Not for the Love of God

Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood offers a magisterial debunking of the secularist tale

Books History
Christian in-fighting: "Iconoclasts in a church" (1630) by Dirck van Delen (Rijksmuseum)

    The myth that religion is essentially and uniquely generative of division and violence passes for common sense among celebrity atheists and militant secularists. It undergirds their insistence that public space be purged of it, that bishops be expelled from the House of Lords, and that faith schools be closed down. Once the peace is no longer disturbed by warring claims to be the One True Faith, they suppose, secularist society can settle down to enjoy the fruits of modern rational tolerance. Quite how such prejudice manages to thrive among the well-educated, not to speak of university professors, is a puzzle. Perhaps they just do not read history. But if Karen Armstrong is correct, their anti-religious bigotry is the very mother of the religious violence they dread.

Fields of Blood offers a magisterial debunking of the secularist tale. It ranges from pre-history to the present, displaying a remarkable breadth of erudition — anthropological, sociological, historical, comparative religious, theological, philosophical, and political. Armstrong has read not only widely, but, judging by the 70 pages of footnotes, deeply too. Although she focuses on the three Abrahamic religions, since exclusive monotheism is usually made to play the main villain, she nevertheless devotes a chapter each to India and China. 

One of her main theses is that religion has been universally ambivalent about violence. On the one hand, it espouses ideals of equality, community and peace; on the other hand, it has had to reckon with the “iron law” that civilisation, and in particular the development of the agrarian and industrial state, inevitably involves hierarchy, inequality, and violence. This was the dilemma that the Confucians wrestled with in China from the sixth century BC and Ashoka in India in the third century BC. The Hebrew Bible contains both fierce prophetic criticism of the centralised state and celebration of the national security afforded by the Davidic empire. Jesus was preoccupied with resisting Roman imperial misrule, while Christians such as Eusebius welcomed the identification of Christianity with the empire under Constantine. (Actually, the Gospel’s Jesus seems to me much keener to distance himself from militant Jewish nationalism than from the Roman Empire.) And as the Koran contains a constant juxtaposition of ruthlessness and mercy, so the history of Islam oscillates between assimilation to state violence and ascetic withdrawal. The basic point is that religious tradition “is never a single, unchanging essence that impels people to act in a uniform way”. It follows that the notion that religion in general, or monotheism in particular, is essentially and consistently violent is historical nonsense.

Another thesis is that the supposedly classic instances of religious violence were in fact not so religious — or, at least, not so simply religious. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Religious Wars, were inspired by a mixture of political, social, economic, and religious motives, in which the primacy of the last is not at all clear. The same goes for today’s militant Islamic jihadism. At most times and places religion has not been — and is not — separable from social and political life. Any visitor to Le Mur des Réformateurs in Geneva, for example, will be immediately struck by its close identification of the story of Calvinist Protestantism with that of the growth of political liberty.

A third thesis is that secularising modernity itself has a marked record of ruthlessness and violence. Thus Renaissance humanists like Thomas More were more approving of European colonisation than Dominicans like Francisco de Vitoria. The French Revolution was merciless in its extirpation of the ancien régime, before launching a “holy war” to spread the Gospel of liberté, égalité, fraternité throughout Europe. Secular nationalism has been energetic in justifying aggressive war on ethnic grounds and on an increasingly massive scale. And Western imperialism has forced the pace of modernisation on bewildered and unwilling societies, provoking violent reaction, often articulated in religious terms. This is what today’s global jihadism is really about: “Licking its wounds in the desert, the scapegoat, with its festering resentment, has rebounded on the city that drove it out.”

Armstrong’s corrective, complicating history includes a number of nicely water-muddying, stereotype-confounding details. For example, in the so-called Wars of Religion, Protestants and Catholics not infrequently fought on the same side against imperial forces: in its final phase, during the Thirty Years War, Catholic France came to the rescue of Protestant Sweden. Second, whereas that famous son of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves, the inspiration for the abolitionist movement was originally and predominantly Christian. Third, the first genocide of the 20th century was committed by zealous secularists, the Young Turks, against (Christian) Armenians. Fourth, it was the Tamil Tigers, a non-religious, nationalist movement, which pioneered suicide bombing, and most suicide bombing in Lebanon during the 1980s was performed by secularists. Fifth, so deep-rooted were the habits of coexistence between Christians and Muslims in Bosnia that, during the 1990s, it took the Communist Slobodan Milošević three years of relentless nationalist propaganda to turn the former against the latter. Sixth, James Warren Jones, the instigator of the infamous Jonestown massacre in 1978, was not a religious zealot but a self-confessed atheist, who ridiculed conventional Christianity. Next, Ayatollah Khomeini’s critique of the regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi in the 1960s has much in common with Pope John XXIII’s contemporaneous critique of unfettered capitalism. And finally, what is striking about the 9/11 bombers is not how much they knew about Islam, but how little.

In the end, notwithstanding the ambivalent history, Armstrong commends religious traditions for helping us face up to the tragic necessity of political violence, while offering us pacific spiritual practices and alternative, non-violent patterns of community. To this I would add that just war thinking in the Latin Christian West, which has its counterparts in Confucian and neo-Confucian China and in the Islamic world, has developed moral norms that constrain violence from hatred and vengeance and discipline it towards peace. Since Augustine of Hippo is its patriarch, it is not quite fair to say of him, as Armstrong does, that he “gave the most authoritative blessing to . . . Christian state violence”. Augustine did not simply bless political violence: he agonised over its tragic necessity and sought to forge it into the left hand of love. And insofar as just war thinking has found partial expression in the international laws of war and, more recently, in the emerging doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, the Augustinian project to integrate justice, violence, and peace has met with success.