Is religion good or bad? This sound bite of a question dominates much of what passes for public discussion of religion in the United States. When the soi-disant New Atheists took the bestseller lists by storm in the first decade of the new millennium with titles like The End of Faith (2004), The God Delusion (2006), Breaking the Spell

(2006), and God Is Not Great (2007), it was because they focused almost exclusively on the capacity of religion to generate violence. This wasn’t surprising, considering that since 9/11 we have lived in a world newly conscious of the geopolitical power of piety. Defenders of faith have of necessity adopted the same focus, albeit to opposite ends. “The idea that religion has a tendency to promote violence is part of the conventional wisdom of Western societies,” writes William Cavanaugh in his revealingly titled The Myth of Religious Violence (2009). Karen Armstrong sharpens the point in the opening paragraph of Fields of Blood, her new inquiry into the relationship between religion and violence: “Modern society has made a scapegoat of faith.”

If by “modern society” Armstrong means the New Atheists and their handful of vocal followers, then maybe she is right. But her claim should seem either polemical or naïve to anyone living not only in the United States, where a large majority of citizens believe in heaven and hell, but also in countries governed by parties with names like the Christian Democratic Union (Germany) or the Pakistan Muslim League. A visitor from outer space (or a reader of surveys) might be forgiven for thinking—as he, she, or it tours the burgeoning churches of the former Soviet bloc; skims the blogs, newspapers, and TV channels of the Islamic world; or listens on a universal translator to the speeches of politicians across Europe and the Americas—that modern society is, to the contrary, a haven for the faithful. But even assuming that religion is increasingly powerful rather than embattled, the polarizing question at the center of Cavanaugh’s and Armstrong’s broadsides remains important: Is the promotion of violence inherent to any religion, or is violence committed in the name of religion a mutation or betrayal of an inherently benevolent faith?

The question is a very old one, but it began to be asked with a new urgency in the 16th and 17th centuries, when emerging theological differences between Catholics and Protestants provided a rallying cry for wars that would decimate Europe. Observers like the Flemish humanist Justus Lipsius (1547–1606) thought themselves to be in the midst of a new and bloody alignment between faith and fratricide, a pairing in which religion was not innocent: “Good Lord what firebrands of sedition hath religion kindled in this fayrest part of the world? The chiefe heads of our christian commonwealths are at strife among themselves, and many millions of men have bin brought to ruine and do dayly perish, under a pretext of piety.” This violence led many hallowed names of what might loosely be called the Enlightenment—Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire, Hamilton, Jefferson—to puzzle over the proper relation between piety and politics. The conclusions of their troubled cogitations left many traces, perhaps none more consequential than those in the Constitution of these United States.

Today it is fashionable to suggest that because Enlightenment thinkers were a product of their times, we should not draw general principles from their observations about religion and their ideas about states. “The category ‘religion’ has been invented in the modern West and in colonial contexts according to specific configurations of political power,” Cavanaugh argues. Because “there is no transhistorical and transcultural essence of religion…attempts to separate religious violence from secular violence are incoherent.” They are also, in his judgment, colonialist and self-serving: “The myth of religious violence serves to cast non-secular social orders, especially Muslim societies, in the role of villain,” while at the same time justifying the violent acts of “secular” Western powers against others.

Like Cavanaugh, Armstrong stresses in Fields of Blood that our concepts of religion are of a piece with our times, and in turn suggests that they cannot be used to analyze the religious practices of other times and places. (This prohibition does not, however, stop her from using the word “religion” throughout the book, and from making generalizations about religion in every historical period.) She too claims that worries about religion’s role in violence are motivated by an antireligious bias, and she too sees this prejudice converging on Islam. Her book—which concludes with a discussion of “Global Jihad”—can be read as a plaidoyer for the relative innocence of Islam, and the relative guilt of the “secular” West, in generating the violence routinely attributed to Islam. But she parts company with Cavanaugh in her relentless effort to separate the religious from the political and the secular, in order to absolve the former and condemn the latter of all guilt for violence.

