.
Every year in ancient Israel the high priest brought two goats into the Jerusalem temple on the Day of Atonement. He sacrificed one to expiate the sins of the community and then laid his hands on the other, transferring all the people's misdeeds onto its head, and sent the sin-laden animal out of the city, literally placing the blame elsewhere. In this way, Moses explained, "the goat will bear all their faults away with it into a desert place." In his classic study of religion and violence, René Girard argued that the scapegoat ritual defused rivalries among groups within the community. In a similar way, I believe, modern society has made a scapegoat of faith.
In the West the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident. As one who speaks on religion, I constantly hear how cruel and aggressive it has been, a view that, eerily, is expressed in the same way almost every time: "Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history." I have heard this sentence recited like a mantra by American commentators and psychiatrists, London taxi drivers and Oxford academics. It is an odd remark. Obviously the two world wars were not fought on account of religion. When they discuss the reasons people go to war, military historians acknowledge that many interrelated social, material, and ideological factors are involved, one of the chief being competition for scarce resources. Experts on political violence or terrorism also insist that people commit atrocities for a complex range of reasons. Yet so indelible is the aggressive image of religious faith in our secular consciousness that we routinely load the violent sins of the twentieth century onto the back of "religion" and drive it out into the political wilderness.
Even those who admit that religion has not been responsible for all the violence and warfare of the human race still take its essential belligerence for granted. They claim that "monotheism" is especially intolerant and that once people believe that "God" is on their side, compromise becomes impossible. They cite the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Wars of Religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They also point to the recent spate of terrorism committed in the name of religion to prove that Islam is particularly aggressive. If I mention Buddhist non- violence, they retort that Buddhism is a secular philosophy, not a religion. Here we come to the heart of the problem. Buddhism is certainly not a religion as this word has been understood in the West since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But our modern Western conception of "religion" is idiosyncratic and eccentric. No other cultural tradition has anything like it, and even premodern European Christians would have found it reductive and alien. In fact, it complicates any attempt to pronounce on religion's propensity to violence.
To complicate things still further, for about fifty years now it has been clear in the academy that there is no universal way to define religion. In the West we see "religion" as a coherent system of obligatory beliefs, institutions, and rituals, centering on a supernatural God, whose practice is essentially private and hermetically sealed off from all "secular" activities. But words in other languages that we translate as "religion" almost invariably refer to something larger, vaguer, and more encompassing. The Arabic din signifies an entire way of life. The Sanskrit dharma is also "a 'total' concept, untranslatable, which covers law, justice, morals, and social life." The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: "No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English 'religion' or 'religious.'" The idea of religion as an essentially personal and systematic pursuit was entirely absent from classical Greece, Japan, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, China, and India. Nor does the Hebrew Bible have any abstract concept of religion; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to express what they meant by faith in a single word or even in a formula, since the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred.
The origins of the Latin religio are obscure. It was not "a great objective something" but had imprecise connotations of obligation and taboo; to say that a cultic observance, a family propriety, or keeping an oath was religio for you meant that it was incumbent on you to do it. The word acquired an important new meaning among early Christian theologians: an attitude of reverence toward God and the universe as a whole. For Saint Augustine (c. 354–430 CE), religio was neither a system of rituals and doctrines nor a historical institutionalized tradition but a personal encounter with the transcendence that we call God as well as the bond that unites us to the divine and to one another. In medieval Europe, religio came to refer to the monastic life and distinguished the monk from the "secular" priest, someone who lived and worked in the world (saeculum).
