Prophets traditionally have scolded with harsh and unmistakable clarity. Not Karen Armstrong.
In writing “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence,” the British writer and commentator said her purpose is to “muddy the waters a little” and cast doubt on accepted wisdom about religion’s role in warfare.
Armstrong’s timing in releasing her latest book is apt — but then that might have been said at any time since Sept. 11, 2001. Fresh today are images of hostages being beheaded, Canadian soldiers killed on their own soil by terrorists, bombs dropping on Iraqi villages. Horrific images and journalistic shorthand have placed the blame on the doorstep of Islamic fundamentalism — a term Armstrong rejects and feels contributes to the simplistic view that religion alone has inspired the current violence.
“There is a lot of strident certainty about the role of religion,” Armstrong said in an interview from her London home. “If we want to be fully informed about the complexity of our position at the moment, we need to be apprised of all these [contributing factors] and not blame everything on religion.”
Armstrong brings her thoughts to the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Tuesday, part of the Talking Volumes series.
Her popularity as a speaker testifies to current interest and Armstrong’s reputation as one of the keenest minds working on understanding the role religion plays in cultures around the globe.
Her books — written in a lucid and fleet prose — have informed the debate over the nature and practice of faith. She has been awarded the TED Prize and last year received the British Academy’s Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Transcultural Understanding.
Armstrong entered the convent at 18 and left seven years later, disillusioned and wounded by what she called its “cruel regime.”
She graduated from Oxford and taught prep-school English, but her religious inclinations led her to write articles and eventually books. “A History of God,” in 1993, put her on the radar of many.
She lectures regularly and has drawn sharp criticism from the left and the right. Atheist and activist Sam Harris said he feels Armstrong is an apologist for Islam, which he calls a violent religion. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has slammed Armstrong’s ideas about God’s nature.
Armstrong argues that religion has been made a scapegoat for wars and violence. She dissects the shifting meaning of the word religion. From ancient days, religion has encompassed the political and tribal identities of people. It is an ideology steeped in stories of righteous power and humble service. It is intensely personal to some, absolutely communal for others. It has been used to justify the cudgel, just as it has been used to condemn violence and promote healing.
Sacred fight for resources
Armstrong traces the roots of sanctioned violence to the agrarian revolution 10,000 years ago.
“With agriculture came civilization; and with civilization, warfare,” she writes. Aristocrats maintained warrior classes to ensure that peasants handed over their produce. Raiding parties seized more land and resources. These practices were reflected in ancient myths and heroes defined by their prowess in conquest. State ideologies sacralized warfare.
“It was essentially a political pursuit,” Armstrong writes of these earliest religions. “The gods’ temples were not simply places of worship, but were central to the economy because the agricultural surplus was stored there.”
Intense human suffering among the lower classes and those conquered provoked equally intense reactions. The Indian emperor Ashoka was horrified by the merciless killing he had unleashed, and turned to the path of Buddha. The earliest story of the Hebrew Bible condemns Cain — a farmer — for killing his brother, Abel. Jesus rose in Palestine as an alternative to Rome’s imperial cruelty. The Qur’an included obligations toward the needy.
Sadly, these idealistic instincts would become polluted when the adherents achieved dominion.
Violent adventures such as the Muslim conquest of the Near East, the European Crusades, the Inquisition and the holy wars were wrapped in politics and economics, Armstrong argues. Crucial to her point is the nature of religion and governance before the 18th-century Enlightenment.
“Every state ideology in the pre-modern world was religious, including the ideology of Catholic Europe,” Armstrong said. “People thought politically in religious terms. The heretics were usually protesting against injustice in the social order — rather than abstruse doctrinal problems — so they constituted a political threat.”
The sins of secularism
Armstrong freely criticizes reactionary and violent movements that distort faith traditions. Yet, eliminating religion from the ideological pantheon would not dissolve aggression, she said. The wars of the 20th century and the brutality of totalitarian regimes testify to that point.
Modernity and secularism have become their own religions, Armstrong contends. “Nationalism has become very religious,” she said. “Nations have created rituals to make our hearts swell and make us feel as if we are one.”
Nationalism also co-opts faith for its own purposes. The United States separated church and state, yet what president would ever end a speech without saying, “God bless America”?
Further, the secular and modern West has exported its ideals with stunning ignorance. Secularism has stomped on religious custom, provoking severe reactions. Such was the case across the Near East.
“Islam has been dragged into modernity in a very uncomfortable way,” Armstrong said. “Whereas we had the advantage of developing under our own steam, they have had to submit to a foreign ideology that has no roots in their culture. Naturally, now we regard Islam as a threat because Islamic State is extremely dangerous. All sorts of unpredictable things can happen.”
And they have. Extremists who mix religion with geopolitical ambitions — particularly against a perceived outside threat — lash out with beheadings, torture, mass executions and suicide bombings aimed at civilians.
How do we best react?
Armstrong strongly condemns the violence, no matter the ideological underpinnings, but she understands the toxic brew of humiliation and aggressive revanchism that feeds these atrocities.
Revenge may not be the most efficacious response, however satisfying it may seem.
“If we just say, ‘Well, it’s these Muslims, it’s about their religious fanaticism,’ then it means we don’t have to examine our part in all the intensely political and historical problems that have brought us to this impasse,” Armstrong said. “We have to adopt that self-critical analysis to become aware of the power of violence in our own minds and cultivate a sense of responsibility for people in other parts of the world.”
In other words, practice more religion, not less. Jonathan Edwards led the first “Great Awakening” in the American colonies by preaching messages of modernity — equality, justice, democracy — but using a Christian vocabulary that eased his congregation into promoting these ideals.
“Muslim movements are doing the same kind of thing, bringing modern ideals and institutions to ordinary people in an Islamic setting that make them more acceptable,” Armstrong said.
If all that unsettles your sense of clarity on the world problems, Karen Armstrong would consider her task accomplished.