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Armstrong’s argument is simple: “From the first, it seems, large-scale organized violence was linked not with religion but with organized theft.” By “organized theft,” she means the activities of the kings, aristocrats, warriors, and other leaders of the agrarian societies that began to appear in written records in Mesopotamia in the third millennium bce. In other words, not religion but politics—the struggle for power to seize the fruits of others’ labor—has always been responsible for violence. Yet in making this claim, Armstrong draws the very distinction between religion and nonreligion that she insists cannot be made before the modern period. This is a substantial inconsistency (Cavanaugh would call it incoherent), but it needn’t necessarily compromise her broader argument, which seems to be, here and throughout the book, that religion only becomes complicit with violence when it is captured and deformed by politics, or when believers are oppressed by injustice, poverty, and violence, or, more recently, when the faithful are humiliated by atheists.

According to this argument, in their origins and essences, religions are a benign and fundamental source of empathy, love of the other, and cognitive comfort in an otherwise incomprehensible cosmos. “The world’s great religious traditions share as one of their most essential tenets the imperative of treating others as one would wish to be treated oneself,” Armstrong writes. If religious movements become violent, it is either because they are driven to extreme measures by oppression and injustice, or because their teachings have been misinterpreted and so are blasphemous and not truly religious.

As an example, consider Armstrong’s account of the religious attitudes of Mohamed Atta and his accomplices in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and other targets. “The hijackers themselves certainly regarded the 9/11 atrocities as a religious act but one that bore very little resemblance to normative Islam.” (Armstrong’s grammar here is confusing; what she means is that although the hijackers understood their Islam as normative, according to her interpretation it was not.) True, the hijackers prayed constantly and repeatedly recited certain passages of the Koran during the attack, but according to Armstrong their thought must be categorized as “magical,” “primitive,” “superstitious,” or “psychotic” rather than “religious,” because it does not achieve what she understands as “the principal imperative of Islamic spirituality”: tawhid, or making one. The terrorists divided their mission into segments, whereas “Muslims truly understand the unity of God only if they integrate all their activities and thoughts.”

Armstrong’s point is that although Atta and his colleagues may have thought of themselves as religious, their actions proved them to be blasphemous and paranoid. We need not accept her definition of “true Islam” as total “integration” of all thoughts and actions, a definition that seems bizarre. By this standard, very few if any humans of any faith could be considered truly religious. But even if we were to reject her definition and pinpoint the ways in which Atta’s faith contributed to his acts, Armstrong would simply regard such complicity as proof of a (perhaps misguided) Muslim response to “the structural violence of the American-dominated Middle East.” Armstrong is fond of the phrase “structural violence,” by which she seems to mean something like the inequality created by political power, which is to say, oppression.

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I begin with 9/11 because it is close to many readers’ own historical experiences. But Fields of Blood stretches across vast swaths of history, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to “Global Jihad.” And for some readers, one of the book’s great comforts will be that, no matter what exotic historical period or religion is discussed, Armstrong stresses the same eternal truths: Religion preaches freedom, equality, and radical empathy for our neighbor, while politics spawns greed, inequality, and empire. It is not an exaggeration to say that this message has long been Armstrong’s gospel. Already in her first book, Through the Narrow Gate (1982), about her path into and then out of life as a professed nun in a Roman Catholic convent, she sought to distance the moral and spiritual content of religions from the specific and sometimes cruel forms they take as institutions in the world. But her approach has gotten more apologetic and more simplistic as she has taken on the role of defender of faith (and particularly of Islam) in the heightened Abrahamic geopolitics of the last decade. If in A History of God (1993) she claimed the mantle of the historian, with the publication of The Case for God (2009) she became an explicit advocate. Her advocacy, and its attendant sympathies, are everywhere evident in Fields of Blood.

