Friday, December 12, 2014

Religion and war

There is an idea that has become so widely accepted that nearly everyone hears it without questioning: that religion is responsible for most (if not all) of the war and violence that has happened in the world.  And when you see news of "Islamic terrorists" waging jihad (holy war) against the West, it seems to make sense.  The Holocaust targeted Jews, so WWII must have been about religion, right?  Well, not really, and fortunately not everyone accepts this idea at face value.

In Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Karen Armstrong says that our modern-day understanding of "religion" actually came about around the time of the Protestant Reformation.  People prior to that wouldn't have understood our distinction between a secular government and a religious one.  She looks back to the ancient civilizations such as the Sumerians and others that sprang up in India, China, and the Middle East and examines the beginnings of the major belief systems (Hindu, Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).  She analyzes what is known about the beliefs as they developed and says that religion didn't usually play the same role in people’s lives as we think of today.  Furthermore, she says, religion was never the driving force behind wars of conquest: it was all about land and wealth and is a result of agrarian society and the rise of an “upper” or governing class.  The fact that religion may have been involved in such aggression was peripheral to the goals, and more often than not religion was a tempering force against such violence.

Armstrong makes a compelling case, even when she discusses the Middle Ages when the Holy Roman Empire held sway over Europe and the Crusaders went to Jerusalem to take back the Holy Land.  Even the so-called Religious Wars weren't drawn along the lines of religion, and adherents of different beliefs fought on the same sides.  And when it comes to more modern times she explains how religion became the more personal belief we have today and how nationalism became the driving force for violence with the rise of nation states. 

Not only is this book very well-researched, it is also very methodical and almost painstaking in its delivery and does so in a very scholarly and academic manner.  I felt I was in over my head until it got to more modern times and although I sometimes felt like abandoning the book early on, I'm glad I kept at it.  In fact, there's so much information here I feel like this is a book I'd like to re-read again in a few years.  I didn’t always find it thoroughly convincing, although that might be due to my unfamiliarity with much of the history, but sometimes it felt like Armstrong was squirming a bit to explain some more modern troubles.  But it's a solid and thought-provoking counter-argument to books that claim any gains in peace are due solely to "Enlightenment philosophies" (which she ties to the rise of nation-states and nationalism) and I’m sure I'm doing a poor job of explaining her arguments.  But personally, my greatest qualm with the book – as a religious person – is that it’s written with such an agnostic viewpoint that it felt like it was defending the benefits of religious belief systems while denying the Godly power behind them, but I understand the need for a scholarly viewpoint.  (I received this book from the BloggingforBooks program in exchange for an unbiased review.)