What is the Cause of Violence? A Response to Karen Armstong by Carol P. Christ

 “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
carol p. christ photo michael bakasThis 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.

Armstrong continues:

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.

Also see Survey Reveals Americans’ Double Standard When Evaluating Religious Violence.

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.


Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women. www.goddessariadne.org

64 thoughts on “What is the Cause of Violence? A Response to Karen Armstong by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Excellent response. The equation of achievement with violence (or with capitalism) is all too facile, and the question has to be asked what (whose) purpose does it serve. I see a rampant denialism that humans can and have lived any other way than by coercion. This depends on a denial of the achievements of many Indigenous polities, who are not even considered in these evaluations of “civilization.” (Long history of that.) By achievements i include what can only be described as more advanced social systems, because egalitarian and centered on communal wellbeing. Domination hierarchies are not ‘advanced.’

    The upshot is a conclusion that “every society in human history” behaves in these ways, and therefore that there is no alternative. Every time i post something about colonial violence on the Suppressed Histories FB page, a certain slice of people rush to make these assertions. Last week it was in response to documentation of medical experimentation on the bodies of enslaved women by the “father of gynecology.” Someone claimed that men in all societies had done this; but it’s simply not true. This is where that old racialist miseducation into ideas of “barbarism” is still swaying people’s thinking. And the tragedy of it is that it leads to a pessimism that blocks the ability to build alliances against the culture/s of domination. Many people are caught in an inability to imagine social relations, or religions, that are not based on domination, and call that realism. Their premises are mistaken.


  2. Thanks Max. For us who have a different paradigm, it is indeed distressing that so many rush to defend violence as necessary to the “advance” of :”civilization.” And that some of those who do so get public attention.


    1. A very important response, Carol. Thank you. Will share it. Among many works Armstrong needs to read is *A Peaceful Realm* by archaeologist Jane McIntosh, about the ancient Indus Valley Civilization. No sign of warfare or other internal violence for hundreds of years. Technologically sophisticated. Cities of up to 100,000. No poverty, few signs of rulers, no signs of any police force. This was a large civilization covering a land area the equivalent of a good part of eastern Europe.


  3. Certainly, a series of precisely accurate observations about some of the major manifestations of violence.

    Thanks so much, Carol.

    But, if you want to understand the very origin of these manifestations of violence, there must be a detailed understanding of the whole issue of the (important word) consciousness that underlies violence in the first place—that is, the dualistic consciousness of the “self” and the ‘thinker’ (rather than the non-dualistic consciousness)—with regards to which the Eastern perspective, attributing conflict and violence to the duality itself (see the writings of J. Krishnamurti) is absolutely crucial; but, typically, disregarded altogether. And this requires an expansion of the definition of “religion” to include all ideologies based upon thought (which is, yes, a characteristically masculine expression of consciousness)—for example, political, economic and secular-philosophical ideologies as well.

    It is through all of these ideologies based upon thought that the projection of evil upon the “other” becomes ‘weaponized’ into the violence that we see manifested in the world on a daily basis:


    Thus, the issue is to have a much more intensely nuanced view of religion—something that, certainly, Mr. Maher is utterly incapable of—acknowledging both its positive aspects; while, at the same time, clearly observing that the witless perpetuations of its dualities may very well ultimately annihilate human civilization itself.



    1. Thanks Michael. I do agree with you that dualistic thinking as it has manifested in the west is one of the tools and habits that can promote violence. I discuss transforming the classical dualisms frequently on FAR and in my other writing. However, I do not think dualistic thinking is the origin of violence, though it is one of the manifestations of it. My metaphysics are relational and possibly not the same as yours. However, there may be a plurality of metaphysical positions that are preferable to the dualistic thinking we have known in the west.


      1. Thanks for the reply, Carol.

        Certainly a complicated issue; but let me clarify something.

        Dualistic thought is the ‘weaponization’ of the duality that originates in the ‘fallen’ consciousness of the “self”. Or, as stated in Chapter 13, verse 12 of the Revelation of John: “the second beast [the “beast of the earth” consciousness of the ‘thinker’; also referred to in Sura 27:82 of the Quran] is servant to the first beast [the “beast of the sea” consciousness of the “self”]” in the perpetuation of duality and violence; both of these dimensions of consciousness being directly ‘observed’ by the non-dualistic consciousness by which Revealed Knowledge is conveyed. (And, if you read the opening passages of the Second Meditation of Descartes, you can actually observe the consciousness of the “self” emerging: “it feels as though, all of a sudden, I have fallen into deep water”–Jungian archetypes being relevant here.)

