A positive review of Karen Armstrong’s book: frantic osculation by Ferdinand Mount

A negative review in the Telegraph of Karen Armstrong’s new book—Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence—has been balanced by a very positive review in the Spectator, “Religion does not poison everything—everything poisons religion.” The reviewer is Ferdinand Mount—Baronet Mount to you—who was editor of the Times Literary Supplement for 11 years.

As you know if you saw the first post about the Telegraph review (note: I haven’t yet read her book; this is my take on Mount’s review), Armstrong’s thesis is that religion is not responsible for violence: it’s that other stuff like politics and culture that corrupts religion, all forms of which begin as benevolent. Mount thoroughly agrees, and says that Armstrong has done a terrific job supporting her thesis. I’ll give a few quotes, though I’m quite wary of such a thesis:

It slips so easily off the tongue. In fact, it’s a modern mantra. ‘Religion causes all the wars.’ Karen Armstrong claims to have heard it tossed off by American psychiatrists, London taxi-drivers and pretty much everyone else. Yet it’s an odd thing to say. For a start, which wars are we talking about? Among the many causes advanced for the Great War, ranging from the train timetables on the continent to the Kaiser’s withered left arm, I have never heard religion mentioned. Same with the second world war. The worst genocides of the last century — Hitler’s murder of the Jews and Atatürk’s massacre of the Armenians (not to mention his expulsion and massacre of the Greeks in Asia Minor too) — were perpetrated by secular nationalists who hated the religion they were born into. The long British wars of the 18th and 19th centuries — the Napoleonic wars and the Seven Years’ War — were cheerfully fought by what Wellington called ‘the scum of the earth’ for land and empire, not for the faiths to which they only nominally belonged.

We have to go back to the 17th century and the Wars of Religion to find a plausible candidate.

But who ever said religion causes all the wars? Certainly no scholar that I know of, and that includes Dawkins and Pinker. I guess Armstrong is taking taxi drivers as experts, but I really do doubt that she’s heard that so often.

As for the genocides of the last century, Hitler’s was by far the worst, and, really, how can one say that that didn’t involve religion? Why were the Jews singled out? And, as we should know by now, the Nazis were not by any means “secular nationalists who hated the religion they were born into”. That’s just a distortion of the truth. Where on earth did Mount get such an idea?

What about the partition in India in 1947? There there was no colonialism involved in the killings at all: people of identical ethnicity, background, and geographic origin  killed each other based on whether they were Hindu or Muslim. On the trains heading for the Punjab, for instance, Hindu mobs would make male passengers expose their genitals, and kill them if they were circumcised (as Muslims are). Further, religion certainly exacerbated violence in Northern Ireland, and now all over the Middle East. But Mount manages to discount that, too. It wasn’t religion, after all, that inflamed the Muslims, but colonialism and jingoism that emanated from political sources, and colonialism by Israel and the West.  Here’s Mount on Armstrong’s thesis:

Armstrong is at her best in drawing out the historical elements which crystallise into great religions. Typically, she says, they emerge in conditions of social stress and oppressive state violence. The founder preaches that the callous and ceaseless slaughter can be checked only if we learn to see the Other as our fellow human being. Invariably, his golden rule is: all men are equal in the sight of God, do as you would be done by, love your enemies, turn the other cheek.

This message is common to Confucius, Zoroaster, Jesus, Guru Nanak the founder of the Sikhs, Gandhi and Nurse Cavell. Muhammad too is reported to have told his followers that ‘not one of you can be a believer unless he desires for his neighbours what he desires for himself’. There are many verses in the Koran which instruct Muslims not to retaliate but to forgive and forbear, and to respond to aggression with mercy, patience and courtesy.

But wait! What about the rest of the Qur’an—the majority of it that urges killing infidels and apostates? Mount has an answer for that one, too:

But of course there are other verses which don’t, famously the Sword Verse, which eggs on the faithful to slaughter idolaters. The sad truth is that religions are corrupted by success. The more popular they become, the closer they are drawn into the ambit of state power, the more their practice and doctrine have to be remodelled to suit their new overlords. Armstrong reflects gloomily:

“Every major faith tradition has tracked the political entity in which it arose; none has become a ‘world religion’ without the patronage of a militarily powerful empire and every tradition would have to develop an imperial ideology.”

So it’s not religion that does the bad stuff, it’s state power that does the bad stuff, and just uses religion in its cause. All religions start out peaceful (is that true of Islam?) and then are used as an excuse to kill the Other:

Christopher Hitchens had it the wrong way round in his subtitle to God is Not Great. It should have been, not ‘How Religion Poisons Everything’ but ‘How Everything Poisons Religion’. This is the misunderstanding which drives fanatical secularists to demand that faith be driven out of the public square and permanently banned from re-entry, like a drunk from the pub he always picks a fight in.

