Is religion to blame for war and violence?

Published January 19, 2015

Karen Armstrong’s book, Fields of Blood, is an ambitious project that looks closely at the interrelationship of religion and violence. In it she seeks to challenge the scapegoating of religion as the cause of all war and violence, a simplistic assumption she seems to hear all too frequently from the mouths of politicians, academics and taxi drivers.

“Fields of Blood” refers to the passage in Genesis depicting the archetypal conflict between Cain, the one who worked the land, and his brother Abel, the one who hunted and gathered. Cain killed Abel, but could not hide his sin or silence the cry rising from fields of blood: “Where is your brother? Where is your sister?”

The title reflects one of Armstrong’s core theses, reinforced chapter by chapter: that as hunting-gathering societies (which she romanticized as fundamentally egalitarian) evolved into agrarian societies, the emergence of wealth, civilization and art became possible, but only with the support of violent warfare and oppression-turning farming fields into fields of blood. “From the first, large-scale organized violence was linked not with religion but with organized theft.”

Religion, woven together with political, social and economic systems and the discourse of meaning, had an ambiguous function-both to legitimize the “organized theft” of nations and empires necessary for their survival and expansion, but also to resist and offer alternatives to the violence that lay at their core. Armstrong refers to this tension as “Ashoka’s dilemma,” using the historic example of the third-century BCE emperor of India, a man known for his immoral violence and cruelty, who experienced a profound conversion when he witnessed and took in the horrific violence of war and the profound suffering of ordinary people. He mounted monumental inscriptions throughout India telling kings to keep violence to a minimum and enjoining ordinary people to be kind to the poor and to respect all teachers of wisdom, regardless of their allegiance. Yet Ashoka could not disband his army, which he understood as the only way to maintain strong rule.

Armstrong repeats this dilemma theme in her study of civilizations in China, the Middle East and Byzantium, up to the present day. Empires are instruments of systemic violence, yet they also have the effect of maintaining “peace” (i.e., the absence of organized warfare) and order over time.

Armstrong is clearly at home with the Abrahamic religions, and is especially articulate and informed in her depiction of Islam, for which she models great respect. Her chapters in the third part of the book on the postmodern appearance of religion as distinct and separate from state, and the consequent status of the nation-state as a new form of religion, are perhaps the most gripping and relevant.

Her book is encyclopedic in its sweep, moving from the origins of man as creatures of the four “Fs”-fight, flight, food and procreation, through the origins of major world religions in China, India, Mesopotamia and Mecca. It is encyclopedic in its detail as well-Armstrong has a habit of introducing new names, concepts and terminologies from other cultures, religions and languages without repeating or reinforcing their meaning.

Canadian Anglicans-theologians, ethicists, journalists and policy-makers-who are seeking to understand our place on the world stage should read Armstrong’s book alongside Margaret MacMillan’s books on contemporary nationhood, Paris 1919 and The War That Ended Peace, John Ralston Saul’s book on Canada’s nationhood, A Fair Country, and the work of René Girard, who makes a definitive study of violence and Christianity. At times, Fields of Blood makes for heavy-going reading. It can be a challenge to discern the core of Armstrong’s message, which I believe Christians and all people of faith need to heed as a sign of God’s mission: a message of compassion, resistance against violence and the humanizing of the one we call “other” or “enemy.” Reading this book is a start to hearing and living out that message. For those who wish to deepen their understanding of the culture of religion and violence in our age, it is well worth the effort.


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