Sunday, October 26, 2014

Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong

In her provocative new book FIELDS OF BLOOD: Religion and the History of Violence, author and scholar Karen Armstrong argues that violence is not synonymous with religion, but is rather adopted by radicals who cherry-pick verses in order to justify their political objectives. She examines religions throughout history, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and others, bringing to bear statistics and quotations, both written and oral. Specific incidents are downplayed in favor of a wider view of these religions from their founding until now. The big picture, she says, is that religion permeated agrarian societies in which wealthy landowners brutalized peasants to keep them in line. Agrarian aggression begat the warrior ethos, and warriors used (and continue to use) religion to justify their atrocities, speaking of the “glories” of battle and the sense of camaraderie and hero status attained by “winning” in an emotional setting. (Young men are most likely to be aggressive since their relative status is based on physical superiority over peers, while the message of nationalism is a tune played by all nations, even at the Olympics.) The carryover into today is that terrorists have been brainwashed (and/or are brainwashing themselves) into believing they are “fighting the good fight,” which the foundations of their religions do not support. Ayaan Hirsi Ali would disagree with this, but regardless of one’s take on this complex subject, Armstrong can be commended for not pushing her own agenda in presenting this detailed history, unless you believe peace and cooperation is an agenda. Usually an author doesn’t read their own book for audio (unless it’s an autobiography or humor book), but Armstrong here demonstrates narrative skills and acumen in writing too. She has won a TED prize, and is working on the Charter for Compassion. In addition, she was awarded the Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal, and the British Academy’s Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Transcultural Understanding. Regardless of one’s religious or political views, I recommend this book simply for framing the debate, and the rich scholarship displayed in laying out the history. It is well written and well narrated as a bonus.

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