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Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence

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From the renowned and best-selling author of A History of God, a sweeping exploration of religion's connection to violence. For the first time in American history, religious self-identification is on the decline. Some have cited a perception that began to grow after September 11, 2001-that faith in general is a source of aggression, intolerance, and divisiveness, something From the renowned and best-selling author of A History of God, a sweeping exploration of religion's connection to violence. For the first time in American history, religious self-identification is on the decline. Some have cited a perception that began to grow after September 11, 2001-that faith in general is a source of aggression, intolerance, and divisiveness, something bad for society. But how accurate is that view? And does it apply equally to all faiths? In these troubled times, we risk basing decisions of real and dangerous consequence on mistaken understandings of the faiths around us, in our immediate community as well as globally. And so, with her deep learning and sympathetic understanding, Karen Armstrong examines the impulse toward violence in each of the world's great religions. The comparative approach is new: while there have been plenty of books on jihad or the Crusades, for example this one lays the Christian and the Islamic way of war side by side, along with those of Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Judaism. Each of these faiths arose in an agrarian society with plenty of motivation for violence: landowners had to lord it over peasants, and warfare was essential to increase one's landholdings, the only real source of wealth before the great age of trade and commerce. In each context, it fell to the priestly class to legitimate the actions of the state. And so the martial ethos became bound up with the sacred. At the same time, however, the faiths developed ideologies that ran counter to the warrior code: around sages, prophets, and mystics within each tradition there grew up communities that represented a protest against the injustice and violence endemic to agrarian society. This book explores the symbiosis of these two impulses and its development as these confessional faiths came of age. But modernity has also been spectacularly violent, and so Armstrong goes on to show how and in what measure religions, in their relative maturity, came to absorb modern belligerence-and what hope there might be for peace among believers in our time.


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From the renowned and best-selling author of A History of God, a sweeping exploration of religion's connection to violence. For the first time in American history, religious self-identification is on the decline. Some have cited a perception that began to grow after September 11, 2001-that faith in general is a source of aggression, intolerance, and divisiveness, something From the renowned and best-selling author of A History of God, a sweeping exploration of religion's connection to violence. For the first time in American history, religious self-identification is on the decline. Some have cited a perception that began to grow after September 11, 2001-that faith in general is a source of aggression, intolerance, and divisiveness, something bad for society. But how accurate is that view? And does it apply equally to all faiths? In these troubled times, we risk basing decisions of real and dangerous consequence on mistaken understandings of the faiths around us, in our immediate community as well as globally. And so, with her deep learning and sympathetic understanding, Karen Armstrong examines the impulse toward violence in each of the world's great religions. The comparative approach is new: while there have been plenty of books on jihad or the Crusades, for example this one lays the Christian and the Islamic way of war side by side, along with those of Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Judaism. Each of these faiths arose in an agrarian society with plenty of motivation for violence: landowners had to lord it over peasants, and warfare was essential to increase one's landholdings, the only real source of wealth before the great age of trade and commerce. In each context, it fell to the priestly class to legitimate the actions of the state. And so the martial ethos became bound up with the sacred. At the same time, however, the faiths developed ideologies that ran counter to the warrior code: around sages, prophets, and mystics within each tradition there grew up communities that represented a protest against the injustice and violence endemic to agrarian society. This book explores the symbiosis of these two impulses and its development as these confessional faiths came of age. But modernity has also been spectacularly violent, and so Armstrong goes on to show how and in what measure religions, in their relative maturity, came to absorb modern belligerence-and what hope there might be for peace among believers in our time.

30 review for Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence

  1. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    At one time or another, I’m guessing, you’ve stumbled across the remark that “religion has been the cause of all major wars in history.” Maybe you heard it at a bar, when some drunk dropped it on you like it was the truth-bomb of all the universe. Maybe you heard it from an outspoken uncle or cousin at Thanksgiving who was trying to stir the pot (maybe that cousin or uncle was also drunk; people drink at Thanksgiving; I drink at Thanksgiving). You have certainly seen this statement on the intern At one time or another, I’m guessing, you’ve stumbled across the remark that “religion has been the cause of all major wars in history.” Maybe you heard it at a bar, when some drunk dropped it on you like it was the truth-bomb of all the universe. Maybe you heard it from an outspoken uncle or cousin at Thanksgiving who was trying to stir the pot (maybe that cousin or uncle was also drunk; people drink at Thanksgiving; I drink at Thanksgiving). You have certainly seen this statement on the internet, where it often takes up residence on comment threads, oft paired with its sibling, the equally fatuous “secularists have caused all the major wars in history.” The proper response upon hearing this remark is to roll your eyes. It’s not even worth arguing, since it takes approximately one-half second to think of a counterargument that demolishes the premise. But Karen Armstrong took a different tack. Karen Armstrong doesn’t roll eyes; she writes books. So she wrote Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence because she believes “modern society has made a scapegoat of faith.” (Not included in this "history of violence" is the damage done to straw men by authors such as Armstrong). The 401 dense pages of this book might be considered overkill. And it is. However, the problem I had wasn’t with Armstrong’s belaboring of the point, but rather that for long stretches she herself seems to forget that she set out to prove a thesis. Fields of Blood starts out with a hypothesis that is oft forgotten and only intermittently argued. Without anything holding the narrative together, Armstrong wanders aimlessly from topic to topic, like a kid on Halloween without a plan. This is not to say Fields of Blood is a total loss. Many parts of it – individual chapters and mini-arcs within the chapters – can be quite interesting. But it doesn’t hold together. The different chapters often feel like strangers, one to the other. Accordingly, the pacing is way off, to the point where I had to slog through ten or twenty pages a night just to finish. Armstrong also engages in a lot of generalities. She'll give a concrete example and then stretch it like Silly Putty. Fields of Blood has a lot of ground to cover in a relatively few pages. The book is broken into three sections. It starts with Gilgamesh thousands of years before Christ, and ends with 21st century terrorism. The change in scenery, from our earliest agrarian societies to the modern day won’t necessarily give you whiplash. Things move far too slowly for that. The earliest chapters cover the beginnings of religion in ancient society. She devotes particular space to India, China, and Israel. The point Armstrong makes in these chapters is that in the beginning, there was no “religion.” What we’d term religion was inseparable from everyday life. In the premodern world, religion permeated all aspects of life. [A] host of activities now considered mundane were experienced as deeply sacred: forest clearing, hunting, football matches, dice games, astronomy, farming, state building, tugs-of-war, town planning, commerce, imbibing strong drink, and, most particularly, warfare. Ancient peoples would have found it impossible to see where “religion” ended and “politics” began. The central portion of Fields of Blood covers the rise of Christianity and Islam. Armstrong covers a hodgepodge of topics, from the birth of Jesus to Constantine’s conversion to the doctrinal beliefs lending themselves to Crusade and Jihad. Armstrong argues that religion in this period had a modulating effect on violence. If not exactly pacific, certain theological constructs – such as the “just war” theory propounded by Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas – at least tended to proscribe violence in certain situations. The book’s final third covers religion in “modern” times, from the inception of the nation-state (which finally separated religion from politics) to the present day (with an obvious highlighting of religion-based terrorism). Again, topic-wise, Armstrong is all over the place. One moment we’re in Colonial America, the next we are being led through the Iranian Revolution. Armstrong proposes that nation-states “labor under a fundamental contradiction” in that the “state had been devised to contain violence, but the nation was now being used to release it.” If we can define the sacred as something for which one is prepared to die, the nation had certainly become an embodiment of the divine, a supreme value. Hence national mythology would encourage cohesion, solidarity, and loyalty within the confines of the nation. But it had yet to develop the “concern for everybody” that had been such an important ideal of the many spiritual traditions associated with religion. The national mythos would not encourage citizens to extend their sympathy to the ends of the earth, to love the stranger in their midst, be loyal even to their enemies, to wish happiness for all beings, and to become aware of the world’s pain. True, this universal empathy had rarely affected the violence of the warrior aristocracy, but it had at least offered an alternative and a continuing challenge. Now that religion was being privatized, there was no “international” ethos to counter the growing structural and military violence to which weaker nations were increasingly subjected. Secular nationalism seemed to regard the foreigner as fair game for exploitation and mass slaughter, especially if he belonged to a different ethnic group. Armstrong finishes by concluding that religion is often unfairly blamed for violent acts. Crusaders and terrorists, she concludes, aren’t true believers but opportunists using religion as a pretext for their acts. She cites to studies regarding Afghani fighters and terrorists connected to 9/11 to argue that religious resolve is not the motivating factor. I don’t know. I don’t really have a dog in this fight, but this isn’t really a satisfying explanation. Religion and faith are two vastly different things. Faith is an intimate relationship with the divine. Religion is a manmade institution created to channel faith in a sanctioned manner. If religion can be hijacked by somebody with a gun and a grievance, then I think some blame has to reside there. It is, at the least, providing a framework for certain kinds of violence directed at certain people. (As another reviewer has pointed out, Armstrong indulges the No True Scotsman fallacy. That is, no true Christian/Muslim/Hindu would ever do [insert violent act]). My disagreement on this particular point is not a serious one. Part of the reason is that Armstrong is not a flamethrower. Despite taking on a combustible topic, she is sober-minded and unfailingly respectful in tone. And you can’t argue with her bottom line, which is that "[w]e are all, religious and secular alike, responsible for the current predicament of the world.” (I mean, I guess you can argue with it, but it's such an innocuous sentiment that you'd sound like a jerk). I’m tempted to say that maybe this needed a dash of the polemicist. A little rancor to spice things up. It might have made for a faster read. Perhaps she could have been a bit more strident, like her bête noire, Richard Dawkins. That might have made things a bit more engaging. (Then again, it is hard to be super engaging when you are arguing that agrarianism is the root of all mankind's misdeeds). Armstrong eventually proves her point. It is not pithy or efficient (or necessary), but it is proved nonetheless. Most of the violence throughout history can’t be ascribed solely to religion. Like everything else in life, the answer to What caused this war? is a resounding It’s complicated. If you need an information-dense, somewhat-pedantic convincer, here you go. Otherwise, this might be one to avoid. The concept, after all, is relatively simple. “It makes no difference what men think of war,” says the judge in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. “War endures. As well ask man what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jaylia3

