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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.

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September 23rd, 2014
9:09 PM
Karen Armstrong is responsible for some of the most egregious apologetics for Islam in the last decade. She is utterly dissimulating about the problems of Islam, and suggests that non Muslims are to blame for the violence and intolerance within Islam. Her apologetics are something to behold rooted in denial and sophistry of a spectacular kind.

Ray Ingles
September 4th, 2014
3:09 PM
Actually, few if any secularist argue that "public space be purged of" religion. In the U.S., for example, the argument is that the government should avoid endorsing or enforcing religious doctrines. For example - creches on church land, or private homes, or even businesses? Sure. Creches on government land? Not so much. Not being able to rally the force of government to ones side is not the same as not being able to publicly present and practice ones religion.

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