Karen Armstrong, ‘the myth of religious violence’ and the secular state

I’d like to establish a separate post on Karen Armstrong’s ideas, which entered the discussion here on the earlier thread and point towards the important issue of the secular state.

I want to make it clear that I’ve been defending the book Fields of Blood as an impressive piece of scholarship. I’m not saying Armstrong is right.

Nor am I commenting on her earlier book Muhammed: a Prophet of our Time, which I haven’t read. It’s a matter of principle with me that you don’t criticize works you haven’t read.

To coincide with the publication of Fields of Blood Armstrong wrote an article in The Guardian.

“Religion”, Armstrong says, originally referred to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive. The real question we should ask is how we came to consider religion “as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics.” Until the 18th century, she says dissociating religion and poltics would have been like trying to take the gin out of a cocktail.

Where she’s heading is the concept of “secularisation” which was coined in the late 16th century, and the later notion of the “secular state”. But secularism especially when allied with nationalism turned out to be as oppressive and violent as anything it replaced.

Yet I finished the article asking, if the secular state is not the answer, well what then?

Stephen Law, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, had a similar problem and wrote an open letter to Armstrong, asking her to commit to the concept of Secularism with a capital “S”. He outlines the concept thus:

    Contemporary political secularists are concerned with religious neutrality. They want the state to be neutral on matters of religion. They want church/state separation. They believe the state should not endorse one religion over another, or endorse religion over atheism, or indeed endorse atheism over religion. They suppose the state should not fund religious schools, or automatically put religious people into positions of political power (any more than the state should be doing this for atheists).


    secularists, in this contemporary sense, emphasize the importance of freedom of thought and expression. People should be free to express their religious beliefs. Religious practice should be protected. Of course the same goes for atheists and secular humanists: they should be no less free to express their views, organise themselves, and publicly argue against religion if they wish.

He points out that many religious people are Secularist. He then lists Armstrong’s complaints about secularism and points out that they do not constitute Secularism as defined by him and several organisations he names. She really needs to decide whether she will come on board.

Law thinks the movement to Secularism is recent and fragile, and under attack around the world.

We need to consider, I think, whether we welcome the diversity of religious belief in our midst, or whether we merely tolerate it.

For me the problem is that religions typically come in packages, institutional packages, parts of which can be toxic. Also commenter Karen was right when she said:

    The monotheistic religions *do* divide humanity up into us and them and if you belong to *them* you are an infidel, evil, sinner or whatever. This is as the heart of the monotheisms and lends itself to conflict.

I also found this piece by Unitarian Fred Harland. If you can read it at all, it reads like a sermon. After citing 10 instances where a literal reading of the Bible will have us stoning or killing people, for things like having their hair cut short, he comes to this:

    Some scholars suggest that the difference between my Dad’s and my Mom’s beliefs are key to understanding religious violence. Listen, for example, to the arguments put forth by Rodney Stark, a sociologist at the University of Washington and by Johan Galtung of the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo. To both of them, central beliefs of Christianity and Islam incline their followers to violence. For example, their identification of their deity as the only one, their consequent contempt for the beliefs of others, the notion of being a chosen people, and their apparent need to overthrow or suppress other Gods. Galtung concludes that, among the major religions, Christianity and Islam have the most dangerous beliefs. That Judaism’s beliefs are somewhat less violent, followed by Hinduism and then, with the most peaceful beliefs, Buddhism. He notes that there is a hard either/or, we/they, right/wrong dimension to Western religions, and in particular to Christianity and Islam. Which is in vivid contrast to the softer both/and dimensions of Eastern religions.

Galtung’s bottom line is that we need to strengthen the softer bits if we want peace.

Armstrong is no doubt right when she says that people can draw contradictory and opposite conclusions from the same texts and sets of ideas. Nevertheless the notion that some religions are more inclined to violence still has some traction.

Finally, I’d like to repeat here my statement following Fukuyama of what is required for a civilised society:

    A civilised society requires a functional modern secular state where all citizens have equal rights, which according to Fukuyama has three elements. First you need a strong and capable state which collects taxes, can defend itself externally, maintain order internally and provide necessary services like education, hospitals etc.

    Secondly, there must be a rule of law that applies equally to everyone, and a competent justice system to which everyone has access.

    Thirdly, the government of the state needs to be accountable to the citizens through universal suffrage.

    Such states have only existed in the 20th century. Many fall short in their justice system including us to some extent.

