Former Nun’s New Book Tries To Exonerate Religion Of Crimes She Blames On Secular Governments

By Donald A. Collins | 15 December 2014
Church and State

I guess one does not have to be a history professor to recall examples of human behavior not influenced by hideous people who were not religious although James Fallow mentions Hitler in his 12/14/14 Sunday NYTimes Book Review without noting he was at least a nominal Catholic.

The book, “Fields of Blood” by Karen Armstrong argues that religion is not the cause of human discord, but rather it is initiated by humans operating within governments (i.e. state origins of violence) ergo she tells us that eliminating religion would not eliminate human conflict. I can agree that certainly other human facts play a part as my recent OP ED described.

The review begins:

Just after finishing Karen Armstrong’s new book, I happened to hear a discussion on television about the latest outbreak of violence in the Middle East. “We have to hope that this disagreement stays on the political level, rather than becoming a religious dispute,” one of the experts said. “Political differences can be resolved. Religious ones cannot.”

“Fields of Blood” can be thought of as a long, wide-ranging and overall quite effective rebuttal to the outlook expressed in that comment. “In the West, the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident,” Armstrong says on the book’s first page. It follows that the main hope for peace is to keep faith and statecraft separate.”

Certainly to argue that human misbehavior is driven exclusively by religious differences would be in my view a means of setting up a straw man to attack and dismiss, which is exactly what this author and her reviewer have done.

Here the reviewer expresses the core of her argument:

“Fields of Blood” can be thought of as a long, wide-ranging and overall quite effective rebuttal to the outlook expressed in that comment. “In the West, the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident,” Armstrong says on the book’s first page. It follows that the main hope for peace is to keep faith and statecraft separate.

Armstrong, a onetime Roman Catholic nun and the author of several influential works on religion including “A History of God,” argues that this is an incorrect diagnosis leading to a flawed prescription. The page-by-page detail of the book is much of the reason to read it, but if you reduced its complexities and tangles to their essence, they would amount to these three points:

First, through most of human history, people have chosen to intertwine religion with all their other activities, including, notably, how they are governed. This was “not because ambitious churchmen had ‘mixed up’ two essentially distinct activities,” she says, “but because people wanted to endow everything they did with significance.”

Second, this involvement with politics means that religions have often been tied up with violence: Crusaders, conquistadors, jihadists and many more. But — a point Armstrong cares about so much that she makes it dozens of times — the violence almost always originates with the state and spills over to religion, rather than vice versa. This, she says, is because any governing body, democratic or tyrannical, peace-loving or expansionist, “was obliged to maintain at its heart an institution committed to treachery and violence,” and because “violence and coercion . . . lay at the heart of social existence.” The earliest states required force to maintain systems of agricultural production; mature ones found that the threat of violence — by police within their borders, by armies between them — was, sadly, the best way to keep the peace.

Third, citizens thus face the duty of confronting and trying to control violence carried out in their name by the state, without blaming religion for it or imagining that the solution lies in a cleaner separation of church and state. This extends to understanding the roots of violence or terrorism directed against them: “As an inspiration for terrorism . . . nationalism has been far more productive than religion.” And religions face the dilemma of whether to accept the protection of a state, and the threat of violence that necessarily entails, or to live in hermetic isolation.

Armstrong develops this argument through the interacting evolutions of religion and government from Mesopotamian times onward. She has sections on the rise of Zoroastrianism in Persia, on the Sanskrit-speaking Aryans four millenniums ago in India, on the early formation of the Chinese state — and that is before her multichapter examination of the development of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. She then explores the best-known examples of violence involving each of these faiths, from the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century to the Islamic (and other) extremists of the 21st, including ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. In nearly all cases, she argues, violent impulses that originated elsewhere — with nationalism, struggles for territory, resentment at loss of power — may have presented themselves as “religious” disputes but really had little to do with faith.

We can admire this thinking while at the same time not fail to mention perhaps the greatest perfidy religion has created in human history. What would that be? The use of religion by males to dominate women.

From the founding of the Roman Catholic Church and the copying of many of its doctrines by Islam with a strong added element of violence for not accepting its tenets — after all going to hell is an afterlife promise — we see how the world’s major religions are monotheistic (one god only whether you agree or not) and dominated by males who won’t let women into top leadership positions.

A long established tenet of these religions has been to gain control of governments. Certainly in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere the rubric is to control the behavior of women with respect to their child bearing and all relations with men and in their lives, even to driving cars and how to dress.

The ravaging attacks by the Catholic Church on birth control has been well documented by such leading scholars as Stephen D. Mumford. Its organized and vicious campaign following the Rockefeller Commission’s report on the future of America managed to dismantle a large consensus for birth control, including the right to choose abortion, and undermine the human efforts of the state to bring financial assistance to women who wished to control their fertility.

