Every year in ancient Israel the high priest brought two goats into the Jerusalem temple on the Day of Atonement. He sacrificed one to expiate the sins of the community and then laid his hands on the other, transferring all the people’s misdeeds onto its head, and sent the sin-laden animal out of the city, literally placing the blame elsewhere. In this way, Moses explained, “the goat will bear all their faults away with it into a desert place.” In his classic study of religion and violence, René Girard argued that the scapegoat ritual defused rivalries among groups within the community. In a similar way, I believe, modern society has made a scapegoat of faith.
In the West the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident. As one who speaks on religion, I constantly hear how cruel and aggressive it has been, a view that, eerily, is expressed in the same way almost every time: “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.” I have heard this sentence recited like a mantra by American commentators and psychiatrists, London taxi drivers and Oxford academics. It is an odd remark. Obviously the two world wars were not fought on account of religion. When they discuss the reasons people go to war, military historians acknowledge that many interrelated social, material, and ideological factors are involved, one of the chief being competition for scarce resources. Experts on political violence or terrorism also insist that people commit atrocities for a complex range of reasons. Yet so indelible is the aggressive image of religious faith in our secular consciousness that we routinely load the violent sins of the 20th century onto the back of religion and drive it out into the political wilderness.
Even those who admit that religion has not been responsible for all the violence and warfare of the human race still take its essential belligerence for granted. They cite the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Wars of Religion of the 16th and 17th centuries. They also point to the recent spate of terrorism committed in the name of religion to prove that Islam is particularly aggressive. If I mention Buddhist nonviolence, they retort that Buddhism is a secular philosophy, not a religion. Here we come to the heart of the problem. Buddhism is certainly not a religion as this word has been understood in the West since the 17th and 18th centuries. But our modern Western conception of religion is idiosyncratic and eccentric. No other cultural tradition has anything like it, and even premodern European Christians would have found it reductive and alien. In fact, it complicates any attempt to pronounce on religion’s propensity to violence.
In the West we see religion as a coherent system of obligatory beliefs, institutions, and rituals, centering on a supernatural God, whose practice is essentially private and hermetically sealed off from all secular activities. But words in other languages that we translate as “religion” almost invariably refer to something larger, vaguer, and more encompassing. The Arabic din signifies an entire way of life. The Sanskrit dharma is also “a ‘total’ concept, untranslatable, which covers law, justice, morals, and social life.” The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: “No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious.’” The idea of religion as an essentially personal and systematic pursuit was entirely absent from classical Greece, Japan, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, China, and India. Nor does the Hebrew Bible have any abstract concept of religion; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to express what they meant by faith in a single word or even in a formula, since the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred.
The only faith tradition that does fit the modern Western notion of religion as something codified and private is Protestant Christianity, which, like religion in this sense of the word, is also a product of the early modern period. At this time Europeans and Americans had begun to separate religion and politics, because they assumed, not altogether accurately, that the theological squabbles of the Reformation had been entirely responsible for the Thirty Years’ War. The conviction that religion must be rigorously excluded from political life has been called the charter myth of the sovereign nation-state. The philosophers and statesmen who pioneered this dogma believed that they were returning to a more satisfactory state of affairs that had existed before ambitious Catholic clerics had confused two utterly distinct realms. But in fact their secular ideology was as radical an innovation as the modern market economy that the West was concurrently devising. To non-Westerners, who had not been through this particular modernizing process, both these innovations would seem unnatural and even incomprehensible. The habit of separating religion and politics is now so routine in the West that it is difficult for us to appreciate how thoroughly the two co-inhered in the past. It was never simply a question of the state “using” religion; the two were indivisible. Dissociating them would have seemed like trying to extract the gin from a cocktail.
In the premodern world, religion permeated all aspects of life. A host of activities now considered mundane were experienced as deeply sacred: forest cleaning, hunting, football matches, dice games, astronomy, farming, state building, tugs-of-war, town planning, commerce, imbibing strong drink, and, most particularly, warfare. Ancient peoples would have found it impossible to see where “religion” ended and “politics” began. This was not because they were too stupid to understand the distinction but because they wanted to invest everything they did with ultimate value. We are meaning-seeking creatures and, unlike other animals, fall very easily into despair if we fail to make sense of our lives. We find the prospect of our inevitable extinction hard to bear. We are troubled by natural disasters and human cruelty and are acutely aware of our physical and psychological frailty. We find it astonishing that we are here at all and want to know why. We also have a great capacity for wonder. Ancient philosophies were entranced by the order of the cosmos; they marveled at the mysterious power that kept the heavenly bodies in their orbits and the seas within bounds and that ensured that the earth regularly came to life again after the dearth of winter, and they longed to participate in this richer and more permanent existence.