In the end, Armstrong (and Mount) morph into Robert Pape, whose analysis of suicide bombers and terrorism being motivated by things other than religion has been under attack, but is nevertheless still cited by many, including Mount:

All terrorism is now routinely attributed to religious intoxication. Richard Dawkins tells us that ‘only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people’. But Armstrong points out that suicide bombing was more or less invented by the Tamil Tigers, ‘a nationalist separatist group with no time for religion’. A Chicago University study of suicide attacks [by Robert Pape and his colleagues] worldwide over 25 years found ‘little connection between suicide and terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any religion for that matter’. Out of 38 suicide bombings in the Lebanon during the 1980s, 27 were perpetrated by secularists and socialists, three by Christians and only eight by Muslims.

For one critique of Pape, see Scott Atran, “The moral logic and growth of suicide terrorism” in the 2006 Washington Quarterly 29, pp. 127–147. Atran’s analysis leads to this conclusion (p. 128):

Whereas they once primarily consisted of organized campaigns by militarily weak forces aiming to end the perceived occupation of their homeland, as argued by University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape in Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, suicide attacks today serve as banner actions for a thoroughly modern, global diaspora inspired by religion and claiming the role of vanguard for a massive, media-driven transnational political awakening. Living mostly in the diaspora and undeterred by the threat of retaliation against original home populations, jihadis, who are frequently middle-class, secularly well educated, but often “born-again” radical Islamists, including converts from Christianity, embrace apocalyptic visions for humanity’s violent salvation. In Muslim countries and across western Europe, bright and idealistic Muslim youth, even more than the marginalized and dispossessed, internalize the jihadi story, illustrated on satellite televi-sion and the Internet with the ubiquitous images of social injustice and poitical repression with which much of the Muslim world’s bulging immigrant and youth populations intimately identifies. From the suburbs of Paris to the jungles of Indonesia, I have interviewed culturally uprooted and politically restless youth who echo a stunningly simplified and decontextualized message of martyrdom for the sake of global jihad as life’s noblest cause. They are increasingly as willing and even eager to die as they are to kill.

Of course Mount doesn’t mention this. Perhaps he doesn’t know of it. If you’re going to quote Pape as gospel, though, as some readers have, you owe it to yourself to read Atran’s rebuttal. Pape’s data is not only old, but selective and biased. And if Atran is right, and we can believe what the suicide bombers tell us, then Mount has no right to conclude, as he does here:

Armstrong argues persuasively that it is under the cumulative pressure of invasion by outsiders and internal oppression that secular grievance morphs into jihad. To use an apt but unlovely term, invented I think by Dr Henry Kissinger, religion is ‘weaponised’ — how Dr Strangelove would adore the word. After years of Israeli blockade and creeping land grabs, Yasser Arafat’s entirely secular Palestine Liberation Organisation has segued into the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. Israel herself, founded as a secular haven in the teeth of the rabbis, has become a holy land after half a century of Arab encirclement. Now young men all over the Middle East, many of them originally secular and ignorant of Islam, as were the majority of the 9/11 bombers, are being hyped up by selective quotation of holy writ to commit crimes as unspeakable as, well, Samson’s.

Does Mount not realize that from the very instant that Israel was founded as a nation, the Arabs were out to destroy it? Does he think that that kind of violence is “new,” and is based on recent Israeli blockades and creeping land grabs? Does he not know that Israel was attacked on all sides by Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, and Iraq, the day after Israel was proclaimed a state in 1948? No, Arab hatred of the Jews, as enshrined in the Hamas charter and publicized daily in the state media, is pervasive and long-standing.

I suppose I’ll have to read Armstrong’s book, but of course she’s never wavered from her thesis religion is a force for good, and its perfidies are not only exaggerated by atheists, but are nonexistent. Things like sharia law, apparently, or the oppression of gays and women by both Catholics and Muslims (and the misogyny of orthodox Judaism), are not part of religion, but merely what happens to peaceful religion when it gets coopted by state power. And indeed, religion has surely been used as a weapon by the state to destroy its enemies, but surely that is not the whole story.

I suspect that Armstrong suffers from confirmation bias: I’ve read her books The Case for God, which I found almost incoherent, as well as Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, which I found nearly as much a whitewash of Islam as Reza Aslan’s No god but God. Are there any data that would get Armstrong (and Mount) to admit that religion qua religion can make people do bad things? After all, I’ll readily admit that religion qua religion has inspired people to do good things, though I think on balance running your life on superstition is harmful and certainly irrational.




h/t: Barry


  1. John Hamill
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Karen was on Channel 4 news in the UK this evening. Awful interview on how ISIS actions have got nothing to do with religion. Sheesh.

    • Posted September 24, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      That was such a waste- and the best Tatchell could say was that he didn’t think religion was at fault for the ills of the world. The debate equivalent of drinking a gin and tonic with flat tonic.

