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It’s not all religion’s fault

31 October 2014

In her new book, Karen Armstrong argues that violence comes from a deep-seated 'warrior ethos' rather than from religion. She talks to Cole Moreton


EVERY time Karen Armstrong tells a taxi driver what she does for a living, the response is the same. She says: "I get sick of hearing this mantra intoned in a tone of deep knowledge: 'Religion is the cause of all the major wars in history.'"

They see a small, neat woman with a blonde bob who, they think, needs to be told what's what - but nobody is more of an expert on the history, culture, and influence of religion than Armstrong.

She has written more than 20 books on the subject, including biographies of Buddha, Muhammad, the Bible, and even God. Perhaps she should just lie about her job: "Sometimes, I just say 'I'm a typist.' I think: 'I can't go through this again.'"

At other times, she attempts to resist what she calls the myth of religious violence. She says, with a sigh: "You can try to say it is not the case, and tell them about Jesus telling people to love their enemies, but they say, 'Ah, they can never keep it up. It always fails. Religious people always get fanatical and kill their enemies.'

"All these over-simplified remarks - their attitude is so ingrained in our secular consciousness. I usually just let them rant on, but it offends me at a level that is quite irritating."

So, to answer the point, she has written a new book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the history of violence. She argues that religion is being made into a scapegoat in the modern world.

"Having a scapegoat means you displace your sins and put the blame elsewhere. They're not your sins any more. We are not looking sufficiently at nationalism, aggressive colonialism, and our inability to accept minorities, which resulted in the explosion of the Holocaust, and the creation of a world with a new aristocracy, the West versus the rest.

"All these things have to be looked at, instead of just talking about religion."

IF ANYONE should have a grudge against religion, it is Armstrong. During her seven years as a nun with the Roman Catholic Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, she suffered physical and psychological abuse. She escaped at the age of 25 to study English at Oxford, and swore to have no more to do with faith; but it would not let her go.

She became famous with a memoir, Through The Narrow Gate; and, for a while, she was a fixture on British television and radio, with series including one on the life of St Paul. Then she began to turn her attention to wider questions - including the widest of all.

A History of God was an ambitious book, published in 1993, which traced the evolution of the idea of the divine through Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, taking in Hinduism and Buddhism along the way. Her cool, even-handed ap- proach appealed to believers and atheists alike, and brought the long view to a debate that was becoming short-tempered.

Armstrong emerged as a strong voice for peace and reconciliation after 9/11. She used the money from a TED Prize in 2008 to set up the Charter for Compassion, which says: "We call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion."

The philosopher Alain de Botton has called her "one of the handful of wise and supremely intelligent com-mentators on religion. . . Her targets are religious fundamentalism on the one hand, and militant atheism on the other: in other words, al-Qaeda as well as Richard Dawkins."

Given all of this, I knock on the door of her Georgian terraced house in Islington with some trepidation. At nearly 70, Armstrong has the confidence to be welcoming rather than grand; but, when we are seated by the window in straight-backed chairs, she wastes no time in getting down to business.

"If we are saying Muslims are all deranged, all fanatical, it means we are not looking at the situation as a whole. We are not looking at the political distress, the sense of meaninglessness that a lot of people have; the mess in the Middle East that is largely due to Western colonialism, which set up these states in such an inept way."

IF SHE did have the time and energy to pour the truth into the ear of a taxi driver, what would she say?

"Well, first of all, there is a violence that is deeply inherent in our human nature, without which we wouldn't have survived as a species. We were professional killers in the greatest part of our history, the hunter-gatherer period. As such, this aggression is a biological fact of life in many men. We have never quite adjusted to the quietness of civilisation, which is only 5000 years old compared with the aeons that went before."

The warrior ethos is part of the human species, she says, and it fused with religion to create nation states. On the other hand, through-out history there have been believers who have opposed this.

"That has been just as much a part of religious history as the jihads and the Crusades. So we have got to stop simplifying all this, and talking about someone just picking up the Qur'an and dashing out to bomb a London bus. This is simply not looking at all the facts of life."

Muslims have thanked her for presenting their real views sensibly, but others have accused her of being an apologist for Islam. "I would say 'apologia' means an examination of something, an explanation. So, yes. I am not apologising for Islam, or glossing over its many faults.

"I have been responding to a lot of really unpleasant prejudice about this religion, which has been about since the time of the Crusades, and which is something we really cannot afford if we want to remain true to our liberal principles and the sense that all people are equal."

There are problems in modern Islam, she says. "It is true that, because of the Wahhabi influence, the pluralism of Islam has been very badly compromised. It is as if a small sect, deep in the south of the United States, suddenly had the petrodollars to export and impose its peculiarly uncharacteristic, and maverick form of Christianity on churches around the world. That would transform the face of Christianity."