For example, Armstrong says little about the earliest “religions” she discusses, those of the Sumerians circa 1700 bce, perhaps because she sees them almost entirely as creatures of political power. “In claiming that their inequitable system was in tune with the fundamental laws of the cosmos, the Sumerians were therefore expressing an inexorable political reality in mythical terms.” The piety of the Assyrian ruler circa 1100 bce was no better, insofar as it “was always dictated by economic imperatives.” (This is, once again, the sort of easy distinction between the religious and the secular that she herself thinks is taboo.) Her sympathies begin to be engaged by what she understands as “ethical” religions of protest against injustice and inequality. Zoroaster, for example, was a peace-loving Avestan priest circa 1200 bce who developed a “gentle, ethical” vision. How then does she explain why his vision encompasses a permanent cosmological war between good and evil, a conflict ending in an apocalypse so violent that all the earth’s mountains are leveled and all enemies destroyed? It seems that Zoroaster and his fellow agriculturalists were “so traumatized” by the depredations of Sanskrit-speaking cattle raiders that they developed a violently dualist religion.

Armstrong scarcely mentions that Zoroastrianism did not abandon its violent dualism after it became the powerful religion of the Sasanian Empire, and that through that empire’s conquests it deeply influenced how later Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and even modern secular apocalyptic and messianic movements would imagine the purification of the world and the elimination of their enemies. The particular forms of divine violence that a culture invents can have very long futures. But Armstrong avoids accounting for them, perhaps because that would deeply undercut her argument. (Readers curious about some of those futures can turn to The Continuum History of Apocalypticism, edited by Bernard McGinn et al.) She prefers to insist that whatever forms of violence Zoroaster invented, they should not be understood as an essential part of his vision; rather, “the experience of an unusual level of violence would often shock its victims into a dualistic vision that splits the world into two irreconcilable camps.” In other words, if religions or the religious are violent, they are not to blame. And even in those frequent cases when religions are aligned with the richer or the stronger, they remain innocent. They have simply been co-opted in the struggle for control over surplus wealth that is endemic to large-scale agricultural (or, later, industrial) society.

Armstrong is very far from the great figures of the Enlightenment, who thought of politics and religion as co-complicit in the creation of the inequalities endemic to human society. I think here of the bon mot often attributed to Diderot: “Let us strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest.” Armstrong would rather separate the two in order to declare religion innocent. This approach is by no means new. The great pioneer in the study of religious psychology, William James, wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902): “The basenesses so commonly charged to religion’s account are thus, almost all of them, not chargeable at all to religion proper, but rather to religion’s wicked practical partner, the spirit of corporate dominion. And the bigotries are most of them in turn chargeable to religion’s wicked intellectual partner, the spirit of dogmatic dominion.” But James, ever the subtle thinker, did not stop there: “Yet of the charge that overzealousness or fanaticism is one of her liabilities we cannot wholly acquit her.”

Perhaps we should not judge religions by the company they keep. Still, even (or especially) if we share Armstrong’s sympathies—that is, her view that religion is generally innocent as charged—we should want to ask why religion so often finds itself in arms with the wicked. It seems question-begging or dogmatic to base a study of the relationship between religion and violence upon the axiom that the workings of religion can have nothing to do with violence. It is also historically unhelpful, because a sharp separation between power and piety can’t account for the very long history of intimate relations between the two. Armstrong jumps from episode to violent episode in that long history, attempting to explain why the violence she is describing has nothing to do with what she takes to be true religion. Divorcing religion from power might ease one’s conscience about faith traditions, but it won’t help us understand why those traditions have so often sought dowries from dominion, which seems to me precisely what we most want and need to know.

In a socio-evolutionary excursus at the beginning of Fields of Blood, Armstrong even resorts to evolutionary biology to attempt to separate faith and dominion. It seems that our greedy, self-interested, and power-hungry impulses derive from the lizard brain with which we crawled out of the slime some 500 million years ago; empathy, sacrifice, and (eventually) religion, on the other hand, are the products of our mammalian limbic system and humanoid neocortex. According to Armstrong, we have “three distinct brains,” and religion belongs to the good, human(e) one, which is fighting constantly against the cruel reptilian forces within us. It is possible to make suggestive sociobiological arguments about the evolutionary role of religion in enabling pro-social behavior (Ara Norenzayan offers one in his recent Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict), but this is not one of them.

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Armstrong’s yearning to think of religion as separate from power is unsatisfying and unpersuasive, but it is also an exceedingly common position among Westerners today. Perhaps we should think of this tendency as the secularized form of a religious idea—namely, a particular self-understanding of Christianity as a persecuted and nonpolitical religion of love. This possibility points to another conviction common to Fields of Blood and much other writing on the topic of religion and violence: that it is easy to distinguish between religious and secular ideas, between religious and nonreligious motives for violence.

