Setting the record straight

Recent events have made Karen Armstrong’s recently published Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence tragically topical. New stories splashed across our computer and television screens do little to dispel the prevalent notion that religion is disproportionately linked to the less positive aspects of the human condition. Armstrong challenges this assumption, not by empirically weighing the consequences of religion and non-religion in the scales of history, but rather by positing a whole new outlook, one that challenges the prevailing Western idea that religion is a purely private phenomenon.

First of all, a note of caution: Armstrong’s particular views on religion may give some pause. Religious experience, according to Armstrong, is a universal experience that transcends creeds and doctrines. Despite any differences in its actual expression, whether in terms of doctrine or practice, it is normally based on the same underlying characteristics. Religion has never really been about truth, whether historical or metaphysical. Rather, religion provides the means by which individuals and communities can explore, contemplate and understand the “elusive, puzzling and tragic” aspects of life and give some kind of structure and meaning to the world before our eyes. 

Religion, according to Armstrong, was never a private or individual experience, but was an integral part of the public life of any community. Indeed the historic inseparability of religion from public life is the core message of Armstrong’s narrative. One of the key and ubiquitous characteristics of religion is what Armstrong dubs the “cult of community,” the way in which religion has historically been a communal activity that drew people together and created a basis for respect for others.   

Using this perceptive, Armstrong undertakes a survey of the interaction between religion and violence across most of recorded history. Given this broad scope, Armstrong is forced to tell her story in very broad strokes, with the odd focus on particular religious developments or flash points. A specialist might take issue with some of her generalizations, and her historical viewpoint comes with a strong tincture of popular anti-colonialism. Yet this is a book very much aimed at a lay audience, so it may be forgiven some of its failings in the details department. 

The theme that Armstrong develops is that while religion was often the handmaiden of political power and structural violence, it was just as often a counter-cultural phenomenon which opposed the powers that be, and preached the innate value of human life. In this latter sense it played a crucial role of “bearing witness” to alternate, more just forms of society. This pattern of religion’s oscillating role can be traced not only across Christianity, but across most of the world’s faith traditions. Properly and historically understood, religion is not a distinct phenomenon that can be termed “good” or “bad,” but is instead an integral part of the human condition and all of its possibilities and failings. 

Secularism, on the other hand, comes in for significant criticism from Armstrong. Despite its modern advocates, who usually come armed with standardized tropes involving references to the “Dark Ages,” the crusades, the inquisition and Galileo, secular societies can lay no special claim to being non-violent or more tolerant. Indeed, secularism has often deliberately targeted religious groups, particular minorities, both internal and external. Secularist ideologies, aside from their historical hostility to religion, have propagated the fallacy that religion should be treated as a private, individual matter, a development that Armstrong traces back to the Reformation and the Enlightenment, and which finds its most pronounced form in Protestant Christianity. The result is that religion in secular society has lost its ability to bear witness, to challenge the existing pattern of things and restrain the structural violence of society. 

While Armstrong’s universal and instrumentalist view of religion may trouble some Christian readers, her ultimate message matches that of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident who once commented that the principal trait of the 20th century, with all its violence and inhumanity, was that “Men have forgotten God.” Metaphysics (or the lack thereof) aside, Fields of Blood is a powerful and persuasive historical corrective. It is a well-written rejoinder to those who argue that religion could only cause a great deal of damage if ever allowed to influence events, and that all would be better off if it were purely a private matter, a quaint and curious cultural trinket, perfectly tolerable so long as it remains unobtrusive and politically neutered.

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