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Fields of Blood
Cover of Fields of Blood
Fields of Blood
Religion and the History of Violence
Borrow Borrow
From the renowned and best-selling author of A History of God, a sweeping exploration of religion and the history of human violence.
For the first time, religious self-identification is on the decline in American. Some analysts have cited as cause a post-9/11perception: that faith in general is a source of aggression, intolerance, and divisiveness—something bad for society. But how accurate is that view? With deep learning and sympathetic understanding, Karen Armstrong sets out to discover the truth about religion and violence in each of the world's great traditions, taking us on an astonishing journey from prehistoric times to the present.

While many historians have looked at violence in connection with particular religious manifestations (jihad in Islam or Christianity's Crusades), Armstrong looks at each faith—not only Christianity and Islam, but also Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Judaism—in its totality over time. As she describes, each arose in an agrarian society with plenty powerful landowners brutalizing peasants while also warring among themselves over land, then the only real source of wealth. In this world, religion was not the discrete and personal matter it would become for us but rather something that permeated all aspects of society. And so it was that agrarian aggression, and the warrior ethos it begot, became bound up with observances of the sacred.

In each tradition, however, a counterbalance to the warrior code also developed. Around sages, prophets, and mystics there grew up communities protesting the injustice and bloodshed endemic to agrarian society, the violence to which religion had become heir. And so by the time the great confessional faiths came of age, all understood themselves as ultimately devoted to peace, equality, and reconciliation, whatever the acts of violence perpetrated in their name.
Industrialization and modernity have ushered in an epoch of spectacular and unexampled violence, although, as Armstrong explains, relatively little of it can be ascribed directly to religion. Nevertheless, she shows us how and in what measure religions, in their relative maturity, came to absorb modern belligerence—and what hope there might be for peace among believers of different creeds in our time.
At a moment of rising geopolitical chaos, the imperative of mutual understanding between nations and faith communities has never been more urgent, the dangers of action based on misunderstanding never greater. Informed by Armstrong's sweeping erudition and personal commitment to the promotion of compassion, Fields of Blood makes vividly clear that religion is not the problem.
From the Hardcover edition.
From the renowned and best-selling author of A History of God, a sweeping exploration of religion and the history of human violence.
For the first time, religious self-identification is on the decline in American. Some analysts have cited as cause a post-9/11perception: that faith in general is a source of aggression, intolerance, and divisiveness—something bad for society. But how accurate is that view? With deep learning and sympathetic understanding, Karen Armstrong sets out to discover the truth about religion and violence in each of the world's great traditions, taking us on an astonishing journey from prehistoric times to the present.

While many historians have looked at violence in connection with particular religious manifestations (jihad in Islam or Christianity's Crusades), Armstrong looks at each faith—not only Christianity and Islam, but also Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Judaism—in its totality over time. As she describes, each arose in an agrarian society with plenty powerful landowners brutalizing peasants while also warring among themselves over land, then the only real source of wealth. In this world, religion was not the discrete and personal matter it would become for us but rather something that permeated all aspects of society. And so it was that agrarian aggression, and the warrior ethos it begot, became bound up with observances of the sacred.

In each tradition, however, a counterbalance to the warrior code also developed. Around sages, prophets, and mystics there grew up communities protesting the injustice and bloodshed endemic to agrarian society, the violence to which religion had become heir. And so by the time the great confessional faiths came of age, all understood themselves as ultimately devoted to peace, equality, and reconciliation, whatever the acts of violence perpetrated in their name.
Industrialization and modernity have ushered in an epoch of spectacular and unexampled violence, although, as Armstrong explains, relatively little of it can be ascribed directly to religion. Nevertheless, she shows us how and in what measure religions, in their relative maturity, came to absorb modern belligerence—and what hope there might be for peace among believers of different creeds in our time.
At a moment of rising geopolitical chaos, the imperative of mutual understanding between nations and faith communities has never been more urgent, the dangers of action based on misunderstanding never greater. Informed by Armstrong's sweeping erudition and personal commitment to the promotion of compassion, Fields of Blood makes vividly clear that religion is not the problem.
From the Hardcover edition.
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    Introduction
     
    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.”1 In his classic study of religion and violence, René Girard argued that the scapegoat ritual defused rivalries among groups within the community.2 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.3 Yet so indelible is the aggressive image of religious faith in our secular consciousness that we routinely load the violent sins of the twentieth 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 claim that “monotheism” is especially intolerant and that once people believe that “God” is on their side, compromise becomes impossible. They cite the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Wars of Religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth 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 non- violence, 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 seventeenth and eighteenth 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.
     
