By Karen Armstrong. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 512 pages. $30/hardcover; $16.95/paperback; $14.99/eBook.Buy on FJ Amazon Store
The world is still recoiling from the Charlie Hebdo massacre and ensuing anti-Semitic violence in Paris as I write this review. President Obama has recently reminded us of the various slaughters occasioned by the Crusades. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is about to go on trial for killings at the Boston Marathon two years ago (editor’s note: Tsarnaev was found guilty on April 8). The self-proclaimed Islamic State has sent around a succession of videos of beheadings of hostages. All of these violent episodes have a close connection with religion. At one glance it is difficult not to see religious belief as the motive cause of each of these—and of much more bloodletting beside. Nevertheless, in Fields of Blood, Karen Armstrong sets out to persuade us that we would be wrong to indict religion as the primary causal force in the violence of this world.
Armstrong’s approach to making this argument is to write a lengthy world history in which she tries to place the role of religion in the violence of each epoch: India, China, Israel, Rome, Byzantium, Islamic Empires, the Crusades, and early modern Europe are each considered. With each she marshals impressive scholarship.
One steady focus in her argument is the difficulty of building any civilization without the use of force, both to organize the state and to vanquish its neighbors. “The problem lies not in the multi-faceted activity we call ‘religion’ but in the violence embedded in our human nature and the nature of the state, which from the start required the forcible subjection of at least 90 percent of the population,” Armstrong writes.
Yes, religion has a role to play in legitimizing such violence, she acknowledges, but she makes two further points about each epoch. Religion is not a thing apart, not a force poised to press peoples toward violence. It is rather our way of making sense of things, our way of justifying what’s right. Each religion she discusses, moreover, has multiple threads, some more given to justifying violence and some insisting that violence not be used. “Again we see the impossibility of describing any religious tradition as a single unchangeable essence that will always inspire violence,” she argues about conflicting accounts of the same events within the Hebrew Testament. But, importantly, she makes exactly the same claim about every religion she considers. “Sometimes religion has actually put a brake on violence.”
The best reason to read this book is to deepen your understanding of various religions, how they have emerged and been shaped over centuries. This is an impressive account that sets the world’s religions in context and in a common frame. Her overall argument may or may not persuade you, especially as she piles up instances where religion (however we understand it) is used to justify slaughter. The book provides abundant material for each of us to think through how we understand the link between religion and violence, a question none of us can duck today.
Perhaps we can all find common ground in her closing sentiment: “Somehow we have to find ways of doing what religion—at its best—has done for centuries: build a sense of global community, cultivate a sense of reverence and ‘equanimity’ for all, and take responsibility for the suffering we see in the world. We are all, religious and secularist alike, responsible for the current predicament of the world.”