Consider, as a silly example, the “God and War” audit released by the BBC some years ago. Surveying some 3,500 years of conflict, the auditors looked for evidence of religious motivation, leadership, or targets and rated each episode on a six-point scale from zero to five, with five being the highest degree of religious motivation. The Peloponnesian War (460–445 bce) rates a zero for religion, whereas the early Islamic conquests and the Christian Crusades rate a five. No modern war receives a five, but Al Qaeda’s current jihad is assigned a four. Nevertheless, according to the authors, although Osama bin Laden justified his campaigns in religious terms, his real concerns were “more about political order in the Arab countries, and the presence of US forces in Muslim countries.” On the other hand, “The US and allied invasion of Iraq is a war that has arguably been caused by religion: the religious conviction of one man, President George W. Bush.”

How can one minimize the role of faith in bin Laden’s actions, while maximizing it in the case of George Bush? That discrepancy alone suggests that audits like this one reveal more about the convictions of the accountants than they do about the experiences of people in the past. Where they rated the Crusaders a five, another auditor might prefer to stress (as Armstrong does) that “Crusaders would always be motivated by social and economic factors, as well as by religious zeal.”

The problem only worsens in observations about the modern age: These too often assume that the religious and the secular can at last be treated as distinct, despite the fact that so many modern conflicts have also been buttressed by religious claims. For example, although the Crimean War is generally thought of as an imperialist conflict between colonial powers (with Russia pitted against France, England, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia), it was initially understood by contemporaries as a dispute over which Christian community had the rights to repair the roof of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Armstrong states on the first page of her book that “obviously the two world wars were not fought on account of religion.” And she points out that the movements she discusses in her chapter on “The Triumph of the Secular” were not necessarily less violent than the religious ones they succeeded. “The French state had certainly not become more irenic,” she writes, “after abolishing the Church” during the French Revolution, and she notes that it was during this revolution that, “for the first time in history, an entire society was mobilized for war.”

But we cannot thereby pin the scale of modern violence on secularism or exonerate religion. In the case of France, the revolutionary state mobilized in part because it was attacked from all sides by neighboring powers acting explicitly in the name of religion, among other things. But more generally, it is important to stress—as many theologians, historians, sociologists, and political theorists have done—that the great “secular” ideologies of modernity were none of them emancipated from religion, but were rather willy-nilly its heirs. French revolutionary ideologies, Protestant (“Anglo-Saxon”) liberalism, Marxism-Leninism and Soviet communism, German national socialism, US Cold War political theory—they all translated and transformed religious ideas into new, often apocalyptic idioms and put them to new, sometimes bloody kinds of work.

Consider just this one among the many millions of explicitly religious utterances produced during the Cold War, from a 1957 report by a high-level US intelligence and security interagency group called the Operations Coordinating Board: “Islam is important to the United States because it has compatible values [emphasis added]. The present division of the world into two camps is often represented as being along political lines, while the true division is between a society in which the individual is motivated by spiritual and ethical values and one in which he is the tool of a materialistic state. Islam and Christianity have a common spiritual base in the belief that a divine power governs and directs human life and aspirations while communism is purely atheistic materialism and is hostile to all revealed religion.” I’ve singled out this episode because it is not only a reminder of how religion is used to explain the geopolitical alignments of our own era, but also a charming example, when contrasted with today’s “intelligence,” of just how quickly those alignments can change.

If we like, we can choose to dismiss the religious terms in which modern conflicts are often expressed as unimportant or secondary to other interests, economic or geopolitical. But why should we make that choice, which is in no way obvious or necessary? If we want to defend religion against the New Atheists’ attack, it seems oddly partial to do so by minimizing religion’s relevance to the vast questions of violence that confront our world. And if we wish to understand that violence, it is far better to assume that in our complex world, our religious ideas and our interests are interrelated, and that we need to rise to—rather than evade—the challenge of understanding that correspondence. Max Weber noted long ago, in his “Introduction to the Economic Ethics of the World Religions,” that “the ‘worldviews’ which are fashioned through ideas…have often served as switchmen for the tracks on which the dynamics of interests have moved action.” We will never understand how religious ideas affect our interested (and sometimes violent) actions in the world so long as we insist on separating the two.