    I think there is a fourth, which Fukuyama doesn’t mention. It’s the notion of economic growth, and a standard of living that provides dignity for all. In most countries that didn’t happen before WW2. Until about 500 years ago wealth was a zero sum game. If you wanted more you had to take it off other people.

    There is also a fifth, which can be thought of as identity – something that binds us together and distinguishes us. Here ethnicity, culture, language and religion can play a part.

    Religion also may be the source of some of the values and norms that are codified into law. There are some religious values and norms that the law should prevent or curtail, and Islam has thrown up some of these IMO.

    Religion playing into identity is problematic if it tends to exclude, which almost inevitably it does. That’s true of all religions, including Islam.

The book is Francis Fukuyama: The Origins of Political Order.

He says there was a lot of good luck that got us to the present standard of political order. We may need more than luck to maintain it.

26 thoughts on “Karen Armstrong, ‘the myth of religious violence’ and the secular state”

  1. “I also found this piece by Unitarian Fred Harland … He notes that there is a hard either/or, we/they, right/wrong dimension to Western religions, and in particular to Christianity and Islam. Which is in vivid contrast to the softer both/and dimensions of Eastern religions.”

    Harland wrote that in 2004. Nowadays, India has a Hindu chauvinist government with politicians that refuse to condemn Hindu mobs who kill Muslims for eating beef and Burma has Buddhist priests who advocate putting Rohingya Muslims in concentration camps and stripping them of their citizenship. Then there’s Sri Lanka …

    Contra Armstrong, I think there has never been a better place to live than the secular liberal democracies of the western world. Of course they are far from perfect, but they beat the alternatives by a wide margin and they are generally inching in the right direction.

    Notably some of the lingering unpleasantness in our secular democracies, such as the demonisation of homosexuals and intersex folk is directly attributable to Christianity.

    On the other hand, some of the nicest and most giving people I have ever met are deeply religious. I even give money to a small Catholic charity even though I hate the Catholic Church because I know the people involved. There is also good evidence that the Christian faithful are more charitable than average folk, including the progressive left. This may also apply to Islam, which has charity as one of its central tenets IIRC.

    It scares me that those on the Right who are atheist are often libertarian, as some of the ideology of libertarians (see Ayn Rand) are not only uncharitable but actually hostile to the less fortunate. What a desolate creed.

    Things are complicated but all in all, I think more secularism and less religion would be a good outcome.

  2. Countries are in real trouble when some form of ideology becomes dominant. Doesn’t really matter if we are talking about a theistic religion, communism or free trade globalization. Gets even worse when the believers think they have the right to enforce their ideology and punish apostates and those who refuse to join their particular form of insanity.
    I like living in a society that tolerates and encourages difference.

  3. John Davidson:

    Countries are in real trouble when some form of ideology becomes dominant. Doesn’t really matter if we are talking about a theistic religion, communism or free trade globalization.

    Free trade globalists?! You’ve had this idee fixe about free trade for some time but whenever you’re asked to link to some reputable economist with a significant body of relevant peer reviewed publications to lend some credibility to your fears, your head dives back into the sand. Well, at least you’re entertaining 😉

  4. Paul Krugman, a lefty in good standing (rightly so, I think) takes on some of the powder room talking points one sometimes hears in Green Circles.

  5. Karen, particular instances of violence on the part of Hindus and Buddhists don’t say much about the pattern.

    I think Armstrong thinks that violence is in our DNA and it doesn’t take much to bring it out. She’s probably right.

    Confucianism does not present as a violent religion, but early Chinese history had a Warring States Period.

    Fukuyama says they had battles involving half a million soldiers. In one battle 240,000 soldiers died, in another 450,000.

    Political organisation was based on kinship, and apparently the practice was to clean out the whole defeated family, men women and children, so they would cause no further trouble.

  6. Brian

    there are numerous such as this:

    In 2002, after an altercation between Muslim vendors and Hindu travelers at a railway station in the Indian state of Gujarat, fifty-nine Hindu pilgrims were burned to death. The ruling nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party blamed Gujarat’s entire Muslim minority for the tragedy and incited fellow Hindus to exact revenge. The resulting violence left more than one thousand people dead–most of them Muslims–and tens of thousands more displaced from their homes. Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi witnessed the bloodshed up close.

    And don’t forget the half million or so who died in ethno-religious clashed during Partition.

    But you could reasonably argue this is small beer compared to what has happened elsewhere.

