Is religion the major cause of wars? Karen Armstrong argues “No.”

Fields of Blood book coverOne only has to turn on the TV these days, or go to any internet news feed, to be confronted by horrific images of religious violence in the Middle East.  For those who saw the images of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the gunman murdering the wounded policeman on the pavement outside those offices, the religious violence seems all around us. So: Is religion to blame for most of the mass violence in the world?

Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood (Random House, 500 pages) traces the history of warfare since the invention of settled agriculture. Armstrong, a former Catholic Nun, has become one of the English-speaking world’s foremost scholars on the history of religion. She points out that in hunter-gather societies, there is no real warfare, except occasional skirmishes with nearby tribes, since the entire population is needed for food collection, and there is no agricultural surplus to sustain a kingly priestly, or soldier class. Once settled farming begins, and farmers are producing enough to support more than their own families,  a class of rulers, soldiers and priests can emerge.

The pace of agricultural innovation is terribly slow, however, so the only way that the new ruling class can expand its wealth is to conquer another nearby area and seize its surplus. That’s the start of warfare.

Throughout history, religions have been ideologies that propped up the legitimacy of the ruling class. (Have you ever known of a society where the major religion denied the legitimacy of the ruling class? How did that work out?) Warfare, Armstrong claims, occurs at times of social and economic change, and religion becomes enlisted in the political cause, rather than being the cause.

She also argues that the major conflicts of the 20th century were not religious. The first world war was not religious, and Germany didn’t start world War II  to spread either of its two recognized religions (Catholicism, and Lutheranism).   In the 1930s, Japan didn’t invade it’s neighbors to spread Shinto and Buddhism: China already had Confucianism and Buddhism, Thailand was already Buddhist, and Korea already had Buddhism.

The most interesting sections of the book deal with the crusades of the Middle Ages, and the religious ward of the 15 and 1600s, where religion really was at the center of the conflicts. The author has a knowledge of history that leaves me for dead.  For anybody who wants to get into the history of religion in a serious way, and is prepared to wade through some serious research, this book is a five star piece of work.

For those interested in reading some further reviews before committing to an arduous read, here is one from  The Guardian,  the New York Times   and here is publisher Random House’s description of the book’s subject matter. It’s a meaty read, but it’s worth it.


They told him he was a psychopath, and he thought they were joking.

The Psychopath Within by James Fallon
The Psychopath Inside by James Fallon

What would you do if your brain scan showed you were a psychopath? I’ve just finished reading ‘The Psychopath Inside’ by James Fallon (Penguin, 2013, 246 pages.) Fallon was a neuroscientist  studying the brain scans of psychopaths: serial killers with no conscience and no empathy. Co-incidentally, he had a folder with brain scans of all his own family members, which he had obtained (with their consent) because, for another study, he needed an entire family in which no one currently had Alzheimer’s disease.
Psychopaths all have certain abnormal features in the very front of the brain: the parts that deal with empathy and conscience. One day looking through his scans, he found one which had the exact features of a psychopath, but was in his family’s folder. Since the scans had numbers rather than names, he asked his research assistant to check who it belonged to, thinking the two sets of scans might have gotten mixed up. They hadn’t. The scan was his.
Fallon had never murdered anyone in his life, and never tortured animals as a child. So what was he doing with a brain scan that showed these types of abnormalities?

The remainder of Fallon’s book is an exploration of why some people become psychopaths and some don’t. Fallon concludes that although he has the physical brain abnormalities of a psychopath, he was stopped from growing in that direction by the loving home environment in his early childhood – something other psychopaths usually didn’t have. Nevertheless, he does show some psychopathic traits. He has exposed other family members to extreme danger, taking his brother camping at night in an area frequented by elephant herds without telling the brother what they were doing. Why? For the thrill of it. If someone offends Fallon, he doesn’t tell them straight away, but will wait for three or four years before springing some revenge on them, at a time they have entirely forgotten about the original incident. And he admits to not going to family funerals or graduations because he just felt there was something more interesting on – such as a chance to go gambling. work colleagues had told him over the years that he was a psycopath in the workpace, but he thought they were joking, or just disgruntled about something he had done, and he had dismissed their claims.

Fallon presents a rare portrait of himself, warts and all. For those who have an interest in psychology, or the nature-vs-nurture debate, this is a very interesting read.

So, what about you? Do you know people who all the advantages in early life and turned into very unpleasant people? Or who had appalling early lives and turned into nice people? Do you think we are any closer to solving the nature vs nuture debate?