  2. GBJames
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink


    (i.e: face palm)

    • Posted September 24, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      My palm actually struck my forehead before I could face palm at this.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 24, 2014 at 6:01 pm | Permalink


        • Filippo
          Posted September 25, 2014 at 6:18 pm | Permalink


    • Diane G.
      Posted September 24, 2014 at 9:33 pm | Permalink


  3. bpuharic
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    If religion were ‘true’ then ‘everything’ couldn’t poison religion…it would be resistant to the temptations of the world. Instead even its apologists admit its so thin that virtually everything distorts it. Religion is pure emptiness.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 24, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      Religion can be absorbent. On a positive note it has the capacity to slowly suck up integrity in the face looking seriously outdated, e.g., equal rights. I recommend it be fed science until it loses all it meaning and dies.

  4. Genghis
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I guess it’s a irrelevant that the majority of Tamils are Hindus and the Sinhalese are Buddhists.

  5. eric
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    But of course there are other verses which don’t, famously the Sword Verse, which eggs on the faithful to slaughter idolaters. The sad truth is that religions are corrupted by success.

    Interestingly, I googled this and found out that the part of the Quran he’s talking about IS considered by scholars to be one of the last bits added, having been added after much of ‘arabia’ had been conquered by early muslims. So there may be some truth to this claim. However, during my minimal googling I didn’t come across any authority claiming the sword verse was a forgery. Everyone seems to accept that it’s authentic (meaning that the author(s) of the parts surrounding it were also the author(s) of it).

    To use an apt but unlovely term, invented I think by Dr Henry Kissinger, religion is ‘weaponised’

    I would tentatively agree to that characterization, if he would admit that it was the original followers of Mohammed that weaponized it on their own, for their own purposes, and if he would agree that this weaponization occurred early and could not possibly have been caused by the western colonialism that occurred approximately 900 years after the founding of Islam.

    • frednotfaith2
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 4:20 am | Permalink

      And the Muslims themselves did quite a bit of colonizing (or conquering) in the Iberian peninsula and southeastern Europe, not to mention a good chunk of southern Asia.

    • Folie Deuce
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      According to Islamic tradition, the Koran was revealed over a period of 23 years. Later verses abrogate inconsistent earlier verses so not only is the sword verse not a forgery but it abrogates more peaceful earlier verses.

      Critics of Islam point out that the peaceful verses came early when Mohamed was weak and the violent verses came later when he was strong. Armstrong may be correct if she means to say Mohamed was corrupted by his success but she would never say that directly. Religion being corrupted by success is an indictment of religion and not an exoneration as she makes it out to be.

  6. Posted September 24, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    If religion is so vulnerable to poisoning, that sounds like reason enough to replace it with something less vulnerable. Like, rational beliefs.

    • TJR
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 1:56 am | Permalink

      Exactly. Its a feature, not a bug.

      • Posted September 25, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

        What checks and balances has religion? What capacity for self-correction? Only (dare I say it) people’s inherent capacity for goodness – or at least our capacity to value the internal consistency of “We have so much in common, an injustice to them is just like an injustice to me, so all injustice should be avoided.”

        And that is independent of what people may believe about invisible, unproved forces or entities.

  7. eric
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    All religions start out peaceful (is that true of Islam?)

    I would accept that it may be so, but if it is so, he and Armstrong are putting the cart before the horse. We see most (they would say all) successful religions as starting out nonviolent not because religion is by nature nonviolent, but because any small cult that begins its ‘life’ advocating violence is likely to be quickly crushed. Thus, looking back in history, we might see a pattern of the most successful cults being the ones that did not advocate violence (at least until they had the material power to prevent themselves from being crushed for doing so). But if we see that pattern, it’s because the Jim Jones and Charles Manson types of cults get quashed by their surrounding states far more quickly and with much higher probability than the hippie dippie cults.

    To try and make an analogy he’s seeing the result of natural selection and erroneously concluding “no animals could be stegosaurs.” Of course they could be. It’s just that none of the steggies survived.

    • gravityfly
      Posted September 24, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      I doubt Islam started out peacefully.

      Here’s a list of targeted killings and assassinations ordered by Muhammad himself. And you can’t get closer to the start of a religion than that:


      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted September 25, 2014 at 4:27 am | Permalink

        Impressive! – if the guy really existed.

      • Folie Deuce
        Posted September 25, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

        It depends on your time frame. In the early years, when Mohamed was weak, perhaps? But during the later years of his “prophethood” (which lasted 23 years), certainly not. So, at best it was peaceful for a decade or so but was hideously violent in less than 23 years.

    • Nikos Apostolakis
      Posted September 24, 2014 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      All religions start out peaceful (is that true of Islam?)

      I would accept that it may be so,

      I suspect that Prof. Ceiling Cat’s question was rhetorical.