        In any case, from the frame of reference of the non-dualistic consciousness; all “metaphysical positions” are fundamentally dualistic; they are not something that can really be “transformed”. They must be observed, set aside, transcended, or stepped away from. Nuance and more nuance.


      1. J. Krishnamurti suggests that the mechanisms of thought can be directly observed from a ‘frame of reference’ prior to and outside of thought; perhaps similar to the way in which a psychoanalyst can directly observe the psychological mechanisms of the patient. So, no, I am not “arguing from texts”. I am describing an actual experience of observing these dimensions of consciousness from a different ‘frame of reference’ which is not thought. That is, even if the texts did not exist, these observations would still exist. I am not saying that this is easy; but it sometime comes only after years of practice in different contexts.

        This is all a very strange or bizarre assertion to the Western perspective, for which thought is the end all and be all of reality and theological/philosophical truth; but, after studying the Eastern perspective for some 40 years now, it has become increasingly clear to me that such a perspective (esoteric Buddhism certainly conveys this perspective) is the ONLY way of genuinely resolving the conflicts in Western civilization which threaten the very future of humanity.

        So, yes, we are in fundamental agreement about violence. But it appears to me that the categorical refusal of Western civilization to acknowledge the value of the (non-dualistic) Eastern perspective is what is going to doom us all to an ‘Armageddon’ caused by the dualities of the monotheistic theologies.


  4. “We must begin closer to home, by discussing the relation of religion and violence in the Bible, in Christianity, and in Judaism.”

    I took this to heart, Carol, thanks!! except my favorite religious paths are Taoism and Buddhism, which seem so peaceful. But you know what, they got into religious wars in their history, too, trying to seize power over the populace, confiscate land for their temples, collect money from wealthy donors, etc.

    The spiritual path that is closest to home for me is really the love of Nature. Nature so far has not waged war with anybody, or tried to get rich and powerful by soliciting worshippers. And to worship Nature, I don’t need to profess a creed of any kind — I can just take a walk in the woods.

    According to a haiku poet named Chigestsu-ni (1634-1718), a Zen nun and good friend of Basho, even nature, though, could become a problem, she says:

    Today’s moon —
    but if there were two
    a fight would ensue.


    1. Just to correct a typo, the poet’s name should be Chigetsu-ni, her poetry comes up in Google. The haiku is included in “The Country of Eight Islands,” trans. and ed. by Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson.


    2. If only Buddhism and Taoism were “peaceful.” Both are among the most sexist and violent ideologies of the world (a quick google search will provide you with the historical facts). Ideologies that are constructed by people as Esther rightly, to my mind, points out. No one gets off. Nature is also profoundly violent (Earthquakes? Even backyard squirrels?)

      The question is whether or not it is possible to exist without violence. I guess it requires redefining violence so that eating vegetation or destructive fires that make it possible for forests to renew themselves are not perceived as a kind of violence. Certainly nature cannot exist without violence otherwise all animals who eat anything other than greens would die. Then we would all die.

      But of course, we are talking about grander violence than natural violence or the petty violence we do to each other every day. I don’t know the resolution to that other than profound self-examination and the cultivation of compassion and love such that the love overwhelms and is that through which our other traits express themselves (methods of doing so are found in most religious and many secular traditions).

      If we had matriarchal societies other than the one Chinese example, would we find there is no violence? I agree that patriarchy is not violence resistant (to say the least!), but I don’t know that matriarchal societies would provide a world without it. I agree with those who have argued that our understanding of women as more collaborative, etc., than men comes about because of patriarchy limiting our possibilities. We are more collaborative (or destructive via gossip, etc.) because we’ve had to be. What would the world be like if we were never forced to be that way? I don’t know.

      All to say, this is an excellent blog, Carol, and offers a lot of (non-violent) food for thought! Thank you.


      1. Karen Armstrong herself speaks of societies in which “a small aristocracy expropriated the serfs and peasants and kept them at subsistence level.” This is structural violence and does not occur in small scale subsistence level (sustainable) societies.