Those sad conditions exist widely today in the US and around the world and the religious fervor to keep it that way has not abated.

Let’s not lose the main point!!! When you try to argue, as this author does, that keeping half the world’s population from exercising the most basic human freedom possible, namely when and under what conditions you will carry and bear a child, you have really left the reservation of sanity into the realm of fantasy!

Since human numbers has grown since 1930 from 2 billion to over 7 billion worldwide and from 125 million to over 320 million in the US, the effects of these monotheistic religions continuing obstinance to reality can’t be denied. Nor should it be tolerated as this reviewer and the author apparently by omission believe.

Certainly human violence and misbehavior is not the exclusive purview of religion, including well publicized instances of religious excess, such as the Spanish inquisition when Queen Isabella, likely with cynicism, used the requirement of Catholic faith as a means of secular crowd control.

The author, a distinguished scholar according to her reviewer, goes far back in history for examples to attempt to prove her point.

Armstrong develops this argument through the interacting evolutions of religion and government from Mesopotamian times onward. She has sections on the rise of Zoroastrianism in Persia, on the Sanskrit-speaking Aryans four millenniums ago in India, on the early formation of the Chinese state — and that is before her multichapter examination of the development of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. She then explores the best-known examples of violence involving each of these faiths, from the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century to the Islamic (and other) extremists of the 21st, including ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. In nearly all cases, she argues, violent impulses that originated elsewhere — with nationalism, struggles for territory, resentment at loss of power — may have presented themselves as “religious” disputes but really had little to do with faith.

Ok, but this is today and the planet today is reeling from its absorption of excess numbers, a root cause of many of Earth’s troubles from global warming to dismal conditions for far too many of its inhabitants.

My position, as an admitted atheist, would be to un-fog our lives with fantasy and to look with clear eyes at the facts. Too many humans have already brought us to great grief and will likely exacerbate dangerous conditions in the near future.

The reviewer, clearly buying the author’s POV, closes with these comments that offer modest reservations about her thesis:

So convincing is Armstrong’s overall case that I wish she had not tried to make it airtight. Even in episodes that would seem to have some religious element, she is at pains to say that the origins must be seen as wholly political. The Muslim-Hindu violence that followed the end of the Raj and the partition between India and Pakistan? “Muslims and Hindus would both fall prey to the besetting sin of secular nationalism: its inability to tolerate minorities. And because their outlook was still permeated by spirituality, this nationalist bias distorted their traditional religious vision.” The massacre of Muslim Bosnians, by Orthodox Serbians, in the Bosnian war of the early 1990s? “Despite the widespread assumption in the West that . . . the violence was ineradicable because of its strong ‘religious’ element, this communal intolerance was relatively new” — and based, again she argues, on political disagreements. If the Taliban or Islamic State marauders cite their faith as justification for their killing, that is, Armstrong says, a sign not that they’ve spent too much time with the Quran, but too little — and have ignored (among teachings that are as internally contradictory as those of the Old and New Testaments) the many passages exhorting mercy and tolerance. The argument comes right to the edge of tautology in suggesting that if a religion seems to provoke violence, then it’s not properly a religion at all but rather a manifestation of state power.

Sorry, but the Quran — much of it copied from Christian text — hardly is a guide for turning the other cheek!

But then Fallows notes atheist ardor for power and killing, which of course is proper:

But only to the edge. Armstrong demonstrates again and again that the great spasms of cruelty and killing through history have had little or no religious overlay. In modern times Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all atheists, and the power behind the Holocaust, Armstrong says, was an ethnic rather than a religious hatred. An overemphasis on religion’s damage can blind people to the nonholy terrors that their states inflict.

Au contraire, Monsieur!! How blind can the monotheistic male dominated leaders be? Just look at the alleged blandness of Pope Francis who adheres to the same anti women strictures as his predecessors. Mindless of planetary ills, these arrogant religionists continue to try to influence public policy against reason and what should be totally secular choices.

Frankly, as the previously unknowable entities in the cosmos become more knowable even as the universe’s infinity continues to be unknowable, the absurdity of organized religious doxology steers us towards wiping the religious slate clean and starting again with science as our guide. As my earlier piece noted, (http://churchandstate.org.uk/2014/11/race-religion-and-rapacity-likely-will-doom-our-republic/) religion, racism and rapacity all have a part in the mess we are in, but certainly religion pays a major role in our discord.

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA. He is the author of From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013.

Professor Milton Siegel, who for 24 years was the Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization, speaks to Dr. Stephen Mumford in 1992 to reveal that although there was a consensus that overpopulation was a grave public health threat and would be a major cause of preventable death not too far in the future, the Vatican successfully fought off the incorporation of family planning and birth control into official WHO policy. This video is available for public viewing for the first time. Read the full transcript of the interview here.

Chatting with Paul Ehrlich about the chances of societal collapse

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