Monday, April 13, 2015

Should we blame religions for violence?

That learned and prolific chronicler of religions, Karen Armstrong, keeps hearing the same pronouncement wherever she goes:

... In the West the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident. ... "Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history." I have heard this sentence recited like a mantra by American commentators and psychiatrists, London taxi drivers and Oxford academics. It is an odd remark. ...

Her new book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, she aims to evaluate the historical truth of this declaration.

For this project, she first surveys truly ancient belief systems -- Central Asian Zoroastrianism, Aryan tenets developed on the Indian subcontinent, and the Chinese Daoist and Confucian principles -- before going on to look more deeply into the place of violence in societies of the Abrahamic religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Of course, none of these started out as what we think of as "religions." All these systems which shaped and gave order and meaning to human life, society, and the cosmos were total and experiential and certainly not creedal.

...our modern Western conception of "religion" is idiosyncratic and eccentric. No other cultural tradition has anything like it, and even premodern European Christians would have found it reductive and alien.

The only faith tradition that does fit the modern Western notion of religion as something codified and private is Protestant Christianity, which like religion in this sense of the word, is also a product of the early modern period. At this time Europeans and Americans had begun to separate religion and politics, because they assumed, not altogether accurately, that the theological squabbles of the Reformation had been entirely responsible for the Thirty Years' War. The conviction that religion must be rigorously excluded from political life has been called the charter myth of the sovereign nation-state.

... Ancient peoples would have found it impossible to see where "religion" ended and "politics" began. This was not because they were too stupid to understand the distinction but because they wanted to invest everything they did with ultimate value.

Moreover, all these pre-modern "religions" grew up in agrarian societies subject to inherent conflicts that embedded contradictions within them. According to the anthropology Armstrong adopts, when humans lived as pastoral nomads, life was pretty much hand to mouth and roving bands had little hierarchy. (She does not discuss whether this equity should be imagined for women as well as productive male hunters and herders.) But with the development of settled agriculture came social differentiation.

... in societies that produce more than they need, it is possible for a small group to exploit this surplus for its own enrichment, gain a monopoly of violence, and dominate the rest of the population. ... All premodern civilizations adopted this oppressive system; there seemed to be no alternative. This inevitably had implications for religion, which permeated all human activities, including state building and government. Indeed, we shall see that premodern politics was inseparable from religion. And if a ruling elite adopted an ethical tradition, such as Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam, the aristocratic clergy usually adapted their ideology so that it could support the structural violence of the state.

That is, "religions" came to embody both admonitions to community, order, and justice alongside coercion, force and damnation. It is through this lens that Armstrong surveys such murderous episodes as the Hebrew celebration of the conquest of Canaan (probably mythical), Constantine's institutionalization of Christianity in the Roman empire, the Crusades and the Muslim conquests of much of the world in the 7th and 8th century.

Probably the least familiar parts of this material to people in this country is her explication of developing contradictions within Islam. Here's a representative nugget describing early intra-Muslim wrestling over the relationship between Mohammed's revelation and the order-enforcing authorities:

... the Shariah was an idealistic countercultural challenge, which tacitly condemned the structural violence of the imperial state and boldly insisted that no institution -- not even the caliphate -- had the right to interfere with an individual's personal decisions. There was no way that an agrarian state could be run on these lines, however, and although the caliphs always acknowledged the Shariah as the law of God, they could not rule by it. Consequently, Shariah law never governed the whole of society, and the caliph's court, where justice was summary, absolute, and arbitrary, remained the supreme court of appeal...

... Sunni Muslims had accepted the imperfections of the agrarian system in order to keep the peace. The Shii still condemned its systemic violence but found a practical way of dealing with [it.] ... Henceforth the Shiah would hold aloof from the mainstream, their disengagement a silent rebuke to [the ruling] tyranny and a witness to true Islamic values. ... This sacred secularism [separation of faith and state] would remain the dominant ideal of Shiism until the late twentieth century.

Armstrong concludes that contemporary Westerners see religion as a source of violence because so much of the world is engaged in responding to the industrial-age secularization of politics that we came to gradually in the 18th century. For the developing world, especially but not only its Muslim peoples, keeping a death grip on the more bellicose tendencies implicit in their traditions is a defensive posture assumed to counter imperial aggression. That is, in this, the Taliban are responding to the same stimuli as Bible-thumping fundamentalists who deny evolution and seek to enforce patriarchy: both are recent creations of modernity fighting engulfing, unwelcome change.

... In the developing world secularization has been experienced as lethal, hostile, and invasive. There have been massacres in sacred shrines; clerics have been tortured, imprisoned, and assassinated; madrassa students shot down and humiliated; and the clerical establishment systematically deprived of resources, dignity, and status. ... Modern religious violence is not an alien growth but is part of the modern scene.

Obviously this is a big book with a big argument. As is always the case with attempts at such wide ranging surveys, I am sure scholars with more specialized knowledge can find a lot here to pick at. Armstrong is frighteningly learned but I am sure she can't be given the last word. Still, if you want to think about religion and violence, I recommend this highly.


Hattie said...

This strikes me as a good analysis. I am also thinking about the role of our belligerent nationalism in arousing hatred and fear among people that our military has attacked.

Anonymous said...

i do not believe, that any religion secular or alleged sectarian. has ever been true to TheG-D of ThePhysical Creation here in IT again.

and that the reason for this so called religious diversity, is the worship of other g-ds. where even the alleged as jews, where always grumbling, moaning, complaining, and rebelling against TheG-D of This Exact Same Physical Creation again.

and the worship of other g-ds, is always going to be the cause of all violence on earth. with every false religion on earth, claiming their g-d/s are the only true g-d/s.

Anonymous said...

so yes! since none of the secular or sectarian religions on earth today, are actually true to TheStory of Physical Creation we are all here in from ELSHADDAEE. yes! they are all the cause, of hell and death with plagues of war, terrorism, murder, thievery, kidnapping, cancer, alzheimers, e-bola. since YHVH never promised, GanEden to any of THEIR nobodies here in TheStory of Creation enemies.

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