      2. Thanks Laury, for your thoughts. I understand your sensitivity, truly, and your heart is in the right place for sure.

        Carol, your blogs always get me thinking in ways profoundly challenging, though I’m not very skilled in writing it all out. Thank you for this post and your leadership, and I missed reading your comments last week.


      3. Laury, I believe your stance that violence may be endemic — to both men and women — is pessimistic and actually uninformed. If you read Heide Göttner-Abendrot’s anthology “Societies of Peace: Matriarchies Past, Present, and Future,” I think you will become much more optimistic about our abilities as a species to be non-violent.


  5. Thank you, Carol, for this outstanding essay.

    At the risk of oversimplifying, I contend that religion expresses itself in violent ways because human beings think and behave violently. Our institutions (including religious ones) reflect that violence.


      1. I don’t agree! Humans are capable of violence and evil, but those are amped and multiplied a thousand-fold when religion incorporates codes of dominion and oppression, in other words patriarchy, slavery, racism, class oppression. All those are *systemic* violence, as opposed to individual evil-doing, and religion has been used to excuse, prop them up, and paint them as the divine will. But not every religion, and not every society, incorporates codes of domination. And that is why it is important to look at the Mosuo (SW China), the Minangkabau (Sumatra), the Pueblo societies, the Vanatinai (South Pacific) and the many other mother-right societies, as well as other Indigenous societies that are non-militarized, classless, respectful of individuals. No human society is ideal, but the differences between these much more egalitarian Indigenous cultures (so at risk in the global dog-eat-dog world now) and the imperial ones are significant, and they matter very much.


  6. Brava! Very thoughtful and thought-provoking (as we can tell by the preceding comments) post.

    Here’s what I’ve been wondering all week since the attack on Charlie Hebdo: Practically the whole west has been in panic mode because of these terrorist attacks by fundamentalist Muslim extremists. How have ghettoized Jews felt for nearly 2,000 years when they were not only locked in their ghettos at night (in some areas) but were regularly attacked by Christian mobs often led by the Christian nobility determined to eradicate them? (I am not talking about Nazis, but about earlier history.)

    I recently read.From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia by Pankaj Mishra. This book is about men who fought against the European empires (British, French, Dutch, German, Belgian,etc.) and their colonies in the Middle East and China and Japan. I learned a lot and recommend it to FAR readers..


    1. Acknowledged.

      But do you see any problem at all when some 20 people in France die as a result of terrorism; in response to which the International media is awash with ‘condemnations’ and ‘expressions of outrage’ from all around the world, and millions march in ‘solidarity’; but Boko Haram slaughters some 2,000 people in Nigeria and the International media scarcely breathes ONE word about it?

      And–it should be needless to say, but it isn’t– it is tens and hundreds of thousands of Christians and Muslims (rather than Jews) who are being slaughtered at this moment across the Middle East. But who is ‘marching in solidarity’ with them against this common evil?

      All of these people died as a result of the same Satanic theology; but ‘some’ people’s murders are simply more ‘worthy’ of being publicized and ‘condemned’ with ‘outrage’ than others.


  7. It is consistently the case that the generic religion/violence discussions get all the play and anything nuanced with feminist insights seems to be left aside. No surprising, but it is important to observe as you did. That makes this blog and others like it, books and articles from authors/readers here all the more important. Thanks, Carol.


  8. I presume the march in France brought together defenders of free speech and haters of Islam, feminists and anti-feminists, left and right. This is why I was glad I did not have to decide whether to go to it or not.


  9. With some humor, I offer the text of the following internet meme to support your argument: “It is only when a mosquito lands on your testicles that you realize there is always a way to solve problems without using violence.”


  10. Thank you for an excellent article! I look forward to sharing it! I think that it is innate in humans to wonder, adore, and wonder some more: this is religion: and not “primitive” religion, at that. As with everything (or so it seems), this innate or natural religion, came to be used, abused, and utterly screwed up (mostly by men). The desire to dominate for privilege and power is perhaps the primary characteristic of patriarchy: this desire required and justified the oppression of women, the exploitation of natural resources for personal profit, and the use of force and violence to manipulate, control, or eliminate opposition. Men are the ones who benefit from the dominator paradigm (on a real yet still superficial level). As a result of all of our justifications of violence: women hurt, children hurt, the Planet hurts, and, of course, men also hurt. All of our “working assumptions” of what civilization and religion and violence as a means to an end need to be completely transformed through a steady “build-up” of an alternative paradigm. I believe that your article points the way to such a transformation. Thank you again.


