Armstrong to re-evaluate ‘violent’ history of religion



Karen Armstrong is tired of hearing the phrase: “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.”

Armstrong, an author of numerous books on religious affairs, will examine the Western myth that, because religion is inherently violent, it should be kept out of politics. She will frame her lecture at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, titled “Religion and the History of Violence,” around her upcoming book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.

“Often, it seems to me we are loading the violent sins of the 20th and 21st century on to the back of religion,” said Armstrong, adding she considered titling her book “The Scapegoat.”

Week Eight’s Interfaith Lecture theme is “The Global Public Religious Square.”

Armstrong will present the uniqueness of the idea that Western religion in the modern day is something separate from all other activities, an idea no one would before 1800 would have recognized.

The idea of that separateness is essential to one’s secular consciousness, she said.

“Religion permeated all activities. It was like the gin in a cocktail. And the idea of trying to take it out and make it something separate would have been incomprehensible to people,” Armstrong said. “We need to get that firmly in our heads. This is a unique thing that we developed that other peoples don’t have and other peoples before us have never had.”

Because religion permeated all activities, it also permeated state building and politics. Every state ideology before that of the United States, which came along very late in history, was imbued with religion, Armstrong said.

Although religion was personal, it wasn’t strictly a private search; it compelled people to go out into society and do good for others. The state, however, is and was an inherently violent institution, Armstrong said.

Additionally, premodern states depended on agriculture, and aristocracies took away surplus crops from peasant crop growers to fund cultural activities, taking more land from neighboring aristocracies to increase revenues; violence was at the heart of the injustice, and religion developed a pattern to justify these practices, Armstrong said.

Religious figures such as the Buddha, Confucius, the sages of the Upanishads, the great mystics and the prophets, however, always sought ways for people to live together compassionately.

“That has been just as important a theme in religion as the Holy Wars and the jihads,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong will also examine how peaceful secularism has actually been, and posit the question of whether the U.S., with its separation of religion and politics, has been more peaceful than the religiously inspired states that preceded it. She cited American political acts that were not religious, such as slavery and the detonation of atomic bombs, as well as how the secular state has been imposed violently in areas such as the Middle East.

“Secularism has come to peoples in the Middle East not only as something foreign and Western, but as something violent and cruel,” Armstrong said. “We can’t afford to sit down complacently and say religion is the cause of all the major wars in history.”

Causes of violence run deep, Armstrong said, and it is necessary not to dismiss them as entirely religious and instead examine all of violence’s roots.

“We have to look at what’s really going on, the political causes, the pain,” she said. “There’s too much sloppy talk about this, and it’s important to get these things clear.”