XCF282098 Spanish Soldiers killing Protestants in Haarlem, c.1567 (colour engraving) by .; Private Collection; (add.info.: Spanish reprisals after the surrender of Haarlem in 1573; Eighty Years' War; army of Philip II of Spain laid siege to the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands;); out of copyright
‘Spanish Soldiers killing Protestants in Haarlem’, c1567 © Bridgeman Art Library

In 1825 Samuel Taylor Coleridge published a book aimed at reconverting his son Hartley, who had lapsed from Christian faith, disgusted by religious fanaticism and the violence it inspires. Fanaticism, Coleridge advised in his Aids to Reflection, is a distortion that arises when a charismatic seer claims to have the ear of God, and attracts an ardent following willing to do anything they are told. There is something within the hearts of religious people, Coleridge argued, that loves a prophet, even a false one. For this reason he warned against belief in new revelations beyond the books of the New Testament.

When the 9/11 attacks prompted widespread denunciation of Islamist extremists, the charge that religion gives rise to violence had been long familiar. Yet since religion is associated with an un­deniable measure of beneficence in the world, it surely makes sense not to condemn religion tout court but to attempt a diagnosis. What transforms religion from benign lamb to raving monster?

Karen Armstrong, a prolific author of celebrated books on comparative religion, addresses that question in a timely new work, taking critical soundings across a vast span of history. She re­hearses episodes of violence in an array of religious communities – from the growth of Sumerian agricultural societies 6,000 years ago, to the rise of the Abrahamic faiths and the emergence of complex societies featuring Hinduism and Buddhism in India and China.

Unlike Coleridge she blames factors extrinsic to religion rather than within it. What we take to be a religious element in incidents of violence has been inseparable, she argues, from the social, political and military fabric of societies from the dawn of history. Religion as a separate, independent phenomenon, she goes on, is an “invention” of modernity.

It was the Enlightenment and the emergence of secularism, she insists, that led to the “myth of religious violence”. Anticlerical provocation could then make a reality of the myth. Religion was isolated from social and political institutions; the faithful, on the defensive in matters of the deepest conviction, used any methods readily to hand to combat antagonistic secular forces. Armstrong applies this analysis, uneasily, to al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks, pointing to the complex of political factors behind the atrocity while also stressing the importance of American affronts to Islam in the Middle East.

This passionately argued book is certain to provoke heated debate against the background of the Isis atrocities and many other acts of violence perpetrated around the world today in the name of religion. But despite the relentless reiteration of her thesis through 500 pages, Armstrong is likely to face criticism over the sufficiency of her leading ideas.

From the outset she appeals to a theory proposed in 1960 by the neuroscientist Paul D MacLean. He argued that we all possess a nasty reptilian brain, which disposes us to violence as a fact of evolutionary heritage. MacLean contrasts this with our mammalian “limbic system”, capable of caring emotions, and our human “neocortex”, capable of reason. This may well be a neat way of explaining, or explaining away, human nature and the phenomenon of violence; but most researchers working in affective psychology have long ago rejected Maclean’s “triune brain” as fanciful.

Historically, Armstrong has clearly been influenced by the theories of René Girard, the French-born American historian, and the theologian William Cavanaugh (who first coined the phrase “the myth of religious violence”). These academics do not deny the culpability of secular agencies in the history of violence. They avoid, however, a simplistic dichotomy between secularism and religion, arguing that the sacred and the profane continued to be inextricably intertwined through the modern period.

In opposition to Armstrong’s jaundiced view of secularism, a more standard western critique sees the separation of church and state – secularism’s great achievement – as largely beneficial to religious freedom and a means of reducing conflict. Christians, as well as Muslims, have often found this difficult to accept. The decree on religious freedom (religious pluralism) was achieved with great difficulty at the reforming Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Traditionally, Catholics had claimed there was no salvation outside the Church, with inevitable consequences in the history of violence.

Armstrong’s narrow view of secularism is clearly evident in her account of fundamentalism, which, again, she sees as a retreat into defensive literalism. The late John Rawls, however, offers a more sophisticated construal, seeing fundamentalism as the pursuit of the good society by the imposition of mandatory beliefs and values. Pluralist societies, in contrast, Rawls argues, allow individuals and groups to pursue their own beliefs unhindered. Episcopalian political scientists such as Glenn Tinder have endorsed Christianity’s contribution to the emergence of pluralism and hence secularism, citing the Gospel ideal of non-judgmental love as a basis for respecting, under the law, all religions and none.

Armstrong’s recipe for the reduction of violence of every kind is compassion. Who could possibly object? Yet her advocacy suffers from another lapse into neuro-think. She tells us how “Buddhist monks who have practised this compassionate meditation assiduously have physically enhanced those centres of the brain that spark our empathy.” Elsewhere she writes that “Syrian monks surrendered to the aggressive drives of the reptilian brain.”

The notion of “moral imagination” might have endowed her take-home message – compassion – with greater moral and spiritual significance. The phrase, coined by Edmund Burke, has been exploited by eirenic religionists from William Blake to Martin Luther King. Moral imagination, as David Brom­wich reminds us in his recent book of that title, gives impetus to universal compassion in its power to routinely place ourselves in the shoes of others. As Burke put it in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), it was a failure to act in accordance with their “moral natures” that ultimately cast the revolutionaries out “from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow”.

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, by Karen Armstrong, Bodley Head, RRP£25, 512 pages, Published in the US next month by Knopf

John Cornwell is author of ‘The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession’ (Profile/Basic Books)

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section