    I think Armstrong thinks that violence is in our DNA and it doesn’t take much to bring it out. She’s probably right.

    Very much agreed. Sadly many on the Left refuse to acknowledge this, blaming all violence on capitalism or the patriarchy or other such trash arguments. There is nothing more human than killing each other. There is a reason why humans evolved to have fist, unlike our Great Ape cousins . That is one of the reasons why we need a strong state.

  7. Brian and Karen, you suggest that “violence is in our DNA”. I know you are using the expression metaphorically, but it’s misleading anyway. The potential for violence is undoubtedly in our DNA, but it is not a pre-ordained thing. Otherwise, how would people like me and most people I know (and I assume you) lead largely peaceful lives? Violence is unusual and highly disruptive in the lives of most people I know.

    On the violence and history side, I’ve looked at this quite a bit (btw Karen my first postgraduate qualification, MA by research, was in history, so please don’t suggest again that I’m not interested in history). The evidence seems to me to suggest that organised violence in the form of war was associated with the development of patriarchal and monotheistic societies from about 5-10,000 years ago. That’s not to say other societies were never violent but there does seem to be evidence that there were times and places where peaceful societies flourished for significant lengths of time. I think we should be looking more at them in our studies of history, to see how they worked, rather than just going along with the old ‘violence is inevitable/ natural/ in our DNA’ line.

    Again some more references about this are on the page on my blog about war that I linked to previously http://fairgreenplanet.blogspot.com.au/2015/09/whos-playing-this-war-game.html

    I haven’t read the Karen Armstrong book so can’t comment on that but it sounds interesting.

  8. Val, it’s generally accepted that altruism is in our DNA also. Furthermore we have socially constructed personalities, and if the prosocial did not express itself we wouldn’t be so successful as a species.

    Unfortunately there is violence within social and kinship groups and more organised violence between groups.

    At times like this the focus is on violence, but I’m all for studying and promoting peace.

  9. Val: I haven’t got the reference but Brian quotes statistics showing that death by violence rates are higher in hunter gatherer societies than more developed societies.
    I think that the hunter gatherer stats reflect the fact that the hunters are armed almost all the time and when they fight they use their weapons and people get killed. My experience on Groote Eylandt was that the death rate by violence was high and steady rather than coming in an occasional surge associated with wars. (During my 8 years the killers were all men but some of the victims were women.)
    Other cultural factors such as payback and obligation appeared to contributed to the death rate but I would prefer not to speculate further.

  10. I guess it’s a bit misleading of me to suggest we should be studying peace rather than violence (which is probably what my previous comment suggested). I really think we need to study both, without taking either as simply ‘normal’ or ‘natural’. Under what social conditions have violence or peace been most likely to occur or flourish?

    For example, from the reading I have done, I began to wonder if peaceful societies have been likely to flourish in areas that had fertile land and relatively mild climates (eg some Neolithic societies in southern Europe, Crete, some societies in southeast Asia) and were threatened by invaders from more difficult regions where survival was more marginal and hunting skills relatively more important. I’m taking an eco-social perspective I guess.

    I don’t know enough to speculate further, but it’s an interesting question. Has any of your reading addressed this?

  11. John I have read a few papers on this, several of them are in the references I cited in my blog post linked before. One of the important things to note is that study of post-contact societies (which Groote Eylandt of course was) is not necessarily reliable, because the society is under pressure from colonialism/imperialism. We have to remember that the Indigenous population in Australia was under sustained pressure which decimated (literally) the population over about 150 years and came close to genocide before the population began to recover in the 1920s. What impact this had on violence levels within communities may be hard to say but it is likely to have been great. I have read the accounts of white people in Victoria who observed the Indigenous population and it is fairly obvious that right from the start of white occupation, Indigenous communities was enormously disrupted (indeed they would have been disrupted before white settlement in Victoria since diseases from the NSW settlement had likely preceded this).

    Ian Armit in ‘Violence and society in the deep human past’ in British Journal of Criminology 2011 51(3):499-517 provides a good overview of the debates around this issue in anthropology, although more in the American context. Armit notes that archaeological studies of course can be pre-contact, but are hard to interpret.

    However as I said before, there is evidence of peaceful ancient societies as well as violent ones, so the point is that we should not simply treat either violence or peace as ‘natural’, but rather treat them both as objects of study and try to understand what conditions (ecological and social) are associated with them.