  11. Several responses to this good post and its respondents:
    1. Yes, all religions have supported acts of violence at various times in their history, but none but Islam makes it obligatory in their fundamental scriptures. In fact, Jihad at one time was considered the sixth “pillar” of Islam. In addition, Islam contains in it’s foundational scripture an explicit call for manifest destiny. When Christ, at the end of Matthew, encourages his disciples to go out and make disciples of all nations he was likely speaking of conversions, not conquests. The Qur’an and Hadith require that all lands on earth be under Islamic law. That means political control.
    2. Karen Armstrong is among the many apologists of Islam who rarely look at its darker side. This is the politically correct way to sell books.
    3. I fail to understand the argument that Boko Haram’s atrocities have been ignored by the media.
    4. What continues to be ignored by the media is what our military has done and continues to do in the Middle East, in terms of violence. Few sources ever mentioned, for example, that at the beginning of the first gulf war Saddam had put peasants and malcontents in the front-line ditches defending the border. According to the accounts of returning soldiers in order to save bullets and lives our generals simply used bulldozers to bury 10,000 + “Iraqi troops” in the process of a couple of hours. The media was much better covering the light show of the carpet bombing of Iraq at the beginning of the second gulf war, but not at showing the immense collateral (read: civilian) damage it caused. But, that was not Christian violence. It was secular. Though the generals profess their Christianity.
    5. Agree completely that eastern religions have had their fair share of violence and wars. No off the hooks there.
    Thanks for a great discussion.
    Dan Shaw — Professor of Religious Studies


    1. No, “all religions” have not supported violence. Only if you discount the many ethnic religious traditions and concentrate only on the dominant religions can you make such a statement. Even when these peoples made war (say American Indians or Central African societies) they did not instrumentalize religion as a justification for them.

      I’d like a cite for the Quranic injunction that all lands be under Muslim law. Since you include ahadith, some of which are recorded in later centuries, then you’d have to also include church doctrine which does in fact authorize such conquest. Cuius baptisatio, eius regio, and so on. Christian conquest patterns in the middle ages were very analogous to Muslim ones, including capturing and slave-trading “infidels.”

      Also, if you look into fundamentalist enforcement in the US military (google Mikey Weinstein) you’ll find that it is not all that secular, and even in political context, with Bush II initially calling for a “crusade,” it has a long history of Christian invasions of Muslim countries behind it.


    2. I am not sure what fundamental in its foundational scriptures means–but the Hebrew Bible has been read by Jews, Roman Catholics, Protestants in America, and others as decreeing that conquest and forced conversion were the will of God.


      1. Let me suggest the fundamental or foundational Revelations rather than scriptures; of which there are two:1) the “Tree of Life” (Genesis 3:24); also referred to as the Vision of the “Son of man”, and the “Night Journey” & the “sidrah tree” in the Quran; and, 2) the Revelation of “the resurrection”, which includes the Revelation of the Memory of Creation and the revelation of the memories of previous lives; the purpose of the monotheistic theologies being to deny and contradict those Revelations by the dualistic “doctrines of men”, which, today, are the foundation of conflict and violence between Judaism, Christianity & Islam.



    3. profdanshaw,

      Do you really think it makes any difference at all to the person killed whether he or she is killed by “Christian violence” or by merely “secular violence perpetrated by a Christian”? If a Christian commits an act of violence, ultimately, it is Christian teaching that ‘justifies’ that act. The Teaching of Jesus, on the other hand, suggests something entirely different.


    4. “Yes, all religions have supported acts of violence at various times in their history….”

      Wrong, Dan.

      The religion of the Inuit of northern North America has never supported acts of violence. The religion of the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa has never supported acts of violence. The religion of the Mbuti of central Africa has never supported acts of violence. The religion of the Semai of southeast Asia has never supported acts of violence. I could go on (and on and on).

