Beliefs

Karen Armstrong on the connections between religion and violence

British religion scholar Karen Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic nun whose latest book is "Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence." Photo by Michael Lionstar

(RNS) In the West, the idea that religion is inherently violent is taken for granted by everyone from academics to cab drivers, says British religion scholar Karen Armstrong, the former Roman Catholic nun who wrote the best-selling “A History of God.”

Her new book, “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence,” picks at the presumably inextricable knot of religion and violence over the course of thousands of years of human history, scrutinizing even the peaceful intent of Jesus. We asked Armstrong about the Prince of Peace, human nature and the Islamic militancy roiling the Middle East and Africa. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

British religion scholar Karen Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic nun whose latest book is "Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence." Photo by Michael Lionstar

British religion scholar Karen Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic nun whose latest book is “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.” Photo by Michael Lionstar

Q: “Fields of Blood” begins in the primordial slime, with a discussion of the evolution of the human brain. What’s with the neurophysiology?

A: We do have these violent impulses deeply embedded in the core of our brain, and without them, our species would not have survived. When they get mixed up with the more reflective, rational parts of our brain, you get some of the worst catastrophes. You get Auschwitz — total violence done in a controlled, terrible, rational way.

Q: Why do so many people think that religion is inherently violent?

A: It’s absolutely burnt into our secular Western consciousness. The “myth of religious violence,” as it’s been called, developed in the 18th century and mirrored what was going on in the states that were emerging in Europe at that time: An absolute ruler had to be sole master of the state, and the church had to be relegated to a subordinate position. The myth developed that religion was so violent that it had to be kept out of politics.

Q: What’s the quick response to the person who says “religion is the root of evil” and “I don’t have time to read your 400-page book”?

A: I wrote the book to work out for myself why exactly that the pronouncement “religion is the cause of all violence in history” was so annoying to me. The relationship between religion and violence is complex. But the quick response? The First and Second World Wars were not caused by religion. Stalin’s gulag was not inspired by religion. The Young Turks who massacred Armenians were ardent atheists. That stops them in their tracks.

Q: You find violence in every religion in your book. But can’t an exception be made for Jesus, the Prince of Peace?

A: Jesus could also be verbally abusive, according to the Gospels, though we have to remember that we have very few of Jesus’ actual words. All of these great founders were struggling in their own ways for peace, Jesus among them. But I don’t see him as any more special than the rabbis who worked so hard to deal with the violence of Jewish Scriptures, or the Prophet Muhammad — the Quran is constantly talking about peace and reconciliation.

Secularism doesn’t get off the hook, either. We can’t sit around saying as soon as we separate religion and politics peace will break out. It just didn’t. You think of the French Revolution. The only way to dismantle the Ancien Regime, they thought, was to demolish the church. And this has happened in the Middle East, where secularization has proceeded so rapidly that it’s experienced as an outright assault. At the holiest shrine in Iran, the Shah shot hundreds of unarmed demonstrators, people peacefully protesting against obligatory Western clothes.

"Fields of Blood" by Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun and British religion scholar. Photo courtesy of Karen Armstrong

“Fields of Blood” by Karen Armstrong, a British religion scholar and former Roman Catholic nun. Photo courtesy of Karen Armstrong

Q: Before you write about Jesus, the rabbis, or Muhammad in “Fields of Blood,” you spend considerable time on Ashoka. Why are you so fascinated by this ancient man most of us have never heard of?

A: I wanted to call the book “Ashoka’s Dilemma” (after the king of India’s Mauryan Empire, who murdered his brothers to ascend to the throne in about 268 B.C. and became a Buddhist toward the end of this reign). He was appalled by the violence that he had seen, and he put up inscriptions throughout his realm pleading for more compassionate and peaceful governance. But he could never disband his army.

Had he done so, all these wannabe emperors would have started fighting each other and there would have been mayhem. Ashoka’s dilemma is the dilemma of civilization itself. No state, however peace-loving, can afford to disband its army.

Q: You ask us to look outside Islam to understand the attraction of Islamic militancy. Are recruits to the Islamic State not interested in Islam?

A: All of them are not fired up by Islamic zeal. Two of them who left Britain in May to go to Syria ordered from Amazon a book called “Islam for Dummies.” Some of them are young people who feel bored and that life is meaningless. This is something we have to take very seriously instead of just blaming it all on Islam.

Of the 9/11 hijackers, only one of them had a deep knowledge of the Quran. I looked at the research on them and the so-called lone-wolf terrorists, such as the Boston Marathon bombers, and found that only a fraction of them had a regular Muslim upbringing. Many militants only start reading and studying the Quran when they’re in prison.

To paraphrase forensic psychiatrist and former CIA officer Marc Sageman, no wishy-washy liberal: The problem with Islamic terrorists is not Islam, but ignorance of Islam, and a Muslim education might well have deterred them.

