What is religion? Has it been the same thing in all times and all cultures? Can we of today understand, much less appreciate, how premodern peoples lived in a world that merged the real and the spiritual?
And even if we can all answer these questions cogently, can we also say with legitimacy that religion is the cause of group violence, from the pursuit of heretics to the waging of war?
Former nun Karen Armstrong tackles these issues in a book that argues, simply, that we can’t blame violence on religion. Her core thesis is that while religious doctrines and motivations are associated with much mayhem, there is no fundamental, causal relationship between religion and violence. Not all religions are violent. Not all violence is religious. Not even all religious violence is religious — it just appears that way.
Armstrong covers Western history from Uruk to today’s terrorists in a dense and scholarly book. Her case is clearly written, richly detailed, and widely researched. But is it convincing?
Today’s neuropsychology shows us that our actions are often motivated by something other than what we claim, often other than what we believe. Our species is inherently social and instinctively aggressive at the same time, and the same forces that lead us to identify our friends also drive us to identify our enemies. Once we’ve made those determinations, we use whatever means are at hand to defend and to attack. Often, those means are expressed in terms of religious rituals, doctrines, and commandments. These religious directives give us reasons to unleash our anger, our fear, and our lusts for power, status, security, and resources. Armstrong makes use of these truths to argue that religion is not at the root of violence. Rather, religion accompanies the social hierarchies that serve our basic drives. Correlation yes, causation no.
In fact, she insists over and over, it’s political and economic pressures that lead to both religious fundamentalism and violence. The oppressed rally around their god of choice and, in his name, strike back against those who dominate them.
Armstrong makes this case seem quite reasonable, at least superficially. But how true is it? That largely depends on how we answer the questions in the first paragraph of this review.
In general, although I’m thoroughly non-religious, I’m inclined to accept quite a lot of Armstrong’s argument. There are lots of religions, and certainly lots of examples of both violence and amity in its many names. Human nature is a struggle between aggression and empathy, and it doesn’t take religion for us to express either of these impulses.
At the same time, I’d be more convinced if the case were being made by someone without such a clear desire to separate religion from the evils done in its name. This is a very good book, full of thought-provoking ideas — but it’s not clear how objective it is.
Too bad it wasn’t written by an atheist!