      Do you think the Inuit, !Kung, Mbuti, Semai and all the other nonviolent people in the world aren’t really people? Aren’t really human? That their religions “don’t count”? Let me tell you that they bleed just like you do, their blood is the same red color, they eat, sleep and make love, they laugh, they cry — they are as human as you are. And their religions are just as real and viable as any other.


      1. I would suggest that we are using differing definitions of the word “religions.” I wonder if the Inuit or Mbuti even have a word for “religion”? My study of such non-textual communities suggests that all of their actions are considered sacred. So if you are telling me that the Inuit and Mbuti are never violent towards others this is indeed a beautiful thing.


      2. Are you defining “religion” in a way that excludes all but textual religions, then? In your mind, does “religion” include only religions that separate the sacred from the profane? I hope I don’t sound too harsh when I suggest you’re being a bit self-centered? A bit ethnocentric?


      3. Thank you Jeri. There is no question about the great differences between the dominant mass religions and Indigenous ones, but while making that point we can’t speak as if Indigenous people don’t / didn’t have religions, and especially exclude their spiritual traditions in global discussions such as this one, in saying “all religions.” That negation and erasure is all too common, and it distorts the breadth and depth of human heritages. In fact, the understandings that Aboriginal spiritual philosophies put forward are of great value in overturning the oppressive mentality of the imperial religions.


      4. Max, we’re totally on the same page.

        Religion can be defined as the human relationship to the supernatural world. Every known culture has (or has had) such a relationship. It’s ludicrous to say you’re examining the relationship between violence and religion if you’re looking at only a handful of the world’s religions – the violent state religions.

        But that’s exactly what the state religions want us to do, because it helps them hide their iniquities. Lining the state religions up next to the peaceful indigenous ones makes the state religions look like the Big Bad Wolves they really are.


  12. Interesting comments but the one meme that keeps surfacing in the western feminist theology is the proposition that goddess social culture would somehow prevent discrimination and misogyny.

    A cursory look across the history of the dharma traditions show that no end of feminine-positive theology prevents social and political. subjugation and domination of women or patriarchal family/clan/social organizational structures.

    Therefore, Christ’s criticism here is true, that a more nuanced view must be investigated, including with respect to any wishful thinking that a goddess-friendly culture will put an end to misogyny. It may be a necessary condition, but evidently it is by no means sufficient!

    However, that doesn’t negate the value of what Armstrong is saying. When the US Supreme Court overturns the Doctrine of Discovery legal justification of domination and subjugation of non-Christians for example, and Western society admits to its own endless thirst for blood and violence, it may be in a position to enter into a credible discourse with other cultures and societies on the topic.

    In the meantime, the repressed neuroses continue to act out and react everywhere socially and politically!


    1. The “dharma traditions” you speak of are all patriarchal. They may have goddesses, but those goddesses have been incorporated into patriarchal religions. As just one example, the Sanskrit goddess Durga kills the buffalo demon in order to save the gods, who supposedly created her. In matrifocal cultures you don’t find goddesses who serve male gods, nor goddesses who wage war. Patriarchy is the problem. I agree with Carol.


    2. I’m not aware of anyone who is saying a Goddess culture will of itself end patriarchy and domination, even though revalorization of the female is obviously needed. It’s clear that political action, social change in very concrete ways, is necessary. Still, the cultural dimenions are not negligeable. The themes of male dominance encoded in patriarchal religious scriptures are like Manifest Destiny and the Discovery Doctrine, in that they are poisons that keep on reinfecting society, century to century.


  13. It seems to me that most of the matriarchal cultures were (and are) smaller groups that lead mostly subsistence, agriculture-based lives. I wonder whether part of the problem with our violent cultures of today is that they are just too big. Groups function differently as they get bigger. Maybe breaking up into smaller, family-connected groups might work better. At least, it seems to work for the Mosuo culture and others like it. I’ve even noticed this in churches. Smaller churches sometimes work more like families – everyone knows each other. Larger churches become more like corporations, with hierarchies and “power structures.” Has anyone else noticed this?


    1. I’ve often thought this, Katharine. Scale seems to be a very important piece of the puzzle. I notice it a great deal in the pursuit of sustainable energy solutions & earth-honoring agricultural/permaculture reform. Smaller economies are making greater, faster, more successful changes to energy diversification, waste disposal, & food supply sustainability schemes. Larger economies do not seem to be capable of the same as of yet.


