My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014) by Karen Armstrong is a compendium of history, politics and religion since the dawn of the agrarian age in human civilization.
The back cover reads: “Our foremost scholar of world religion debunks the most persistent myth of our time: that religion has been the cause of all major wars in history.”
Now does Karen do this? Yes and no. She does prove, however, that for much of human history religion was undeniably interconnected to politics and vice versa—a ouroboros that goes round and round in a world where “religion permeated all aspects of life” (p 3).
But throughout history Karen makes it clear that secularism, at times aided by religious faith, in the political arena is a major force which drove war and violence over the centuries.
From farmers and herdsmen in ancient Sumer to the noble lands of India, to China and its warriors, to the Hebrews and the Muslim dilemmas, to the Crusade and Jihad, from agrarian society to modern periods of economic and political unrest, Karen’s thesis is thus:
“Indeed every major faith tradition has tracked that political entity in which it arose; none has become a ‘world religion’ without the patronage of a militarily powerful empire and every tradition would have to develop an imperial ideology.
“But to what degree did religion contribute to the violence of the states with which it was inextricably linked? How much blame for the history of human violence can we ascribe to religion itself?” (p 12)
As one final example in her book Fields of Blood, Karen explores the violence enacted on 9/11/2001:
“In his study of the 9/11 terrorists and those who worked closely with them—500 people in all—the forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman found that only 25 per cent had a traditional Islamic upbringing; that two-thirds were secularly minded until they encountered al-Qaeda; and the rest were recent converts.
“Their knowledge of Islam was, therefore, limited. Many were self-taught and some did not study the Quran thoroughly until they were in prison. Perhaps, Sageman concludes, the problem was not Islam, but ignorance of Islam…
“But while the Quran certainly orders Muslims to come to the aid of their brothers, Shariah law forbids violence against civilians, the use of fire in warfare, and prohibits any attack on a country where Muslims are allowed to practise their religion freely” (p 348).
And in this age of global terrorism, Karen continues to explore the mindset of those who seek violence over peace, and the reaction by many Muslims:
“All these freelance terrorists have very little knowledge of the Quran, and so it is pointless to attempt a debate about their interpretation of scripture or to blame ‘Islam’ for their crimes. Indeed, Marc Sageman, who has talked with several of them, believes that a normal religious education might have deterred them from their crimes. They are, he has found, chiefly motivated by the desire to escape a stifling sense of insignificance and pointlessness in secular nation states that struggle to absorb foreign minorities…
“They may claim to be acting in the name of Islam, but when an untalented beginner claims to be playing a Beethoven sonata, we hear only cacophony…
“Between 2001 and 2007, a Gallup Poll was conducted in thirty-five predominantly Muslim countries. It found that only 7 per cent of respondents thought the 9/11 attacks were ‘completely justified’; for these people, the reasons were entirely political. As for the 93 per cent who condemned the attacks, they quoted Quranic verses to show that the killing of innocent people could have no place in Islam” (p 357).
And one only needs to look at the refugee crises of 2015 to consider the future problems secular nation states will be faced with as they “absorb foreign minorities.” The outcome does not look good, especially in a period of history when the global economic situation is tightly interconnected and just as easily fragile to collapse. Greece has been faced with bankruptcy in the last few years, and now the land of Aristotle that gave birth to democracy and democratic revolution is left with no choice but to accept the influx of refugees coming across the Mediterranean Sea. Meanwhile, burdening the backs of the poor into debt slavery or overwhelming financial hardships are not, and never will be, answers to economic stability or progress. And yet this is the best we, as a collective human race, can do.
Karen does make a strong case for politics being the root of violence and one of the primary causes for all major wars, but what is even more fascinating and less obvious is the biological, reptilian reasons, she argues, that are behind human acts of violence. She explains, scientifically, how we all have three brains and not just one which motivate our decisions and actions into either war or peace:
“Each of us has not one but three brains which coexist uneasily. In the deepest recess of our grey matter we have an ‘old brain’ that we inherited from the reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime 500 million years ago. Intent on their own survival with absolutely no altruistic impulses, these creatures were solely motivated by mechanisms urging them to feed, fight, flee (when necessary) and reproduce…
“Formed over the core brain inherited from the reptiles, the limbic system motivated all sorts of new behaviors, including the protection and nurture of young as well as the formation of alliances with other individuals that were invaluable in the struggle to survive. And so for the first time sentient beings possessed the capacity to cherish and care for creatures other than themselves” (p 4).
And this reptilian side of the brain, of the self, is apparently what still conflicts the human race even in these more modern and civilized times. So why is this?
