Comparative religions expert Armstrong (Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, 2010, etc.) provides a comprehensive and erudite study of the history of violence in relation to religion.
The author’s global perspective is epic in scale and begins with the very dawn of human history. She begins the book by asserting, “[m]odern society has made a scapegoat of faith,” and she ends by noting that the “problem lies not in the multifaceted activity that we call ‘religion’ but in the violence embedded in our human nature and the nature of the state.” Armstrong also takes pains to explain that religion, as it is defined and discussed in modern society, is a construct of Protestant-influenced, Western culture and would not be understood by most cultures through time. Instead of a personal choice, religion has long been an ingrained aspect of most cultures, subject to the needs of societal survival along with every other aspect of a culture. Armstrong sees agrarian society as the source of most violence through history, in which a ruling minority controlled an agrarian majority by force while also attempting to expand territory. Religion served as a way of comprehending and handling the violence inherent in such societies. The rise of secularism—which, as the French Revolution handily proved, could be quite violent in its own right—created a void in which religion, and especially fundamentalism, could arise in a juxtaposing, visible role. This new role for religion has brought about the “religious violence” of modernity, whether it was Jonestown’s “revolutionary suicide” or the spread of Islamic fanaticism. Armstrong leads readers patiently through history, from Mesopotamia to ancient India to the Palestine of Jesus to the China of Confucius. As always, her writing is clear and descriptive, her approach balanced and scholarly.
An intriguing read, useful resource and definitive voice in defense of the divine in human culture.