      It seems that the origins of Islam are not as clear historically as it used to be believed, but most certainly Islam did not start out peacefully! It was from its beginning the religion of a conquering army.

  8. Posted September 24, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Formerly there were those who said: You believe things that are incomprehensible, inconsistent, impossible because we have commanded you to believe them; go then and do what is unjust because we command it. Such people show admirable reasoning. Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust. If the God-given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible, then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world.

  9. Posted September 24, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    If religion is so wonderful, why does it need so many apologists? It should be able to stand on its own as the shining beacon it insists it is. Those who do bad stuff in the name of religion would be quickly sucked back into its general goodness if Armstrong et al were right.

    The truth is, it causes so much trouble because it’s basically bad, Some have managed to make something good out of it, but it’s the basic badness that always rises.

    As for the Great War, religion did have a role in its origins. This isn’t the place to go into it, but I have studied this extensively and imo there’s no doubt it contributed to that debacle,

  10. Diana MacPherson
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Oh good grief – indeed, no one is saying that religion causes all the wars. Who would speak in such absolute terms? Still, there are so many religious conflicts. My copy of The Great Big Book of Horrible Things lists:

    Albigensian Crusade
    French Wars of Religion
    Thirty Years War
    Cromwell’s Invasion of Ireland
    Taiping Rebellion
    Panthay Rebellion
    Hui Rebellion
    Mahdi Revolt
    Partition of India
    War in the Sudan

    It also explains that there were 13 multicides for wars where the single most important thing was a belief in gods.

    And it isn’t all about war. Have we forgotten that in peaceful societies, children die because of their religion’s fear of blood transfusions and vaccines? Have we forgotten that in our technologically advanced society, a big chunk of members reject science and therefore opt out of participating in that society fully?

  11. eric
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    but of course she’s never wavered from her thesis religion is a force for good, and its perfidies are not only exaggerated by atheists, but are nonexistent. Things like sharia law, apparently, or the oppression of gays and women by both Catholics and Muslims (and the misogyny of orthodox Judaism), are not part of religion, but merely what happens to peaceful religion when it gets coopted by state power.

    The constant blaming of western colonialism and imperialism kinda makes me wonder how folk like her explain the historical records we have of Mayan and Aztec religious human sacrificial practices (from before European conquest of the new world). Sure, she could still blame politics as corrupting religion. But its really hard to see how it could be anything other than indigenous politics. Its pretty hard to blame western colonialism for what happened in Aztec controlled regions in 1400 AD, or to a much lesser extent what happened in Mayan controlled regions in 100 AD.

  12. J Smith
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I don’t entirely buy the thesis that “religion poisons everything.” It’s too simplistic a generalization for such a complex phenomena. I do agree that religion has done it’s fair share of poisoning, and is essentially promotes irrationality and superstition, both of which are generally pretty bad things. Religious motivated conflicts are always mixed with cultural factors, so the causes for many conflicts is often – its both, culture and religion, plus other things like specific historical factors.

  13. Posted September 24, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Bosnia. Though the conflict was about land & resources (and who wields power), the subsequent mass murders & reprisals were all about sectarian strife.

  14. Posted September 24, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    OMG I forgot India during the partition. I’ve added it above, but people of identical ethnic background and geographic origin killed each other by the hundreds of thousands based solely on whether they were Muslim or Hindu.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 24, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland and the Thirty Years War is similar – culturally identical but kill over religion. Also the French Wars of Religion – Catholics vs. Huguenots.

      God has some ‘splainin’ to do!

    • Posted September 24, 2014 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

      India is more complicated than you think. You can’t blame the violence during partition entirely on religious animosity. A very huge part was paid by 100 years of British policy, which actively encouraged animosity between the groups in order to maintain control. The partition just got out of control. Like the Durand line between Pakistan and Afghanistan the border between India and Pakistan was drawn by a bureaucrat who had no clue what the situations on the ground were. Also, the British abdicated responsibility like anything during partition. The riots of the recent years can’t be blamed on anything other than religious and nationalistic nonsense.

      With regards to the review of the book itself, The author brings up Guru Nanak of Sikhism as an example. The entire sikh identity was forged in a war of religion. (in the 1700s) So. not the best example of religious peace.

  15. J Smith
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Armstrong is a strange case. She believes in religion but not in any religion anyone actually believes in. Reminds me of Huston Smith.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted September 24, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      Good call.
      However, the difference is that as a young man, Huston Smith hung out with the psychedelic crowd: Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley et al, and then cultivated an image as a safe and sweet nice religious liberal and quasi-Christian. Armstrong spent her early years as a Catholic nun and got very disillusioned after 7 years.
      But they seem to have in the end arrived in rather similar locations.

    • Steve
      Posted September 24, 2014 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

      I suspect this is more a case of belief in belief. Furthermore, if such belief is all fuzzy, warm and comforting then truth becomes less relevant for believers.

