Karen Armstrong Examines the Link Between Religion and Violence

Why do people kill in the name of religion?

December 28, 2014

“We are living in a very dangerous period of history," says comparative religion scholar Karen Armstrong. "If we think we’re just going to blame everything on religion and ignore all the other factors, then we’re not seeing the situation straight.”

Armstrong is often the go-to person to deconstruct various hot topics - from Islam to the history of God. And given all the controversy about religions' roles in today’s world, it may seem surprising that there’s no one else quite like her, a critic of both religious fundamentalists and atheists. Armstrong is a former Catholic nun who’s become a prominent comparative religion scholar, with more than a dozen bestselling books to her name. Now she’s tackled another loaded subject, the connection between religion and violence. It’s the subject of her new book, "Fields of Blood."

"I’m not saying that religion is not implicated in violence,” she says. “I’m saying it’s never the chief nor the only reason. It would be a great mistake to believe that all these Islamic hordes in Iraq and Syria are devout jihadists. A significant number of them have come from Iraq, Saddam’s Baathist regime. These are secularists.”

But what about the violent verses in the Quran that ISIS quotes to justify its killings? “You can’t take these in isolation,” she says. “It’s people who read books like ‘Islam for Dummies’ who isolate these jihadi verses from the Quran - including some of the most ferocious sword verses - which segue always into a plea for reconciliation, peace and forgiveness.”

In her conversation with Steve Paulson, Armstrong also sites the Quran's aversion to orthodoxy. In the text, she says, such theology is called zanna, a kind of self-indulgent guess-work, "which nobody can be certain of one way or the other, but which makes people quarrelsome and sectarian.”

Armstrong says the idea of religion as a force separate from the rest of human life is relatively new. “Before the modern period, there was no separate activity called ‘religion.’ Religion permeated all aspects of life, including politics. And all state ideologies were imbued with religion so thoroughly that until about 1700, it was impossible to say where religion began and politics ended.”

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The holocaust of Jews during WW 2 was the culmination of religiously motivated anti-Semitism, not atheism.

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