  14. Reblogged this on CATHOLIC, Non-Roman Western Style and commented:
    We MUST ask ourselves if our way is the BEST way!

    “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.”


  15. There is a lot to think about in this article and the responses to it.
    Thanks for writing.
    It does seem to me that individually we must deal with our own anger, hurts, disappointments, and find some way to be at peace with ourselves and others.

    Here’s to Your Health!



  16. I would like to recommend the contribution that the work of Felicitas Goodman can make to this discussion. In her book, “Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternate Reality: Religion in a Pluralistic World”, anthropologist Felicitas D. Goodman links the norms of a society and its religion (including it’s values around violence and sexism) to the nature of the economic “technology” in which it developed- i. e. on whether they are hunter- gather, agrarian or urban. All of the traditional religions discussed above arise out of agrarian civilizations where where war sexism, dualism, fear of nature, and growth of hierarchy have all occurred.
    As both Katherine Bressler and Kate Brunner have observed, the matriarchal societies tend to have evolved from hunter-gatherer economies.


    1. Actually Paige, Bressler and Brunner said that small scale economies seem to be egalitarian and not violent. The earliest agricultural (or horticultural) societies of the Neolithic seem to fit this model. Patriarchy evolved when societies were agricultural as opposed to industrial, but agricultural societies were peaceful and egalitarian for millenia before the rise of patriarchy.


    2. Page, Felicitas Goodman and I studied under the same anthropologist, Erika Bourguignon, and I admire her work greatly (have you read Where the Spirits Ride the Wind? Fascinating).

      But Felicitas studied anthro only, whereas I hopped around between anthro and archaeology. I definitely think this thorny issue of where patriarchy/violence came from requires a deep understanding of archaeology as well as anthro, because institutionalized violence arose before we began keeping written records. And what I discovered after doing tons of research for my book Switching to Goddess is that there really wasn’t any institutionalized violence on the globe before around 4000 BC.

      And what happened ca 4000 BC? Climate change. Big climate change. A good part of the earth’s land surface turned to desert (what we now call the Sahara, the Gobi, and the chain of deserts stretching across Asia almost to the Pacific — they all seem to have formed at this time). And as a result a good portion of the world’s first farming populations starved to death, or spent generations slowing starving.

      It seems obvious to me that this is the beginning of violence and patriarchy. This is when the first city states rose in the “Cradle of Civilization” between the Tigris and Euphrates. But the “rise of civilization” was not glorious as we used to think. Archaeologists like Brian Fagan are now pointing out that these first civilizations were violent, bloody, and full of social hierarchy. Masses of people were crowded into dirty, disease-ridden cities surrounded by thick walls. Most people were dirt poor, and there were a few elites at the top who ruled them with violence or the threat of it.

      In Switching to Goddess I call this “starvation culture” because I think it arose directly from learned, shared and patterned behavior shaped by long-term starvation conditions, and then passed on from one generation to the next.


      1. Peggy Reeves Sanday notes that the positive connection between women and nature as mothers can be turned inside out to blame women and nature for the sorry state of affairs following negative climate events or war. But there is always a choice. Human history is not determined by climate alone.


        1. No, human history is not determined by climate alone, I agree with that, Carol. But something turned formerly peaceful, non-violent, egalitarian female-principled people into “crazy” people — violent, male-principled, hierarchical — around 4000 BC, in Mesopotamia first, and then Egypt at the Nile a little later. And then even later in China at the Yellow River. The first “civilizations” (which were really a descent into hell) all rose at large rivers — exactly where people would go when smaller rivers, lakes and water in general was disappearing everywhere.

          The anthropologist Colin Turnbull studied a group of starving people in central Africa in the 1960s, the Ik, or Teuso. They’d been starving for a few generations. And they were truly a psychotic people, with very little humanity left — parents would kill their own children for food, the elderly were too weak to walk and had to crawl everywhere, only the strongest (i.e., young men) got to eat, and the the most admired person was the one who could steal the most and get away with it. People got great pleasure out of only two things: eating, and watching someone else suffer.