  16. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    But Armstrong points out that suicide bombing was more or less invented by the Tamil Tigers, ‘a nationalist separatist group with no time for religion’.

    But the Tamil Tigers started their suicide bombings first 1987. [Wikipedia]

    And here I thought “The Divine Wind” was invented 1944, aided and abetted in no small measure by Shinto. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamikaze#Cultural_background ]

    • Henry Fitzgerald
      Posted September 24, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      While the invention of suicide bombing can’t predate the invention of bombs, the basic idea must have been around for much longer. The legend of Samson destroying the temple is, in all moral essentials, a suicide bombing, held up as something for us to approve of.

      • Folie Deuce
        Posted September 25, 2014 at 12:26 am | Permalink

        As Max Boot has explained “suicide bombing in the modern context was first employed by Hezbollah and its immediate precursors in Lebanon. The very first suicide attack in Lebanon occurred in 1981; the target was the embassy of Iraq.”

        The Tamil Tigers didn’t start copying Hezbollah (with suicide attacks) until several years later (1987, I believe). The Tamil Tigers (even if they can be called secular, which is debatable), are a huge outlier in the discussion of suicide terrorism. While Islamic suicide bombers have inspired copycats in many different countries, the Tamil Tiger did not inspire anyone outside their own ranks. They are now defunct and there are no secular groups employing suicide terror on any material scale. Suicide terrorism today is almost an exclusively Islamic enterprise.

    • Folie Deuce
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 12:29 am | Permalink

      The Kamikazes carried out their acts during war against soldiers. Not the same thing as modern-day suicide bombers.

      • John
        Posted September 25, 2014 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

        Yes the Kamikaze attacks were against an enemy force, but the tool that enabled the Japanese to convince young men to undertake the attacks was through their religious beliefs. In addition, the Japanese seem to have “invented” the beheading movie clip well before ISIS hit youtube – just check video on Nanking.
        The idea that one is doing good, through brutalizing others, is facilitated by religious beliefs.
        Karen Armstrong is no different to ISIS, both claim the same thing by twisting religious-inspired control of others as a good thing.

  17. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of terrorism, here is an interesting NYT article on how the roots of ISIS is the Saudi state:

    “His ruthless creed, though, has clear roots in the 18th century Arabian Peninsula. It was there that the Saud clan formed an alliance with the puritanical scholar Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab. And as they conquered the warring tribes of the desert, his austere interpretation of Islam became the foundation of the Saudi state.

    Much to Saudi Arabia’s embarrassment, the same thought has now been revived by the caliph, better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the foundation the Islamic State. “It is a kind of untamed Wahhabism,” said Bernard Haykel, a scholar at Princeton University. “Wahhabism is the closest religious cognate.”

    “Some experts note that Saudi clerics lagged long after other Muslim scholars in formally denouncing the Islamic State, and at one point even the king publicly urged them to speak out more clearly. “There is a certain mutedness in the Saudi religious establishment, which indicates it is not a slam dunk to condemn ISIS,” Professor Haykel said.

    Finally, on Aug. 19, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Ash-Shaikh, the Saudi grand mufti, declared that “the ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way, but are the first enemy of Islam, and Muslims are their first victims, as seen in the crimes of the so-called Islamic State and Al Qaeda.””

    Now it makes sense that US and Saudi Arabia are allies against the worse wahhabism. But before that (and after)?

    Anyway, Armstrong can stew on that. It would be interesting to see how she disown political experts.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 24, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Even more interesting, how she disowns the religious experts commenting in that article.

    • Folie Deuce
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 12:14 am | Permalink

      Attributing the ideology to its modern roots (the 18th Century Arabian Peninsula), while not inaccurate, provides an incomplete picture. Both ISIS and Saudi Arabia are followers of the Hanbali school of Islam (much older than the 18th century). The theology of ISIS is no different than the theology of Wahabi clerics in Saudi.

  18. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Much of what Jerry C writes here would be indirectly vindicated by the Christian historian Philip Jenkins whose World War I book “The Great and Holy War” talks about how a lot of religious rhetoric helped to inflame that war.

    While I mostly agree with what is written about Nazis, there is also some belief in race-purity operating independent of religion (largely through the ideas of Houston Chamberlain).
    When Hitler first became Chancellor of Germany the Nazis investigated to discover which Christian pastors had Jewish ancestry and tried to get as many as possible defrocked and removed from ministry.

    Here lies a key difference between Hitler and Martin Luther. Both were viciously anti-Semitic, but for Luther a Jewish convert to Christianity was OK, but for the Nazis a Christian pastor with Jewish ancestry was a danger to be eliminated!!!

    Furthermore, some Nazis (notably the followers of Himmler) were engaged in various pagan cult revivals. Heinrich Himmler wanted to replace Christianity with a cult of Wotan/Odin something which Adolf Hitler was very much against!!
    So religion was operative in the Nazi aggressions but in a sort of complicated way.

