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1 October 2014updated 26 Sep 2015 7:31am

John Gray: is religion to blame for history’s bloodiest wars?

From the Inquisition to Isis, religion is blamed for brutality. But violence is a secular creed too.

By John Gray

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence
Karen Armstrong
Bodley Head, 512pp, £25

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.

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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.

Atheists think of religion as a system of supernatural belief, but the idea of the supernatural presupposes a distinct sort of cosmogony – typically one in which the material world is the creation of a personal God – that is found in only a few of the world’s religions. Moreover, the idea that belief is central in religion makes sense only when religion means having a creed. Until the British started classifying the people of the Indian subcontinent by their religious affiliations, Armstrong points out, there was no such thing as “Hinduism”. Instead there was an unfathomably rich diversity of practices, which weren’t seen as separate from one another or from the rest of life, and didn’t define themselves in terms of belief. The same was true in pre-Christian Europe. “Neither the Greeks nor the Romans”, Armstrong reminds us, “ever separated religion from secular life. They would not have understood our modern conception of ‘religion’. They had no authoritative scriptures, no compulsory beliefs, no distinct clergy and no obligatory ethical rules.”

Throughout much of history and all of prehistory, “religion” meant practice – and not just in some special area of life. Belief has not been central to most of the world’s religions; indeed, in some traditions it has been seen as an impediment to spiritual life. Vedanta, Buddhism and Taoism caution against mistaking human concepts for ultimate realities; Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain currents of what is known as apophatic theology, in which God can be described only in negative terms. It is only those who are hung up on creeds who become missionaries of unbelief.

Karen Armstrong is one of our most perceptive and thoughtful writers on religion. Knowing it from the inside as a Catholic nun in her youth, she does not have a rose-tinted view of the Christian Church. Her moving memoir The Spiral Staircase (2004) shows how cruel, stupid and oppressive religious institutions can be. But Armstrong has never lost her sense of what the great American pragmatist William James called the variety of religious experience. “A religious tradition is never a single, unchanging essence that compels people to act in a uniform way,” she writes. “It is a template that can be modified and altered radically to serve a variety of ends.” In one form or another religion is humanly universal, but it is also essentially multifarious.

Applying this humane and pluralistic approach, Fields of Blood presents a refreshingly uncluttered view of the history of violence in the service of faith. Ambitious in scope, the book ranges from Zoroaster through biblical Judaism, the rise of Buddhism and the cult of the gentleman in China through to Renaissance humanism, the development of Christian fundamentalism in America and its role in politics, the emergence of Hindu nationalism and today’s jihadist movements. This is in no sense an apology for faith. It is an exploration of religion as it has been and is – warts and all. Even so, this book will make uncomfortable reading for exponents of secular conventional wisdom.

The Renaissance is just one of several secular icons that Armstrong demolishes. Nothing is more commonplace than to read that Renaissance thinkers introduced a novel understanding of universal humanity. But Renaissance humanists were actually less sympathetic to the plight of indigenous peoples such as the Mesoamericans who had been violently subjugated than churchmen such as the Dominicans, who condemned the predatory behaviour of the conquistadores. “The philosophy of human rights,” Armstrong notes, “did not apply to all human beings.” In some ways, modern conceptions of rights were more inhuman than medieval religion. One of the founders of liberalism, John Locke, found it intolerable that the “wild woods and uncultivated waste of America be left to nature, without any improvement, tillage and husbandry”. Involved in his own right in the colonisation of the Carolinas, Locke “argued that the native ‘kings’ of America had no legal jurisdiction or right of ownership of their land”.

