I spent most of my time reading Fields of Blood, Karen Armstrong’s epic history of violence and religion, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Just what was Armstrong’s end game? She leads off repeating the straw man argument that religion is responsible for all wars on the planet (an argument she places on the lips of anonymous folks rather than actually quoting one). But surely, if that’s all she was up to, it wouldn’t take more than 500 pages and 5000 years of human history to debunk. That would be rhetorical overkill.
A secondary argument to counter – one I’ve actually seen in the wild, at least – appears in the afterword, identified by Armstrong as the idea that religion is responsible for more death than any other cause. It’s another pretty easily rebutted argument, but one that, curiously, Armstrong can’t defeat, due to the way she frames the entire book.
The frame, essentially, involves two foundations. First, civilization – not just modern civilization, but all civilization – is inherently violent. Coercive violence is inherent in civilization and its development because without the ability to take other people’s stuff no upper classes will ever develop that will then have time to do things like invent stuff, ponder the great questions, and write large tomes about the history of religion. Second, until a few hundred years ago (in Europe – other places caught up later) religion was intrinsically linked with the rest of life, including politics. The idea of “religion” as a separate thing just didn’t exist.
As a result of all this (and we’ll assume, for our purposes, that her foundations are accurate), we can’t single out “religion” as the cause of any nasty things because it’s just part of a society as a whole that’s doing them. Religion, Armstrong argues, is an attempt by humans to give meaning to their lives, including the horrible violent things they do. Sometimes, it might even reign in our worst impulses. Having said that, she admits near the end that those attempts usually fail.
The upshot of all this is that not just religion in general, but specific religions, are made up of various strains that are at odds with one another, even if they arise from the same holy text. Armstrong does a good job at showing how particular religions throughout history morph from one form to another in order to keep up with prevailing times.
One particular example comes from Judaism, in which the Talmudic stories of King David and the conquest of Palestine – written at a time when such conquering was going on and needed justification – were retconned by future rabbis after the Romans brutally put down a Jewish revolt and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. In other words, presented with evidence that a more martial glaze on the old stories wasn’t working, they changed their meaning into one of metaphorical struggle of an oppressed people.
Now, here’s the thing – that’s actually good. People who change their minds when new evidence comes to light are rational, thoughtful, and should be applauded. But they weren’t just revising a political philosophy, they were recasting stories of an allegedly divine origin. This is something Armstrong never deals with that distinguishes religion from other schools of thought. Religious texts are (mostly) based on the idea that they are pipelines to a higher truth. If that’s true, they shouldn’t be so malleable in human hands. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Having said that, it’s hard to disagree with Armstrong, so far as her basic thesis goes. As an atheist, I certainly agree that religion is a human construct, not the product of revelation or supernatural spiritual insight. It’s a messy contradictory thing precisely because it’s rooted in humanity. But I’m not sure what that gets her, since she appears to be trying defend religion from unfair criticism.
Armstrong can’t win the second argument noted above with this conception of religion. If it has been, for millennia, an integral part of society, so much so that people didn’t have a separate concept of it, then it’s as responsible for past violence as society as a whole. So what is Armstrong’s goal in doing all this?
It winds up being a gargantuan No True Scotsman fallacy, in which Armstrong suggests that people who claim religious motivations for violent acts are, in essence, bad a religion. This is most clearly evident in her discussion of Al Qaeda and the September 11 attacks.
After a lengthy examination of how a lot of modern Islamic fundamentalism is a response to ham-handed colonial policies (on that theme I think she’s right), Armstrong notes how many of the 9/11 hijackers were fairly Westernized. Nor, she argues, were they particularly devout Muslims before becoming involved with Al Qaeda. This is not unusual, as she cites a study of more than 500 people involved in carrying out the attacks that shows only 25% fit the mold of holy warriors when they joined Al Qaeda.
However, she then struggles with the fact that, once a part of Al Qaeda, they did become holy warriors engaged in jihad, filled with tales of martyrdom. To her, the problem wasn’t religion itself, but not enough of it – had the hijackers really known what the Koran said, they would never have carried out the attacks. She specifically concedes that the hijackers themselves surely saw themselves as religiously motivated, but that’s only because they were bad at Islam. In Armstrong’s telling, religion never fails, it is only failed by the humans acting in its name.
Armstrong returns to this defense – “but the book says . . .” – over and over again, but it doesn’t do her any good. First, it presumes there is one correct way to read any holy text. As her own history extensively shows, different people read the same texts very differently. Second, it ignores the fact that actions matter more than words. In another example, she notes that a particular group of terrorists in the Middle East thought themselves bound by Islamic law to avoid violence against civilians. Nonetheless, she explains how they took civilians hostage, which is a violent act in anybody’s book. Actions, not words, are what counts.
Third, and most troubling for the entire book, is Armstrong wants to view religion’s role in violence as simply as the critics to which she is responding. If it’s not THE cause, she seems to argue, it is exonerated. She ignores (or breezes right past) the role religion can play in making killing of the other guy all right, even if the underlying cause isn’t religious. The American Civil War is an example of a war that was purely political, but both sides thought they were doing God’s work. Ever listened to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”? It’s all about how righteous the Union cause was.
Another issue that pervades the book is Armstrong’s problems with actually deciding what “violence” is, as seen in her discussion of American fundamentalists. They, compared to their overseas counterparts, are not violent, Armstrong says, ignoring the various instances (Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, abortion-related murders and bombings, gay bashing, etc.) where they have been. But then she turns around and charts their rise partly to a reaction against “psychological violence,” which she defines as, essentially, modern secularists saying mean things about them. By stretching the term to meet an immediate rhetorical goal, it loses all relevance.
I think the biggest disappointment with Fields of Blood is that I actually agree with a lot of points Armstrong makes. She’s absolutely correct that the causes of conflict are numerous, complex, intersecting, and can’t be reduced to sound bite descriptions. Similarly, the irrationality that can be the hallmark of religion can be replaced with secular variants of irrationality, too, such as cults of personality or the aftermath of the French Revolution (not to mention the otters). Nor is she wrong that secular states – like the United States – have a record of violence that is nothing to be proud of.
In fact, I think Armstrong and I would agree a lot on what’s wrong in the world and how to fix it. On this issue, however, she’s just not able to get around the fact that some people do horrible things to other human beings (to quote Frank Zappa) “’cause they don’t go for what’s in the book / ‘n that makes ’em bad.” Until she confronts that, Armstrong has a massive blind spot that even a tome like Fields of Blood can’t fill.