Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Lambs to the Slaughter: From the Inquisition to Isis, Religion Is Blamed for Brutality. but Violence Is a Secular Creed Too

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Lambs to the Slaughter: From the Inquisition to Isis, Religion Is Blamed for Brutality. but Violence Is a Secular Creed Too

Article excerpt


Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence

Karen Armstrong

Bodley Head, 512pp. 25 [pounds sterling]

Not long after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, in which Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became supreme leader, a US official was heard to exclaim: "Who ever took religion seriously?" The official was baffled at the interruption of what he assumed was an overwhelmingly powerful historical trend. Pretty well everyone at the time took it for granted that religion was on the way out, not only as a matter of personal belief, but even more as a deciding factor in politics. Secularisation was advancing everywhere, and with increasing scientific knowledge and growing prosperity it was poised to become a universal human condition. True, there were some countries that remained stubbornly religious--including, ironically, the United States. But these were exceptions. Religion was an atavistic way of thinking which was gradually but inexorably losing its power. In universities, grandiose theories of secularisation were taught as established fact, while politicians dismissed ideas they didn't like as "mere theology". The unimportance of religion was part of conventional wisdom, an unthinking assumption of those who liked to see themselves as thinking people.

Today no one could ask why religion should be taken seriously. Those who used to dismiss religion are terrified by the intensity of its revival. Karen Armstrong, who cites the US official, describes the current state of opinion: "In the west the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident." She goes on:

   As one who speaks on religion,
   I constantly hear how cruel and
   aggressive it has been, a view that,
   eerily, is expressed in the same way
   almost every time: "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.
   Obviously the two world wars were
   not fought on account of religion ... Experts
   in political violence or terrorism
   insist that people commit atrocities for a
   complex range of reasons. Yet so indelible
   is the aggressive image of religious faith
   in our secular consciousness that we
   routinely load the violent sins of the 20th
   century on to the back of "religion" and
   drive it out into the political wilderness.

The idea that religion is fading away has been replaced in conventional wisdom by the notion that religion lies behind most of the world's conflicts. Many among the present crop of atheists hold both ideas at the same time. They will fulminate against religion, declaring that it is responsible for much of the violence of the present time, then a moment later tell you with equally dogmatic fervour that religion is in rapid decline. Of course it's a mistake to expect logic from rationalists. More than anything else, the evangelical atheism of recent years is a symptom of moral panic. Worldwide secularisation, which was believed to be an integral part of the process of becoming modern, shows no signs of happening. Quite the contrary: in much of the world, religion is in the ascendant. For many people the result is a condition of acute cognitive dissonance.

It's a confusion compounded by the lack of understanding, among those who issue blanket condemnations of religion, of what being religious means for most of humankind. As Armstrong writes, "Our modern western conception of religion is idiosyncratic and eccentric." In the west we think of religion as "a coherent system of obligatory beliefs, institutions and rituals, centring on a supernatural God, whose practice is essentially private and hermetically sealed off from all 'secular' activities". But this narrow, provincial conception, which is so often invoked by contemporary unbelievers, is the product of a particular history and a specific version of monotheism. …

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