  12. New Zealand has mild weather and a fertile climate but the Maori were an intensely warlike peoples.

    My view is that a strong state, the rule of law and heavy duty reinforcement of peaceful social norms are essential for peace within a society ( In regards to the latter, note how the King Hit is now the Coward Punch). Although much has been said by me and others about the violence of the monotheistic empires, there is compelling evidence that pre-state societies were even more violent.

    Val says:

    Otherwise, how would people like me and most people I know (and I assume you) lead largely peaceful lives?

    For the above reasons. Strip that away and folk who’d previously lived peaceful lives can become killing machines. Think about peaceful civil servants and accountants who morphed into war criminals when Yugoslavia collapsed for instance. And how many Hutus who had previously had cordial relations with Tutsis took part in those few days of slaughter in Rwanda back in 1994?

    Also think about the schoolyard before adults got really concerned about bullying. I recall a kid from my school laying on the train tracks in front of an oncoming train to escape the relentless bullying. I recall the bullies singing The Locomotion when his death was announced at the school assembly the next day.

    As to DNA, did evolution not produce the fist?

    I think a much more peaceful world is possible and I believe we will get there, but this is a project that will inch forward in centuries rather than years.

  13. Val:

    However as I said before, there is evidence of peaceful ancient societies as well as violent ones

    I have my doubts. What about violence within the society, for instance between men and women? And how could these societies be durable when their neighbours were warlike?

    We have to remember that the Indigenous population in Australia was under sustained pressure which decimated (literally) the population over about 150 years and came close to genocide …

    Note this:

    In Forgotten War, Reynolds discusses the numerous conflicts that took place on the continent between the 1790s and 1920s. Conservative estimates suggest that approximately 30 000 people died on the Australian frontier – 90% of whom were Indigenous. From the systematic annihilation of the Tasmanian Aborigines under Governor George Arthur to the customary killing of ‘native pests’ by pastoral frontiersmen, Reynolds argues that Australia is a nation founded on violent and bloody warfare, and that these events – and the people involved in them – should no longer remain officially ignored.

    Note the numbers, 30,000 in 130 years. I think this is small beer in world historical terms and at least that many would have died in indigenous conflicts had white colonialists not arrived. You can only construe what happened as genocide if you take into account disease deaths, which I might add is not unreasonable.

  14. My view is that a strong state, the rule of law and heavy duty reinforcement of peaceful social norms are essential for peace within a society…

    Japan had that during WW2, did it not ?

  15. [Jumpy I’ve removed this comment because I don’t want to get into the abortion debate.


  16. Val, your question was:

    Under what social conditions have violence or peace been most likely to occur or flourish?

    I would only comment that for an absence of war you need a competent state and settled arrangements, and with your neighbours, preferably with a balance of power.

    A number of commentators have pointed out that the lines on the map drawn after WW1 are coming apart with the disintegration of Iraq after we knocked over Saddam Hussain. Iraq and Iran no longer balance each other.

    Some think the best solution will be to redraw the map of Syria and Iraq.

  17. Brian:

    I would only comment that for an absence of war you need a competent state and settled arrangements, and with your neighbours, preferably with a balance of power.

    I would add free trade globalisation to your list of absolute essentials, something John Davidson and the Australian Greens apparently hate. Nations worked out towards the end of the Age of European Imperialism that it costs a hell of a lot of money to invade and run a country in order to steal its scarce and precious widgets. According to the capitalist ideology of free trade, we can all have those precious widgets simply by engaging in mutually beneficial trade. Globalisation also creates mutual dependencies that mitigate against war. Note how Australian politicians, both Left and Right, are reluctant to say anything that upsets Indonesia or China because we place enormous value on our trade relations. Even our most conservative politicians just grit their teeth and give the Chinese communist dictators a big sh!t eating grin come what may.

  18. Val: The Groote Eylandters had little to do with Europeans until about 1920 when a mission was set up for stolen generation children. When BHP started mining there in the 1960’s it started with a royalty agreement and the employment of Aborigines on equal wages. When I started there in 1972 the society was largely driven by traditional values.
    A few weeks ago there was a major confrontation between the Amagulas and Mamarikas that resulted in two deaths at least one of which was by spearing . (The second person killed was the one who speared the first person. ) Sounds like traditional disputes and traditional means of fighting to me.
    The missionaries commented to us that the Aborigines reverted to their violent past ways under the influence of booze.
    Not sure why the Groote Eylandters were considered violent by Aborigine standards.

