Armstrong on “The Myth of Religious Violence”


Karen Armstrong is famous for her popular writings on religion. However, in this week’s Guardian, her essay “The Myth of Religious Violence” makes a bloody mess of the subject.

In this political era where rhetoric about what is and is not properly called religious can determine where we will drop our bombs, it makes no sense to let this fail of the famous writer pass without comment.

Armstrong’s instincts seem laudable. Motivated by the nurturing impulses of the caretaker, peacemaker, and healer, she writes to defend religion in general, and Islam in particular, from charges that it is somehow “primitive” and “atavistic” (her words). Militant atheists point to religion as the root of all evil. They might argue that we can stop religiously inspired violence if we uphold western ideals of secularism, embracing political toleration of minorities along with the intellectual authority of science. In contrast, Armstrong wants to make a wider space in the intellectual landscape for those who embrace religion as a force for good in the world. She also wants to question the very existence of “religious violence,” as such, and to express serious doubts about the viability of “secularism” as a governing principle for human societies.

Her project thus belongs to a constructive and ecumenical liberal theology. Insofar as that is Armstrong’s goal, we can’t fault her for pursuing her aims as a caretaker of religion, and a critic of its secular enemies.

We can, however, criticize her for defending her thesis on the basis of muddy, incoherent concepts and bad history. We can fault her for deploying the language of historical and religious studies in a way that conveniently turns the notion of “the secular” on its head, while writing off reactionary violence that is usually interpreted as a manifestation of religion as somehow not really religious.

So let’s examine Armstrong’s argument. The following assumes you’ve read her piece (linked above).

The basic structure of the first movement of Armstrong’s appeal is this: you can’t separate religion from politics, so, in all the classic examples of religious violence (mainly the wars and crusades that have been fought over religion or in its name), it wasn’t really religion, but politics mixed with religion that is to blame. Therefore, “religious violence” is really a mythical beast.

Did you see what she did there? One hand deconstructs an allegedly false dichotomy, while the other reinstates it in order to exculpate its more important half.

In the second part of her argument, Armstrong contends that “secularism” (and the promotion of “secularization”) was never even possible to conceive before it was dreamt up by the (inherently flawed) political theorists of the (white, male, European) 18th century Enlightenment. By the end of the 18th century, she believes, at least in France, secularism itself had become “a religion;” its new gods were “liberty” and “nature”; the resulting “terror” of the French revolution is the poster child of Enlightenment secularism. Its apotheosis if you will. Ever since, Enlightenment secularism has been exported by these same western societies in their terrifying project of world-colonization, where it has everywhere been allied with intolerance, racism, and violence against those who resisted it. It has ignited and even cultivated a hostile counter-movement we call “fundamentalism.” The violence of fundamentalism is thus strictly a reaction against this European import, secularism. Of these two beasts, “fundamentalism” and “secularism,” fundamentalism is perhaps the less culpable. But they are at least equally problematic; there is moral equivalence between them in their violence. Secularism and Fundamentalism alike are, in some sense, both distinct from “religion,” or can both be described as false or anti-religions. And though secularism poses as liberal, like its flip side, fundamentalism, it lacks tolerance, is marred by a history of oppression, and is thus fundamentally illiberal.

On this account, because politics is the real cause of violence in “religious violence,” and because fundamentalist violence is not really religious, but is just an understandable reaction against the violence of secularism, there really no such thing as “religious violence.”

I leave it to those scholars who are involved in “secular studies” to sort out whether Armstrong is right to dismiss the idea of the secular as a modern invention (assuming such research survives what Jacques Berlinerblau has called “The Crisis in Secular Studies”). I will only pass along what Russell McCutcheon wrote this morning on Facebook, namely that Armstrong apparently assumes (along with many others) that “religion” is a part of the very nature and essence of human being, but “secularism” is a “recent invention foisted on the pious soul.” Instead, he suggests, perhaps religion and the secular arise through the “co-constitution of binary systems.”

Politics and Religion for Armstrong, Redux

I want to make one final point. In the first movement of her argument, as Armstrong is appealing to the notion that politics (a term which means for Armstrong both state power and worldly concerns) cannot be separated from religion (which appears to mean only abstract, spiritual practices or beliefs), she suggests the following:

Jesus’s famous maxim to ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ was not a plea for the separation of religion and politics. Nearly all the uprisings against Rome in first-century Palestine were inspired by the conviction that the Land of Israel and its produce belonged to God, so that there was, therefore, precious little to ‘give back’ to Caesar.

Can I be the only reader who finds this both puzzling and ironic? Of course she means for her example to undermine the ideal of modern secularism, by suggesting that it shows how inseparable politics and religion are, and that therefore secularism must be impossible or undesirable. (This is not a logical conclusion, but it is her point.) Yet consider the example: this point of evidence is an appeal to one of the most violent religiously inspired wars in the history of humanity.

When Josephus wrote the Antiquities of the Jews and the Jewish War (around AD 90), he did so ultimately in order to defend his own people, and their religion, from further Roman persecution, and from Roman charges that Judaism was a backwards, primitive, anti-social, potentially violent religion. Judaism, as Josephus portrays it, is instead a philosophical, respectable, and peaceable faith. The recent unpleasantness of the Jewish War with Rome could be blamed on fanatical zealots who actually rejected the reasonable religion of their heritage.

I guess the debate between the caretakers and the critics goes back millennia.

To side-step that debate, I would suggest that we stop essentializing concepts like “religion,” and “the secular,” and admit instead that religions and religious traditions (along with other ideological systems and political institutions) are streams of competing ideals that offer resources which can motivate and sustain human beings in all of the great varieties of their worldly strivings.

Unfortunately, that means, yes Virginia, there is such a thing as religious violence. But rest assured, there is also religious peacemaking.

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

what do you think?

%d bloggers like this: