Friday, October 3, 2014

Religion and Violence (1)

This is the first in a series in which I want to examine the relationship of religion and violence. I will begin by discussing Karen Armstrong's new book on this topic. Later I hope to discuss the role of religious extremism, especially Islamism, in the context of religion and violence.

The topic of religion and violence is very much in vogue. Last week I attended a panel discussion on this topic, held at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. Last week also saw the publication of Karen Armstrong's latest book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (Bodley Head). And last week the author provided a gist of the book in an article in The Guardian.

Is religion is to blame for most of the bloodshed throughout human history? Many would concur, but this view is strongly countered by Armstrong, who is one of the world’s leading thinkers on religion.

This book is both an apology for religion and a history book, It aims at supplying the context of what may look like religiously motivated episodes of violence, in order to show that religion as such was not the prime cause. Armstrong admits from the onset that it is impossible to provide a clear answer to the question of what religion is.

Armstrong argues that in history there are many underlying social, economic, political reasons for war and violence and that violence often has little to do with religion. Instead, she celebrates the religious ideas and movements that have opposed war and aggression and promoted peace and reconciliation.

Her book is well summarized in the introductory remark (made by the editor, I assume) in The Guardian article : "The popular belief that religion is the cause of the world’s bloodiest conflicts is central to our modern conviction that faith and politics should never mix. But the messy history of their separation suggests it was never so simple."

Since I do not yet have access to the book, which at 499 pages is massive and covers everything from the ancient period to the present, I am going to use her article to provide the gist of the argument that she develops at great length in the book.

Armstrong begins the article by describing the jihadists of the Islamic State who quote the Qur'an as they behead their hapless victims. Their actions are what prompts for her the question about the connection between religion and violence.

Many blame religion for these atrocities, as Richard Dawkins and others do, or take shelter in the concept of a liberal state that separates politics and religion, as most Westerners do, And all of them question the attachment of Muslims to theocracy and their reluctance to enter the modern world.

Armstrong, however, poses another question:
But perhaps we should ask, instead, how it came about that we in the west developed our view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics. After all, warfare and violence have always been a feature of political life, and yet we alone drew the conclusion that separating the church from the state was a prerequisite for peace. Secularism has become so natural to us that we assume it emerged organically, as a necessary condition of any society’s progress into modernity. Yet it was in fact a distinct creation, which arose as a result of a peculiar concatenation of historical circumstances; we may be mistaken to assume that it would evolve in the same fashion in every culture in every part of the world.
According to her, history shows that for the longest time there was no coherent way to divide religious causes from social causes:
Before the modern period, religion was not a separate activity, hermetically sealed off from all others; rather, it permeated all human undertakings, including economics, state-building, politics and warfare. Before 1700, it would have been impossible for people to say where, for example, “politics” ended and “religion” began.
Parenthetically, I should add, that for Muslims, as indeed throughout much of the world, religion still permeates all human human activities. The west, however, has left a legacy separating religion from the rest of life.

She points especially to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the European wars of religion. It was the European wars, in the 16th and 17th centuries, that helped create "the myth of religious violence." They also led to a new understanding of religion and the development of the separation of church and state.

Next Armstrong traces the development of the liberal state, starting with philosophers such as John Locke, for whom the separation of religion and politics was evident in nature. She is merciless in her description of the pioneers of secularism as intolerant not only of religion but also of non-Europeans.

Secularism led to the disestablishment of churches in North America, which was achieved with relative ease, but in France required the confiscation of church property, the slaughter of priests, and the replacement of traditional religion with a newly invented one by the revolutionaries.

Similarly, in Germany, under the urging of  Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the nation replaced God; people would die for their nation, but not for their religion. The development of the nation-state was paired with a concept of tolerance that permitted everyone, including religious outsiders, to be incorporated.

But this tolerance was only skin-deep, Armstrong claims. In Europe it gave birth to antisemitism and in the US to calls for the extermination of the native peoples. Here she points to Thomas Jefferson.

When secularism was introduced in the developing world it was seen as disruptive and rejected a a foreign import. Fundamentalism, which exists in a symbiotic relationship with secularism, is rooted in a fear of annihilation, she explains.

Armstrong points to the example of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, who epitomizes the cruelty of secular nationalism. Among other things, he abolished the caliphate. Today the Islamic State is seeking to reverse this decision by reintroducing the caliphate.

Armstrong concludes the article by examining fundamentalism further as a reaction to secularism:
After a bumpy beginning, secularism has undoubtedly been valuable to the west, but we would be wrong to regard it as a universal law. It emerged as a particular and unique feature of the historical process in Europe; it was an evolutionary adaptation to a very specific set of circumstances. In a different environment, modernity may well take other forms. Many secular thinkers now regard “religion” as inherently belligerent and intolerant, and an irrational, backward and violent “other” to the peaceable and humane liberal state – an attitude with an unfortunate echo of the colonialist view of indigenous peoples as hopelessly “primitive”, mired in their benighted religious beliefs. There are consequences to our failure to understand that our secularism, and its understanding of the role of religion, is exceptional. When secularisation has been applied by force, it has provoked a fundamentalist reaction – and history shows that fundamentalist movements which come under attack invariably grow even more extreme. The fruits of this error are on display across the Middle East: when we look with horror upon the travesty of Isis, we would be wise to acknowledge that its barbaric violence may be, at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain.

While I have been necessarily selective in my discussion of Armstrong's argument, I hope that I have captured enough of her lengthy historical analysis to do justice to it or at least share the flavor of it. However, I have refrained from critiquing Armstrong. That I will to the reviewers of the book.

My purpose is simply to provide a brief description of her argument. The book -- to judge by her own summary in the article -- is an impressive piece of historical scholarship. One does not have to agree with all her claims to be able to recognize her thorough grasp of the history of religion.

This is above all a much-needed defense of religion in an age when people like Dawkins continue to attack religion as promoting violence, and secularism reigns supreme, at least in the west. Armstrong has made an important contribution to the ongoing debate on religion and violence.

For this reason, I want to suggest this book for those who want to immerse themselves further in this topic. Those who have less time or interest may just make due with Armstrong's article.

This posting is merely the first in a series on religion and violence. Next time I want to examine religious extremism and those who use religion to justify their extremism.

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