Very Short Reviews: Karen Armstrong’s _Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence_

Fields of Blood

Since many people associate religion with the contemporary conflicts we have witnessed across much of the globe since 9/11, it seemed to make sense that this blog review Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. In other words, One Thing after Another read the book so you don’t have to.

Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (New York: Anchor Books, 2014).

  1. Armstrong asserts that her primary motive in writing this book consists of refuting an assertion repeated to her relentlessly “like a mantra” by people from all walks of life: “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.”
  2. Attempting to disprove this assertion makes it unclear who this book is for; scholars do not make these kinds of generalizations in academic forums, and laypeople who do make these kinds of generalizations are unlikely to read an overlong book larded with so much detail that the thesis is occasionally lost.
  3. Along the way, Armstrong does remind her readers of some important, well-established truths: religion is difficult to define; until the emergence of the modern age, people could not really make a distinction between religion and politics; over time, religious traditions have been interpreted in a variety of ways and therefore have no true “essence” (although she undermines this argument by claiming from time to time that a religious tradition was not implicated by the violent acts of its adherents because they were not acting according to the “true” spirit of that tradition); and most faiths have experienced an ambivalent relationship with violence.
  4. Armstrong’s main argument is that the responsibility for the great majority of violence lies with the state and that in the contemporary period, war is the product of imperialism or the strains of modernization; religion has been distorted by these forces and often reflects rather than instigates them.
  5. So far from being the problem, she argues, religion is the solution: “Somehow we have to find ways of doing what religion—at its best—has done for centuries: build a sense of global community, cultivate a sense of reverence and ‘equanimity’ for all, and take responsibility for the suffering we see in the world.”
  6. One of the main problems with this book is that it is too broad (it starts with the Sumerians and proceeds to the present), which means that Armstrong often ventures into areas where she has no experience or background; to name just one of many examples, she claims there is little evidence that humans fought one another before the advent of agriculture and civilization—but since Laurence Keeley wrote War before Civilization (1996), scholars (backed by mounting archaeological evidence) have increasingly taken the view that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were pretty violent.
  7. As other reviewers have pointed out, her history inclines toward an economic and social determinism that tends to be superficial and poorly explained; culture does not display much autonomy in her narrative. (See The Economist: http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21636708-secularism-or-religion-more-authoritarian-trouble-and-strife)
  8. It is not clear whether Armstrong’s sources influenced or express her stance, but her notes and bibliography are idiosyncratic and often do not reflect the latest literature in the periods or topics she studies.
  9. There are important contradictions in her argument; to name perhaps the most important one, if, as she states, religion could not be distinguished from politics up until the modern period, and political motives generally inspired warfare, it would seem that religion is still culpable.
  10. Or, to look at the same problem from another angle, as Mark Juergensmeyer writes in his Washington Post review of Armstrong’s work, “Religion — in the sense of what theologian Paul Tillich called ‘the repository of symbols’ — has also had long relationships with grandiose power, violence and blood. So religion is not totally off the hook.” (See the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/book-review-fields-of-blood-by-karen-armstrong/2014/10/23/a098e374-4d90-11e4-aa5e-7153e466a02d_story.html)

Hugh Dubrulle

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