Going To War For God?

Nigel Biggar praises Karen Armstrong’s forthcoming book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, as “a magisterial debunking of the secularist tale” that claims “religion is essentially and uniquely generative of division and violence.” A run down of why she finds that tale too simple:

Armstrong’s corrective, complicating history includes a number of nicely water-muddying, stereotype-confounding details. For example, in the so-called Wars of Religion, Protestants and Catholics not infrequently fought on the same side against imperial forces: in its final phase, during the Thirty Years War, Catholic France came to the rescue of Protestant Sweden. Second, whereas that famous son of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves, the inspiration for the abolitionist movement was originally and predominantly Christian. Third, the first genocide of the 20th century was committed by zealous secularists, the Young Turks, against (Christian) Armenians. Fourth, it was the Tamil Tigers, a non-religious, nationalist movement, which pioneered suicide bombing, and most suicide bombing in Lebanon during the 1980s was performed by secularists. Fifth, so deep-rooted were the habits of coexistence between Christians and Muslims in Bosnia that, during the 1990s, it took the Communist Slobodan Milošević three years of relentless nationalist propaganda to turn the former against the latter. Sixth, James Warren Jones, the instigator of the infamous Jonestown massacre in 1978, was not a religious zealot but a self-confessed atheist, who ridiculed conventional Christianity. Next, Ayatollah Khomeini’s critique of the regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi in the 1960s has much in common with Pope John XXIII’s contemporaneous critique of unfettered capitalism. And finally, what is striking about the 9/11 bombers is not how much they knew about Islam, but how little.

Ian Bell, however, points to questions that he believes Armstrong leaves unanswered:

What is it about humanity that allows it to receive and accept messages of love and compassion yet use faith in such precepts to justify mass murder? Freudian hokum invoking the trinity of id, ego and superego might once have been called upon. Armstrong prefers neuro-anatomy and a near-Marxist account of elites, class, oppression and exploitation.

“Each of us,” she writes, “has not one but three brains which co-exist uneasily.” We acquired this collection at various stages of evolution. The oldest is a reptilian remnant, utterly self-interested; the second, the limbic system, allows empathy; the youngest, acquired perhaps 20,000 years ago as the neocortex or “new brain”, grants us self-awareness. We can stand back, as Armstrong puts it, from our primitive instincts. We can also be imbued with faith and utterly murderous.

This is neat. It is also, for the sake of an argument, convenient. Armstrong understands religion in terms of the human search for – indeed, need for – meaning. Most of the major faiths make larger claims to do with a deity and absolute, eternal truth. If that is what is going on, surely the ugly, insistent claims of our buried “old brain” would be overwhelmed. It might be a mistake to claim, crudely, that religion causes war. But to put the question in the context of a fine and eloquent book: why has the impulse to faith failed to suppress our brutish taste for warfare?