Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Book Review | Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence

For Karen Armstrong, this book is yet another opportunity to reinforce a more politically correct account of religion

Would a member of the Nazi party defying orders to kill Jews during the Holocaust count as a Nazi at all? Would a radical vegetarian unleashing terror on meat-eaters make vegetarianism a violent ideology? The answer to both questions, to most, would be a clear, resounding no. The fact that the subscriber to an ideology has disillusionments about it cannot alter its fundamental nature, be it for better or worse.

But when it comes to religion, such common sense does not prevail. Both supporters and opponents of religion love to say, “All religions are the same".

To some, all religions preach love and peace, while its adherents may not necessarily act in accordance with these lofty principles. To others, all religions are relics of mankind’s more barbaric past, thus it is no wonder adherents of all religions are violent.

Yet the truth remains that, be it in their nobility or their barbarism, religions are not quite the same. Take a few basic, yet potentially very fruitful, lessons in comparative religion and this becomes obvious.

On the one end of the spectrum are exclusivist religions emphasizing their inherent superiority over others, often as the “one and only true faith" revealed to mankind. From this central belief, a variety of practices take root. For infidels belonging to other religions, eternal torture in hell fire is in offer, but conversion is rewarded with the niceties of heaven. Abrahamic faiths are a good example of this.

On the other end are pluralist religions that openly recognize the validity of all religions—including even the exclusivist ones.

Segregation between believers and non-believers in the faith is abhorred, but more importantly, active proselytism that is considered the duty of believers in Abrahamic faiths is virtually absent in these. Oriental religions fit quite well into this category.

The utility of such comparison is noted by atheist Sam Harris, “The problem is not religious extremism, because extremism is not a problem if your core beliefs are truly non-violent (…) Fundamentalist Jainism and fundamentalist Islam do not have the same consequences, neither logically nor behaviourally."

For British writer Karen Armstrong, however, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence provides yet another opportunity to reinforce a more politically correct account of religion. Religion, in her view, is merely a tool in the hands of the powerful, and one that exerts no independent force on followers. Any trace of violence in the name of religion is simply considered its reaction to secular politics. Instances of men falling to the urges of their violent “reptilian brain" cannot be religion’s fault.

Indeed, that the mix of politics and religion can lead to unsavoury outcomes is known to all. Religion can unleash its most violent face through the means of politics. This needs no scholarly dissection to be established as a fact. Also, quite naturally, violence inspired by the fundamentals of religion can take the political route. The real question is if religion on its own can inspire people into action.

Finding an answer to this requires a careful study of religious scriptures, naturally to understand the passions it evokes in followers. This, however, is seldom done. What instead flies as scholarly work is blind dismissal of all religious violence as unfortunate hijacking of charitable faiths by fundamentalists. No chance is missed to portray a more benign face to all religions, even if the attempt presents evidence that is totally at odds with the more fundamental teachings of some notable religious faiths.

Armstrong’s latest work represents a scholarly contribution of this kind. In the enormous tribute it pays to today’s popular religion of political correctness, it could well serve as a gospel to its deluded believers for a long time to come.

Prashanth Perumal is Assistant Editor(Views) at Mint.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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