Book Review: Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence by Karen Armstrong

This is a lengthy tome; I’ve just spent the last few weeks reading it. It’s not easy reading either. I almost gave up in the early going. I questioned myself: Do I really want to spend my time doing this? And yet, in the end, I saw it through. One fascinating period of history after another caught my attention; I would think this one’s too interesting to miss – and then one more, one more, until it was too late to stop. It starts with Gilgamesh, the city of Uruk, and the Samarian Empire, and it finishes with the aftermath of 9/11. On the way, it touches on just about every empire and religious upheaval you can think of.

After I had completed the reading of this voluminous book, I supposed that I would review it just as I do almost every book that I read, and yet I hesitated. I’m not exactly sure why. One reason is that there’s so much in it that I can’t possibly remember everything. Another is the complexity and volatility of the subject matter. Another is that I was dissatisfied with the way that the author approached some of the material and the conclusions she came to.

Obviously with a book this size on such a controversial topic no reader is going to agree with everything in it. One thing that bothers me is the way Armstrong mixes religious and secular sources. She integrates scriptural tales into the history and doesn’t always differentiate where one ends and the other begins. The stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and other characters out of the Old Testament, for instance, are presented as they occur in the Bible alongside other details culled from secular sources.

Despite the mixing of secular history and scripture, Armstrong maintains a purely objective if not skeptical approach throughout the book. I can’t blame her for that. The problem is, she tilts the balance way over to the side of seeing religion as a political tool of rulers and governments, and she sees little good in religion or spirituality as a means of making humankind and its societies better. What I mean by this is that I get the impression that she considers religion only from the viewpoint of those who exploit it for their own ends and not at all from the perspective of common people who might derive some genuine comfort from it. It’s true that pseudo-religious beliefs or the appropriation of religion for propaganda purposes have led to violent warfare and terrorism; however, it’s also true that for billions of people throughout history and in the present age, religion provides strength, resolve, ethics, morals, unselfishness, good deeds, and the binding together of families and communities.

It annoys me when Armstrong insists that the only way to hold an agrarian society together is through the systemic violence of an elite minority forcibly suppressing masses of laborers. I don’t know history well enough to refute those claims, but I’m sure there have been exceptions in the past. I’m not willing to give up on humankind so easily and to accept the depressing theory that people will always revert to their worst instincts. It’s just a hunch, I suppose, but I think we can do better.

Despite its flaws, though, I have to admit that this book is impressive. It took a lot of research, a lot of heavy thinking, and a lot of organization of materials to pull off. It’s thought provoking, to say the least. Its strength is in its overview of history in the light of religion and its association with violence. It’s worth taking this tour of empires and nation states with this perspective in mind. As you journey with Armstrong from ancient to modern times, just keep in mind that you don’t have to agree with everything she says to grasp the larger picture she is presenting. Once you’ve finished the book, keep what seems beneficial to you, and let the rest go. That last comment reminds me of how to approach religion, come to think. It’s too important a facet of humanity to ignore. So study it, if it interests you; keep what you find valuable, and leave the rest alone.

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1 Response to Book Review: Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence by Karen Armstrong

  1. Lawrence Reh says:

    I admire your optimism, John, regarding the human condition and its potential. And I’m often as torn as you seem to be regarding the value of “religion” and its impact on the story of humanity. I can’t/wouldn’t argue against the idea that it has been a negative force too often, but I believe that is a result of its misuse and abuse by the seekers after power and privilege. What I have found useful for myself is to distinguish between “religion” and “faith,” which I define as a fundamental belief in the goodness of humanity, whether or not it is connected with any sort of higher power. Maybe common folk need the concept of a higher power as a model to aspire to, an ideal that permits them to see in others, and in themselves, the capacity for ever more becoming “better angels,” and the purpose that may lie within that vision. That sort of faith is a choice, a commitment, and an antidote to the negativity and destructiveness to which we can so easily surrender.

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