History is filled with defenders of the faith who kill those who dare to think differently about why we're here and what we should do about it. Religion and violence are so intertwined, in fact, that many smart people believe one causes the other.
Bestselling author and atheist icon Richard Dawkins certainly thinks so. Like many other skeptics, he sees faith as an irrational and deadly cause of modern terrorism: "Only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people."
Those are strong words, and hostile to the faithful among us. One of today's most respected religious scholars has had enough. In her bold new book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, British author Karen Armstrong makes a powerful case that critics like Dawkins ignore the lessons of the past and present in favor of a "dangerous oversimplification."
"If we are to meet the challenges of our time," Armstrong writes, "and create a global society where all peoples can live together in peace and mutual respect, we need to assess our situation accurately."
And what a mammoth "situation" it is. In search of the roots of religion and violence, Armstrong takes readers on a voyage from the beginnings of mankind to 9/11 and beyond. Gilgamesh, Buddha, Jesus and Confucius all make appearances in "Fields of Blood."
The Western view of the world turns out to be an obstacle to understanding how we got from there to here. We might assume that faith and violence have each been around forever, but the concept of religion as something private and individual is actually quite new and quite Christian too. In the not-too-distant past, religion was the state and the state was religion: "the two were indivisible."
Whether it's weak or strong, the state has a duty to protect its people from threats and perhaps expand. That's where crusading warriors come in. But they're not always crusading to conquer. As Armstrong notes, warriors often fight to stop the oppression of their own people – violence to stop violence. And the state always has its own interests separate from anything that has to do with sacred writ; faith may have nothing to do with decisions that seem motivated by religion.
And, of course, there's a strong thread of nonviolence in the annals of religion. What are the Golden Rule and the admonition to "turn the other cheek" other than appeals for peace? Then there's the nonviolence of Buddhism. Armstrong notes that skeptics like to pretend Buddhism isn't a religion when it threatens their arguments about the violent nature of faith.
Armstrong, a former nun, dismisses the idea that non-religion is an easy fix to the problem of violence. "There was a strain of ruthlessness and cruelty in early modern thought," she writes, as "so-called humanists" conveniently decided that certain people didn't count as full citizens of society. (Think slavery.)
Now, modern society is much less religious than in the past, but humans are still violent, and secular leaders often create violent backlashes when they blame and oppress the faithful.
Armstrong, best known for her bestseller "A History of God," is far from a master storyteller. The tone is scholarly and serious, and readers should keep a dictionary handy. But Armstrong doesn't need to fill her narrative with frills. The argument is what matters, and hers is strong enough to change minds.
"Fields of Blood" doesn't offer maps for today's peacemakers. But she's done more than her duty if she manages to focus attention on where the solutions lie – within the best of all of us, not just those free of faith. The "scapegoat," an artifact of ancient Jewish ritual, deserves to rest in peace.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.