The only faith tradition that does fit the modern Western notion of religion as something codified and private is Protestant Christianity, which, like religion in this sense of the word, is also a product of the early modern period. At this time Europeans and Americans had begun to separate religion and politics, because they assumed, not altogether accurately, that the theological squabbles of the Reformation had been entirely responsible for the Thirty Years' War. The conviction that religion must be rigorously excluded from political life has been called the charter myth of the sovereign nation-state. The philosophers and statesmen who pioneered this dogma believed that they were returning to a more satisfactory state of affairs that had existed before ambitious Catholic clerics had confused two utterly distinct realms. But in fact their secular ideology was as radical an innovation as the modern market economy that the West was concurrently devising. To non-Westerners, who had not been through this particular modernizing process, both these innovations would seem unnatural and even incomprehensible. The habit of separating religion and politics is now so routine in the West that it is difficult for us to appreciate how thoroughly the two co-inhered in the past. It was never simply a question of the state "using" religion; the two were indivisible. Dissociating them would have seemed like trying to ex- tract the gin from a cocktail.
In the premodern world, religion permeated all aspects of life. We shall see that a host of activities now considered mundane were experienced as deeply sacred: forest clearing, hunting, football matches, dice games, astronomy, farming, state building, tugs-of-war, town planning, commerce, imbibing strong drink, and, most particularly, warfare. Ancient peoples would have found it impossible to see where "religion" ended and "politics" began. This was not because they were too stupid to understand the distinction but because they wanted to invest every- thing they did with ultimate value. We are meaning-seeking creatures and, unlike other animals, fall very easily into despair if we fail to make sense of our lives. We find the prospect of our inevitable extinction hard to bear. We are troubled by natural disasters and human cruelty and are acutely aware of our physical and psychological frailty. We find it astonishing that we are here at all and want to know why. We also have a great capacity for wonder. Ancient philosophies were entranced by the order of the cosmos; they marveled at the mysterious power that kept the heavenly bodies in their orbits and the seas within bounds and that ensured that the earth regularly came to life again after the dearth of winter, and they longed to participate in this richer and more permanent existence.
They expressed this yearning in terms of what is known as the perennial philosophy, so called because it was present, in some form, in most premodern cultures. Every single person, object, or experience was seen as a replica, a pale shadow, of a reality that was stronger and more enduring than anything in their ordinary experience but that they only glimpsed in visionary moments or in dreams. By ritually imitating what they understood to be the gestures and actions of their celestial alter egos—whether gods, ancestors, or culture heroes—premodern folk felt themselves to be caught up in their larger dimension of being. We humans are profoundly artificial and tend naturally toward archetypes and paradigms. We constantly strive to improve on nature or approximate to an ideal that transcends the day-to-day. Even our contemporary cult of celebrity can be understood as an expression of our reverence for and yearning to emulate models of "superhumanity." Feeling ourselves connected to such extraordinary realities satisfies an essential craving. It touches us within, lifts us momentarily beyond ourselves, so that we seem to inhabit our humanity more fully than usual and feel in touch with the deeper currents of life. If we no longer find this experience in a church or temple, we seek it in art, a musical concert, sex, drugs— or warfare. What this last may have to do with these other moments of transport may not be so obvious, but it is one of the oldest triggers of ecstatic experience. To understand why, it will be helpful to consider the development of our neuroanatomy.
Each of us has not one but three brains that coexist uneasily. In the deepest recess of our gray matter we have an "old brain" that we inherited from the reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime 500 million years ago. Intent on their own survival, with absolutely no altruistic impulses, these creatures were solely motivated by mechanisms urging them to feed, fight, flee (when necessary), and reproduce. Those best equipped to compete mercilessly for food, ward off any threat, dominate territory, and seek safety naturally passed along their genes, so these self- centered impulses could only intensify. But sometime after mammals appeared, they evolved what neuroscientists call the limbic system, perhaps about 120 million years ago. Formed over the core brain derived from the reptiles, the limbic system motivated all sorts of new behaviors, including the protection and nurture of young as well as the formation of alliances with other individuals that were invaluable in the struggle to survive. And so, for the first time, sentient beings possessed the capacity to cherish and care for creatures other than themselves.
