Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Author Takes Issue with Assumption That Religions Cause War; NONFICTION - BOOKS

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Author Takes Issue with Assumption That Religions Cause War; NONFICTION - BOOKS

Article excerpt

In modern Western society, says Karen Armstrong, "the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted." As a writer and speaker on religion, she says that she constantly hears from a wide swath of society that "Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history."

Well, has it?

The short answer is "no." While warriors may wrap their motivations in religion, most "religious" wars are really about power and property. That's true whether it's Roman Catholics versus Protestants in Northern Ireland, Israelis versus Palestinians in the Holy Land or Muslims versus Hindus in India.

In "Fields of Blood," Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun whose numerous books include "A History of God," takes 401 pages of densely written text, plus notes, to provide the long version of that answer. In the process, she surveys the history of war, from the rise of agrarianism to the fall of Osama bin Laden.

"From the first, it seems," Armstrong writes, "large-scale organized violence was linked not with religion but with organized theft." Blame the rise of agrarian society 5,000 years ago, whose leaders engaged in "institutional or structural violence in which a society compels people to live in such wretchedness that they are unable to better their lot," she says.

Armstrong admires hunter-gatherer communities as societies in which "people are honored for skills and qualities, such as generosity, kindness, and even-temperedness, that benefit the community as a whole." Reading anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' meticulously researched "Reindeer Moon" and "The Animal Wife" might disabuse Armstrong of some of those notions. She has a point, though, about the systemic violence inherent in any society in which one group of people can be compelled to labor for the benefit of others.

Hunter-gatherers lived at a subsistence level. With the food surpluses possible in agrarianism, leisure became an option, at least for a few. Settled farms and villages permitted the development of specialized occupations, arts and sciences.

That way of life also led to organized armies, as those who lacked sought to steal from those who had. Those who had goods and land sought even more. "So necessary to the rise of states and ultimately empires is military force that historians regard militarism as a mark of civilization." The bloody nature of the warrior caste, however, has always tainted it in the eyes of society.

The separation of church and state, meanwhile, is a recent invention, dating only to the Enlightenment of the 18th century. In the pre-modern era, Armstrong maintains, "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. …

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