That sounds like what George W. Bush tried to do in 2003. "Yes. Exactly."


BUT isn't Islamic State a terrifying example of violence inspired by religion? "Far more Muslims have been killed by ISIS; they have been the biggest casualties. This is much more a mess coming from state intervention in Iraq, which destabilised the whole place."

In some ways, she welcomes secularism: "I don't want a lot of mullahs telling me what to do." But she does warn that secular societies have their own forms of violence, too. "We can't be complacent, and say that if we just get rid of religion from politics then peace will break out. In Egypt, for example, the West has been so delighted that the Muslim Brotherhood is out, they are not reporting adequately the awful things that this renewed dictator-ship is doing."

Does she see Britain as a secular nation now? "Yes, there is a disinterest in religion. I have friends who ask me not to mention it when I come round." Really? The world's foremost historian of religion is asked to shut up about it at dinner parties? "Yes. They say, 'Look, don't talk about this stuff.' Or else they studiously avoid all mention of it."

Believers in a secular society have the freedom to speak out, she says, but the Church of England and others have some catching up to do. "This is somewhere the clergy have failed to engage with the huge problems we have experienced in the last century.

"The Holocaust, for example, raised huge questions about the nature of God. That needed to be grappled with, and the history of anti-Semitism needed to be aired. The big divide between rich and poor, even in this country, is something that should be troubling a Christian soul."

THAT kind of call to arms raises a personal question: where does this former nun stand with God now? Having examined faith so carefully, is she now detached from it completely?

"Oh no, I'm not detached from faith at all. I don't belong to a Church. I just can't get to grips with the Church of England, and British Catholics don't like me much at all," she says.

"I jumped over the wall. They don't mind that in the States: American Catholicism is not so paranoid." How would she describe her God? "I prefer not to describe God. That is the whole point of The Case for God: you can't describe it.

"The important thing [about religion] is doing it. Working up in my study, I will get moments of transcendence, awe, and wonder. There are milliseconds of prayer. That is what Jews say they get when they study Torah and Talmud. The Benedictine monks who used to have to do divine study, reading the scriptures for hours, would get the same."

She considers her daily work to be a similar kind of religious practice. "I'm upstairs from nine until six, grappling with issues of faith and God and spirituality, and trying to sort of express the wonderful learning I encounter in academic tomes that are unreadable for most people.

"So, I would say I am very much engaged, even though I'm not a paid-up member of a church, or a mosque, or a synagogue. The Muslims always say: 'Don't, for God sake, convert, because you'll be no use to us.' Not that I have any intention of doing so." Now, that would be a scoop. "Yeah. I'm too much of a wine-lover for that."

She cannot do yoga, and flees from meditation. "I was so bad at Ignatian mediation in the convent, it has given me a sort of phobia about anything like that."

Faith is often best experienced in community: does she have anyone to be with? "Yes. Muslims, Jews, Christians. I've got churches I go to in the United States, Harvard particularly. Here, not so much, I must say. No, not at all."

What box does she tick on the census form, when it asks for her religion? "Just . . . n/a."

SHE tries to live by what she calls the Golden Rule, an idea that runs through all faiths: do as you would be done by; or do not inflict anything on others that you would not like to suffer yourself. "Trying to follow it does mean you are displacing yourself from the centre of your world," she says.

But some would say she is too liberal and too vague about what it all really means; so does her refusal to define God mean that she has stopped believing altogether? "No. The divine, or transcendence, has been a fact of human life. The trouble is that when we try to encapsulate it in words, we bring it down to size. One of the things that changed everything for me was discovering that the great thinkers all knew that.

"They said: 'Ah, what we say about God cannot measure up to the reality.' They made people con-scious of that, like the Jewish practice of not uttering the word of God. Or the Muslim refusal to depict the divine in representational art in any form. The Bible is a sort of starter-kit in a way, then it moves beyond."

Presumably, some religious leaders say that that is a cop out? "Yes, they do, but that is a sign of the spiritual idiocy of our time. A lot of our religious thinking is extremely primitive. Thomas Aquinas would be turning in his grave to listen to some of these clerics talking in this simplistic way, as if God is their boss or something, whom they know, and keep in line with, and issues clear directives."

Having spent more time than most people looking at the history of God, Armstrong says that her sense of wonder has not diminished, but increased. "Religion is at its best when it holds you in an attitude of reverent wonder, and helps you to ask questions," she says, with a broad smile. "Even if you don't find the answers."

Fields of Blood: Religion and the history of violence by Karen Armstrong is published by Bodley Head at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18).

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