Again, the Spanish Inquisition is a notorious example of the violence of religion. There can be no doubt that it entailed hideous cruelty, not least to Jews who had converted to Christianity, often in order to save their lives, but who were suspected of secretly practising their faith and consequently, in some cases, burnt. Yet in strictly quantitative terms, the Inquisition pales in comparison to later frenzies of secular violence. Recent estimates of the numbers who were executed during the first 20 years of the Inquisition – “the most violent period in its long history”, according to Armstrong – range from 1,500 to 2,000 people. By contrast, about a quarter of a million people were killed in the Vendée (out of a population of roughly 800,000) when a peasant rebellion against the French Revolution was put down by republican armies in 1794. And some 17,000 men, women and children were guillotined in the purge that ended in July that year, including the man who had designed the new revolutionary calendar. It is indisputable that this mass slaughter had a religious dimension. In 1793 a Goddess of Reason was enthroned on the high altar at Notre Dame Cathedral; revolutionary leaders made great use of terms such as “credo”, “sacrament” and “sermon” in their speeches. As Armstrong puts it, “No sooner had the revolutionaries rid themselves of one religion than they invented another.”

Consistently surprising and illuminating, Fields of Blood should be read by anyone interested in understanding the interaction of religion with violence in the modern world. Relying on detailed historical analysis, Armstrong argues convincingly against the prevailing idea that religion is uniquely prone to acting violently. She is less sure-footed in her account of secular faith and the violence that has been committed on its behalf. When she refers to the “secularist bias” of modern thinking, she seems to endorse the conventional perception of the modern world as having moved away from religion. Yet the logic of her argument pushes in another direction.

Few movements have been as single-minded in their commitment to modernisation as Lenin’s Bolsheviks, and few have been so virulently hostile to mainstream faiths. Yet as Bertrand Russell observed in his forgotten 1920 classic The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, written after he travelled to Russia and talked with Lenin, Soviet communism was from the beginning as much a religion as a political project. Oddly, though it was a rerun on a vaster scale of the French revolutionary terror that she analyses so penetratingly, Armstrong says practically nothing about the Soviet experience, or about Maoism. Yet, together with Nazism, these 20th-century state cults plant a question mark over the very idea of secularisation. Certainly there has been a decline in the old authority of churches, but that does not mean religion is becoming weaker. Simultaneous with the retreat of the mainstream faiths, there has been a rise of a plethora of political religions and an explosion of fundamentalism, sometimes fused in a single movement.

The ambiguities of secularisation are especially prominent in the Middle East. What does Islamic State stand for – an ultra-violent type of religious fundamentalism, or a radically modern politics? Clearly, it represents both. Armstrong provides some of the background to the emergence of IS when she discusses Wahhabism, the 18th-century Islamic movement whose founder, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, helped establish the first Saudi state. Since the influx of oil wealth, the Saudis have promoted Wahhabism worldwide. IS is one of the offspring of this project: an ogre that is now a deadly threat to the Saudi state. A potential for violence was present in Wahhabism from the start. But Armstrong tells us that it “was not inherently violent; indeed, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab had refused to sanction the wars of his patron, Ibn Saud, because he was simply fighting for wealth and glory”. As an argument for the peaceful character of the movement, this is less than compelling. The clear implication of the founder’s statement is that war would have been justified if it had been waged in the service of faith.

Armstrong performs an invaluable service by showing that religion is not the uniquely violent force demonised by secular thinkers. Yet neither is religion intrinsically peaceful – a benign spiritual quest compromised and perverted by its involvement with power. The potential for violence exists in faith-based movements of all kinds, secular as well as religious. Evangelical atheists splutter with fury when reminded that a war on religion was an integral part of some of the 20th century’s worst regimes. How can anyone accuse a movement devoted to reason and free inquiry of being implicated in totalitarian oppression? It is a feeble-minded and thoroughly silly response, reminiscent of that of witless believers who ask how a religion of love could possibly be held to account for the horrors of the Inquisition.

Conventional distinctions between religious and secular belief pass over the role that belief itself plays in our lives. “We are meaning-seeking creatures,” Karen Armstrong writes wisely, “and, unlike other animals, fall very easily into despair if we fail to make sense of our lives.” We are unlike our animal kin in another way. Only human beings kill and die for the sake of beliefs about themselves and the nature of the world. Looking for sense in their lives, they attack others who find meaning in beliefs different from their own. The violence of faith cannot be exorcised by demonising religion. It goes with being human. 

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His next book, “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom”, will be published by Penguin in 2015

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