“Millennia of fighting large aggressive animals meant that these hunting parties became tightly bonded teams that were the seeds of our modern armies,” Karen explains, “ready to risk everything for the common good and to protect their fellows in moments of danger. And there was one more conflicting emotion to be reconciled: they probably loved the excitement and intensity of the hunt.
“Here again the limbic system comes into play. The prospect of killing may stir our empathy, but in the very acts of hunting, raiding and battling this same seat of emotions is awash in serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for the sensation of ecstasy that we associate with some forms of religious experience…
“Put another way, war is a means of surrender to reptilian ruthlessness, one of the strongest of human drives” (p 7-8).
As it is explained there are two sides of the human spirit, what some might call good and evil, which seek to build a community; one community would tie itself around the erotic sensation of the kill, and the other community would tie itself around the sense of religion and art—which at times also create an erotic sensation of connection to something bigger than the self.
“From the first, then,” writes Karen, “one of the major preoccupations of both religion and art was to cultivate a sense of community—with nature, the animal world and with our fellow humans” (p 6).
Nevertheless, two sides of the human condition—the reptilian killer and the sentient care-giver—are at odds and remain at war with one another.
Karen also discusses the similarities between the historic and modern communities driven by an invisible elite which enslave the masses in one form or another. Sometimes the enslavement of the masses was created by violence and fear, other times by religion, and—now more recent—by financial slavery to debt.
“All pre-modern states feared anarchy,” explains Karen, “a single crop-failure caused by drought or social unrest could lead to thousands of deaths so the elite could tell themselves that this system benefited the population as a whole. But robbed of the fruits of their labours, the peasants were little better than slaves: ploughing, harvesting, digging irrigation canals, forced into degradation and penury, their hard labour in the fields draining their lifeblood.
“If they failed to satisfy their overseers, their oxen were knee-capped and their olive trees chopped down. They left fragmentary records of their distress. ‘The poor man is better dead than alive,’ one peasant lamented. ‘I am a thoroughbred steed,’ complained another, ‘but I am hitched to a mule and must draw a cart and carry wheels and stubble.’
“Sumer had devised the system of structural violence that would prevail in every single agrarian state until the modern period, when agriculture ceased to be the economic basis of civilisation. Its rigid hierarchy was symbolised by the ziggurats, the giant stepped temple-towers that were the hallmark of Mesopotamian civilisation: Sumerian society too was stacked in narrowing layers culminating in an exalted aristocratic pinnacle, each individual locked inexorably into place…
“Civilisation itself required a leisured class to cultivate it, and so our finest achievements were for thousands of years built on the backs of an exploited peasantry. By no coincidence, when the Sumerians invented writing, it was for the purpose of social control” (p 19).
Sadly it appears not much has changed in all these thousands and tens of thousands of years: the elites still work in leisure while they reap the benefits of the laboring poor, who are “little better than slaves.”
It should be clear by now that the social organism running the economies through subsistence living, which creates fear through manipulation and control, does not work and will never work.
But Karen makes it clear that the fields are awash with human blood and not much has changed between the agrarian beginning and the technological present. Power and control are the motivating conditions for those who are weak and seek to manipulate others into submission.
And the majority of people in the world recognize something is wrong and they continue to cry out for freedom.
The question that remains is straightforward:
What will we, as a collective human race, do about it?
“People want to be religious, says scholar Karen Armstrong; we should help make religion a force for harmony. She asks the TED community to help build a Charter for Compassion — to restore the Golden Rule as the central global religious doctrine.”
A Syrian boy lying faceless in the Turkish surf
Could’ve been mine, yours, or the Pastor’s son.
Alan, Andy, Alex; Aylssa, Allison, Alice;
By that name or one of a 60 million others,
The 3-year-old in red shirt, blue shorts
Could’ve been just as sweet.
400,000 years and more of human evolution
And this is the best we can do?
Have we not explored the Moon? Mars?
The far reaches of Time and Space?
Have we not played God?
And created forms of Artificial Intelligence?
Yet forced economic subjugation runs
Our social organism through subsistence
Living in fear and manipulation,
Man-slaughtering our morals in order
To be controlled, and for what?
Is this the best we can do? Is it?
1 million. 2 million. 3. No.
60,000,000—and counting—men, women and
Children cry, fall, displaced—flooding away, away…
Away…out of that number is one:
A boy named Aylan Kurdi,
Whose body washed dead to freedom.
– an original poem by CG FEWSTON –
*I wish to God I didn’t have to write this poem;
I wish we lived in a better world than the one we do.
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of Club Med & a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
You can also follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 400,000+ followers