Karen Armstrong’s remarkable 14th book provides a comparative history of unparalleled scope examining the fraught nexus between various religious manifestations and the violence that has so often afflicted human societies. This is an immense work of deep detailed scholarship (over 80 pages of small-print endnotes and bibliography), not a theological apologetics, that confronts the biases of secular modernity in making “a scapegoat of faith.” Many in the West regard religion as inherently violent and a primary cause of wars. At the same time, the modern western notion of religion as a privatized personal concern is historically exceptional and alien to other cultural understandings.
Before the modern era religion permeated all aspects of life. With the rise of agrarian societies came conflicts over land and resources in which the taking or sacrificing of life was invested with potent “religious” meaning. The coercive state and class systems that emerged were sustained by ruling ideologies with a sacral dimension so that religion and the exercise of political power, including through violence, were inseparable.
Our world is dangerously polarized at a time when humanity is more closely interconnected . . . than ever before. If we are to meet the challenge of our time and create a global society where all peoples can live together in peace and mutual respect, we need to assess our situation accurately. We cannot afford oversimplified assumptions about the nature of religion and its role in the world (p.15).
The book is divided into three major parts. In “Beginnings” Armstrong analyzes the systems of structural violence that developed among the farmers, herdsmen (pastoralists), aristocratic and warrior castes of the ancient world — in Mesopotamia, India, China, and the Israel of the Old Testament. A cosmology of gods ordering nature and the universe gave divine sanction to political rule as in the Chinese “mandate of heaven.” Waging war was similarly imbued with religious justifications, although the image of the noble warrior may also have carried the tragic taint of bloodshed. As well, other forms of spirituality arose that challenged the martial ethos, renouncing rather than embracing worldly conquest and conflict. We see this as expressed in the asceticism and injunctions to non-violence and compassion of the Buddha, in the teachings on benevolence and “golden rule” of Confucius. The realm of the religious was rife with contradictions, encompassing both political violence and contrary contemplative paths.
This was also true of ancient Israel from Abraham onward. Yahweh appears as a war god to the early Israelite tribes in their escape from Egypt and battles with enemies to secure the Promised Land. But the biblical prophets will proclaim Yahweh’s anger in denouncing Israel’s own idolatry, violent misdeeds and misrule. The one true God demands justice and compassion.
Part Two, “Keeping the Peace,” begins with the mission of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish boy born in humble circumstances under a Pax Romana that was ruthlessly enforced with the collaboration of the Jewish priestly caste. It was also a time of apocalyptic messianic expectation. While Jesus preached non-violence (indeed the injunction to “love your enemies”), his mission of bringing about the “kingdom of God” was socially transformative and accordingly viewed as threatening by the authorities. As Armstrong observes: “Oppression, injustice, and exploitation had always been religiously charged issues in Israel. The idea that faith should not involve itself in such politics would have been as alien to Jesus as it had been to Confucius.”
The early spread of Christianity led to martyrdom until the Emperor Constantine’s fourth century conversion made it the dominant religion. Of this Byzantine “tragedy of empire,” Armstrong writes that: “Neither Jesus nor the first Christians could have imagined so great an oxymoron as the notion of a Christian Emperor.” The real conversion was that of Christian doctrine to the sanctification of state power and violence. Wars could be “just”; heresies and schisms savagely repressed as subversive of the prevailing political order.
Armstrong gives a fascinating account of the origins of the third great Abrahamic faith when the “pious merchant” Muhammad began his mission in Mecca in 612. Warfare was involved although in the Quran only 10 mentions of “jihad” (the generic term for “struggle”) directly refer to war. There’s an uneasy tension in contrasting messages about military violence (the “lesser jihad”) and tolerance of other religions. Justifications for war added following the Prophet’s death reflected the rapid expansion of a vast Muslim empire by conquest. Rival caliphates emerged and very early on the Sunni-Shia conflict over prophetic succession produced a schism with murderous consequences into the present day.
Chapter eight, “Crusade and Jihad,” doesn’t minimize the extent to which religious allegiances became a pretext for mass slaughter. In Christendom’s Holy Roman Empire, popes vied with kings for supremacy and knights engaged in “holy warfare.” Crusading hordes targeted Jews, Muslims and occasionally heretics (such as the Cathars) for extermination on a scale that dwarfs the terrorism of today’s “Islamic State.” Non-violent “Sufism” had become a predominant practice in Islam but these atrocities roused the spirit of violent jihad to repel “infidel” invasions. We still live with the consequences since: “In the future any western intervention in the Middle East, however secular its motivations, would evoke the memory of the fanatical violence of the First Crusade.”
Part Three moves to the start of the modern era. The horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, the conquistadores’ plunder of the New World, and the slave trade are well known. But as Europe acquired newfound wealth through imperial conquest and commerce we see the emergence of an embryonic capitalism and bourgeois class over which the church would have diminishing control. The Reformation and the printing press accelerated the challenge to established orthodoxy. Luther was the first to separate church and “religion” — conceived as a personal matter — from the state as Protestantism “canonized the growing individualism of the modern spirit.”