    To complicate things still further, for about fifty years now it has been clear in the academy that there is no universal way to define religion.4 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,...
About the Author-
  • Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous books on religion, including The Case for God, A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam, Buddha, and The Great Transformation--as well as a memoir, The Spiral Staircase. Her work has been translated into forty-five languages. In 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize and began working with TED on the Charter for Compassion, created online by the general public, crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. It was launched globally in the fall of 2009. Also in 2008, she was awarded the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal. And in 2013, she received the British Academy's inaugural al-Rodhan Award for improving Transcultural Understanding.

Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine Karen Armstrong narrates her sweeping saga on humans' use of violence in the name of God. Whether she's discussing Muslim, Hebrew, or Christian cultures, her premise is delivered with logic and reason. Armstrong smoothly takes listeners from the beginnings of humans and their deities to humans in the 21st century. She details the many atrocities, including 9/11, that have been performed in the name of God. Her tone and phrasing keep the listener attentive to the complex political and cultural puzzle pieces that fashion an atmosphere in which violence becomes a holy grail for the masses. Her blistering commentary is delivered sotto voce, but the naked truth of her words is loud and clear. E.E.S. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award © AudioFile 2014, Portland, Maine
  • The Economist "A vast overview of religious and world history, sketching the early evolution of all global faiths . . . Armstrong denounces authoritarian secularism with eloquent passion . . . [and] does a good job of explaining why people who are deeply invested in traditional beliefs and social systems feel threatened and inclined to fight back."
  • James Fallows, New York Times Book Review "Careful, fair, and true . . . Armstrong demonstrates again and again that the great spasms of cruelty and killing through history have had little or no religious overlay . . . [and that] an overemphasis on religion's damage can blind people to the nonholy terrors that their states inflict . . . Apart from its larger argument, the book is packed with little insights and discoveries . . . The page-by-page detail of the book is much of the reason to read it . . . I generally end up judging books in two ways: by whether I can remember them and whether they change the way I think about the world. It's too soon to know about the first test, but on the basis of the second I recommend 'Fields of Blood.'"
  • Sarah Bryan Miller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
    "A valuable, readable rebuttal of a pernicious contemporary myth. The problem is not that religion corrupts human nature, but that human greed too often corrupts religion . . . Armstrong goes through the centuries and assorted cultures to demonstrate again and again how religious principles and religious leaders were co-opted to support warfare."
  • Molly Farneth, Commonweal
    "A convincing case that the relationship of religion to violence is complicated and ambivalent."
  • Graydon Royce, Minneapolis Star Tribune "In a lucid and fleet prose . . . Armstrong argues that religion has been made a scapegoat for wars and violence . . . [She is] one of the keenest minds working on understanding the role religion plays in cultures around the globe."
  • David Laskin, The Seattle Times
    "Armstrong comes out swinging . . . [Her] prose is crisp and lucid, her command of fact encyclopedic, and her insights often brilliant."
  • Maureen Fiedler, National Catholic Reporter
    "So important . . . [Fields of Blood] has been widely acclaimed for its scholarship, and deservedly so."
  • Rebecca Denova, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
    "Thought-provoking . . . a tour-de-force of the history of the world's major religions."
  • Randy Dotinga, The Christian Science Monitor "[A] bold new book . . . Armstrong makes a powerful case that critics like Dawkins ignore the lessons of the past and present in favor of a 'dangerous oversimplification' . . . [Her argument] is strong enough to change minds."
  • Patricia Pearson, The Daily Beast "With exquisite timing, religious historian Karen Armstrong steps forth with Fields of Blood . . . Laden with example . . . [Armstrong's] overall objective is to call a time-out. Think before you leap to prejudice, she says . . . Among the most interesting stuff in [her] book is her deconstruction of the modern Islamic stereotype . . . In the end, the point Armstrong feels most adamant about is that by blaming religion for violence, we are deliberately and disastrously blinding ourselves to the real, animating issues in the Middle East and Africa."
  • Mark Juergensmeyer, The Washington Post "Elegant and powerful . . . Both erudite and accurate, dazzling in its breadth of knowledge and historical detail . . . [Armstrong] seeks to demonstrate that, rather than putting the blame on the bloody images and legends in sacred texts and holy history, we should focus on the political contexts that frame religion."
  • John Cornwell, Financial Times "A timely work . . . This passionately argued book is certain to provoke heated debate against the background of the Isis atrocities and many other acts of violence perpetrated around the world today in the name of religion."
  • Ferdinand Mount, The Spectator (UK)
    "Detailed and often riveting . . . a mighty offering . . . Armstrong can be relied on to have done her homework and she has the anthropologist's respect for the 'otherness' of other cultures . . . [Her] oeuvre is extensive, bringing a rare mix of cool-headed scholarship and impassioned concern for humanity to bear on the vexed topic of religion . . . [And she] is nothing if not democratic in her exposition."
    --Salley Vickers, The Guardian (UK)

    "Eloquent and empathetic, which is rare, and impartial, which is rarer . . . [Armstrong] ra
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Religion and the History of Violence
Karen Armstrong
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