Although these limbic emotions would never be as strong as the "me first" drives still issuing from our reptilian core, we humans have evolved a substantial hard-wiring for empathy for other creatures, and especially for our fellow humans. Eventually, the Chinese philosopher Mencius (c. 371–288 BCE) would insist that nobody was wholly without such sympathy. If a man sees a child teetering on the brink of a well, about to fall in, he would feel her predicament in his own body and would reflexively, without thought for himself, lunge forward to save her. There would be something radically wrong with anyone who could walk past such a scene without a flicker of disquiet. For most, these sentiments were essential, though, Mencius thought, somewhat subject to individual will. You could stamp on these shoots of benevolence just as you could cripple or deform yourself physically. On the other hand, if you cultivated them, they would acquire a strength and dynamism of their own.
We cannot entirely understand Mencius's argument without considering the third part of our brain. About twenty thousand years ago, during the Paleolithic Age, human beings evolved a "new brain," the neocortex, home of the reasoning powers and self-awareness that enable us to stand back from the instinctive, primitive passions. Humans thus became roughly as they are today, subject to the conflicting impulses of their three distinct brains. Paleolithic men were proficient killers. Before the invention of agriculture, they were dependent on the slaughter of animals and used their big brains to develop a technology that enabled them to kill creatures much larger and more powerful than themselves. But their empathy may have made them uneasy. Or so we might conclude from modern hunting societies. Anthropologists observe that tribesmen feel acute anxiety about having to slay the beasts they consider their friends and patrons and try to assuage this distress by ritual purification. In the Kalahari Desert, where wood is scarce, bushmen are forced to rely on light weapons that can only graze the skin. So they anoint their arrows with a poison that kills the animal—only very slowly. Out of ineffable solidarity, the hunter stays with his dying victim, crying when it cries, and participating symbolically in its death throes. Other tribes don animal costumes or smear the kill's blood and excrement on cavern walls, ceremonially returning the creature to the underworld from which it came.
Paleolithic hunters may have had a similar understanding. The cave paintings in northern Spain and southwestern France are among the earliest extant documents of our species. These decorated caves almost certainly had a liturgical function, so from the very beginning art and ritual were inseparable. Our neocortex makes us intensely aware of the tragedy and perplexity of our existence, and in art, as in some forms of religious expression, we find a means of letting go and encouraging the softer, limbic emotions to predominate. The frescoes and engravings in the labyrinth of Lascaux in the Dordogne, the earliest of which are seventeen thousand years old, still evoke awe in visitors. In their numinous depiction of the animals, the artists have captured the hunters' essential ambivalence. Intent as they were to acquire food, their ferocity was tempered by respectful sympathy for the beasts they were obliged to kill, whose blood and fat they mixed with their paints. Ritual and art helped hunters express their empathy with and reverence (religio) for their fellow creatures—just as Mencius would describe some seventeen millennia later—and helped them live with their need to kill them.
In Lascaux there are no pictures of the reindeer that featured so largely in the diet of these hunters. But not far away, in Montastruc, a small sculpture has been found, carved from a mammoth tusk in about 11,000 BCE, at about the same time as the later Lascaux paintings. Now lodged in the British Museum, it depicts two swimming reindeer. The artist must have watched his prey intently as they swam across lakes and rivers in search of new pastures, making themselves particularly vulnerable to the hunters. He also felt a tenderness toward his victims, conveying the unmistakable poignancy of their facial expressions without a hint of sentimentality. As Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, has noted, the anatomical accuracy of this sculpture shows that it "was clearly made not just with the knowledge of a hunter but also with the insight of a butcher, someone who had not only looked at his animals but had cut them up." Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, has also reflected insightfully on the "huge and imaginative generosity" of these Paleolithic artists: "In the art of this period, you see human beings trying to enter fully into the flow of life, so that they become part of the whole process of animal life that's going on all around them ... and this is actually a very religious impulse." From the first, then, one of the major preoccupations of both religion and art (the two being inseparable) was to cultivate a sense of community—with nature, the animal world, and our fellow humans.
Excerpted from Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong. Copyright © 2014 Karen Armstrong. Excerpted by permission of Random House LLC, a division of Random House, Inc.
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