KRE/MG END MARKOE

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)

34 Comments

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  • In the West, the idea that religion is inherently violent is taken for granted by everyone from academics to cab drivers, says British religion scholar Karen Armstrong, the former Roman Catholic nun who wrote the best-selling “A History of God.”

    Is there anyone employed at Religion News Service who actually edits this thing?

  • Religion is not the cause of all violence in history. The attempted control of man by other men is. Religion is just one mean to accomplish that goal.

  • “The First and Second World Wars were not caused by religion.”

    wrong.

    ” Stalin’s gulag was not inspired by religion.”

    Wrong.

    “The Young Turks who massacred Armenians were ardent atheists. That stops them in their tracks.”

    Wrong.

    Sounds like a pointless book.

  • I can’t wait for Ms. Armstrong to insist that the Nazis were “pagans” Yes, the cult had some pagan elements. That said, the Austrian Corporal himself claimed to be a loyal Catholic to the end, and himself never killed a single Jew. How did he get so many to either kill or go along joyfully? How about 1500 years of Xtian Jew-hate to ready the ground?

  • It’s certainly true that violence predates religion. It’s also certainly true that violence can and does happen today without religion, and that getting rid of religion would not get rid of all violence.

    However, religion is clearly an aggravating factor which amplifies and enables violence. There are clear reasons for this in the very basis of religions. Because religions rely on private revelation (scripture) as a source of truth, those who disagree cannot “check the source”, to see if the private revelation is “real” as opposed to just something someone made up. Since private revelation cannot be objectively tested, the only thing left is to resolve the dispute by fighting, which is what has been proven time and again over the past several thousand years.

    Without religion, people have to rely on objectively testable data for their worldview. If there is a disagreement, simply repeat the test, consult those who did, etc. No need to fight. If one wants to keep an idea of a pantheistic god, then that data could be called “public revelation”.

    That’s one, perhaps the biggest, reason why religion is violent, why reducing religion reduces violence (shown many times by studies), and why supernatural religion needs to be abandoned if we are to have a just, healthy and peaceful world. It’s a lot like asking if smoking causes cancer – the answer is no – mutations cause cancer. But those mutations are encouraged and made much more likely if one smokes.

    There are other reasons – like clear verses in most Bibles, the Qu’ran, and so on, which encourage violence. Those might be avoided with different scripture, but the supernatural basis of most religions makes the first reason unavoidable, regardless of how many counterexamples this book might list.

  • @Jon,

    “reducing religion reduces violence (shown many times by studies)”

    Exactly.

    ” It’s a lot like asking if smoking causes cancer – the answer is no – mutations cause cancer.”

    Exactly.

    And religion undeniably encourages the worst behavior,
    pitting each tribe against the other.

    ISLAM SAYS TO OTHERS:
    “The only true faith in God’s sight is Islam.” (Surah 3:19)
    “Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it.” (Surah 2:216)
    “Believers, take neither Jews nor Christians for your friends.” (Surah 5:51)

    JUDAISM SAYS TO OTHERS:
    “Cursed be he who does the Lords work remissly, cursed he who holds back his sword from blood.” (Jeremiah 48:10
    “Seize all the non-believers and execute them before the LORD in broad daylight…” (Numbers 25:1-9)

    CHRISTIANITY SAYS TO OTHERS:
    “To those who would not have me as their king, bring them to me and EXECUTE THEM in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)
    “Avoid Them” (Romans 16:17)
    “have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” (2 Thessalonian 3:14)

  • @Neon,

    Evidence is the only ‘talking point’.

    The evidence indicates that religion is not the cause of all violence.
    But religion is the cause of tribal violence – the worst, most common kind of mass violence.

    Karen Armstrong seems not to not understand that for most of the 20th century we could replace the word “CATHOLIC” with “FASCIST” as they were interchangeable.

    Rwanda in 1993 was the most Catholic country in Africa yet it exploded in Genocidal mass murder killing 800,000 fellow citizens with machetes. The priests and nuns did much of the killing with their own hands!

    Today ‘ISLAMIST’ can be replaced with ‘FASCIST’ – as they are just as interchangeable.

    Primitive nonsense leads to primitive nonsense!

  • I would tweak that a bit – one might say that the perversion of religion is one way to accomplish that goal ….

  • One could just as well argue that the explosion of violence was in spite, not because, of the religion ….

    Tribalism predates religion, it is a cause of violence in so-called secular, as well as so-called religious societies … Unless, of course, you want to call tribalism a “religion” …

  • No that is not the only way to “resolve a dispute” – another way is to simply observe the “second” commandment – “love thy neighbor as thyself” – wherein the resolution of such “disputes” is subordinated to that command …

  • Not my role in life to try and make anyone do anything, outside of employment that is. Those around you obviously keeping their distance when you open you mouth to speak may just convince you otherwise though.

