‘Fields of Blood’ – Misunderstanding Religion 6 December 2014
A review of Karen Armstrong’s latest book ‘Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence’ by Abdul-Azim Ahmed.
Karen Armstrong is perhaps the most celebrated and successful popular writer on religion in the West today and in many ways, she is unique in her field. Few popular authors write specifically about religion; most are historians, philosophers, or in the case of Richard Dawkins – biologists, who have turned their attention to religion. By contrast, Armstrong is a specialist, authoring books titled ‘A History of God’, a biography of the Prophet of Islam ‘Muhammad’, and ‘A Short History of Myth’.
In an era also when the most remembered books on religion have been authored by atheists (‘The End of Faith’ by Sam Harris and ‘Religion for Atheists’ by Alain De Botton), Armstrong breaks the trend and writes as a theist. She couples the reverence of a believer with the acuity of a scholar, bringing an often unheard perspective on religion and faith.
Her latest work, launched in September 2014, tackles the now familiar question of religion and violence – ‘Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence’. As the headlines are dominated by the ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria, the question about the link between religion and violence is once again a discussion had in coffee breaks, across dinner tables and online.
“Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history. I have heard this same sentence recited like a mantra by American commentators and psychiatrists, London taxi drivers and Oxford academics” laments Armstrong in her introduction, outlining the motivation for her work. Her argument is simple; violence is a feature of human civilisation (particularly agrarian society) and not particularly linked to religion.
She goes further however to say that Western society has fundamentally misunderstood religion. Following the Protestant reformation and the Enlightenment, the West created a unique cultural understanding of religion. It was a separate activity, one that could be privatised. The distinction between religion and politics, religion and culture, religion and meaning, was forcibly separated in a way that, according to Armstrong, is completely alien and untenable to both the religious elsewhere in the world and pre-Enlightenment Europeans. This is important, Armstrong argues, as it often blinkers the understanding of Western minds to religion.
Armstrong then goes on to demonstrate, in an epic narrative, how violence has been a feature of human society from the earliest records of human civilisation. She begins with the first agrarian settlers, and in a Marxist analysis, observes how the surpluses of farming allowed for a certain part of society to devote themselves to art and science allowing civilisation to flourish. This advancement comes at a price however, it could only be maintained through the suffering of the workers who lived at subsistence level.
Armstrong traces the relationship between this societal violence and religion. Religion was often utilised as a tool of this system, rationalising and justifying (or sometimes simply reflecting) the violence in the lives of humans. At other times, notably, religion was a means to curb and restrict violence. Religion offered an alternative way for society to organise itself. Through Buddha, Jesus or Muhammad, a compassionate path was offered which refused to accept violence as the norm of human civilisation.
Armstrong refuses to accept the conventional wisdoms of Western society, namely that religion inspires a uniquely aggressive form of violence, that monotheism especially is intolerant of other faiths, and that if only secularism were to trump religion then the world would cease to be violent (or at least become less violent). She is relentless in challenging the compartmentalised notion of religion prevalent in Western thought, noting that it fits only with a particular brand of Christian Protestantism.
The title of her book, ‘Fields of Blood’ evokes not simply the battlefields of war that are perhaps the first image, but within her text, refer to the first farmers who gouged into the earth with their ploughs as well as the blood-soaked soil that bears testimony to God of Cain’s murder of Abel. She returns to the image repeatedly in her work, relating it often to the violence of agrarian society. It is her reflections on the inherent violence of civilisation that is one of the unexpected gems of her writing. In the early chapters, she reverses the image of the violent hunter-gatherers and cultured farmers and instead argues we lived more compassionately and more fairly as hunter-gatherers. It was agricultural society that turned to violence as an occupation.
Armstrong is not attempting to argue that religion has no bearing on violence or war, as some detractors have argued (such as David Aaronovitch in his review of Fields of Blood published in The Times). Rather, she is attempting to promote a reformulation of religion as a category. If we replace religion with a concept of deeply held beliefs, then it is clear how Stalin’s secularism is as capable of justifying violence as any world religion.
The only critique of Armstrong’s book is perhaps its length. While it does indeed act as a history of violence and its relationship to religion, it can simultaneously be a story of human society as a whole. Armstrong begins with the first Middle-Eastern farmers, then moves on to the earliest Vedic religions, the Chinese philosopher-prophet Confucius, the Hebrews and Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the wars of religion of the past millennia, and today’s ‘Global Jihad’. The breadth is absolutely breath-taking, and more than once I found myself lost in a page, inundated with the historical detail which Armstrong casually introduces to the reader.
‘Fields of Blood’ is an incredible contribution to popular understanding of religion. The author combines in herself the qualities of a scholar and seeker of religion, and is herself evidence the two are not necessarily separate endeavours. ‘Fields of Blood’ should be compulsory reading for politicians, pundits and all those involved in discussing contemporary religious violence.
Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence by Karen Armstrong (Bodley Head) is available now.
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