A few years ago, in my hometown of Toronto, a debate took place between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair about whether or not religion was a force for good in the world. It promised to be a rousing clash, between one of the English-speaking world’s most entertaining pundits and one of its most charming statesmen.
Instead, it reminded me of a headline that once ran in The Onion: “Drunken Man Makes Interesting Point About Society.”
The pair came off, for all intents and purposes, as passionately opinionated amateurs on the subject at hand.
Hitchens, who was beloved by atheists for his vivaciously stated suspicions of religious hucksters—Mother Teresa was a favorite target—never really bothered to acquaint himself with the great and nuanced theologians of Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam. If he had, he wouldn’t have asked the audience whether it was a good thing “for the world to worship a deity that takes sides in wars.”
(Spoiler alert: the entirety of human religious history has entailed finely-tuned musings on divine exhortation to unity and peace, and whether there are loop holes.)
Nor would Hitchens have made this statement: “Religion forces nice people to do unkind things.” Meaning, one was left to discern, that religion is self-evidently a coercive force for ill.
I remember thinking, really? All those innately tender-hearted Catholic priests were obliged by the Ten Commandments to molest children? Oh dear. How, then, to explain Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Hitler’s brutal minions? They were just born to be mean?
Blair didn’t go after Hitchens on his scriptural exegesis because he’s a politician, whose instinct is to point to ordinary folk, and argue that church congregations do food drives, and send underpants to Haiti, and build schools in Africa, generally acting as a force for good. But I wondered what would have happened if Hitch stood across the stage from Hannah Arendt.
After Hitchens died, the debate continued with celebrity pundits like Bill Maher and star intellectuals like Richard Dawkins, a biologist, and Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, none of whom appear to have an infant’s weak grasp of why thinking human beings would come to believe in a meaningful universe.
What these men do have is a muscular hold on popular disgust with religious extremism. That the sentiment is increasingly and simplistically being associated with Islam is as problematic as it seems inevitable. As I write, several of my family members are boxed into their Ottawa offices while police scramble about trying to ensure that only the one Muslim extremist shot up our Parliament and killed a ceremonial guard.
You can already track the rise of anti-Islamic fury on Canadian news site comment sections.
With exquisite timing, religious historian Karen Armstrong steps forth with Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. Her overall objective is to call a time-out. Think before you leap to prejudice, she says.
“When people claim that religion has been responsible for more war, more oppression and suffering than any other human institution, one has to ask, ‘more than what?’”
More than kingship? More than merchant greed? More than secular nationalist movements or industrial interests or mental illness or knitting groups? Is there even a comparative baseline?
Religion, Armstrong sets about to demonstrate in her history with a slightly frayed patience, has been so intrinsic to human culture for so long that it is virtually impossible to disentangle the threads. Everything in life, from governance to harvest to warfare, was suffused with sacred meaning until the advent of the Enlightenment. Even the word religion doesn’t mean what modern secular culture assumes it to mean. As Armstrong writes, “It was not a ‘great objective something,’ but had imprecise connotations of obligation and taboo.”
To say that spiritual engagement somehow causes humanity to become violent is to ignore the obvious pressures on all human societies throughout history to accrue scarce resources, to shore up status and power, and to impose order on chaos. If anything, every new religion emerged at least in part as a protest against violence and oppression. Mohammed, for example, in the Quran, made it clear that God “made no distinction between the revelations of any of the prophets.” He just wanted to remind people “of what constituted a just society that challenged the structural violence emerging in Mecca: that it was wrong to build a private fortune but good to share your wealth with the poor and vulnerable, who must be treated with equity and respect.”
People were attracted to early Christianity by its compassionate egalitarianism. Women in the founding Christian movement were treated equally, and the poor knelt beside the rich. “Like the followers of Confucius and Buddha,” Armstrong notes, “Christians were cultivating ideals of reverence and selflessness that countered the aggressive self-assertion of the warrior aristocracy.”
Each religious flowering has ultimately been co-opted and repurposed for decidedly unspiritual aims by powers that be, Armstrong says. But not entirely, even so. Christianity spawned the monastic movement, originally in Egypt, that insisted upon peace, self-reliance, education and charity. (If Hitchens et alia were casting vainly about for evidence of religious good, they might at least have stumbled across the fact that monasteries preserved the tomes of Plato and Aristotle.) The Sufis and the Shia were Islam’s a-political practioners originally, who deliberately eschewed power. Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews have all withdrawn from the maelstrom of politics at various times, for a whole host of spiritual reasons. Armstrong’s book is laden with example.
No, she concludes, religion cannot be extracted from the complex weave of human experience and explicitly held to account for our worst instincts. On the contrary. “Ancient religious mythologies helped people to face up to the dilemma of state violence, but our current nationalist ideologies seem by contrast to promote a retreat into denial or hardening of our hearts.” This point can’t be oversimplified, much as I wish to try. It really does take an entire book to lay out her case, so do read it.
Among the most interesting stuff in Armstrong’s book is her deconstruction of the modern Islamic stereotype. (She would have handed in her manuscript before the lightning rise of ISIS and its strange, bewitching social media effect on the young and the disconsolate.) For example, she points out that a 2007 Gallup poll conducted in 35 predominantly Muslim countries found that 93 percent of respondents condemned the 9/11 attacks, citing “Quranic verses to show that the killing of innocent people could have no place in Islam.”
The Quran, contrary to popular TV pundit belief, doesn’t dangle ethereal virgins in front of Muslim warriors’ eyes; suicide attacks were pioneered by an entirely political separatist group, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka; of all suicide attacks occurring between 1980 and 2004, a scant few were connected to any religion at all. The vast majority, in Lebanon, for instance, were committed by “secularists and socialists.”
In the end, the point Armstrong feels most adamant about is that by blaming religion for violence, we are deliberately and disastrously blinding ourselves to the real, animating issues in the Middle East and Africa that are directly affecting us in the guise of terrorism and—it feels inevitable—further ground war. She cites the “arrogant silence” of the West as smart young people and apolitical families struggle under American-sponsored dictatorships and lose their lives and livelihood to drone strikes. “We cannot claim the high moral ground if we dismiss the suffering and death of the many thousands of civilians who die in our wars as ‘collateral damage,’” she argues.
We can totter about our 21st century court of Versailles with clever quips and oversize wigs, pish-poshing about religion and tracking our Twitter followers, or we can think with depth and seriousness about what cultivates human dignity, and what fuels human rage.