REVIEW: Sue Townsend
“Political differences can be resolved. Religious ones cannot.” So said a commentator on the most recent outbreak of fighting in the Middle East.
Fields of Blood can be thought of as a determined, carefully argued rebuttal of the sentiment expressed in that comment. Armstrong says, on the first page of this book: “In the West, the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident.”
Armstrong, once a Catholic nun, now a commentator on religious affairs, begins her argument in prehistory. Starting with cave paintings, she writes that through most of human history, people have chosen to integrate religion (of some kind) with all their other activities, including, notably, how they are governed, “because people wanted to endow everything they did with significance,” she says.
Within the major religions that we consider today – Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the more Eastern Buddhism and Hinduism – she considers the tension between violence and aggression on the one hand, and pacifism and justice on the other. Contrasting medieval crusaders and modern day jihadists with the pacifist teachings of Jesus and the Buddha, she insists that the violence almost always begins with the state and spills over to religion, rather than the other way around. This, she says, is because any government, whether democratic or tyrannical, peace-loving or expansionist, “was obliged to maintain at its heart an institution committed to treachery and violence,” and because violence and coercionlay at the heart of social existence.
“As an inspiration for terrorism,” she writes, “nationalism has been far more productive than religion.”
Armstrong then goes on to discuss examples of violence involving each of the major faiths, from the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century to the Islamist (and other) extremists of the 21st, including ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. In most of these cases, she argues, violence that originated elsewhere (with nationalism, territorial skirmishes, resentment at loss of power) could be perceived as “religious” but really had little to do with faith or religion.
Referring to colonisation she writes: “Once colonized, a people often depends heavily on their religious practices, over which they still have some control and which recall a time when they had the dignity of freedom.” This is extrapolated to an attempt to explain connections between the heated American faith-versus-science disputes on evolution, same-sex rights and climate change, to world events a century ago.
Armstrong is at pains to show that in modern times Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all atheists, and that the power behind the Holocaust was ethnic rather than religious hatred. An overemphasis on religion’s damage can blind people to the ‘unholy’ terrors that their states inflict.
This is a dense, serious read that should make us think more deeply about our preconceived ideas.