Fields of Blood

By Karen Armstrong

In the most recent rounds of the culture wars the Godly forces haven’t been doing well. Eloquent polemicists of the “new atheism” like Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have kept believers playing defense, the case against religion seeming stronger every day.

But some relief is at hand. Religious historian Karen Armstrong isn’t making the case for God in Fields of Blood (that was another book), but instead addresses a point where the critics of religion may have overstepped themselves.

One of the most frequent charges brought against religion is that it has been responsible for so much violence, that it is inherently cruel, intolerant, and aggressive. A favourite line is that “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.”

This isn’t true. While at first blush the history of warfare does seem to have a ribbon of religion running through it, from the wars of extermination waged by Old Testament kings through the first century of Islam’s expansion, the Christian crusades, and the various Wars of Religion that tore Europe apart following the Reformation, such an interpretation of history is misleading on several counts. Armstrong explains why.

In the first place, civilization and social order require violence to be maintained. War is the inevitable result of the rise of states and their competition for scarce resources. It’s a harsh truth, but conflict is an ineradicable fact of life.

That’s not religion’s fault. Religion has sanctified violence, but just as often has called it into question.

Furthermore, throughout most of human history politics and religion have been embedded within one another, with some degree of influence going both ways. As a result, there is no way of separating religious from social, economic or political issues as a cause of war in the pre-modern period. The separation of church and state was a recent invention, founded in part on the belief that society would be liberated from the inherent belligerence of religion.

That didn’t happen. Since the great separation of church and state war has continued unabated, most of them fought for entirely political causes. The Napoleonic wars weren’t religious wars. The Crimean War wasn’t. The American Civil War wasn’t. The First and Second World Wars weren’t. Korea? Vietnam? No and no.

Nationalism has become the new religion, the state having been sacralised. In the modern age religion has been far less of a political force but the world has not become a more peaceful place. Indeed it could be argued that war has become even more barbaric (if technologically efficient).

Even the War on Terror fails to make the case against religion. Almost all experts agree that terrorism is fundamentally and inherently a political act, whatever other motives are involved. Unfortunately for religion, that’s not a message that always gets through, because it’s in the interest of the targets of terrorism to cast it as an entirely irrational evil that only a force as backward as religion can “explain.”

Armstrong’s case for the defense, which I’ve outlined here, is convincing. Much can be, and in recent years has been, said against religion. When looking to assign blame for the history of human violence, however, we are wrong to make God a scapegoat for the human condition.

On this count of the indictment, religion has received a bum rap.

Indeed, it’s not even clear who is being accused. Armstrong stresses the fact that a religious tradition “is never a single, unchanging essence that impels people to act in a uniform way.” Religions evolve over time to fit different historical conditions. The same religion can be bellicose or pacific depending on individual and collective needs.

War isn’t going to end anytime soon. States will find themselves under increasing pressure from within and without, particularly through having to compete harder for scarcer resources. It’s likely we’ll continue to fight each other till the end of days. But beating up on religion isn’t going to change that a bit.

Review first published online October 19, 2015.

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