Oct 052014

Hark – your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil! (Gen 4:2, 10)

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It’s not true that all wars are fought in the name of religion, as some atheists assert. Of 1,723 armed conflicts documented in the three-volume “Encyclopedia of Wars,” only 123, or less than 7 percent, involved a religious cause. Hitler’s genocide, Stalin’s bloody purges and Pol Pot’s mass murders certainly make the case that state-sanctioned killings do not need the invocation of a higher power to succeed.


It slips so easily off the tongue. In fact, it’s a modern mantra. ‘Religion causes all the wars.’ Karen Armstrong claims to have heard it tossed off by American psychiatrists, London taxi-drivers and pretty much everyone else. Yet it’s an odd thing to say. For a start, which wars are we talking about? Among the many causes advanced for the Great War, ranging from the train timetables on the continent to the Kaiser’s withered left arm, I have never heard religion mentioned. Same with the second world war. The worst genocides of the last century — Hitler’s murder of the Jews and Atatürk’s massacre of the Armenians (not to mention his expulsion and massacre of the Greeks in Asia Minor too) — were perpetrated by secular nationalists who hated the religion they were born into. The long British wars of the 18th and 19th centuries — the Napoleonic wars and the Seven Years’ War — were cheerfully fought by what Wellington called ‘the scum of the earth’ for land and empire, not for the faiths to which they only nominally belonged.


The myth of religious violence helps to construct a religious Other, prone to fanaticism, to contrast with the rational, peace-making, secular subject. In domestic politics, the myth underwrites the triumph of the state over the church in the early modern period and the nation-state’s subsequent monopoly on its citizens’ willingness to sacrifice and kill.


Every year in ancient Israel the high priest brought two goats into the Jerusalem temple on the Day of Atonement. He sacrificed one to expiate the sins of the community and then laid his hands on the other, transferring all the people’s misdeeds onto its head, and sent the sin-laden animal out of the city, literally placing the blame elsewhere. In this way, Moses explained, “the goat will bear all their faults away with it into a desert place.” In his classic study of religion and violence, Rene Girard argued that the scapegoat ritual defused rivalries among groups within the community. In a similar way, I believe, modern society has made a scapegoat of faith.

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Fields of Blood

In the introduction of the book, Fields of Blood, Religion and the History of Violence, Karen Armstrong outlines her findings. Violence is endemic inhuman societies, she notes. The root causes of this violence, she argues, stems in some part from our reptilian brains, but also from the seeming need for civilizations to be born and sustained through “the systemic militancy of the state” – a dilemma that worried the Indian Emperor Ashoka (c. 268-223 BCE):

Appalled by the suffering his army had inflicted on a rebellious city, he tirelessly promoted an ethic of compassion and tolerance but could not in the end disband his army. No state can survive without its soldiers. And once states grew and warfare had become a fact of human life, an even greater force, the military might of empire, often seemed the only way to keep the peace.

… So necessary to the rise of states and ultimately empires is military force that historians regard militarism as a mark of civilization.

… Since all premodern state ideology was imbued with religion, warfare inevitably aqcuired a sacral element. … But to what degree did religion contribute to the violence of the states with which it was inextricably linked? How much blame for the history of human violence can we ascribe to religion itself? The answer is not as simple as much of our popular discourse would suggest.

… In religious history, the struggle for peace has been just as important as the holy war. Religious people have found all kinds of ingenious methods of dealing with the assertive machismo of the reptilian brain, curbing violence, and building  respectful life-enhancing communities. But as with Ashoka, who came up against the systemic militancy of the state, they could not radically change their societies; the most they could do was to propose a different path to demonstrate kinder and more empathetic ways for people to live together.

more to come…

 Posted by at 6:36 pm

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