    • Posted September 24, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      Whilst on C4 news today she and her opponent both claimed religion had no role in the two world wars…!

    • Posted September 24, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      I grew up with the notion that Luther was some kind of kind soul, but when I actually read some of his writings it became clear that he was a rabiate fundamentalist and a fervent, despicable, and vicious anti-Semite (The king of the rats). Scum, in other words.
      However, for me he has been a great help, a help to rid me of any illusion about the benevolence of Christianity.

      • Filippo
        Posted September 25, 2014 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

        What also raked me over the coals about Luther was his sentiments about women and childbirth, words-to-the-effect, “Let them die of it; that is what they are for”!

    Posted September 24, 2014 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Miss Armstrong forgot or probably neglected the fact that the ‘so-called’ inventors of suicide bombings (which she is wrong about as Kamakazi dive bombers of japan were the first in suicidal combat) the LTTE fighters were all, without any exception, Hindus who killed thousands of Buddhists and Muslims in many LTTE controlled cities in the east of Sri Lanka. There were no political or cultural differences between the Muslims of Batticulao and Trinkamalee and their Hindu co-habitants. The subsequent and final massacre of Hindus in North of Sri Lanka after the fall of LTTE was also a revenge riligious massacre for which the Human Rights held the Govt. accountable and tried to drag it to Hague. The whole concept of a separate state within Sri Lanka was based on culture which is deeply rooted in religion. How many Muslims were killed in India in the name of Religion since 1947? How many Christians and Shia people were killed by Sunni majority in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq? Finally at present, 90% of people killed around the world are just in the name of religion. I surely agree with Prof. Dawkins that indeed religion is such a great and unrelenting motivation to kill others who are outside it. It has shown the humanity its ugliest side. No other species of animals has displayed such brutal and atrocious behaviour towards each other.

  20. Another Tom
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    So the Muslims in the Ottoman Empire killing or driving off Christian Armenians “were perpetrated by secular nationalists who hated the religion they were born into.” That statement alone leaves me thinking that Mount doesn’t know his posterior from a hole in the ground.

    • eric
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Probably not the best counter-example, given that Attaturk was known for his secularism. Mount is almost certainly wrong about hatred of his own muslim background being motivation for Attaturk, but you are probably equally wrong in implying that Attaturk was something of a muslim holy roller.

  21. Posted September 24, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    If religion has nothing to do with ISIS’ actions, why are they attacking other sectarian groups? Why are they imposing strict Sharia law in those areas they have captured? How can those kinds of actions possible be accounted for by notions of colonialism and resentment?

    ISIS is not liberating cities from colonial oppression and establishing egalitarian rule, but instead it is imposing a strictly sectarian theocracy. Doesn’t that mean they are motivated by religion?

    • Folie Deuce
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 12:03 am | Permalink

      “ISIS is not liberating cities from colonial oppression and establishing egalitarian rule, but instead it is imposing a strictly sectarian theocracy.”

      Yes, the only colonialism going on here is (predominantly) foreign fighters imposing Hanbali Islam on a population that did not previously adhere to Hanbali doctrine. The “blame the imperialists” crowd has the equation completely backwards. ISIS are the imperialists.

    Posted September 24, 2014 at 2:31 pm | Permalink


    Posted September 24, 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    The issue, in my opinion, is that religious apologists insist that ‘RELIGION’ is distinct from all human causes and therefore they define religion as a force for good while blaming culture, Western imperialism, etc for inflicting their putrefied characteristics on religion’s purity.

    Perhaps if one actually believes that there exists a divine rarified perfection outside of human creation, then the thesis that human imperfection poisons religion could possibly make sense. However, then one is left with the question of how any one individual (Saint, Avatar, Holy-one) could possibly know what that ‘rarified perfection’ actually implies or commands.

    Taking the premise that ‘religion’ is not some stand alone external state of existence, then we should accept that it is no different than any other aspect of human culture. It is manufactured by human intelligence; honed through trial and error; it encompasses our frailties and our strengths, and reflects every human value ever conceived – good or bad. It is no more outside of politics, cultural ethos, history, or the moral zeitgeist than any other human endeavor.

    ‘Religion’ is not something separate and incorruptible, but only ‘labeled’ as corrupted due to human ignorance and interference. It cannot be viewed as a stand-alone existence, but must be seen for what it is – a very resourceful product of the human mind. Even if it were true there was some one ultimate religious truth, the continual search for it will only incite more humans to abuse power, encourage corruption, dictate bigotry, subdue through indoctrination,support misogyny, inspire violence and commit more murders in its unsuccessful attempt to discover the ‘true religion’.

    • Folie Deuce
      Posted September 24, 2014 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

      “It [religion] is no more outside of politics, cultural ethos, history, or the moral zeitgeist than any other human endeavor.”

