Karen Armstrong on the connections between religion and violence

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British religion scholar Karen Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic nun whose latest book is "Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence." Photo by Michael Lionstar

British religion scholar Karen Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic nun whose latest book is "Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence." Photo by Michael Lionstar

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(RNS) To those who say that religion is inherently violent, Karen Armstrong responds with "Fields of Blood," a book that walks through thousands of years of human history, religion and warfare.

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  • In the West, the idea that religion is inherently violent is taken for granted by everyone from academics to cab drivers, says British religion scholar Karen Armstrong, the former Roman Catholic nun who wrote the best-selling “A History of God.”

    Is there anyone employed at Religion News Service who actually edits this thing?

  • Earold D. Gunter

    Art Deco, Ever consider you may just be an outlier? Succinct enough?

  • Earold D. Gunter

    Religion is not the cause of all violence in history. The attempted control of man by other men is. Religion is just one mean to accomplish that goal.

  • Neon Genesis

    I feel like I can already predict what the atheist talking point responses are going to be.

  • “The First and Second World Wars were not caused by religion.”


    ” Stalin’s gulag was not inspired by religion.”


    “The Young Turks who massacred Armenians were ardent atheists. That stops them in their tracks.”


    Sounds like a pointless book.

  • Oh, you’re not going to tell me to gargle with horsesh*t?

    No need to consider it. I’m not.

  • Brian Buchbinder

    I can’t wait for Ms. Armstrong to insist that the Nazis were “pagans” Yes, the cult had some pagan elements. That said, the Austrian Corporal himself claimed to be a loyal Catholic to the end, and himself never killed a single Jew. How did he get so many to either kill or go along joyfully? How about 1500 years of Xtian Jew-hate to ready the ground?

  • Jon

    It’s certainly true that violence predates religion. It’s also certainly true that violence can and does happen today without religion, and that getting rid of religion would not get rid of all violence.

    However, religion is clearly an aggravating factor which amplifies and enables violence. There are clear reasons for this in the very basis of religions. Because religions rely on private revelation (scripture) as a source of truth, those who disagree cannot “check the source”, to see if the private revelation is “real” as opposed to just something someone made up. Since private revelation cannot be objectively tested, the only thing left is to resolve the dispute by fighting, which is what has been proven time and again over the past several thousand years.

    Without religion, people have to rely on objectively testable data for their worldview. If there is a disagreement, simply repeat the test, consult those who did, etc. No need to fight. If one wants to keep an idea of a pantheistic god, then that data could be called “public revelation”.

    That’s one, perhaps the biggest, reason why religion is violent, why reducing religion reduces violence (shown many times by studies), and why supernatural religion needs to be abandoned if we are to have a just, healthy and peaceful world. It’s a lot like asking if smoking causes cancer – the answer is no – mutations cause cancer. But those mutations are encouraged and made much more likely if one smokes.

    There are other reasons – like clear verses in most Bibles, the Qu’ran, and so on, which encourage violence. Those might be avoided with different scripture, but the supernatural basis of most religions makes the first reason unavoidable, regardless of how many counterexamples this book might list.

  • @Jon,

    “reducing religion reduces violence (shown many times by studies)”


    ” It’s a lot like asking if smoking causes cancer – the answer is no – mutations cause cancer.”


    And religion undeniably encourages the worst behavior,
    pitting each tribe against the other.

    “The only true faith in God’s sight is Islam.” (Surah 3:19)
    “Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it.” (Surah 2:216)
    “Believers, take neither Jews nor Christians for your friends.” (Surah 5:51)

    “Cursed be he who does the Lords work remissly, cursed he who holds back his sword from blood.” (Jeremiah 48:10
    “Seize all the non-believers and execute them before the LORD in broad daylight…” (Numbers 25:1-9)

    “To those who would not have me as their king, bring them to me and EXECUTE THEM in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)
    “Avoid Them” (Romans 16:17)
    “have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” (2 Thessalonian 3:14)

  • @Neon,

    Evidence is the only ‘talking point’.

    The evidence indicates that religion is not the cause of all violence.
    But religion is the cause of tribal violence – the worst, most common kind of mass violence.

    Karen Armstrong seems not to not understand that for most of the 20th century we could replace the word “CATHOLIC” with “FASCIST” as they were interchangeable.

    Rwanda in 1993 was the most Catholic country in Africa yet it exploded in Genocidal mass murder killing 800,000 fellow citizens with machetes. The priests and nuns did much of the killing with their own hands!

    Today ‘ISLAMIST’ can be replaced with ‘FASCIST’ – as they are just as interchangeable.

    Primitive nonsense leads to primitive nonsense!

  • Aquifer

    I would tweak that a bit – one might say that the perversion of religion is one way to accomplish that goal ….

  • Aquifer

    One could just as well argue that the explosion of violence was in spite, not because, of the religion ….

