Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong – Book Review

By:  Julia Tyack

Let me summarize my take on Armstong’s ‘Fields of Blood’.  It is hard to do, when you come away not a little confused about exactly what she is trying to say.
She is good on many things such as the divergent strains in Islam, and noting another more human side to demonized icons like Khomeini of Iran. This is part of her general argument that there are a complexity of motives behind violence. Good point. : Humans have inherited an animal nature – we carry the genes that link us to the animal kingdom, a link that stretches back millions of years. The clearest presentation of what this implies in terms of inherited dispositions is perhaps Lyall Watson’s, ‘Dark Nature’.
Going right back into history, predatory, zenophobic, band separation, retaliation, violence, and pecking-order domination are not only traits we have inherited from the animal kingdom, but humans have from earliest times tended to project these traits on to the gods or God, the ultimate sacred order or the Highest Good.  This has legitimatized and provided a sacred canopy for these traits, so that certain core theological features such as retaliatory violence have been imbedded into sacred traditions, grand narrative myths and worldviews – making them almost impossible to unmask for what they are.  These old predatory, violent and retaliatory themes have been re-told for millennia and still continue to be repeated in movies, stories, video games and such like.
Sometimes humanity has advanced to appreciate the ethical ideal of non-retaliatory, forgiving love, but all such attempts to bring in a new vision for humanity gets swamped because a theology of violence is retained.  This was without doubt the unique breakthrough of Jesus and why it is said that his doctrine was new.  He taught us to act with unconditional love, total forgiveness, and non-retaliation against those who do us wrong on the grounds that this is how God behaves – now and forever.  Humanity has been moving toward such a breakthrough in humane consciousness.  Such a consciousness was revealed in Mandela and is spreading throughout the earth on a daily basis. Today’s example is the dear mother of the Japanese hostage murdered by ISIS who could speak of the hope that her son’s death would not cause more violence and payback, but an understanding of forgiveness.

 By Wendell Krossa

I have read all of Karen Armstrong’s books and I have appreciated her coverage of the history of religion and attention to historical detail.  However, “Fields of Blood” seems a substandard piece of research from a supposedly noted historian of religion.  If you are going to survey an issue such as the history of human violence, then you need to pay attention to basic evidence which clearly reveals that violence has decreased remarkably over history.  The forensic archeologists and anthropologists have examined the evidence carefully (i.e. bones found in gravesites).  They note that the critical point to focus on is the rate of violent death per unit of population (percentage of deaths from violence, or homicides per 100,000 people).  Observing such evidence, it is overwhelmingly clear that rates of violence have declined over human history.

At a minimum, you need to engage the research of the specialists on historical violence; people such as James Payne (History of Force), L. Keeley (War before civilization: The myth of the peaceful savage), and Stephen Pinker (‘Better Angels of Our Nature’).  Unfortunately, ideological positions lead us to engage confirmation bias (ignoring evidence that is contrary to our beliefs) and the outcome is shoddy science/history.

If you pay proper attention to all the data, then you cannot argue, as Armstrong does, that violence became worse with the shift to agrarian society.  To the contrary, during that transition violent death actually decreased five-fold (Pinker).  This historical decline in violence has continued through all the varied phases of human civilization, into the modern era.  Armstrong resuscitates a version of “noble savage” mythology, the distortion that primitive hunter/gatherer peoples (pre-state) were less violent than later civilized people.  This now discredited mythology persists in many areas of academia.  See also Stephen LeBlanc’s ‘Constant Battles’.

Armstrong is helpful in noting that the motivations behind any given episode of violence are complex.  But she does not then clarify how bad religious ideas at the very core of our Western religious traditions have contributed to violence (and what exactly are those bad religious ideas).

She appears to hold some form of Declinism theory (for detail, see Arthur Herman’s ‘The Idea of Decline in Western History’).  This is a contemporary secular version of primitive apocalyptic mythology which states there was a golden past; corrupt humans have ruined the original paradise (the fall into civilization); and all is now in decline toward something worse.

Historical Jesus cut the tap root of religious violence when he introduced his stunning new theology of a non-violent God (non-retaliating, non-punishing, no more eye for eye).  Tragically, Paul rejected that theology and retreated to the primitive violent God of most past mythology/religion (“Vengeance is mine. I will repay”).  Christianity is founded on this core ideal of divine violence.

And yes, while many Christians have moderated the harsher features of their religion, under such influences as Enlightenment rationality, the core Christian themes still work to inspire and validate less than fully humane treatment of others.  Note the comment, for instance, of the Mennonite theologians that Western justice systems – oriented to punishment- are historically founded on the theology of a punishing God.  Note then how this core ideal has influenced the imprisonment of human beings at record-breaking rates in a still very Christian nation.

The best science and history looks at the complete picture of any given thing and considers the longest term trends.  Evidence from such basic science and history reveals that life and civilization have been rising toward something ever better than before.   Julian Simon’s ‘Ultimate Resource’ has set the standard here for good historical perspective and understanding.  Humanity has become, not destroyers in civilization, but ever more creators of good.