“Everything Poisons Religion”


That’s the lesson Ferdinand Mount draws from Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, citing her claim that every major faith tradition “has tracked the 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”:

The conversion of Constantine also meant the conscription of Christianity. It was not long before Augustine of Hippo was developing the convenient theory of the ‘just war’. Similarly the ahadith, the later reports of the Prophet’s sayings, confer a spiritual dimension on warfare which it doesn’t have in the Koran. Militant Sikhs today prefer to quote the martial teachings of the Tenth Guru rather than those of their founder Guru Nanak, who taught that only ‘he who regards all men as equals is religious’.

Christopher Hitchens had it the wrong way round in his subtitle to God is Not Great. It should have been, not ‘How Religion Poisons Everything’ but ‘How Everything Poisons Religion’. This is the misunderstanding which drives fanatical secularists to demand that faith be driven out of the public square and permanently banned from re-entry, like a drunk from the pub he always picks a fight in.

The demand was first heard in the 17th century from Hobbes and Locke, and it became an article of faith for the American revolutionaries. Jefferson believed that Church and State had proved ‘a loathsome combination’, and he was determined to build a ‘wall of separation’ between them. What he could not foresee was that nationalism would effortlessly take over the mantle of self-righteousness, and the apocalyptic language too. Within 60 years, the first explicitly non-sectarian republic exploded in the most modern and deadly civil war, its cause immortalised by the rhetoric of the non-religious Abraham Lincoln.

In an essay drawing from her book, Armstrong emphasizes one aspect of her argument in particular – that the modern understanding of religion as a distinctly private pursuit is not the historical norm:

Before the modern period, religion was not a separate activity, hermetically sealed off from all others; rather, it permeated all human undertakings, including economics, state-building, politics and warfare. Before 1700, it would have been impossible for people to say where, for example, “politics” ended and “religion” began. The Crusades were certainly inspired by religious passion but they were also deeply political: Pope Urban II let the knights of Christendom loose on the Muslim world to extend the power of the church eastwards and create a papal monarchy that would control Christian Europe. The Spanish inquisition was a deeply flawed attempt to secure the internal order of Spain after a divisive civil war, at a time when the nation feared an imminent attack by the Ottoman empire. Similarly, the European wars of religion and the thirty years war were certainly exacerbated by the sectarian quarrels of Protestants and Catholics, but their violence reflected the birth pangs of the modern nation-state.

Noel Malcolm, however, questions Armstrong’s reliance on this amorphous understanding of what religion really is:

Writing about ancient Persia, she declares that “a religious tradition is never a single, unchanging essence; it is a template that can be modified and altered radically to serve a variety of ends”. That sounds reasonable enough, but then she makes a much bolder claim. Until about 1700, she says, people were simply unable to distinguish between religious issues and political, social or economic ones. There was no such separate thing as religion. Ergo, it is wrong to single out “religion” as something to blame.

If that were true, it would also mean that you can’t single out religion as something to excuse, or at least partly exonerate. But when she discusses medieval Christian anti-Semitism, for example, Armstrong is quick to say that not only “religious conviction” but also “social, political and economic elements” were to blame. The violence of the Spanish Inquisition, likewise, “was caused less by theological than political considerations”. What was all that about it being impossible to distinguish religious issues from non-religious ones?

Recent Dish on Armstrong’s book here.

(Photo of a bronze statue of Constantine by Gernot Keller)