    Tribalism predates religion, it is a cause of violence in so-called secular, as well as so-called religious societies … Unless, of course, you want to call tribalism a “religion” …

  • Aquifer

    No that is not the only way to “resolve a dispute” – another way is to simply observe the “second” commandment – “love thy neighbor as thyself” – wherein the resolution of such “disputes” is subordinated to that command …

  • Earold D. Gunter

    Not my role in life to try and make anyone do anything, outside of employment that is. Those around you obviously keeping their distance when you open you mouth to speak may just convince you otherwise though.

  • Earold D. Gunter

    Since belief in all religion requires faith, which is believing when not only no evidence exists, but when evidence exists to the contrary, I would respectfully disagree with the reasoning for youe adjustment.

  • Liz

    @ Aquifer,

    You don’t know all your god’s commendments, do you? “Love thy neighbors…” is not a commendmant and never was. You should consult Moses before you start messing up his biggest achievement.

  • rob

    That’s the way she looks at the world Lutherans look at it as all the ” non”-Christians are doing bY far the majority of the sinful violence’s IN all times of history..
    non Christians includes atheists to ,, Lets not for get that..

  • rob

    Unbelievers don’t want that peace Jesus won FOR ALL and are at war with God..

    yet God is not at war with them


  • Re: “Karen Armstrong seems not to not understand that for most of the 20th century we could replace the word ‘CATHOLIC’ with ‘FASCIST’ as they were interchangeable.”

    How true! Fascism as an ideology originated with the Catholic Benito Mussolini and was promoted early on by Italian Catholic clergy. Adolf Hitler, the most famous fascist ruler, was Catholic. Among less-frequently-remembered fascist leaders was Engelbert Dollfuss, chancellor of Austria, very Catholic, having been a seminarian for going into law and politics (and ironically assassinated by Nazis), and Josef Tiso, president of the Slovakian state left behind when the Third Reich annexed 2/3 of Czechoslovakia; he was a Catholic priest, a monsignor, no less.

    The origins of fascism as a philosophy and ideology clearly lay within European Catholicism. As you note, fascism has now moved on, having been embraced by Islamists, but its Catholic origins are undeniable.

  • Larry

    The Nazis loved the Christian faith. Catholicism was a great recruiting tool for collaborators from Poland, Ukraine, Belgium, Spain, and Croatia. The Croatian collaborators being noted for having the last forced conversions to Catholicism and perpetrating massacres so gory and horrific that even their Nazi advisors winced.

    Lutheran antisemitism was a great tool for finding volunteers to murder people on an industrial scale.

  • Larry

    Yet most self-declared Christians look for excuses, opt outs or conditions to “love thy neighbor” to excuse malicious behavior towards others.

    All one has to do is talk to a conservative christian about why they support legalized discrimination of gays, atheists and muslims.

  • Larry

    Lutheranism, the favorite Protestant sect of the worst mass murderers in modern history.

  • @Aquifer,

    “Love thy neighbor as thyself”

    Yet this ultimately means nothing in Christianity
    once you realize that the neighbor must be without sin
    in order to be loved! And guess, what – nobody is worthy!

    “Bring to me those enemies of mine who would not have me as their king and execute them in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    “Avoid Them” (Romans 16:17)

    “have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” (2 Thessalonian 3:14)

    Sinister nonsense.

    For Peace, Humanity and the Separation of Church and State

  • Larry

    Religion is tribalism. It creates subgroups who compete with other subgroups of different faiths or sects for the same political power. It just adds another layer for people to separate and divide themselves.

    The only time religious folks ever acted in a way to prevent violence or conflict was when they went outside of primary beliefs. That all other faiths are wrong and their adherents unworthy of respect. When religious leaders stopped stumping for their version of God(s) and played nice with other faiths.

    Its so rare that is is practically an aberration. Sectarian conflict and murder is the norm not the exception.

  • Hend

    How can anyone say mussolini and hitler, we’re Catholics, they had no religion. People that say they r this religion or that religion, if they do not practice, then they have no religion.

  • Larry

    Its easy when you see how those various churches aided and abetted those regimes. Especially when you see how religious appeals were employed and to what purpose.

  • norman ravitch

    Of course religion is not the cause of all conflict. But all ideologies, including religion, can be awfully useful. Hatred needs to be mobilized and ideologies and religions can and do do this.

    Armstrong has recycled her many books yet again without saying anything new. I wish she would return to her convent.

  • @norman ravitch,

    “Of course religion is not the cause of all conflict. But all ideologies, including religion, can be awfully useful.”

    How can this
    be used in a way that is NOT dangerous or CRIMINAL?

    “Bring to me those enemies of mine and execute them in front of me” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

  • samuel Johnston

    Hi Aquifer,
    “Tribalism predates religion”. Evidence please. In school we were taught that agriculture predated permanent settlements, because it was considered self evident. Evidence has now been unearthed that permanent settlements predated agriculture. Speculating about the distant past is universal, but not very reliable.

  • Jack

    Liz, you are mistaken. “Love your neighbor as yourself” indeed is a commandment. It’s in Leviticus 19:18.

    Thus it is you who should “consult Moses” (your words).

  • Yeah, Jack.

    Right next to “Kill Homosexuals” (Leviticus 20:13)