  19. Val: Apart from comments about the rule of law my guess is that you tend to get peaceful societies where people quite often depend on the generosity of others.
    It is part of the reason why Australia developed a relatively peaceful internal culture.
    The other unusual thing about Australia has been that it is a banter society. Men in particular lose face if they take insults seriously instead of laughing at themselves and coming back with a smart piece of banter.

  20. Karen, I’m not sure trading relationships are a necessary condition. They certainly help.

    The European Union started out with the European Coal and Steel Community and an emphasis on trade, but the object was peace. Specifically, they wanted to make the economies of Germany and France so interdependent that they couldn’t go to war.

  21. Anyone who still isn’t convinced that Karen Armstrong is an appeaser, a cultural relativist and a filth merchant should note her praise of Tariq Ramadan’s book The Quest for Meaning. From the front cover of the book

    A prophetic, passionate, and insightful book. -Karen Armstrong

    Ramadan is the creepy Muslim who argues that Islam shouldn’t ban the stoning of women because the order to do so “comes from God”. Ramadan is infamous for these types of opinions yet Armstrong hops in the sack with him. The disgust I feel for folk like Armstrong defies words.

  22. Worth reading on the emergence of the modern nation state are Coercion, Capital and European State: AD 990-1992 by Charles Tilly on how war made states and vice versa. Also relevant on the emergence of the nation state is William Cavanaugh The Myth of Religious Violence – what counts as religion and secular in any context depends upon arrangements of power.

  23. The earliest known rock art depicting war is from Australia:

    Depictions of battle scenes, skirmishes and hand-to-hand combat are rare in hunter-gatherer art and when they do occur most often result from contact with agriculturalist or industrialized invaders. In the Arnhem Land region of the Northern Territory of Australia we have been documenting rare depictions of fighting and are able to show that there has been a long tradition of warrior art. At least three phases have been identified and in each of them groups of hunter-gatherers are shown in combat. The oldest are at least 10,000 years old, and constitute the most ancient depictions of fighting from anywhere in the world, while the newest were produced as recently as early this century.

  24. Douglas, thanks for the references. Armstrong cites Cavanaugh and an earlier Charles Tilly is in her bibliography. Tariq Ramadan is not.

    Karen I don’t have an opinion on Armstrong overall, so I certainly won’t join you in your characterisation. FWIW her Financial Times review of Ramadan’s book is here.

    What I’m picking up is that she may overvalue the experience of ‘conversion’ and doesn’t appear to work from a grounded philosophical position.

    Kenan Malik’s review says:

    Ramadan’s real aim is not to explore the complexities of reason, faith and universality, but to defend the sanctity of Revealed truth. Revealed truth, he tells us, is ‘clear and immutable’ and its legitimacy cannot be challenged by reason.

    John Ralston Saul has written eloquently about the folly of relying solely reason in the last chapter of The Unconscious Civilisation, followed by a 60 page essay on the same in his On Equilibrium. I think in the end Saul has a point but misses the mark. However, if Ramadan holds ‘revealed truth’ as the final arbiter he is even wider of the mark.

    The real problem is that we have a literalist installed as professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford.

    On the radio on the weekend I heard that in Europe they were trying to establish Muslim studies in their tertiary system as a way of training and supporting a moderate Muslim clergy, to counter the fundamentalist mullahs supplied with Saudi money.

    If Malik’s review is on the money we’ve taken a step backwards.

  25. Islamist apologists should be aware that Islam is becoming increasingly intolerant and radical well away from any European influence. From Malaysia:

    The Federal Government has forbidden the use of the word “Allah” in Bahasa Malaysia bibles under the pretext that this will confuse Malays. The word “Allah” has been used in Bahasa Malaysia bibles in East Malaysia for more than a century, and consequently the ruling is inconsistent and applies only in the Peninsula. The Malaysian Government has fiercely fought a case against a Christian newspaper “The Herald” through the appeal process, even though the word “Allah” predates Islam. However, the government has been accused of using the “Allah” issue to polarize the community and inflame communal tensions, which led to arson attacks on a church in Selangor for political purposes.

    Ultra Malay group PEKASA and Islamic groups like Hizbat Tahrir have used Christianity as a ‘boogyman’ to scare and garner support from the Malay community. The concept of Christianity is being reframed to mean ‘western values’ that affront the Malay culture and identity.

    Islamo-fascism needs to be confronted head on. Good people on the Left see this. The moral pygmies on the Left who do not deserve to be named and shamed.

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