    Does religion cause war? Like several Karen Armstrong books I’ve read, Fields of Blood is so rich with information and ideas that it has years worth of material to reflect on and discuss. Even reading slowly and carefully it felt like I was just skimming its surface, but that was still enough to make me question some of my thinking patterns. For years Armstrong has heard people from all walks of life confidently making the broad mostly unexamined pronouncement that religion has been the cause of Does religion cause war? Like several Karen Armstrong books I’ve read, Fields of Blood is so rich with information and ideas that it has years worth of material to reflect on and discuss. Even reading slowly and carefully it felt like I was just skimming its surface, but that was still enough to make me question some of my thinking patterns. For years Armstrong has heard people from all walks of life confidently making the broad mostly unexamined pronouncement that religion has been the cause of all major wars in history--I have been guilty of similar shortcut thinking myself--so she wrote Fields of Blood to address that claim with a fascinating, wide-reaching, and detailed world history of culture, politics, violence, and religion from the prehistoric pre-agrarian era to the post-9/11 present day. The central themes of the entire 400+ page book are well summarized in its nine page Afterword, but the particulars of history in the earlier sections are what makes this book so interesting. One of the main ideas Armstrong makes a case for, as best as I can do justice to it, is that religion isn’t the cause of violence, the same religious texts can inspire very different actions, and it’s societal stratification and expansion brought about by the development of agriculture and then industrialization that began the cycle of subjugation and violence as we understand it today. Among the book’s many other interesting points to ponder, whether or not you end up agreeing with Armstrong, are that most people don’t make the claim that WWI or WWII--two of history’s largest wars--were caused by religion, that before the French Revolution there was no separation of church or religion and state so separating out religion as the cause of war is problematic, and that belief systems, even secular belief systems, can play a role in stemming violence and preserving the best aspects of our humanity. I read an advanced review copy of this book supplied by the publisher. The review opinions are mine.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Tom Gagne

    After seven chapters, it seems the source of cultural violence isn't religion, but agrarian society--blame it on gardening. Shortly after humans discovered gardening's advantages over hunting and gathering, raiders discovered they could steal from gardeners. Gardeners hired guardians to protect their tomatoes, and it was all downhill from there. After seven chapters, it seems the source of cultural violence isn't religion, but agrarian society--blame it on gardening. Shortly after humans discovered gardening's advantages over hunting and gathering, raiders discovered they could steal from gardeners. Gardeners hired guardians to protect their tomatoes, and it was all downhill from there.

  4. 5 out of 5

    William

    Okay, so I finally finished off the final five pages of 'Fields of Blood' that I've been avoiding, and can put down some of my multitudinous thoughts down on electronic page. Firstly it must be conceded that Armstrong has written a very important and timely book here. Particularly in its first two thirds or so it reveals a history and a side to religion that most people never know about or experience, and I can happily credit this work as being a major catalyst in the alteration -- for what must Okay, so I finally finished off the final five pages of 'Fields of Blood' that I've been avoiding, and can put down some of my multitudinous thoughts down on electronic page. Firstly it must be conceded that Armstrong has written a very important and timely book here. Particularly in its first two thirds or so it reveals a history and a side to religion that most people never know about or experience, and I can happily credit this work as being a major catalyst in the alteration -- for what must now be the thousandth time -- in my view of and relationship to religion. This is not praise I throw around lightly. The central conceit is one whose merit I am now well disposed to and have more or less fully accepted, and this amounts to no small change in my thinking. But if it is not so much the book's overall contention that I find issue with, it is Armstrong's elaboration of it. From the very first page it is clear she's fighting a strawman that wouldn't ordinarily fool anyone had the New Atheists not arrived on the scene a decade ago. My empathy with these Angry Atheists has been in steady decline for several years, but I can tell you as someone who once considered himself one of their number that only the most simple-minded contrarians formulate their beliefs as "Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history." Such sentiments have always been strawmen, and there is actually a lot more nuance than this in even the most obnoxious strains of New Atheism (much less the general populace) than Armstrong would have you believe. This faux pas could easily be dismissed as merely a lead-in to the rest of her work that is meant only to clarify the focus and limitations of her arguments (i.e. that her critique tackles violence directly inspired by religion, and that alone), except that Armstrong seems to be profoundly unaware of alternative criticisms of religion which don’t hinge on its association with what I would call ‘literal violence’ -- things like war, murder, vigilantism, sexual assault, punitive measures, and so on. Armstrong makes a big deal, especially in early chapters, of the role religion has played in confronting “systemic violence” (particularly that of the pre-modern agrarian state), as opposed to a more literal definition, and encompassing such phenomena as poverty, state oppression of certain peoples’ liberties and human rights, and the persecution of marginalised groups. But she seems oblivious to the fact that many of these things are, especially in the modern world, propped up and justified by religious institutions. A great deal more of the pushback against religion in the modern Western world has come from concerns about the way religious authorities so often endorse misogyny, racism, xenophobia, classism, cissexism, homophobia and other marginalisations than she realises or wants to admit. Necessarily, I read this book as a queer person, and as such was dismayed when at every turn Armstrong simply ignores the perspectives of oppressed peoples, both modern and historical, who have been on the receiving end of religious bigotry. She may be right in tacitly separating oppressive phenomena from religious motives -- claiming that such oppressive actions would still have predominated in a society untouched by religion -- but uniquely religious oppressions are still ignored. When discussing the colonisation of the Americas, for example, it takes a great deal of gall to insinuate that the pushy fanaticism with which Catholic missionaries forced their religion onto the indigenous population was not experienced as a kind of violence, and that it was at least preferable to the ‘literal violence’ of the Conquistadors -- as if these two things could even be separated. Indigenous people all over the world are largely in agreement on this, and Armstrong is egregiously wrong to ignore them. Furthermore, she consistently dismisses the allegations of religiously-motivated wrongdoing with a version of the No True Scotsman fallacy -- often in flagrant contradiction of the words of the practitioners themselves. Always, it seems, a violent, oppressive, or extremist interpretation of any given religious tradition is actually a violation of the founding principles of that tradition, and is therefore illegitimate and cannot properly be seen as being in any way representative of the real ideals which underlie that faith. These might be fine arguments for insiders to make, and they might even be historically true, but there’s something unsettling about an white, English, liberal Christian woman making these pronouncements about the inner workings of Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism. Presumably, any practitioner of these religions who disagrees with her interpretation of their own traditions is simply mistaken. Beyond such specific examples of white and Western privilege, Armstrong also has little sympathy for those who have parted ways with religion for damned good reason -- perhaps surprisingly given her own abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church. Wielding the terms ‘secular’ and ‘atheistic’ like batons, she seems incapable of understanding that many people have entirely justified reasons for their antipathy. My own break with Christianity and the majority of its adherents came from their fundamental incompatibility with my queerness, and I will always contend that even my most bellicose Angry Atheist phase was for this reason as justifiable as they come. And this is where the crux of the problem reveals itself. I can forgive a privileged white woman her occasional insensitivity, or her focus on a particular type of violence to the exclusion of others, but I cannot excuse the way Armstrong constantly attempts to blame the failures of religion or the atrocities of the state on secularism and, by implication, atheism. Not only does she assert throughout the book that the decline of religious life has left a hole in the modern collective psychology that has since been replaced with violence and nihilism -- a claim most people would find specious and possibly offensive -- but that secular modes of thinking and organising society are responsible for pretty much all of the violence done in the name of religion itself over the last five hundred years. (On one memorable/aneurysm-inducing occasion, she blamed secularism and evolution more-or-less directly for the rise of Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority.) When applied to the rise of Islamism and Hindu fanaticism in the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa, and the Subcontinent, this idea holds a great deal of weight: the breakneck pace of modernisation (including, as a subset, secularisation) in these post-colonial societies has resulted in a great deal of cultural dislocation which has had a fierce backlash -- Armstrong is not the first to note this, by a long way. But as a broader framework it falls apart. Other civilisational blocs that suffered from colonialism and/or the rapid modernisation that followed have not had any overtly religious mass reactions to speak of: sub-Saharan Africa, (South-)East Asia, the Americas, and Eastern Europe/Russia have all experienced a form of the same process without developing conservative, religious counter-movements. When considering apparent religious violence and hatred in the modern West -- the hate crimes, the abortion clinic bombings, the mass shootings, etc. -- this theory is exposed as even more disingenuous and offensive. Secularism is not the common-denominator you’re looking for to explain this violence. Perhaps religion isn't either, but either way Armstrong seems intent on scapegoating the only viable kind of social organisation we can reasonably consider enacting in the inter-connected, multicultural societies such as the ones to which we now all belong. That more or less concludes my thoughts on Fields of Blood, but I wouldn't be me if I didn't take one last parting-shot at the author I've been both publicly and privately lambasting for the past month, so here it goes: In a truly brilliant example of the anti-secularism bias and cognitive dissonance the author brought to her book's later chapters, this little gem of a sentence seems to prove that Armstrong does not actually know the meaning of the words ‘secular’ or ‘nationalism’, and is just kinda fumbling around in the dark at this point, trying to find an argument which suits her preconceived ideology: “Kookism was clearly a religious form of secular nationalism…” * I must stress that, as I've said before, Karen Armstrong is not actually an idiot. Usually. But she's not nearly the unbiased bastion of calm religious discourse and the kumbaya ethic she thinks she is either. ----- * This sin is committed several times in different contexts, particularly while discussing Hindu extremism, but this quote is exemplary as it appears on the very last page. ‘Kookism’ is a reference to a radical Zionist/settler movement in Israel.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ned