  • Aquifer,
    Since belief in all religion requires faith, which is believing when not only no evidence exists, but when evidence exists to the contrary, I would respectfully disagree with the reasoning for youe adjustment.

  • @ Aquifer,

    You don’t know all your god’s commendments, do you? “Love thy neighbors…” is not a commendmant and never was. You should consult Moses before you start messing up his biggest achievement.

  • That’s the way she looks at the world Lutherans look at it as all the ” non”-Christians are doing bY far the majority of the sinful violence’s IN all times of history..
    non Christians includes atheists to ,, Lets not for get that..

  • Re: “Karen Armstrong seems not to not understand that for most of the 20th century we could replace the word ‘CATHOLIC’ with ‘FASCIST’ as they were interchangeable.”

    How true! Fascism as an ideology originated with the Catholic Benito Mussolini and was promoted early on by Italian Catholic clergy. Adolf Hitler, the most famous fascist ruler, was Catholic. Among less-frequently-remembered fascist leaders was Engelbert Dollfuss, chancellor of Austria, very Catholic, having been a seminarian for going into law and politics (and ironically assassinated by Nazis), and Josef Tiso, president of the Slovakian state left behind when the Third Reich annexed 2/3 of Czechoslovakia; he was a Catholic priest, a monsignor, no less.

    The origins of fascism as a philosophy and ideology clearly lay within European Catholicism. As you note, fascism has now moved on, having been embraced by Islamists, but its Catholic origins are undeniable.

  • The Nazis loved the Christian faith. Catholicism was a great recruiting tool for collaborators from Poland, Ukraine, Belgium, Spain, and Croatia. The Croatian collaborators being noted for having the last forced conversions to Catholicism and perpetrating massacres so gory and horrific that even their Nazi advisors winced.

    Lutheran antisemitism was a great tool for finding volunteers to murder people on an industrial scale.

  • Yet most self-declared Christians look for excuses, opt outs or conditions to “love thy neighbor” to excuse malicious behavior towards others.

    All one has to do is talk to a conservative christian about why they support legalized discrimination of gays, atheists and muslims.

  • @Aquifer,

    “Love thy neighbor as thyself”

    Yet this ultimately means nothing in Christianity
    once you realize that the neighbor must be without sin
    in order to be loved! And guess, what – nobody is worthy!

    “Bring to me those enemies of mine who would not have me as their king and execute them in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    “Avoid Them” (Romans 16:17)

    “have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” (2 Thessalonian 3:14)

    Sinister nonsense.

    ____
    AM
    For Peace, Humanity and the Separation of Church and State

  • Religion is tribalism. It creates subgroups who compete with other subgroups of different faiths or sects for the same political power. It just adds another layer for people to separate and divide themselves.

    The only time religious folks ever acted in a way to prevent violence or conflict was when they went outside of primary beliefs. That all other faiths are wrong and their adherents unworthy of respect. When religious leaders stopped stumping for their version of God(s) and played nice with other faiths.

    Its so rare that is is practically an aberration. Sectarian conflict and murder is the norm not the exception.

  • How can anyone say mussolini and hitler, we’re Catholics, they had no religion. People that say they r this religion or that religion, if they do not practice, then they have no religion.

  • Its easy when you see how those various churches aided and abetted those regimes. Especially when you see how religious appeals were employed and to what purpose.

  • Of course religion is not the cause of all conflict. But all ideologies, including religion, can be awfully useful. Hatred needs to be mobilized and ideologies and religions can and do do this.

    Armstrong has recycled her many books yet again without saying anything new. I wish she would return to her convent.

  • @norman ravitch,

    “Of course religion is not the cause of all conflict. But all ideologies, including religion, can be awfully useful.”

    How can this
    be used in a way that is NOT dangerous or CRIMINAL?

    “Bring to me those enemies of mine and execute them in front of me” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

  • Hi Aquifer,
    “Tribalism predates religion”. Evidence please. In school we were taught that agriculture predated permanent settlements, because it was considered self evident. Evidence has now been unearthed that permanent settlements predated agriculture. Speculating about the distant past is universal, but not very reliable.

  • Liz, you are mistaken. “Love your neighbor as yourself” indeed is a commandment. It’s in Leviticus 19:18.

    Thus it is you who should “consult Moses” (your words).

  • TOO MANY RELGIONS AND TOO MANY GODS CAUSE CONFUSION.
    RELIGION IS SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT LOVE AND NOT HATE.
    SOME PEOPLE SAY THAT RELIGION IS NOT SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN.
    EVOLUTION HOWEVER IS SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN AND THE FACTS ARE FOR EVERYONE TO SEE. I REFER TO THE BIRTH PROCESS IN ALL FAUNA AND THE REPRODUCTION PROCESS IN ALL FLORA. THESE PROCESSES ARE INDISPUTABLE.

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