          I think from this generations-long starving ca 4000 BC a few groups lost their original matriarchal (healthy) culture and developed, like the Ik, what you could call a culture of psychosis: only young strong males ate (ruled), but if you bowed and scraped in front of them they might throw you a few scraps. Women became hated for two reasons: (1) they were aligned with Mother Earth, who had obviously abandoned Her children, and (2), long-starving women become exceedingly cruel to their children, and since fathers in these groups almost always abandon their families, mothers are the only parents left (among the Ik children are locked out of their mothers’ homes at age three and from then on must fend for themselves).

          Culture is such an important construct. Once a culture forms, it’s extremely difficult to change it. It’s learned, shared, patterned, and passed on ad infinitum from one generation to the next. And a new, violent culture — in which the ideal man is the one who can take the most from others — is likely eventually to rule the earth.


      2. I don’t agree with the Saharasia thesis of James de Meo. The world’s biggest desert, the Sahara, was not a region out of which patriarchy erupte or spread. The river valleys were, because these lands were desirable. The more difficult terrains and ecosystems in fact are more likely to be redoubts of mother-right culture. Competition over resources is one factor, but it is not determinative all by itself, as Peggy Sanday theorized decades ago. Read my critique here: http://www.suppressedhistories.net/saharasia.html

        Also Carol is right: most egalitarian matrilineages arose in small farming societies, which are very different from large scale plow agricultural ones.


      3. Hi, Max,

        In my experience very few people know of or about DeMeo and his Saharasia theory. It’s nice to meet someone who does.

        If you look at a few good maps of the world’s deserts, you can see that they stretch over the “Fertile Crescent,” in Iraq, where the first so-called civilization arose, as well as over the Nile River, where the second so-called civilization arose. These deserts also stretch up around two sides of the Black Sea, i.e., aren’t that far from Old Europe.

        Both the deserts and the “civlizations” appeared abruptly ca 4000 BC. The “civilizations” were actually hellish places – like the patriarchy on sterioids. Archaeologists are beginning to admit this now.

        If you believe as I do that before the patriarchy reared its ugly head people were primarily peaceful and matriarchal, what kind of tremendous force would cause some of these idyllic people to morph into their exact opposites? Into people who could almost be described as psychotic? Do you agree that it almost had to have been a fairly powerful force?


        1. Jeri, we can’t cherry-pick the deserts for patriarchy. What about Arizona / New Mexico, a redoubt of mother-right cultures including the famous Pueblo societies, or the Guajira desert in Venezuela where the Wayúu matrilineages live? Please read the article i posted.

          I do agree with you about the alphabet hypothesis. I think all mono-causation theories are taking the wrong approach. These are complex historical processes that created systems of domination. Literacy did become a male monopoly, but so much else was going on, and patriarchy emerged in societies that never had contact with writing, such as New Guinea, Brazil, South Africa, and we could go on and on.


      4. Max, I read your paper.

        4000BC: (1) a good portion of the earth’s land surface fries and turns to desert. Most farmers die; some make it to the river valleys. But a few starve for generations, in the desert, ISOLATED at oases, and become psychotic (for lack of a better word). These small psychotic groups attack and take over the large, peaceful peoples who made it to the river valleys (Tigris, Euphrates, Nile, Yellow).

        4000 BC: (2) is also when the first “civilization/cities” arose at the Tigris/Euphrates. These cities were barbaric places full of disease, poverty, and a small violent, ruling elite:

        “…disease-ridden places , with high death rates…. Dense population, class systems, and a strong centralized government created internal stress. The slaves and the poor saw that the wealthy had all the things that they themselves. locked…. The poor did not have enough space in which to live with comfort and dignity…. Evidence of warfare is common…. (Havilland 1997: 305-06, Human Evolution and Prehistory).

        The first patriarchals developed on the desert, but we can’t “see” them until they move to the river valleys and enslave the peaceful matriarchals there.


  17. Perhaps someone has already mentioned this, but Leonard Schlain wrote an interesting book back in 1999 entitled, “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess.” Here’s the Amazon blurb about it: “This groundbreaking book proposes that the rise of alphabetic literacy reconfigured the human brain and brought about profound changes in history, religion, and gender relations. Making remarkable connections across brain function, myth, and anthropology, Dr. Shlain shows why pre-literate cultures were principally informed by holistic, right-brain modes that venerated the Goddess, images, and feminine values. Writing drove cultures toward linear left-brain thinking and this shift upset the balance between men and women, initiating the decline of the feminine and ushering in patriarchal rule. Examining the cultures of the Israelites, Greeks, Christians, and Muslims, Shlain reinterprets ancient myths and parables in light of his theory.”