    It is hard to write this review, because I can’t possibly communicate the magnitude of its importance to our world’s future. That sounds grandiose, I’m sure, but the subject of religion and warfare assaults us daily and how we respond may influence our personal futures. I will not be able, nor would it be wise, to share my copious notes and dozens of penciled quotes. Instead I will give you, fellow travelers, my memory of its central themes, of which I am wholly convinced: 1. Warfare developed pr It is hard to write this review, because I can’t possibly communicate the magnitude of its importance to our world’s future. That sounds grandiose, I’m sure, but the subject of religion and warfare assaults us daily and how we respond may influence our personal futures. I will not be able, nor would it be wise, to share my copious notes and dozens of penciled quotes. Instead I will give you, fellow travelers, my memory of its central themes, of which I am wholly convinced: 1. Warfare developed prior to the development of the major religions, in part once the value of structured violence toward the less powerful could be exploited by the ruling class. 2. The move from nomadic to agrarian (agricultural) lifestyles led to cities where the “enlightened” could sustain their lifestyle / excesses by power over lower classes and, often, by expanding the empire when resources were at risk. 3. All major religions, at their core, encourage tolerance and non-violence – depending on their publications and stories, they can be read with nearly an infinite number of interpretations. 4. The evolution of religions over millennia, have all gone through periods of peace, humility, fear, and open aggression depending on various segments as they feel confident vs threatened vs humiliated. 5. There is no “religiosity” to war, although it has been used this way in some cases – more often there are secular motivations behind the “mask” of faith, even the forces you read about today when properly dissected. 6. Most wars are conducted for material gain or for protection against a lifestyle or annihilation. Religion is used to motivate / conscript soldiers and build the case, but rarely the root cause. 7. Many of the most violent uprisings were created when an empirical power tended to subjugate particular ethnicities or groups of people who felt threatened (sound familiar?) 8. One aggression (e.g. 9. Civilians / innocents are rarely even recognized by the victors of war – many/most feel the end justifies the means and we are mostly indifferent to the struggles of others (who in the US knows / cares about the Bosnian massacres, mothers killed by drones, the thousands incinerated in Germany / Hiroshima, extermination of native Americans, on and on and on) – yet we go so casually into unjustified war as recently as 2003 (check the senate vote on our decision to destroy a country). 10. There is no protection other than human lovingkindness and a recognition is that we are all “one”, not separate – and that is a fragile thing indeed and far from normal– our major religions all espouse this and are still viable positive forces for mankind. Karen Armstrong is the most important scholar / authority on this subject that I have found – she appears to have come to this through massive and balanced scholarship. The quantity of references and quotes is beyond most professional textbooks, and she keeps her views in check – sharing what is opinion openly. It is obvious she seeks truth and endeavors to eliminate personal bias. I am a practicing scientist, and I detect in the historian Armstrong, the desire to follow the truth where it goes, and to be aggressively self-critical. As I am not a young man, I realize how rare these traits are, and how often our species indulges and feeds its anger out of sheer selfishness (shall I say “sinfulness”?). There are those who would separate liberal secular humanists from godliness – but I see no distinction, as knowledge is “good” by definition, so long as it is true. How then does one apprehend that “truth” that is so elusive? By increasing knowledge and a desire and cultivating the courage to do what is best for all. Armstrong helps me know what that is, and avoid that malaise that “The White” despaired of in Cormac McCarthy’s “Sunset Limited” where the learned man had given up when his dreams all “went up the smokestacks in Auschwitz”. Of course I’ll never meet Karen Armstrong, but I feel we are kindred spirits, and I thank her from the bottom of my heart for the many, many hours invested in studying and putting her thoughts together in this dense, rich and profoundly important book for our times.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Genia Lukin

    I don't actually have an argument with Armstrong's premise: religion is not the source and epitome of all violence in the world, and it certainly should not be so viewed in the modern age. yes, of course she's right about the fact that until recently - and almost everywhere - religion was not divided from politics or culture or society, and in most of the world it still isn't. But some of the execution is severely lacking. According to all the responses I've seen Armstrong's research holds strong I don't actually have an argument with Armstrong's premise: religion is not the source and epitome of all violence in the world, and it certainly should not be so viewed in the modern age. yes, of course she's right about the fact that until recently - and almost everywhere - religion was not divided from politics or culture or society, and in most of the world it still isn't. But some of the execution is severely lacking. According to all the responses I've seen Armstrong's research holds strong for people - until they get to the section or sections they actually know something about, and then it dissolves. the same happened to me. That makes me intensely suspicious of everything she's written, because if in the sections about early Christianity, late Judaism, and anything to do with Israel, I can recognize glaring errors, what am I missing in the sections about Daoism, where my knowledge is lacking? It really doesn't help that Armstrong is writing with a very clear agenda, and that that agenda is 'The West is Bad'. Yes, okay, we understand, colonialism, and the imposition of Western ideas on a world that was not ready for them or wanted them was disastrous, but if it begins to skew your research and approach, things are getting a bit problematic. For that reason, her sections about Israel were... weird. Really weird. From the beginning she marked Israel as a colonial endeavour, which is a nice extreme Left position Europe and the Arab world love, but it's horribly difficult to support. For some reason Armstrong proceeds to forget her own theory of how in most of the world religion is not divorced from the rest of social enterprize, and doesn't apply it to Judaism. She can claim that Israel's initial ruling elites were secularist and anti-religious, and in a sense she'd be right, but in a different sense she also won't be, because the mere notion of creating a Jewish state involves religion, and where do you go on from here? Then she chooses for whatever reason to focus on Gush Emunim (a relatively small movement which she misunderstands and which is not Fundamentalist in any sense of the word unless you really bend the definition of 'Fundamentalism') but completely fails to address the Haredi movement (a much larger, much more religiously extreme community), with its anti-establishment tendencies and systematic oppression of women, even though the Haredi fit her theories of detachment from the mainstream. I guess this doesn't count as violence? because she doesn't really discuss any internal issues and the way that religions treat their own adherents pretty much anywhere. If religion's all about equity, what is the purpose of the systematic misogyny most fundamentalist movements adapt? Look, I am not giving the book one star because it's anti-Israeli - though I admit this is not helping the rating - but because these are the parts I know intimately and where I can see the way she slides her agenda into every nook and cranny, in a way that whitewashes and simplifies a lot of the issues inherent in the subject she is discussing. There are more problems with the book than just the political agenda its author is pushing. She buys a bit too thoroughly into the myth of the extremely violent modern age vs. the less violent and more personal past - this despite the fact that she goes out of her way to talk about how warfare was inherent in the earliest human civilizations, and how agrarian society is one of embedded oppression. This is a highly disputed claim, spoken against by both anthropologists such as Jared Diamond and cognitive psychologists like Steven Pinker. I don't know which side of the debate is right, for sure, but i would have liked at least an address to that question. Armstrong also seems to sin in the no True Religion fallacy in her attempt to justify religion. She uses the normal rhetoric of religious apologists which is that if a person committed a crime in the name of religion, he or she aren't really religious. If a regime uses religion as a means of violence, they're not doing it right. A Platonic ideal of religion is nice, and shouldn't just be laughed off entirely; people clearly distort any philosophy, but that still leaves the question of whether it is the case that some philosophies are more easily distorted. It's sad that this book is so much less than I expected. I hoped for better from a hypothesis I generally wholeheartedly support. I also genuinely approved of forays into the less well-explored religions such as Buddhism and Daoism. But the failures left me suspicious and discontented, unsatisfied with the author's proofs and method of discussion. hopefully, someone will come in the future and treat the subject right.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    this week is our national celebration of the Book which means a lot of extra attention on books, a especially written novel [96 pages] when you buy books for more than €12,50. This book got a lot of attention in a fascinating article about violence and religions that went against the general opinion about the Islam and violence. It opposed the ideas and did quite well in argumentation. So I kinda threw the two together and came out with a fascinating novel that starts at the beginning of our time this week is our national celebration of the Book which means a lot of extra attention on books, a especially written novel [96 pages] when you buy books for more than €12,50. This book got a lot of attention in a fascinating article about violence and religions that went against the general opinion about the Islam and violence. It opposed the ideas and did quite well in argumentation. So I kinda threw the two together and came out with a fascinating novel that starts at the beginning of our times with Gilgamesj in Summeria 6000AD and there starts this story about religion and violence.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jon-Erik