      Exactly. The irony here is that Armstrong believes that religion is a manmade construct yet she still argues the opposite of what such an understanding should imply.

  24. Posted September 24, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Armstrong’s book looks like it is the polar opposite of Hector Avalos (an actual Biblical scholar, for what it’s worth) and his book Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence.

    • Nikos Apostolakis
      Posted September 24, 2014 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      I was going to mention that book too. Great book!

      One point of the book that made an impression to me was that wars based on religions are even more morally reprehensinble than wars based on other reasons. According to Avalos wars are fought over some resources that they are in real or perceived scarcity. Religious wars are fought over the scarcity of non existing things. Makes the whole thing even more tragic.

      • Posted September 24, 2014 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

        I also found wars of ideology (I suppose a cousin of religious wars) to be weird and tragic. The Cold War was such a weird thing to live through. It astounds me that we pointed earth annihilating weapons at each other for ideology. The difference is, we were still somewhat rational. We really did fear destroying ourselves (where religious wars destroy themselves more easily for the cause) and we maintained diplomatic relations (there is no talk with a holy enemy). I do still laugh at the absurdity of pointing nuclear weapons at the cities of your enemy and placing embassies and high commissions in that enemy’s land and even visiting those enemy lands.

        • Jimbo
          Posted September 24, 2014 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

          Please explain then how democracy is not an ideology (or a political philosophy) worth defending or fighting for. I’m no hyperpatriotic nationalist nor excusing the Red scare or the US’s belligerent tendency to export democracy by violent means but it is a better political system than Communism, no?

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted September 24, 2014 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

            Oops my reply ended up at 28 below for some reason.

  25. Posted September 24, 2014 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Pity that the Hitch is dead, would have loved to see the debate where he would -I have no doubt about that- really have shredded Armstrong.

  26. Derek Freyberg
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    “Finally, on Aug. 19, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Ash-Shaikh, the Saudi grand mufti, declared that “the ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way, but are the first enemy of Islam, and Muslims are their first victims, as seen in the crimes of the so-called Islamic State and Al Qaeda.””
    One wonders if the grand mufti is having second thoughts about the benevolent nature of the tiger on whose back he is riding.

  27. sirgb
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on sirgb's Blog and commented:
    Reluctantly, but must admit, despite I really hate Mr. Dawkins, to be precise, his bad language, impolite rude way of bringing science on table, that he is rather right. The only light that can protect us from tragical delusions is the science – some like it or not! Dear God, save us from religion.

    • Posted September 24, 2014 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      Please do be precise and tell us what bad language Richard uses (do you see him as gnu atheism’s Malcolm Tucker?!), and what is impolite and rude in the way he brings science to the table?


      • sirgb
        Posted September 26, 2014 at 12:01 am | Permalink

        “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”

        Richard is a brilliant scientist and person, yet when he comes to deal with God or just anything related, many feel that moment is similar to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s case.
        Being rude – different feelings in different minds. The statement above will cause in academic audience minds to feel a kind of pleasure. Some will smile, some will laugh, but no one will think or feel Richard is being rude.
        Believer’s mind – it’s proven experimentally, spiritual brain, if I may call it so, is different from atheist’s brain not just in thoughts, but physically as well (frontal lobe, Thalamus) But, If you want to imagine what believer feels when you tell him that God does not exists or he is stupid because he believes in God, well I’d compare it with the moment we feel when involved in sudden deadly situation (possible car accident…) – that’s like a lightning for amygdala that is reacting like firestorm by commanding to the autonomic nervous system’s arousal part to stand up and prepare the body to preserve life, to fight, but I would add to this state of mind a maximum dose of anger too.
        One of the tasks of science is to reduce suffering in the world by spreading knowledge among people. We want them to understand how world is functioning, but without driving them crazy. In many cases Richard tends to cross the threshold believers can endure and tolerate.

        • Posted September 26, 2014 at 12:27 am | Permalink

          So, firstly, not example of bad language then?

          Secondly, you jump from Richard’s comment about “belief” in evolution to the reactions of believers to being told that God does not exist, which is a different statement altogether.

          Richard is saying nothing different than Daniel Dennett does: “To put it bluntly but fairly, anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant — inexcusably ignorant, in a world where three out of four people have learned to read and write.”

          2½: “it’s proven experimentally, spiritual brain, if I may call it so, is different from atheist’s brain not just in thoughts, but physically as well (frontal lobe, Thalamus)” Citation, please.

          Thirdly, “Richard tends to cross the threshold believers can endure and tolerate.” Well, I think that’s their problem, not his. (Or ours.)


          • sirgb
            Posted September 26, 2014 at 1:22 am | Permalink

            I’d gladly to exchange thoughts, but this is about Karen A.’s book, and I’d not to immerse more into talks about Richard. I’ll answer soon your concerns.