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That segregation is not unique to Armstrong’s thought; it is insinuated every time an act of violence performed in the name of religion becomes the focal point of public discourse (most recently in reaction to the massacres in Paris). It is not religion, but powerlessness and oppression, the argument goes, that motivate religious violence. This argument depends on a misplaced confidence in a moralizing distinction central to discussions of postcolonialism: the distinction between power and powerlessness. This is often conjoined with the conviction that the violence of the powerless is ethical or moral, that of the powerful unethical or immoral—and that a line can easily be drawn between the two. Once that line is drawn, it is but a short step to saying that the victims of violence by the powerless are morally more culpable than the perpetrators, because they are beneficiaries of oppression.

This logic is similar to the one Armstrong applies to Zoroaster and Al Qaeda. In her chapter “Religion Fights Back,” she applies it to “fundamentalism” in general, explaining that it should be understood as the consequence of “simply trying to live a devout life in a world that seems increasingly hostile to faith.” American evangelical Protestants, Armstrong argues, were only pushed “to the far right” by the mockery of the secular world. It was because H.L. Mencken and the American Civil Liberties Union ridiculed William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes trial that the fundamentalists became antiscience, not the other way around. The rise of American fundamentalism to political power is a result of the persecution of the powerless faithful at the hands of the secular world, much as, in a sharply different context, the rise of Islam to military power in the seventh and eighth centuries was (according to her) the result of the surrounding world’s hostility, leaving the pacific pious with “no option but to engage in warfare.”

There are many problems with this argument, the fatal one being its failure to recognize that the violence committed in the name of powerlessness is also a claim to power. Fundamentalist politics, like Islamic arms, turned out to be astonishingly powerful, and the consequences of that power cannot be divorced from religion itself, although in the case of Islam (but not, curiously enough, present-day American evangelicals), Armstrong does her best to do so. “The Muslim conquerors tried at first to resist the systematic oppression and violence of empire,” she writes. Once again, religion is innocent in its complicity with power.

Another, subtler but well-known difficulty with this moralizing exoneration of religion’s role in violence, perhaps most famously described by Nietzsche, is that the prophetic traditions that run through Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share a tendency to represent the faithful as being persecuted by enemies in the temporal world. In these traditions and their secular heirs, perceptions of power and powerlessness are not independent of religious cosmologies themselves. Great Christian, Muslim, or (today) Jewish powers have been and are capable of thinking of themselves as beleaguered; the most powerful caliphs and conquistadors have been and can be considered martyrs rather than persecutors. Our religions have themselves created our perceptions of power and powerlessness.

It is difficult to doubt, as we see religion invoked in so many of the conflicts of our day, that the topic Karen Armstrong has chosen is an important one. Yet that importance cannot be realized by those who, like her, separate religion too sharply from violence, nor by those who, like Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007), would blame it for most of the world’s ills. Many religions have the potential to legitimize attitudes ranging from pacifism and tolerance to total extermination, from Jesus’ exhortations in the Sermon on the Plain to “love your enemies” and “offer them your other cheek,” to the nobleman’s command in Jesus’ parable: “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me.” And that’s just the Gospel of Luke.

For approximately 15 centuries, Christian theologians worked hard to explain why attacks on heretics, Muslims, or Aztecs during Crusade or conquest could be considered an “act of love.” If correcting sinners is a form of charity, and death is a better state for the soul than a life of persistent heresy or unbelief, then killing is a form of loving mercy. As late as the 1930s, Catholic theologians worked (on different grounds) to justify the boycotting and segregation of Jews in Germany as “love of neighbor.” If few Catholics would take these positions today, it is not because they now have a “truer” historical understanding of their religion, but because for historical reasons they are interpreting their traditions in a different way, and asking them to endorse different forms of life and morality. If we want to understand the violence that religion has sometimes perpetrated and might still do, we must be willing to explore the myriad potentials of our many religious traditions, rather than simply defining the more violent ones arbitrarily out of existence. n