They expressed this yearning in terms of what is known as the perennial philosophy, so called because it was present, in some form, in most premodern cultures. Premodern folk felt themselves to be caught up in larger dimensions of being. Feeling ourselves connected in this way satisfies an essential craving. It touches us within, lifts us momentarily beyond ourselves, so that we seem to inhabit our humanity more fully than usual and feel in touch with the deeper currents of life. If we no longer find this experience in a church or temple, we seek it in art, a musical concert, sex, drugs—or warfare.
Our relationship to warfare is complex, possibly because it is a relatively recent human development. Hunter-gatherers could not afford the organized violence that we call war, because warfare requires large armies, sustained leadership, and economic resources that were far beyond their reach. But human life changed forever in about 9000 BCE, when pioneering farmers in the Levant learned to grow and store wild grain. They produced harvests that were able to support larger populations than ever before and eventually they grew more food than they needed.
As a result, the human population increased so dramatically that in some regions a return to hunter-gatherer life became impossible. Between about 8500 BCE and the first century of the Common Era—a remarkably short period given the four million years of our history—all around the world, quite independently, the great majority of humans made the transition to agrarian life. And with agriculture came civilization; and with civilization, organized warfare.
In our industrialized societies, we often look back to the agrarian age with nostalgia, imagining that people lived more wholesomely then, close to the land and in harmony with nature. Initially, however, agriculture was experienced as traumatic. These early settlements were vulnerable to wild swings in productivity that could wipe out the entire population, and their mythology describes the first farmers fighting a desperate battle against sterility, drought, and famine. For the first time, backbreaking drudgery became a fact of human life. These violent myths reflected the political realities of agrarian life.
By the beginning of the 9th millennium BCE, the settlement in the oasis of Jericho in the Jordan valley had a population of three thousand people, which would have been impossible before the advent of agriculture. Jericho was a fortified stronghold protected by a massive wall that must have consumed tens of thousands of hours of manpower to construct. In
this arid region, Jericho’s ample food stores would have been a magnet for hungry nomads. Intensified agriculture, therefore, created conditions that that could endanger everyone in this wealthy colony and transform its arable land into fields of blood. Jericho was unusual, however—a portent of the future. Warfare would not become endemic in the region for another five thousand years, but it was already a possibility, and from the first, it seems, large-scale organized violence was linked not with religion but with organized theft.
Agriculture also introduced another type of aggression: an institutional or structural violence in which a society compels people to live in such wretchedness and subjection that they are unable to better their lot. Paleolithic communities had probably been egalitarian because hunter-gatherers could not support a privileged class that did not share the hardship and danger of the hunt. Because these small communities lived at near-subsistence level and produced no economic surplus, inequity of wealth was impossible. The tribe could survive only if everybody shared what food they had. Government by coercion was not feasible because all able-bodied males had exactly the same weapons and fighting skills. Anthropologists have noted that modern hunter-gatherer societies are classless, that their economy is “a sort of communism,” and that people are honored for skills and qualities, such as generosity, kindness, and even-temperedness, that benefit the community as a whole. But in societies that produce more than they need, it is possible for a small group to exploit this surplus for its own enrichment, gain a monopoly on violence, and dominate the rest of the population.
This systemic violence would prevail in all agrarian civilizations. In the empires of the Middle East, China, India, and Europe, which were economically dependent on agriculture, a small elite, comprising not more than two percent of the population, with the help of a small band of retainers, systematically robbed the masses of the produce they had grown in order to support their aristocratic lifestyle. Yet, social historians argue, without this iniquitous arrangement, human beings would probably never have advanced beyond subsistence level, because it created a nobility with the leisure to develop the civilized arts and sciences that made progress possible. All premodern civilizations adopted this oppressive system; there seemed to be no alternative. This inevitably had implications for religion, which permeated all human activities, including state building and government. Indeed, premodern politics was inseparable from religion. And if a ruling elite adopted an ethical tradition, such as Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam, the aristocratic clergy usually adapted their ideology so that it could support the structural violence of the state.
Established by force and maintained by military aggression, warfare was essential to the agrarian state. When land and the peasants who farmed it were the chief sources of wealth, territorial conquest was the only way such a kingdom could increase its revenues. Warfare was, therefore, indispensable to any premodern economy. The ruling class had to maintain its control of the peasant villages, defend its arable land against aggressors, conquer more land, and ruthlessly suppress any hint of insubordination. And once states grew and warfare had become a fact of human life, an even greater force—the military might of empire—often seemed the only way to keep the peace.
Military force was essential to the rise of states and ultimately empires, so much so that historians regard militarism as a mark of civilization. Without disciplined, obedient, and law-abiding armies, human society, it is claimed, would probably have remained at a primitive level or have degenerated into ceaselessly warring hordes. Like our individual inner conflict between violent and compassionate impulses, the incoherence between socially peaceful ends and violent means would remain unresolved. This is the dilemma of civilization itself. And into this tug-of-war religion would enter too. Since all premodern state ideology was inseparable from religion, warfare inevitably acquired a sacral element. 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, therefore, each 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?
