“So, when we in the West talk about religion as the cause of this violence, how much are we letting ourselves off the hook, and using religion as a way to ignore our role in the roots of this violence?” Karen Armstrong, author of Fields of Blood
This statement was made by scholar of religions Karen Armstrong in an interview in Salon magazine in response to characterizations of Islam as a violent religion by Bill Maher and others. Speaking in the context of the rise of anti-Islamist prejudice in Europe, Armstrong said that Maher’s demonization of “the other” was the kind of talk that could lead us back to the concentration camps.
Bill Maher makes blanket statements against religion in general and Islam in particular. Maher clearly does not have a nuanced view of any religion. He is fueling anti-Islamic sentiment when he singles out Islam as a violent religion. If religions are going to be criticized as violent, then we must not limit ourselves to criticizing Islam, but must begin closer to home, by discussing the relation of religion and violence in the Bible, in Christianity, and in Judaism. My rule of thumb is always to begin with Christianity because it is the hegemonic religion of western cultures.
I agree with Armstrong that Maher is ignoring the role of the allegedly secular states in the violence that plagues the Middle East today and that has spread from there into Europe and America. Armstrong is referring to the division of the former Ottoman Empire into nation states made by the the Great Powers after the first World War. Clearly the imposition of the concept of the nation state and the boundaries that were drawn have not led to the intended outcome of lasting peace and democracy in the Middle East.
Summarizing her recent book, Armstrong writes:
[R]eligion before the modern period [was not] considered a separate activity but infus[ed] and coher[ed] with all other activities, including state-building, politics and warfare. Religion was part of state-building, and a lot of the violence of our world is the violence of the state.
Armstong argues that rather than blaming religion for violence, we should blame the state. I would argue that we should be examining the violence of the state, but that this is no reason to let religion off the hook.
Without this violence we wouldn’t have civilization. Agrarian civilization depended upon a massive structural violence. In every single culture or pre-modern state, a small aristocracy expropriated the serfs and peasants and kept them at subsistence level.
This massive, iniquitous system is responsible for our finest achievements, and historians tell us that without this iniquitous system we probably wouldn’t have progressed beyond subsistence level.
Here Armstrong is simply repeating well-worn apologies for the violence of patriarchal societies. Armstrong says that without inequality enforced through violence we would not have “civilization,” “culture,”or “our finest achievements.” Apologists for the grand Old South in the United States must have sounded much the same.
One question Armstrong does not address is whether or not a culture based upon great inequality enforced through violence is worthy of the name civilization. Even though I enjoy listening to Bach and Mozart, I would settle for singing and dancing to folk music (which in fact creates even greater joy in my body than classical music) if that meant that no one had to be enslaved or oppressed by a small aristocracy. I would also agree to live at a subsistence level in exchange for no violence and no war.
Armstrong has obviously not seriously considered Marija Gimbutas’s work The Civilization of the Goddess. In it, Gimbutas challenges the “indolent assumption” that all societies have been pretty much like our own: in other words, violent, hierarchical, patriarchal, warlike, and unjust. She argues that the societies of Old Europe 6500-3500 BCE which were practicing the early stages of agriculture were peaceful, egalitarian, highly artistic, and not only worthy of the being called civilized, but perhaps even more worthy of the name than our own.
Armstrong (who begins her survey of history at about 3000 BCE) wrongly equates all of agriculture with the feudal system of Europe; this allows her to make the false statement that culture and civilization are inextricably linked to violence. Even leaving the question of the Neolithic cultures of Old Europe aside, Armstrong seems to be equating civilization with the nation state, and in so doing, to be categorizing all cultures that preceded nation states as uncultured and uncivilized, or to use words she would probably consider politically incorrect but which cohere with her viewpoint, as primitive and barbarian.
The popularity of Armstong’s work may in fact be inextricably linked to her implicit and explicit acceptance of the superiority of the nation state to all other forms of civilization and the superiority of the so-called higher (read patriarchal) forms of religion to all other forms of religion.
Armstrong makes the cynical (she would say realistic) statement that “Violence is at the heart of our lives, in some form or another.” While violence is at the heart of our lives today, this has not always been the case.
What is missing in Armstrong’s analysis is a serious critique of patriarchy, its cultures, its politics, its religions. However, if her work included such a critique, we can be quite certain that it would not be as popular as it is.
If Armstrong had offered a critique of patriarchy, she would have been forced to ask if “our” way of doing things is the only or the best way.
She would have understood violence, hierarchy, war, and injustice are not required for civilization and life itself to flourish.
As I have stated:
Patriarchy is a system of male dominance, rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence, sanctified by religious symbols, in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality, with the intent of passing property to male heirs, and in which men who are heroes of war are told to kill men, and are permitted to rape women, to seize land and treasures, to exploit resources, and to own or otherwise dominate conquered people.
If we understand that patriarchy, war, domination arose together, and were justified by religions, we can also understand that what Armstrong calls “our” culture is not inevitable.
With this tool, we would not be forced to choose between Maher’s rejection of all religions as violent and Armstrong’s assertion that we should not view (some aspects of patriarchal) religions as one of the causes of violence.
Thanks to Ann Harrison for suggesting the topic for this post.
Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter) spring and fall–early bird discount available now on the 2015 tours. Carol can be heard in interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and the forthcoming Turning to the World: Goddess and God in Our Time. Photo of Carol by Michael Bakas.