Yet Luther was no tolerant secular revolutionary: religion, however practiced privately, had a duty to uphold public order. Rulers still claimed “divine right.” Doctrinal disputes led to charges of sedition and appalling “wars of religion” that combined political power plays with genocidal religious fanaticism. The 17th century’s Thirty Years War killed 35 per cent of the population of central Europe.
It was in the New World away from these unholy wars that the Enlightenment-influenced founders of the American republic would frame the first constitution formally separating the state from any religion (although America continues to be a very religious society that invokes righteous motives for its wars). Europe had its own revolutions. As the French revolution degenerated into a reign of terror it invented a secular cult of the Nation and “goddess of Reason,” proving that the overthrow of religion could be as virulently violent as wars waged in its name. Britain’s industrial revolution inaugurated an age of expanding capitalism and imperialism as “a global form of systematic violence” that would provoke the revolutionary challenge of atheistic Marxism-Leninism.
The 19th century would also see the industrialization of warfare and spread of secular nationalisms with none of the redeeming restraining narratives of peaceful coexistence found in religious traditions. Into the 20th century, religion cannot be blamed for the cataclysm of the long anticipated “Great War.” Religion is not responsible for Stalin’s terror, Hitler’s Holocaust, the Second World War needed to defeat Nazism and the Axis, or the arms race threatening nuclear annihilation of the human race.
Armstrong’s last three chapters address the counter-cultural resurgence of religion in modern times. This can be seen in “fundamentalist” interpretations that seek to purify the faith and that reject compromising modern impositions. The poisoned fruit of western imperialism in the Middle East were autocratic militarized “modernizing” regimes that incited an indignant moral backlash against corrupting western ways (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood founded in Egypt in 1928). Indeed: “Religious extremism often develops in symbiotic relationship with a virulently aggressive secularism.” Israel was established as a secular state but for some became endowed with a sacralising Zionist mission.
With the Second Vatican Council Roman Catholicism took up the challenges of evangelization in the modern world. In Latin America a more radically critical “liberation theology” would develop advancing the “preferential for the poor” and calling for resistance to the structural violence and “social sin” of political repression, economic subjugation, and militarism. Opposition to the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement would bring a social gospel and philosophy of non-violent resistance to bear in the United States.
In the Islamic world the 1979 Iranian revolution against the Shah’s pro-western regime was a seminal event that continues to reverberate. The end of that year also saw the disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the jihadist war against which — heavily supported by western powers, Gulf oil autocracies, and the Pakistani military — would ultimately result in ongoing forms of “religious” blowback from the Taliban to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda. The Soviet Union, which Ronald Reagan inveighed against as an “evil empire,” would be itself a casualty of intervention abroad and internal rot. George Bush’s “axis of evil” preceded the catastrophic Iraq war even as western ally Saudi Arabia funded the global promotion of its intolerant brand of Wahhabist Islam. Ironies abound.
There is a streak of fatal and fatalistic nihilism that runs through both modern state terror and that practised by revolutionary actors, from the most godless to the most god-fearing. We’re now most concerned by the militant tactics of “holy terror” associated with Islamist extremism rather than its secular varieties (e.g. the Weathermen, Red Army faction, Tamil Tigers’ suicide terrorism, etc.). But as Armstrong observes, all terrorism is fundamentally political whatever its other motivations. Resistance to oppression or invasion, nationalism, a collective memory of humiliation, of foreign domination or occupation, are the strongest impulses to terrorist violence, whether or not justified in religious terms. Moreover, there is the question of our own responsibility and culpability. “We must deplore any action that spills innocent blood or sows terror . . . But we must also acknowledge and sincerely mourn the blood that we have shed in the pursuit of our national interests.”
Islam is currently in the spotlight because of what is in effect a civil war taking place over narrow interpretations that claim exclusive authority, pit Sunnis against Shias, majorities against minorities, and in the worst case — such as the so-called “Islamic State” ravaging Syria and Iraq — command violence against not only secularism but all other forms of religion. Many of those attracted to the terrorist banner come from backgrounds of religious ignorance. It’s discontented young men and recent converts who are most susceptible to a perverse violent religiosity.
As Armstrong insists, violence has been embedded in human society throughout history since the story of Cain and Abel. Prior to modernity a contested “religious” element was ubiquitous. But it is modern “secular,” indeed anti-religious, totalitarian states that have wreaked the greatest mass death. And the bombs and drone strikes of secular western democracies that kill civilians don’t get off the hook either.
In summing up her prodigious research, Armstrong shows that while religion is implicated in the history of violence, it is far too facile to make it the main scapegoat for societies’ misdeeds. Imagining a non-violent world without religion is a fantasy. “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.”