The answer is not as simple as much of our popular discourse would suggest.
Until the modern period, every state ideology was religious. The kings of Europe who struggled to liberate themselves from papal control were not “secularists” but were revered as semidivine. Every successful empire has claimed that it had a divine mission; that its enemies were evil, misguided, or tyrannical; and that it would benefit humanity. And because these states and empires were all created and maintained by force, religion has been implicated in their violence. It was not until the 17th and 18th centuries that religion was ejected from political life in the West. When, therefore, people claim that religion has been responsible for more war, oppression, and suffering than any other human institution, one has to ask, “More than what?” Until the American and French Revolutions, there were no secular societies. So ingrained is our impulse to sanctify our political activities that no sooner had the French revolutionaries successfully marginalized the Catholic Church than they created a new national religion. In the United States, the first secular republic, the state has always had a religious aura, a manifest destiny, and a divinely sanctioned mission.
John Locke believed that the separation of church and state was the key to peace, but the nation-state has been far from war-averse. 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. As even the great Buddhist emperor Ashoka discovered, even if a ruler shrank from state aggression, it was impossible to disband the army.
When we fight, we need to distance ourselves from the adversary, and because religion was so central to the state, its rites and myths depicted its enemies as monsters of evil that threatened cosmic and political order. Yet casting off the mantle of religion did not bring an end to prejudice. A “scientific racism” developed in the modern period that drew on the old religious patterns of hatred and inspired the Armenian genocide and Hitler’s death camps. Secular nationalism, imposed so unceremoniously by the colonialists, failed to apply the concept of human rights to the indigenous peoples of the Americas or to African slaves. Secular nationalism would as well regularly merge with local religious traditions, where people had not yet abstracted “religion” from politics; as a result, these religious traditions were often distorted and developed an aggressive strain of religious nationalism.
Our world is dangerously polarized at a time when humanity is more closely interconnected—politically, economically, and electronically—than ever before. If we are to meet the challenge of our time and create a global society where all people can live together in peace and mutual respect, we need to assess our situation accurately. We cannot afford oversimplified assumptions about the nature of religion or its role in the world. What the American scholar William T. Cavanaugh calls “the myth of religious violence” served Western people well at an early stage of their modernization, but in our global village we need a more nuanced view in order to understand our predicament fully.
To paraphrase a British commercial: “The weather does lots of different things—and so does religion.” In religious history, the struggle for peace has been just as important as the holy war. Religious people have found all kinds of ingenious methods of curbing violence, and building respectful, life-enhancing communities. Because of the inherent violence of the states in which we live, the best that prophets and sages have been able to do is provide an alternative. The Buddhist sangha had no political power, but it became a vibrant presence in ancient India and even influenced emperors. Ashoka published the ideals of ahimsa [nonharming], tolerance, kindness, and respect in the extraordinary inscriptions he published throughout the empire. Confucians kept the ideal of humanity (ren) alive in the government of imperial China until the revolution. For centuries, the egalitarian code of the Shariah was a countercultural challenge to the Abbasid aristocracy; the caliphs acknowledged that it was God’s law, even though they could not rule by it.
Other sages and mystics developed spiritual practices to help people control their aggression and develop a reverence for all human beings. They sought an equanimity that would make it impossible for one to see oneself as superior to anybody else, taught that every single person has sacred potential, and asserted that people should even love their enemies. Prophets and psalmists insisted that a city could not be holy if the ruling class did not care for the poor and dispossessed. Priests urged their compatriots to draw on the memory of their own past suffering to assuage the pain of others, instead of using it to justify harassment and persecution. They all insisted in one way or another that if people did not treat all others as they would wish to be treated themselves and develop concern for all, society was doomed. But as with Ashoka, who came up against the systemic militancy of the state, they could not radically change their societies; the most they could do was propose a different path to demonstrate kinder and more empathetic ways for people to live together.
In the West secularism is now a part of our identity. It has been beneficial—not least because an intimate association with government can badly compromise a faith tradition. But it has had its own violence. This is because secularism did not so much displace religion as create new religious enthusiasms. So ingrained is our desire for ultimate meaning that our secular institutions, most especially the nation-state, almost immediately acquired a religious aura, though they have been less adept than the ancient mythologies at helping people face up to the grimmer realities of human existence for which there are no easy answers. Yet secularism has by no means been the end of the story. In some societies attempting to find their way to modernity, it has succeeded only in damaging religion and wounding psyches of people unprepared to be wrenched from ways of living and understanding that had always supported them. Licking its wounds in the desert, the scapegoat, with its festering resentment, has rebounded on the city that drove it out.
Excerpted from Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, by Karen Armstrong. Copyright © 2014 by Karen Armstrong. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.