    This books starts out incredibly strong. I may end up assigning the first several chapters to my religion students, but the end, in an attempt to define the current era of alleged religious violence ties itself into contradictions and overly simplified colonial/resistance dichotomies, does not address what is perceived by many as religious terrorism in the last two decades unrelated to Muslim groups. Even in the very strong historical chapters a sentence will pop out that seems to make a connect This books starts out incredibly strong. I may end up assigning the first several chapters to my religion students, but the end, in an attempt to define the current era of alleged religious violence ties itself into contradictions and overly simplified colonial/resistance dichotomies, does not address what is perceived by many as religious terrorism in the last two decades unrelated to Muslim groups. Even in the very strong historical chapters a sentence will pop out that seems to make a connection with a current event that seems tenuous or even contradictory given the historical context provided. Armstrong's two central theses are clear: (1) the separation of religion and politics is a distinction drawn by Europeans, mostly Protestant, in the Modern period.This distinction does not fit the rest of the world. She masterfully shows how this is the case in most of the world's great religions. She discusses that this separation was largely created in the birth of the nation-state when the ideology of the state became the far more dangerous nationalism; and, (2) Violence is inherent in the state. Therefore, blaming violence on religion assumes the Modern European politics/religion dichotomy and is incorrect. She argues that most religions have some kind of warrior tradition and that these traditions originate in the religion having to grapple with statehood or porto-statehood at some point. So far, so good. Where I think Armstrong goes wrong is when she tries to define contemporary jihadi and terror groups as mostly motivated by politics. She repeats numerous times that jihadis were motivated by a desire to ease suffering and despair at the current world order. The glaring problem with this excuse is that she spends the first three quarters of the book trying to define religion and politics as inseparable. So which is it? For me this is a very difficult flaw to overlook in an otherwise wonderful book. As a counter-argument to the polemics of New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great, this book should be devastating, and it should change the debate. There really is no response to the fact that it has been in the service of ideologies like nationalism that the world has suffered far more and that religion has actually done much to temper state violence throughout history. On another front, I take issue with Armstrong's overly simplistic dichotomy between colonizer and colonized. Armstrong has, in the past, rejected this kind of oversimplification and political correctness, for example, in addressing the "Aryan Conquest Theory," whose detractors argue is a legacy of British rule in India, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. She does not mince words about this being the case in this book. India is not as rich as many of the post-Colonial Arab states, yet she casts the Arab world as much more troubled by colonialism than India. Other times she substitutes "humiliation" for colonization. American troops in Arabia may be humiliating, but it is not colonization. By that definition, there is no basis for terrorism against the UK or Germany, where American troops would be "colonizing." This sort of ghost of Edward Said lingering in the pages troubles me. Reducing the Israeli-Arab/Palestinian conflict to colonialism also is troubling. There is no answer Israelis can make in that framework. But in a broader context, Israel as a refuge for the Jewish people who were, after its founding, expelled en masse from many of the post-colonial and allegedly secular Arab states, not to mention the events in Europe, the issue appears different. The New Atheists aside, I think the popular perception of religion causing violence stems largely from the very groups bucking under the pressure of the modern world and seeking the very alternative Armstrong suggests gave birth to many of the world's religions: fundamentalists. She points out that under threat of annihilation, many groups become more extreme. Also, one nitpick. Armstrong references the "Samson Option," which allegedly is or was an Israeli nuclear strategy whereby Israel would target non-enemy countries so as to trigger a global nuclear conflict, if they were threatened with conquest. Her citation for this fact isn't to a news report, but to a book by Talal Asad about suicide bombing. Officially, Israel doesn't even admit to having nuclear weapons, and while I've read about the "Samson Option" before, it triggers so many antisemitic tropes for me that I needed more proof than one CUNY Professor's text on a different subject. In looking for sources, I found nothing but the usual Neo-Nazi garbage on the web. Even if this idea did come from some Israeli official, it could just be used as a psychological ploy, whereby, ironically, those who will gobble up antisemitic garbage will spit it out in furtherance of Israel's goals. I try not to judge the rest of this work by this one work, but as a Jewish Studies scholar, I bristled at her reductive treatment of the Israeli-Arab conflict and this makes me wonder more. Looking at Asad's book, I only see him reference the "Samson Option" as the name for Israel's nuclear arsenal and his discussion of Israel (allegedly) teaching its children than Samson was a "tough Jew." Continuing the metaphor to Samson bringing the temple down on himself and everyone else isn't backed up as part of Israel's nuclear strategy, even if that's the name. It's just assumed in the antisemitic halo about this name that it involves a totally suicidal use of those weapons against non-aggressors. Asad's reference to the "tough Jew" seems both more apt and more consistent with Zionist and later Israeli self-image. Yet Armstrong's explanation is that it is "a strike that would inevitably result in the destruction of the nation to be an honorable duty and a possibility that the Jewish state has freely chosen." From Samson to Masada to the Crusades, Jewish suicide has been a theme in its history, but to my eyes the comparison that is apt, and more likely looming in the minds of Israeli strategists, is the Holocaust, not suicide bombing. The name isn't about the enemy, but the self. It's about the ghostly question of why (it is perceived that) so many Jews went (seemingly) willingly to their death in the Holocaust. Of course, that's just not true and the assumption of this being the case is a good way to pick a fight. Armstrong needed to show more care and insight in bringing this topic up. Plus, I'm completely at a loss as how explaining Jewish history and memory this way excuses suicide bombing or makes it not religious violence. It's an example of how, I think, Armstrong damages her own argument when she gets out of history and in to today. The very argument that the New Atheists make is that, yes, all religions foster violence by causing people to act on the basis of mythological memory and fake history, be it recalling Samson or be it suicide bombing. Her argument that these things are both happening in the context of secular Israeli Zionism and (mostly) secular anti-colonial Arab resistance movements, again, undermines her case that religion and politics are only artificially separable. In what one of our most liberal Supreme Court justices referred to as "ceremonial deism," the US upheld the use of the motto "In God We Trust" and not some other ceremonial deism based on, say, a Sikh legend. The New Atheist argument is that, essentially, we must strip all of these symbols out and that because of things like this we have never really seen a "secular state" because even secular states are made up of, at least until possibly today, people who aren't atheists. In other words, if Armstrong's first argument holds, our politics is influenced by our religion and vice versa. We cannot separate the two when convenient, even in the United States. I remain open to being convinced, but on the merits of this book alone, I can't agree that what motivates the jihadis, or America's home-grown terrorists who kill abortion doctors and bomb federal buildings, are purely secular motivations most of the time, or even ever. To me it seems much more likely that the dominant factor is some kind of mental illness, not the absence of religious influence. Finally, it's unclear that resistance to colonialism or "humiliation" is entirely universal in any religion. As Armstrong mentions, some religions have always been "colonized" or minorities and some have sought and fought for independence and others haven't. In some cases it depends on the era.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jill

    I hate not to give this book a higher rating, because it's packed full of information... but I can't wholeheartedly recommend it to the average intelligent reader newly interested in the subject. You really need to have been initiated in the history of Christianity/Judaism/Islam to get everything out of this book that the authors wants you to. Not having any expertise in the history of religion, I found most of the details of this book difficult to retain. I wouldn't call this a failing on the a I hate not to give this book a higher rating, because it's packed full of information... but I can't wholeheartedly recommend it to the average intelligent reader newly interested in the subject. You really need to have been initiated in the history of Christianity/Judaism/Islam to get everything out of this book that the authors wants you to. Not having any expertise in the history of religion, I found most of the details of this book difficult to retain. I wouldn't call this a failing on the author's part, but it renders the book less useful to someone like me. Fields of Blood is a chronological march through historical instances of violence often considered to be caused by 'religion.' The general arguments are easy enough to understand: Violence is perpetuated by dispossessed or frightened people, not by religions. Religious tenets can inspire diametrically opposite actions in different individuals, depending on their circumstances and other perspectives. Resource scarcity, secular nationalism, and political interests inspire equal or greater global violence than religious motivations do. Armstrong illustrates all this to her purpose of defending monotheism from being scapegoated in today's tenuous and violent global climate. The writing is suitable. A book on the same subject by a historian of violence or even post-colonial eras may have felt less like a barrage of things I won’t remember. (Again, this is my failing, not the author’s… but I think some other readers may have a similar response.)

