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

Posted: August 6, 2015 in history, nonfiction
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Fields of Blood

Wars have often been blamed on religion, and critical thought frequently goes out the door the moment religion is brought into the discussion. Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun and prominent religious commentator, takes a long hard look at the various religions dominant over long periods of human history, and examines the relationship between that faith and the violent and pacifist streams within it. And religions cop flak because they provide a method of shared community as well as differentiating between us and the others.

Armstrong reminds us that every major religion, from Zoroastrianism to Judaism, Sikhism to Christianity and many more beside, have displayed both a pacifist and a violent face depending on the underlying social conditions. These aspects of a faith are brought about by a dissatisfaction with either the current power dynamics within a single faith society, or by challenges presented by rival faiths. These aspects are achieved by either re-interpreting key tracts of the religions canon or even a complete re-write of the basic canon.

Armstrong points out that are used to legitimate the basic cultural behaviour of a group, be it the aggressive expansion of the early Aryans into India, to the communal and anti-aristocratic Hebrews. She also stresses the point that the religion of a group is adjusted to explain its violence to others and itself, otherwise faith would collapse in the face of the logical dichotomy between the message and the behaviour.

Armstrong has written an entertaining and informative book that partly explains why religion is blamed for mass violence. I say partly because stupidity, greed and prejudice exist outside of religions. Read this book if you want an answer beyond the facile and banal.

Bodley Head

Supplied by Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Steve

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