Richard Dawkins is wrong: Religion is not inherently violent If there’s a single historical moment that captures what the author Karen Armstrong wants to convey in her new book, “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence,” it’s the Christmas-Day coronation of Charlemagne in 800. “Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne ‘Holy Roman Emperor’ in the Basilica of St. Peter,” she writes. “The congregation acclaimed him as ‘Augustus’ and Leo prostrated himself at Charlemagne’s feet.” If you want to blame the human race’s long, ghastly history of bloodshed on religion, Armstrong argues, be aware that faith is more often the servant than the master of politics.

“Fields of Blood” is panoramic work, even at a judicious 400 pages (excluding notes). It takes in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, India and China before settling down for a good long look at the Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, with the occasional side trip back to India when sectarian clashes heat up there. Throughout, Armstrong deploys the confident, even-handed and congenial voice that made “A History of God” (1993) and “The Battle for God” (2000) bestsellers. And her points are eminently reasonable. Religion, she insists, takes many different forms and “to claim that it has a single, unchanging and inherently violent essence is not accurate. Identical religious beliefs and practices have inspired diametrically opposed courses of action.”

As enjoyable and informative as “Fields of Blood” is, it’s a great deal of scholarship to expend on supporting an observation that seems pretty obvious. Is there anyone who actually believes that religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history? Apparently yes, as Armstrong reports having heard versions of this statement from “American commentators and psychiatrists, London tax drivers and Oxford academics.” Yet the claim is so easily refuted by a quick look at the two World Wars — not to mention, say, the Russian Revolution, the American Civil War and the Mongol Invasions of the 13th and 14th century — that you have to wonder if the people making it actually care about its historical accuracy.


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