  10. 5 out of 5

    David

    The central tenant of this book is that religion is not the source of violence, it’s only a pretext, while the true motivator is the struggle for political power. Today, we think of politics and religion as separate spheres. This was not the case throughout most of history. Instead, religion has been inseparable from the state and perceived as one and the same. Religion permeated all aspects of ancient life, especially warfare. The order of the universe was miraculous, as was man’s place in it. The central tenant of this book is that religion is not the source of violence, it’s only a pretext, while the true motivator is the struggle for political power. Today, we think of politics and religion as separate spheres. This was not the case throughout most of history. Instead, religion has been inseparable from the state and perceived as one and the same. Religion permeated all aspects of ancient life, especially warfare. The order of the universe was miraculous, as was man’s place in it. But war was really a surrender to reptilian ruthlessness, one of the strongest of human drives. The author claims the psychology of war is such that in its pursuit, soldiers experience a self-affirmation that is almost erotic. While they may hate its ruthlessness and carnage, they nonetheless feel intensely alive in the midst of it (although the conflict between the two can cause PTSD.) War is “an enticing elixir. It gives us a resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.” Still, man has a basic resistance to killing other human beings. To bring ourselves to do so, we envelop the effort in a mythology, often a religious mythology, that puts distance between us and the enemy, and sanctifies our behavior. The author references extensive historic research and contemporary sociological/psychological studies to support her thesis. She reports that while only a tiny fraction of fundamentalist resort to violence, virtually all fundamentalist groups are rooted in fear—fear that they are under attack from modern seculars and other groups who are trying to destroy their faith and their way of life, if not their entire selves (sometimes they’re correct, e.g., the Jewish holocaust). The response is typically rhetoric and proselytizing, a narrowing of perspective, and, on rare occasion, violence. Of the 500 people implicated in the 9/11 event, only 25% had a traditional Islamic upbringing, 2/3rds were secular-minded until encountering Al Qaeda, and the rest were recent converts with limited knowledge of the Quran. Sharia law forbids violence against civilians and prohibits any attack on a country where Muslims are allowed to practice their religion freely. In a separate but related article I recently read (Who are the new jihadis?), Oliver Roy argued that, “Terrorism does not arise from the radicalization of Islam, but from the Islamization of radicalism.” Roy identifies the suicide terrorist not as religiously pious or politically motivated, nor is it a political solution or a military strategy. It is a youth movement rooted in nihilism. Organizations like al-Qaida and ISIS provide a script, but what seduces and fascinates the young nihilist is the idea of pure revolt. Violence is not a means, it is an end in itself. It’s impenetrable philosophical fortification is in its battle cry, “We love death as you love life.” Contrarily, in the west there is a widespread conviction that Islam is an inherently violent religion and was the chief culprit in 9/11. Karen Armstrong (the author) brings to light a perspective not generally recognized by most westerners. The US doesn’t portray itself as fighting a war specifically directed against Islam. Rather, the unconventional nature of the campaign (defined as a “war on terror”) is seen as a different kind of war that changes the rules of engagement, liberating the US and its allies from the rules of conventional conflict, rationalizing the use of interrogation and detention not practiced in previous wars, and engaging in strategies that resulted in the death of 3,000 middle-eastern civilians (the number killed in 9/11) within the first three months of the conflict. And the conflict has continued for more than a decade and produced side effects like the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses. In this way, the struggle for political power and religion are again comingled as the political/military response of the US (what we call a “war on terror”) plays out primarily in the Muslim world, where it is perceived by many on the receiving end of the offensive as the new crusade. Armstrong’s book makes a solid argument. And if true then it leaves us with an unsavory consequence… that man is simply a violent ape inextricably imbued with a proclivity for savagery. If we were able to rid ourselves of religious fervor, would we expunge our lust for violence? While religion may well not be guilty of all violent sins, I find it hard to completely exonerate religion from man’s destructive legacy. If some day we do evolve into a higher, more intelligent, more rational, and less violent species, will that superior being still practice religion, still wrap himself in holy writ, still enter into righteous battles claiming God is on his side? What a piece of work is man!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Socraticgadfly

    Once again, Armstrong offers up tendentious and inaccurate views of religion in general and individual religions in particular in pursuit of an agenda. She's wrong about some details of the emergence of Israelitism, specifically in laying a lot of weight for this on pastoralist-vs-agrarian antipathy, a theme that she also overextends into the rise of Zoroastrianism, and into the development of pre-Hindu Aryan religion in India. I'm not one to defend ancient agriculturalism, and will point out mys Once again, Armstrong offers up tendentious and inaccurate views of religion in general and individual religions in particular in pursuit of an agenda. She's wrong about some details of the emergence of Israelitism, specifically in laying a lot of weight for this on pastoralist-vs-agrarian antipathy, a theme that she also overextends into the rise of Zoroastrianism, and into the development of pre-Hindu Aryan religion in India. I'm not one to defend ancient agriculturalism, and will point out myself that some elements of social violence trace to the rise in private property, class divisions, ruling classes, etc., that partially accompanied the rise of organized agriculture. But, such things can be overinterpreted, and she does just that. Related, the earliest religious thoughts of the Israelites, contra an overreading of the Cain-Abel story, surely weren't so narrow. Given that Israelites had seemingly lived in harmony with agricultural Canaanites before whatever happened to lead to the rise of Israel, the story is surely more complex. Not to mention, her angle on the rise of kingship out of tribal judges is not right. This isn't as bad as her interpretation of the start of the Jesus movement. She covers up any connection he had with Zealotism, claims that there was no way he was about violence in any way, and more. She also doesn't even talk about John the Baptist and at least verbally violent confrontations with Jesus followers, claims Luke was the closest Gospel-writing follower of Paul, and other such things. She also claims that Zoroaster was a historic personage, when this is not settled. If he was a historic personage, the Gathas differ by about half a millennium with the Avestas on the dates of his life. Armstrong nowhere discusses this, what relevance this might have for Zoroastrianism as a religion, especially in its relationship to Iranian ruling dynasties, etc. Given that these wrong things all, in part, involve issues of violence, obviously her central ideas about religions' relationship to violence are not very tenable. == Forgetting I had read this before, a re-read 3 years later reveals other problems: No, the Qin did not bury 420,000 enemy soldiers alive. This is as meaningless a number at 660,000 adult males in the Exodus. How, with only manual labor, could you even do this? No, Constantine did not see a “flaming cross.” The perennial philosophy is not quite so universal. Why, given her lack of relevant academic credentials, she was named a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, I don’t know. Seeing everything through agrairian lens. Look, I’m a semi-good socialist of some sort, but I don’t see everything through the lens of either class or private property. Claims Quran standardized by time of Uthman. Ignores non-Quranic Quran text on Dome of the Rock. Ignores text-critical issues in general. NO, the Ottomans were not the world’s strongest power in 1492. Ming China was. I disagree that Hinduism was only established in distinction to Islam as a result of the start of the British Raj. I think, if not during the Gupta Empire, then definitely,in the Puranic era, starting 650CE or so, we can talk of “Hinduism” and not “proto-Hinduism.” And, per Andrew Nicholson, I would say this was given a theological footing by the 1400s or 1500s in response to the increasing Islamic incursion under the Moghuls.

