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Originally published Sunday, November 9, 2014 at 5:03 AM

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‘Fields of Blood:’ tangled ties between religion and violence

In her new book “Fields of Blood,” Karen Armstrong, a world-renowned scholar of religion, examines the relationship between religion and violence.

Special to The Seattle Times


“Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence”

by Karen Armstrong

Knopf, 528 pp., $30

Karen Armstrong, the author of a score of massively erudite books about the workings of the sacred in human history, knows more about religion than I ever will — but nonetheless I found myself arguing with her as I waded through “Fields of Blood,” her new book about religion and violence.

“We are flawed creatures with violent hearts that long for peace,” she notes, insisting that societies grounded in faith, or at least communal ritual, do a better job of channeling and containing both violence and the yearning for peace than strictly secular societies.

Even if this is true — and Armstrong herself presents considerable evidence to the contrary — what her central premise boils down to is that religion may be bad but no religion is worse. To my mind, this is a very slender reed on which to hang a 400-page survey that spans the history of violence and religion from Gilgamesh to the Sept. 11 bombings.

Armstrong comes out swinging. She is sick and tired, she writes in the introduction, of hearing the truism that “Religion has been the cause of all major wars in history” ... “recited like a mantra” wherever she goes. Fair enough.

In rebuttal, she might have composed a closely reasoned argument, zeroing in on the history, psychology and sacred texts that bolster her view. Instead she has gone epic, recounting several thousand years of world history through the lens of religious violence.

Armstrong’s prose is crisp and lucid, her command of fact encyclopedic, and her insights often brilliant. Nonetheless, her world tour of clashing ideologies left me numb and despondent.

The central Asian Aryan herdsmen who fell on the farmers of Asia and Europe around 2500 BCE celebrated “the joy of killing” in their holy writings. Chinese civilization and religion were “founded on the twin pillars of agriculture and the organized violence of warfare.”

In the Hebrew Bible “Yahweh is a war god” who “fights earthly empires to establish a people.” Though Jesus advocated charity and humility, Christianity turned warlike as soon as it became the state religion of the Roman Empire.

But the real problem, in Armstrong’s view, is not holy war, which she views as regrettable but unavoidable given human nature, but unholy war waged by secular societies that replaced God with nationalism.

Religion may be an excuse for oppression, but at least the major faiths voice a “concern for everybody.” But in secular societies like revolutionary France or Nazi Germany, ferocious nationalism blotted out “universal empathy,” and the result was state-sanctioned mass slaughter of the other.

Armstrong’s narrative becomes more urgent toward the end when she addresses the violence deployed by contemporary Islamic extremists. She adds nuance to the question of whether Islam is inherently more violent than other religions, noting the “constant juxtaposition of ruthlessness and mercy in the Quran” and delving into the multiple meanings of jihad.

But to my mind she goes seriously astray when she suggests that the 9/11 terrorist attacks cannot really be considered religious violence, since the majority of the perpetrators were recent converts with a limited knowledge of Islam. Blind and ignorant the terrorists may have been, but they were nonetheless motivated by fanatic faith.

Religion, as Armstrong writes in the afterword, urges us to “take responsibility for the suffering we see in the world.” It has inspired some of our greatest art and loftiest sentiments.

But when it comes to justice, freedom, tolerance, open-mindedness and respect for the rights of our fellow humans, I’ll take a secular democracy over a government grounded in faith, any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Seattle author David Laskin’s “The Family: A Journey into the Heart of the 20th Century” won the 2014 Washington State Book Award in biography/memoir.

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