Category Archives: Christianity

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.

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When ‘Art’ insults Religion; where are the limits?

Contents of ‘When ‘Art’ insults Religion; where are the limits?’

Piper Bayard has written in  her blog  about the current  film on Youtube which has resulted in riots and protests in several counties. Bayard states that “…religion, like politics, is visceral and rational discussions of either are rare.” She’s dead right. Her blog also has a discussion (which I recommend) of which countries might stand to gain from the current unrest, which I won’t attempt to summarize here.

Here in Australia there was a demonstration this week in which an adult held a sign saying “behead those who insult the prophet” and a small child (aged 6-7) held a similar banner, given to the child by its twenty-six year old mother.  You can see the sign here. Several police and demonstrators were injured when the demonstration moved to Martin Place, home of the US consulate.

A childish, stupid film, by a dishonest director

I’ve seen the film on Youtube. It’s childish, stupid, and is clearly intended to offend. The director has been dishonest with his actors, because he overdubbed the actor’s voices with other dialogue after the film was produced.  You can easily see where the producer (Sam Bacile) overdubbed the voices to make the actors say lines that weren’t originally in their scripts: the overdubbed voices don’t even sound like the original ones. (The actors claim to have been used and didn’t realize what would be done with the film.) It features a donkey who appeared to have converted to Islam.  I gather there are still arguments about whether the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi was related to the film or was already planned, so I won’t comment on that.

The film, we are told, only had one public viewing, in one cinema in Hollywood, for one night, and the audience consisted of about two dozen friends of the director. Without further publicity his film would have just fizzled away into the dustbin of history.

As best as I can figure, with the latest bombing in Afghanistan, the death toll appears to be about 20. (I’m writing about 4 pm Australia, Wednesday).   By demonstrating as they have, Muslims have only given the film free publicity and caused more people to click onto Youtube to see “what it’s about.”

So what role do we have – if any – in protecting the feelings of those who may be offended by deliberate insults to their religion?

Christians didn’t react with violence to the film Life of Brian. As far as I know Christians didn’t organize book burnings or demonstrations in response to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. If they had it would probably just have increased his sales. Dawkins referred to the Christian God as a monster and a child abuser for ordering Abraham to (almost) sacrifice his son Issac on an altar as a test of faith. (For a summary of Dawkins’ claim and Christian reaction to Dawkins click here. ) On Melbourne television last night Muslim leaders appeared urging Muslims in Australia to ignore text messages and not to demonstrate.

Australia has a widely accepted  system of film censorship that mostly relates to sex and violence, but not religion.

So the central question: is how do you respond to so books or film that argue with or insult a religion?

Should we have censorship on the internet?

Should such things be censored?  Generally, my argument is no. In most of the English-speaking world, it’s legal to criticize, or even make a comedy about  a religion. I don’t see a way of banning the Youtube video unless Youtube itself pulls it – which it has done in several countries where the content would be illegal. But elsewhere governments have no power to do so. (Except China – but we don’t want to go down that pathway). Even if they had, the question becomes where do you stop? If governments had the power to ban this video, do you ban the Life Of Brian? Mel Gibson’s film, ‘The Passion of the Christ? Certain episodes of Southpark? I don’t see that religion is in a special category of its own that should somehow be exempt from logical criticism, humor, or ridicule. If there is a reason for religion being a special category, let’s discuss that – calmly and rationally.

On purely pragmatic grounds it sometimes helps to hold your tongue. If you’re at a family gathering and you think Mormon baptism of the dead is ridiculous (which I do think), or a loving monotheistic creator wouldn’t create a world in which the majority of its inhabitants are destined for hell, (which happens to be my own view) but you have a Mormon family member at the barbecue, it’s better for the sake of peace in the family to stay quiet.

In Australia, any religion is free to set up a table on the street or on a university campus, and debate or criticize the beliefs of others, including atheists, and others are free to criticize their religion – in fact any religion – and the best course of action is to respond with rational discussion debate. Explain why you think your religion is better than others, but do it logically.

Why give your enemy free publicity?

The actions of perhaps 50 people in Sydney have reinforced stereotypes of several hundred thousand other Muslims in Australia, who had nothing to do with these demonstrations. Many Muslim leaders in Australia have urged their followers to stay away from any similar future demonstrations about this film, and in this, I think the local Muslim leaders are correct.

We all have to accept that free speech means sometimes people will think that what you say is offensive, and they might think your views are offensive, so keep the response rational and civil.

Additional note: I found this video by a Muslim man, Syed Mahmoud, urging his fellow Muslims not to demonstrate or riot.  Mahmoud argues that by continuing to demonstrate, people are simply giving the film free publicity, for no good outcome. I agree completely, and   here’s the link to his video.