  12. 4 out of 5

    John

    Fascinating read. Dense. Well researched. Her perspective on violence is influenced by Girard's Scapegoat theory (she's probably right). Also influenced by a judicious Marxist analysis of what happens when the elites that run the state need to defend the excess wealth that workers--especially agrarian ones--have produced for them. Her reading of how states must be coercive is depressing, but also probably right. The even-handed analysis of the violence in Western religious traditions matches her Fascinating read. Dense. Well researched. Her perspective on violence is influenced by Girard's Scapegoat theory (she's probably right). Also influenced by a judicious Marxist analysis of what happens when the elites that run the state need to defend the excess wealth that workers--especially agrarian ones--have produced for them. Her reading of how states must be coercive is depressing, but also probably right. The even-handed analysis of the violence in Western religious traditions matches her analysis of other traditions. This was one good book. People need to read this stuff to get a deeper, longer view on our own nations' approaches to violence and coercion.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Allison

    Full disclosure: this got five stars because a. It spoke to a confirmation bias on my part and b. studies in comparative religion are so engrossing for me, I get almost giddy with delight. This is an exhaustive, scholarly work (I'll be honest, it's dry. Not a beach book) that presents the thesis that religion is blamed for violence, but that's a gross oversimplification when so many other factors (human propensity for violence, the struggle for economic and political supremacy) to be considered. Full disclosure: this got five stars because a. It spoke to a confirmation bias on my part and b. studies in comparative religion are so engrossing for me, I get almost giddy with delight. This is an exhaustive, scholarly work (I'll be honest, it's dry. Not a beach book) that presents the thesis that religion is blamed for violence, but that's a gross oversimplification when so many other factors (human propensity for violence, the struggle for economic and political supremacy) to be considered. Armstrong backs this up with ample evidence.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jennie

    This was a Goodreads win. I enjoy reading books of history and was excited to get this in the mail. Painstakingly researched and detailed, it discusses international wars and the roles that countries played in them. A heavy subject to read at times I found the book a bit lengthy but much of the final pages are of quotations. Religion and violence always seem to be close bedfellows.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Nick

    In this volume, the eminent scholar of religion Karen Armstrong takes up the issue of whether religion is intrinsically violent or abets violence. The scope is daunting: she takes up not just many of the usual suspects (Islam, of course, but also Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism, which shares a chapter with Buddhism), but also Mesopotamia and China. I am always interested in explanations of how Hinduism travelled from horse sacrifices to non-violence and back, as now, to nationalism, although In this volume, the eminent scholar of religion Karen Armstrong takes up the issue of whether religion is intrinsically violent or abets violence. The scope is daunting: she takes up not just many of the usual suspects (Islam, of course, but also Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism, which shares a chapter with Buddhism), but also Mesopotamia and China. I am always interested in explanations of how Hinduism travelled from horse sacrifices to non-violence and back, as now, to nationalism, although I would have preferred a more in-depth of Buddhism, with its pogroms in Sri Lanka and Myanmar and the blessing of kamikaze pilots by Zen priests in Japan. There are some startling observations here, some of them obvious in retrospect. Armstrong is interested not so much in religion per se as in its interaction with the states that are themselves created out of agricultural surplus. In fact, she maintains that "religion" as a concept did not exist until secular and spiritual became separate phenomena. She provides interesting analyses about the tension between ethics and power that, perhaps inevitably, leads to contradiction in any religion that is successful in proselytizing, and her interpretations of how religions (or, really, states) change their expression as circumstances change: the Jewish canon is an excellent example of this, but one could also point out the sayings of the Prophet and the growth of the schools of Islamic jurisprudence or the way what we call Hinduism now encompasses everything from archaic horse sacrifices to Krishna's justifications in the Bhagavad Gita to the Buddha as an avatar of the god Vishnu. There are startling details, as well: Armstrong maintains that the Tao Te Ching is not a spare philosophical argument but instead a manual for ruling a Chinese state, a la Confucius. I would have been happier with this immense amount of detail had Armstrong not fumbled so strangely in one of the few of these areas where I can claim a bit of expertise. She has Hernan Cortes not arriving in Mexico until 1525, at which time Montezuma was already dead. That is fairly startling to someone who has actually seen the spot where the Mexica emperor ("Aztec" is a much later invention) and the Spanish leader met. Cortes in fact wrote a description of the meeting to the King of Spain. At the end, I suppose, the question of whether religions abet violence or not seems a little off-target, and perhaps too influenced by the questions that keeping being pushed about Islam. Perhaps the question is instead the degree to which religion becomes a useful tool for states to animate soldiers, unify the populace, and justify the reign. I'm not sure Roman religion, which seems particularly deficient in spirituality, can be understood any other way.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Dan Curnutt

    In a very exhaustive text Karen Armstrong chronicles Religion and the History of Violence that seems to be associated and or attracted to it. This is not just a text about The Jewish History or the Christian History, but it chronicles many other faiths and how violence seems to be attracted to religion. She starts out with the Bible and talks about the Jewish Scapegoat system where they started sacrifices but also put the "sins" of the nation on an unblemished goat and sent it off into the wilder In a very exhaustive text Karen Armstrong chronicles Religion and the History of Violence that seems to be associated and or attracted to it. This is not just a text about The Jewish History or the Christian History, but it chronicles many other faiths and how violence seems to be attracted to religion. She starts out with the Bible and talks about the Jewish Scapegoat system where they started sacrifices but also put the "sins" of the nation on an unblemished goat and sent it off into the wilderness to take away the sins of the people. But the other goats/bulls/doves/rams/sheep were sacrificed on the altar and their blood acted as the atonement for the sins of the people. Also throughout the Bible you find other religions also practicing the act of sacrifice believing that blood letting was the only way to appease the Gods. But then the violence starts to come between people/nations. One nation feels it needs to purge the earth of another nation to "cleanse" the earth of the evil of that nation and blood is spilled. God also informs the Jews that they need to purge the promised land of other cultures, thus another round of violence. You find that many religions felt that they were the only true religion so they thought the best thing they could do was exterminate others. You find this when Kings wanted to be worshiped and they destroyed (killed) other nations that refused to worship them. Or if one culture degrades the "god" of another culture you find that they go to war to prove which god is most powerful. Armstrong will break down the violence/history of religion and war into three main categories. As has been pointed out in other reviews she starts with the Hunter/Gatherer mindset which is the earliest human mindset. Then as cultures progressed they seemed to move into an "emotional" phase where the emotions of the people took control and brought about the violence. Finally she finds us in the third stage where man has moved into a more philosophical phase where logic and reason are trying to control how we view others. But even in this logical phase we find that logic fails us as religions feel the need to purge others off the face of the earth. This is not a quick easy read. It is an exhaustive look at the topic and it is evident that lots of time and research went into the collecting of data and then putting it in an order that tries to bring a good treatment of the topic. I found myself captivated by some sections and bothered by others, not because of the writing, but because of how humans can have such faulty thinking at times. It you pick this book up you are going to find that it offers lots of thought provoking insights that you will either totally agree with or maybe find you disagree and wonder how Armstrong made that evaluation of the topic. I guarantee you that this will cause you to stop and think and give you plenty of information to talk to others about. Enjoy!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Clif

    You can't go wrong with Karen Armstrong. Like the work of Barbara Tuchman and Jared Diamond, each one of her books is carefully crafted, comprehensively documented and very readable. You put the book down having learned something valuable that was a delight in the process. Armstrong's field is religion. She started her teen years in a convent but withdrew from being a nun, that story recounted in "Through the Narrow Gate". Her writing is characterized by a fairness to different points of view. Sh You can't go wrong with Karen Armstrong. Like the work of Barbara Tuchman and Jared Diamond, each one of her books is carefully crafted, comprehensively documented and very readable. You put the book down having learned something valuable that was a delight in the process. Armstrong's field is religion. She started her teen years in a convent but withdrew from being a nun, that story recounted in "Through the Narrow Gate". Her writing is characterized by a fairness to different points of view. She never dismisses the outlook of others, making an effort to see through their eyes as well as her own. In this book, she is out to disprove the idea that religion is the primary cause of violence in human history. She does this by establishing the need for violence in centralized agrarian societies, proceeds by showing that "religion" as an identifiable entity separate from society is something known only since the French Revolution and finishes by pointing out how irreligious are those behind the modern movement of "Islamic" violence. Along the way the reader gets the usual thorough Armstrong handling of history in the context of religious practice beginning in the Fertile Crescent ranging out to China and India, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam. The religious impulse is at least as irenic as often as it is belligerent. I am embarrassed to say that the word irenic is new to me. It means "aiming or aimed at peace", a comment in itself about the society in which I live. Armstrong's "A History of God" is recommended for those who want a comprehensive account of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish religions in all their variations from their founding up to modern times. "Fields of Blood" is as deeply historical, but only highlights the events pertinent to the author's case that religion is not the primary cause of our resort to violence, though it may easily be employed to encourage it. If anything, violence may be laid at the door of economics. Pre-modern agricultural societies not only required violence to protect what they had but also to enforce the unequal status of the few who ruled against the many who did the work to support the pyramidal social structure. In modern times, nationalism as a kind of religion, the drive for resources during colonial times and the arbitrary national boundaries set up across the world by the European powers have caused violence to this moment. The Middle East is a cauldron of oil and imposed rule, a capstone to Armstrong's case. There are 407 pages including a post-script that brings you up to 2015. You won't want to skip a single page.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Caidyn (he/him/his)

