It is commonly held that religions, especially monotheistic religions, have been and still are responsible for a great deal of violence and oppression. Crusades, jihads, inquisitions, and things of that nature are pointed to as examples. In this book, Karen Armstrong argues that it’s more complex than that. To demonstrate how, she presents a long and rather dry history of violence, which sometimes obscures the point I think she is trying to make. As best I can tell, her position is that it’s not religion per se that’s behind such things. Religion is just one aspect of culture, so pointing to religion alone as the culprit for any brutal or inhumane act is far too simplistic. Prior to the Eighteenth Century, there was no clear separation between what we now think of as religion and other aspects of a culture such as politics and customs. For much of human history, there wasn’t even a clear line between the natural and the supernatural in peoples’ minds. Kings ruled with divine authority, and angels and demons were as real as snakes and bunny rabbits. The United States was the first nation to intentionally and officially separate politics from religion, and even then, it did not excise religious influences from affairs of state. Humans being what they are, that would be impossible. But once we do, at least intellectually, define religion in such a way as to distinguish it from everything else, it’s still unfair to claim that religious motivations predominately lead to unsavory behavior. Although religious beliefs may motivate one person to hijack an airplane and fly it into a building, they may encourage another to acts of charity. Also, religion isn’t the only motivator for acts of inhumanity. Nationalism, ethnic identity, or political ideology can be equally responsible. The terror one person brings about for God, another may do for his people, his country, or for what he believes is the betterment of mankind.
Although I think the author is far too quick to dismiss religious motivations for certain historical acts of violence, her observation that religion can be a motivator for good as well as bad, and that beliefs other than religious ones can also motivate behavior (again, both good and bad) is unarguable. But all of this seems obvious. The real question, the interesting question is: what common traits do religion, nationalism, and ideology share that make them such strong motivators for extreme behavior? It’s a question this book does not pose.