    1. I don’t really see how “alphabetic literacy” could or would have given rise to that special blend of institutionalized warfare, institutionalized violence, social hierarchy, poverty (brand new at the time), discrimination against anyone not young, healthy and male, slavery, etc. — that reared its ugly head around 4000 BC first in Mesopotamia, and later elsewhere. “Linear left-brain thinking” is not psychotic thinking, and the set of new traits that arose ca 4000 BC ushered in a deeply troubling, anti-human, psychologically damaged way of life.

      The peaceful matriarchal Minoans were literate, as was the peaceful matriarchal Indus-Valley civilization — we can’t translate these languages *only* because they’re completely unrelated to the patriarchal languages we speak today. The Minoans and Indusites weren’t alphabetically literate — but I can’t see that an alphabetic language would be that much more powerful than a syllabic one in terms of rearranging the human brain.


      1. I agree with Jeri. The alphabet hypothesis seems to simplistic. I mean does that mean that we have to give up writing altogether to get rid of patriarchy? And this blog too? I think the book is working off Jungian ideas that equate the conscious with the masculine with patriarchy.


      2. When I originally read Shlain many years ago, I also felt he oversimplified. But while reading David Abram’s book _The Spell of the Sensuous_, I felt that HIS alphabetic thesis was much more nuanced. He differentiates between pictographic scripts and strictly abstract alphabetic scripts, demonstrating how the latter alienates us in many ways from the animate world. Of course, Abram is not talking about patriarchy, but about how (especially) Western cultures evolved away from nature and in the process our sensory perceptions of the world. But I believe this evolution is part of the process by which patriarchy could take hold (or that patriarchy was part of the process of evolving away from nature and our sensory perceptions). What do others here think of this thesis? Ideas about Abram?


      3. I do agree with you Nancy that there’s a connection between patriarchy and an evolution away from nature. Of course there’s the chicken or egg question: Did alphabetic scripts cause a new, barbaric, anti-nature culture to arise? Or is it more likely that the new, barbaric, anti-nature culture created an (anti-nature) alphabetic script?


  18. I think attempts to explain the origin of violence through other factors like written language beg the question of why some people decided they had the right to dominate others through violence and the threat of violence. For me climate distress is better “reason” than discovering how to write, but as Max points out it is not sufficient. And as Max points out blaming climate distress deflects the blame from those who made the decisions to dominate others (for whatever reason and in response to whatever stress) and those who (again for whatever reason) continued to dominate others because they had been taught it was their birthright.

    In this discussion we also need to recognize that the decision to dominate through violence was not a decision made by “humanity.” It may have been made by the 1% and over time imposed on the others. In the case of the 50% (men as a group), the right to dominate women may have been the or one of the carrots that induced them to become warriors in the service of the 1%.


    1. I agree with everything in your article, Carol. In a patriarchy men, war and violence dominate. But why? Where did this insanity come from? It’s so diametrically opposed to the behavior of the Mosuo and so many other world societies not yet beaten down by patriarchy.

      Other aspects of patriarchy: All physically weaker people are abused (elderly, children, sick, poor, disabled). Sharing behavior is weak or missing. Sexuality is often violent and impersonal; empathy is weak or lacking.

      Again – why? Where and when did this sick behavior originate?

      An important clue, I think, is this: the behaviors present in patriarchy are the behaviors present in long-starving groups.

      In starving groups, the strongest steal food from all others (including children, siblings, elderly, sick etc.) – violently if need be. The strongest are always the young males. Males and violence, then, come to dominate. Violence and maleness become the “ideal,” what everyone praises, idolizes (this has been documented in modern groups).

      In starving groups no one is interested in anything but eating. Sex becomes a chore, impersonal (again – this is documented).

      War and rape are just stealing on a larger scale. Eating disorders today are rampant: anorexia, bulemia, obesity. Many of us have hoarding disorders.

      Other traits shared by us and long-term starters: weakened social ties (our friendships are often transient), families disintegrate (we have deadbeat dads, child and parental abuse, spouse abuse).


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