    Already, I know that I want to reread this book. I want to have it in front of me, in my lap, with a highlighter and pen in hand so I can comb through this book. When we got to the modern era -- modern, for Armstrong, starting back in the 1500s and extending through now -- that's where I sort of spaced out. I know a lot about the Protestant reformation. Hell, I have a weird obsession with Henry VIII, so that's my jam. Then, America got involved in her book. Personally, I hate American history. T Already, I know that I want to reread this book. I want to have it in front of me, in my lap, with a highlighter and pen in hand so I can comb through this book. When we got to the modern era -- modern, for Armstrong, starting back in the 1500s and extending through now -- that's where I sort of spaced out. I know a lot about the Protestant reformation. Hell, I have a weird obsession with Henry VIII, so that's my jam. Then, America got involved in her book. Personally, I hate American history. The moment it comes around, I space out. So, while I paid so much attention to parts one and two, when part three started (which is really where her story lies, since that's where she says we started thinking religion is violent) I was lost. And, I felt so bad about it. Parts one and two were my area. We have ancient history. Her tossing around stuff about how we started religion off with animals and hunting, trying to make sense of our primal brain and our natural brain. Armstrong talks about India, Mesopotamia, China, and Arabia. She brings up stuff about ancient cultures that still echoes through to now. The Vedas, Brahamanas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Legalism, Confucianism, Jainism, Buddhism, etc, etc, etc. Armstrong is speaking my language. I was there with her through to part three, where she talked about all the different parts of Christianity. And Islam. And Judaism. For a book that focused mainly on Asian religions -- with a chapter on Judaism, and the entrance of Christianity and Islam -- for parts one and two, part three had a huge shift. That's probably where it really lost me. I paid more attention with the Israel-Palestine conflict, since it's so interesting to think about. So, that's my conflicted thoughts. Loved part of it, the other part was okay. I already want to reread it.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Philip

    A disappointing and superficial book with a strong ideological undertone and essentially a thinly disguised defence of religious mysticism. A Guardian review (sycophantic) says that "Armstrong nails her point of departure in the introduction to Fields of Blood. 'In the West the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident… Even those who admit that religion has not been responsible for all the violence and warfare of the human race still take its essen A disappointing and superficial book with a strong ideological undertone and essentially a thinly disguised defence of religious mysticism. A Guardian review (sycophantic) says that "Armstrong nails her point of departure in the introduction to Fields of Blood. 'In the West the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident… Even those who admit that religion has not been responsible for all the violence and warfare of the human race still take its essential belligerence for granted… They cite the Crusades, the Inquisition and the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries. They also point to the recent spate of terrorism committed in the name of religion to prove that Islam is particularly aggressive.” It is this, as she intimates, generally accepted take on religion, at least in the west, that this book aims to probe.' I feel she fails on many levels to advance her thesis about religion and its restraining role on violence. Armstrong is bizarrely silent about the role of religion in underpinning the socalled secular ideologies of the 20th centuries that led to the genocides in Nazi Germany, the mass murder of Mao and Stalin and the close links between the major religions and almost every single evil regime of that era (Franco, Mussolini etc etc). She is also highly selective in the imagery she uses to reinforce her version of the history, she omits to discuss the ongoing destruction of cultural relics by Islamists from Afghanistan to Mali and is seemingly oblivious to the contradictions inherent in militant assertions concerning the sanctity of the holy cities of Saudi Arabia while trivialising similar sentiments held by competing religions about their shrines and holy places. Overall a disappointing and shallow book.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Anny

    Religion, like weather, "does many things", so you can't blame religion alone for wars and violence. In fact, throughout the book, Armstrong pointed out that most of the so-called "religious wars" was likely caused by economy or politics instead. In contrary, religion alone was perhaps our only hope for creating a compassionate society. Religion, at least, promoted compassion and respect for human rights, summed up in the golden rule - treat others the way you want to be treated. Secularism inst Religion, like weather, "does many things", so you can't blame religion alone for wars and violence. In fact, throughout the book, Armstrong pointed out that most of the so-called "religious wars" was likely caused by economy or politics instead. In contrary, religion alone was perhaps our only hope for creating a compassionate society. Religion, at least, promoted compassion and respect for human rights, summed up in the golden rule - treat others the way you want to be treated. Secularism instead, promoted nation-state and its leaders into divine status, and developed extreme nationalism where everything was permitted for the sake of the nation. Ruled unchecked, nation-state and their leaders has perpetrated the most heinous crimes in history (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Kim Dynasty). As Lord Acton predicted, absolute power corrupts absolutely. When man or nation seized absolute power, the result was too often a tragedy.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Dave

    The most important book I've read this year. Despite the conclusion you may (just as I did) jump to, Armstrong (a perennial favorite of mine) makes the claim that religion is not inherently the source of violence and atrocity. And she makes her point with an expertly written, assiduously researched, and calmly argued book. Of particular interest was her eye-opening case that showed how the rational separation of church and state that began in the 17th European Enlightenment deserves greater impl The most important book I've read this year. Despite the conclusion you may (just as I did) jump to, Armstrong (a perennial favorite of mine) makes the claim that religion is not inherently the source of violence and atrocity. And she makes her point with an expertly written, assiduously researched, and calmly argued book. Of particular interest was her eye-opening case that showed how the rational separation of church and state that began in the 17th European Enlightenment deserves greater implication in the atrocities of the following centuries, both those committed in the name of rationalistic nationalism (e.g. the Shoah, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Armenian Genocide) and those committed with a religious veneer (like 9/11 and Iraqi suicide bombings). So rarely does a book shift my thinking that I think I'm still reeling a little from this. I'll likely have more to say.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Ray

    Armstrong has an appreciation for both religion and violence. She says violence is not only inherent in civilization, but necessary. And it's not religion's fault. Her book is a deep history of recent millennia. From her aerie at the top of academia, Armstrong sees the value of the violence of the state, taking wealth from the masses to spend on the intellectual elite. In her view, the existence of a monument, or an epic poem, or, a shelf of sociology books, justifies an all-for-the-best, boot-o Armstrong has an appreciation for both religion and violence. She says violence is not only inherent in civilization, but necessary. And it's not religion's fault. Her book is a deep history of recent millennia. From her aerie at the top of academia, Armstrong sees the value of the violence of the state, taking wealth from the masses to spend on the intellectual elite. In her view, the existence of a monument, or an epic poem, or, a shelf of sociology books, justifies an all-for-the-best, boot-on-the-neck-of-the-rest, world. She doesn't show an appreciation of how much this costs, in lost opportunity for the millions at the bottom to contribute more than mere labor. Glowing review by Mark Juergensmeyer at http://juergensmeyer.org/fields-of-bl...

  23. 5 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    There are so few books that are this well researched and nuanced and at the same time so bold in their claims. Karen Armstrong will be remembered as one of the greatest thinkers of our time. This book is her best. It is also her most timely. If you really want to understand religious violence beyond news soundbites, you must read this book. It is impossible to understand ISIS without going back as far as KA does in FOB. Western society misunderstands Islam and has made religion a scapegoat to ma There are so few books that are this well researched and nuanced and at the same time so bold in their claims. Karen Armstrong will be remembered as one of the greatest thinkers of our time. This book is her best. It is also her most timely. If you really want to understand religious violence beyond news soundbites, you must read this book. It is impossible to understand ISIS without going back as far as KA does in FOB. Western society misunderstands Islam and has made religion a scapegoat to many of our social problems. KA picks apart that claim through a clear and thorough walk through religious history and violence.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Sam

    As the shelf indicates, I didn't finish this because it was bad. I picked this up because I thought it would be a survey in the same vein as Steven Pinker's excellent Better Angel's of Our Nature. Instead, it seemed to be an extended analysis of ancient primary source documents. Anyway, this annoyed me and I gave up. As the shelf indicates, I didn't finish this because it was bad. I picked this up because I thought it would be a survey in the same vein as Steven Pinker's excellent Better Angel's of Our Nature. Instead, it seemed to be an extended analysis of ancient primary source documents. Anyway, this annoyed me and I gave up.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Scriptor Ignotus

