Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence
Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence by Karen Armstrong, takes up the all-too-common mantra that “religions cause violence,” and examines the idea through the lens of history. Beginning with the proto-religious rituals among Eurasian tribesmen, the author examines the world’s most prominent religious traditions, including Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Confucianism (based on its very religious beginnings), Islam, Jainism, and others. In these histories, the author examines the role of religion in society, and uses political philosophy to ask the question: have religions historically encouraged violence among their followers, or opposed it, in their contemporary political and economic contexts?
In this excellent work, the author makes only two significant mistakes. The first is that, at times, the histories presented are not tied explicitly back to the primary thesis of the book. The second is that, for believers of any faith, the author’s policy of discounting religions in order to treat them exclusively as political philosophies obfuscates the entire meaning-generating purpose of religion – which the author herself points out is the primary reason religions and communal/political behavior interact at all. That said, the book provides a strong case for religion as a source of meaning in every society, and demonstrates how, primarily, religions have at least called for an alternative to the structural violence and oppression necessary to sustain civilization (i.e. by dividing people into classes, relative to their distance from agricultural activity), and the physical violence of conquering armies, violent police forces, and repressed rebellions.
Fields of Blood is an excellent work, and is both timely and thought-provoking in a world where, too often, religion is ridiculed and dismissed out-of-hand. Anyone with an open mind and an interest in the societal impacts of religion, for good and ill, will find it an engaging read.
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