One 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.