    Is religion responsible for wars? After an exhaustive survey of religion and violence from the Paleolithic Era to the present, Karen Armstrong's answer seems to be an ambiguous, "yes, and no." This book was clearly born out of Armstrong's frustration with the common assertion of secular westerners that religion is the world's primary, if not its only, source of conflict. Such categorical statements are problematic in a number of ways, in addition to being, quite frankly, intellectually lazy. Fir Is religion responsible for wars? After an exhaustive survey of religion and violence from the Paleolithic Era to the present, Karen Armstrong's answer seems to be an ambiguous, "yes, and no." This book was clearly born out of Armstrong's frustration with the common assertion of secular westerners that religion is the world's primary, if not its only, source of conflict. Such categorical statements are problematic in a number of ways, in addition to being, quite frankly, intellectually lazy. Firstly, such statements assume a modern, liberal interpretation of religion in which the secular and religious spheres are separate and distinct from one another. As Armstrong shows, such a division between religious and political ideologies is a modern invention, and was not conceived of for most of human history; and this makes any attempt to categorize any given historical conflict as either strictly religious or strictly political in nature infinitely more complicated. This faulty categorization belies a misunderstanding on the part of the anti-religious of the nature of religion itself. Armstrong's narrative demonstrates that religion is not simply a set of doctrines to be believed, as the popular wisdom of both atheists and many believers would have it. Religion has long been rather a conversation to be participated in, and is thus molded by the community of its practitioners. Repeatedly, we see religions arise as popular movements in opposition to the prevailing ideological order, only to be later taken on by the powerful as an ethical lubricant for their imperial machinery. Zoroaster preached divine order and peace amid the rough-and-tumble world of tribal conflict in the Caucasus, only to have the Achaemenid emperors make Ahura Mazda the center of an imperial cult in which the Persian Empire was a guiding light against the outer darkness of the barbarian world. The Jesus movement was initially an effort to transcend the systemic violence that sustained the Roman Empire, until Constantine and the later Byzantine Emperors turned Jesus's Kingdom of God into their own imperial project. The church and state of the Byzantine Empire were held to represent the simultaneous humanity and divinity of Jesus. I find a parallel here between what happened to Christianity and what happened to communism. Stalin proclaimed a doctrine of Socialism in One State to usurp an ideology that initially sought to transcend the state, effectively making it an ideological instrument of state power, just as Constantine put the Chi-Ro on his imperial banners to turn Christianity into an imperial ideology. Just as the Christian emperors used state power to persecute heretics, so did Lenin and Stalin, not to mention Robespierre, Mao Zedong, and even Saint Augustine, when he crushed the Donatists. When religious ideology becomes political ideology, then religious dissent becomes political dissent, and threatens the foundations of order and security. But as the above instances show, state ideology can function as religious dogma, even when not explicitly religious in nature. One of the most interesting examples of this is the comparison Armstrong draws between the Catharist Crusade and the War in the Vendee during the French Revolution. The Catholic, monarchical suppressors of the Catharists were told to kill everyone they encountered, without knowledge of their affiliation with the Catharists, in the hopes that God would recognize his own. When Catholic monarchists carried on their own insurrection in the Vendee in 1793-4, the republican armies sent to suppress them were told to bayonet everyone they came across. There may be some true patriots among them, they said, but they nonetheless must die with the rebels for the greater good of the nation. Patriotism simply replaced doctrinal correctness as the criteria for loyalty. Muhammad's own project of ending the systemic violence of the Arabian peninsula by uniting the Arab tribes under a common community was similarly undermined by later generations of Muslims, who ascribed such ahadith to Muhammad as, "the monasticism of Islam is jihad," with the term Jihad here taking on its present connotations as a reference to holy war. Thus, an effort to transcend a warrior culture became a new manifestation of it. The problems of religion, it seems, are the problems of civilization itself. History is a constant struggle between the powerful and the marginalized, progress and order, cosmopolitanism and provincialism, pacifism and jingoism, the articulation of identity, and so on. Religious imagery is drawn into the milieu on all sides. This then begs the question of how much religion can actually do for us, morally and politically, if it is cased within sociology to such an extent and does not seem to stand beyond it, beckoning us onward toward something beyond the world as it actually is. This, however, is not the topic of Armstrong's study and must be set aside.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Hajar Alobaid

    سيرة ذاتية للعنف عبر التاريخ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQc9o... سيرة ذاتية للعنف عبر التاريخ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQc9o...

  27. 5 out of 5

    Sheila

    Subtitled Religion and the History of Violence, Fields of Blood is a well-researched, weighty tome, dark with the world’s dark history, and honest in its analysis of church and state. The author’s research reveals a historical past where faith was part of a community’s self-expression, and where conquering nations didn’t, in fact, fight because of faith, or destroy the faiths of those they ruled. Secular power-grabs resulted in wars, and faith, at the service of state, emphasized the fight for Go Subtitled Religion and the History of Violence, Fields of Blood is a well-researched, weighty tome, dark with the world’s dark history, and honest in its analysis of church and state. The author’s research reveals a historical past where faith was part of a community’s self-expression, and where conquering nations didn’t, in fact, fight because of faith, or destroy the faiths of those they ruled. Secular power-grabs resulted in wars, and faith, at the service of state, emphasized the fight for God’s purity, uniting peoples under the state's command. But in time of peace, those same religions upheld the value of neighbors' lives under God as a mitigating factor to the danger of state brutality. Secular powers fight wars. But in peace it's often religion that demands fair treatment be offered to enemies and strangers. In the end, while state may indeed be separated from faith in our Western world, state without faith might prove far more dangerous than any scape-goated religion, its unbridled force becoming the most dangerous enemy. Fields of Blood is a long slow read, filled with intriguing facts, convincing arguments, and thought-provoking analysis. Details from the past lead up to modern war and terrorism, with every argument backed up by well-researched statistics. There are some seriously interesting surprises presented, offering truths not often told when they don’t fit the plot. And the world’s history of violence proves not to be the same as its history of religion. But this book tells both, offers food and facts for thought, and is highly recommended. Disclosure: Blogging for Books provided this book to me for free in exchange for an honest review.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kamil Salamah

    Dear Ms. Armstrong, It is with extreme pleasure to have read this book. I tried emailing you at the below email address but failed: [email protected] Although I am aware of your outstanding career, literary output, and a bit of your personal history, I finally started reading your book, "Fields of Blood": which comes at such a critical moment in the history of our miserable affairs in the Middle East. I thank you immensely; for you have completely put my mind to rest. My set o Dear Ms. Armstrong, It is with extreme pleasure to have read this book. I tried emailing you at the below email address but failed: [email protected] Although I am aware of your outstanding career, literary output, and a bit of your personal history, I finally started reading your book, "Fields of Blood": which comes at such a critical moment in the history of our miserable affairs in the Middle East. I thank you immensely; for you have completely put my mind to rest. My set of beliefs have been finally reassured. Sadly I would be declared an apostate if I publicly announce it. Unlike your world, we in the Muslim world are shackled with beliefs that are claimed to be sacrosanct to this day. The closing of the mind is still upon us. Only the "Gods"( so to speak) have "rights". We can not denounce them in the open. Tragically your book is a real time reflection of mankind's tragedy since the dawn of time in our present circumstance in the Middle East that is literally burning and breaking up: all in the name of GOD. Such an irony believed by fools being thrown into the pits of the fields of blood by their Gods; all the while it is the grappling for "POWER", domination, and hoarding of worldly riches,as happened in previous Empires. It will never change.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    Classic "History-Of-God" Karen Armstrong. In good academic style, Armstrong builds an argument step by step. Agrarian societies are structurally violent (re-read your feminist theory for good definitions of structural violence) that throw up religions or religious reforms in protest. These become popular, mainstream, and eventually co-opted by ruling elites at which point they tend to justify the very violence protested in the first place. And so another round of religious reform. At the broader l Classic "History-Of-God" Karen Armstrong. In good academic style, Armstrong builds an argument step by step. Agrarian societies are structurally violent (re-read your feminist theory for good definitions of structural violence) that throw up religions or religious reforms in protest. These become popular, mainstream, and eventually co-opted by ruling elites at which point they tend to justify the very violence protested in the first place. And so another round of religious reform. At the broader level, this is another anti-Hitchens, atheists-can-be-moderate-too book. Which suggests that that side is winning. The argument that religions aren't inherently violent will annoy some, but the reasonable reader will realize that all ideologies are open to violence. Indeed, there's almost an old "guns don't kill people, people kill people" argument here. People can be violent. Class conflict can become violent and use religion as a mask. But religion isn't originally violent. Indeed, the logical conclusion of Armstrong's thinking suggests that religious ideas tend to have more corrective, self-critical mechanisms than non-religious systems. Like Stalinism. Also on Twitter and Tumblr

  30. 5 out of 5

    Cheryl

    Scholarly (83 pages of footnotes!) review of human violence from man's beginnings to the present time. Based on history, the author comes to the conclusion that violence results from a confluence of human nature and political necessity. History shows that beginning in the agrarian age, whenever humans come together in communities, there is always a group that uses violence to oppress another part of that group to gain more than their share of available resources. Religions have often been a forc Scholarly (83 pages of footnotes!) review of human violence from man's beginnings to the present time. Based on history, the author comes to the conclusion that violence results from a confluence of human nature and political necessity. History shows that beginning in the agrarian age, whenever humans come together in communities, there is always a group that uses violence to oppress another part of that group to gain more than their share of available resources. Religions have often been a force against oppression and for a more fair distribution of resources, although they are often co-opted over time by the powerful to support the violence and oppression of the state. This book is very helpful in understanding current Middle East politics, and I would highly recommend it!

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