          • rickflick
            Posted September 26, 2014 at 4:36 am | Permalink

            The spiritual brain, as you describe it, is seriously delusional and operates outside the constraints of reality. The soft approach you advocate has been the norm for most of modern history. It really doesn’t cure the mental illness. Analogous to psychotherapy, a quick kick in the mental butt may be the only way change is possible. (pardon my mixed metaphor).

            • sirgb
              Posted September 27, 2014 at 5:52 am | Permalink

              The religion is leaving nothing to chance. The company functions like fireflies do – through rhythm and sync of the daily and weekly rituals the strong feeling of oneness is kept on satisfactory level making sure no stray lamb to occur. This is the way spiritual brains are interconnected. I’m afraid, the effect of rituals these people are part of during their entire life leads to irreversible changes in brain biochemistry. (Dr. Andrew Newberg’s team experiments) To achieve any result you would need to ambush spiritual societies all in one moment across the globe with over flooding them with facts and arguments of modern neuroscience. 🙂 Any other method will just deepen hostility.

    • GBJames
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 5:04 am | Permalink

      His bad language?

      Oh, tut-tut.

  28. Diana MacPherson
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    This is what I don’t understand. Was someone invading us and forcing us to submit to another ideology that wasn’t to our liking? I’m not arguing which ideology is better; I am arguing that fighting over these ideas and trying to prevent their spread was absurd. Cuba is still under US embargo for being an enemy as communists in 1962. Things like this are very peculiar.

    Since you asked, I personally believe that communism, as a socio-economic system, has failed on implementation because in every large scale implementation, it came with a huge side order of totalitarianism. It has worked in smaller implementations as in the kibbutz model.

    However, as I said, this is all beside the point. Fighting for one’s freedom is worthwhile, but I didn’t see our freedom threatened during the Cold War, just a bunch of nuclear tipped missiles aimed at major cities and nightmare scenarios played out during REM sleep that had no business being in the minds of children (like me).

    • eric
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      Was someone invading us and forcing us to submit to another ideology that wasn’t to our liking?

      Yes, sort of. Early cold war events included the partitioning of Germany, where the Allied countries could see exactly what happened to East Germany, and the creation by the USSR of its satellite states (though the Warsaw Pact was still ~10 years in the future). The Allies could see what happened in Berlin, as well as to Poland, Hungary, etc…

      I think it was very clear that, at least in the first decade or two after WWII, that the Soviets would happily use military force to remove democratic governments and replace them with communist satellite governments. Now arguably the US proper was never in danger of that, but I think our allies in Europe had a very reasonable fear of it happening to them. Our pointing nukes at Russia was (at least early on) intended to prevent that – not some Soviet takeover of Kansas, but a Soviet takeover of Western Germany.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted September 25, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        Germany was divided when a bunch of heads of state decided to do at the Yalta Conference (aka Crimea Conference). As for Poland, it got totally screwed over by Churchill at Yalta and the Soviet Union had occupied a lot of what would become the Eastern Bloc through the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. In other words, a lot of Europe was carved up through pacts and conferences rather than old fashioned invasion and Churchill & Roosevelt didn’t do much to stop it.

        The Cold War with its mutually assured destruction was a risky game – look how close we came during the Cuban Missile Crisis. If Khrushchev had not been willing to back down and suffer loss of face, I doubt we would all be here today. All of our civilization could have been lost over one nation wanting to put more missiles to point at their enemy. This to me is all absurd.

        • GBJames
          Posted September 25, 2014 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

          “This to me is all absurd.”

          One word: “Humanity.”

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted September 25, 2014 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

            Sadly true. You’d think we’d learn but we haven’t yet. I still can’t get past that we had all those missiles pointed at one another and still had embassies and diplomatic relations. Maybe I just can’t handle the nuance of human relations.

          • rickflick
            Posted September 25, 2014 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

            At what point does the idea that we humans are absurd and behave absurdly become commonly accepted? The Dadaists pointed it out. Comedians like George Carlin pointed it out. Most hippies thought so. John Updike?
            Humans have nuclear weapons, religion, congress, global warming, endless wars, etc. All of these issues are absurdities. Dealing with our problems almost never seems to be conducted rationally. I think I’m resigned to living in an absurd world. Maybe that’s why so many fools are religious or take up gardening. It helps them ignore reality.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted September 26, 2014 at 7:02 am | Permalink

              The existentialist writers also dealt with absurdity quite well.

  29. John
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    Hitler wrote “I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord..”
    To me whether Hitler believed that tripe himself is not the point. The reason that his rhetoric was effective, and motivated the German people is because of their credulity when it comes to using religion as a pretext.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 6:12 am | Permalink

      “The reason that his rhetoric was effective, and motivated the German people is because of their credulity”
      Indeed. Interesting to think that his credulity is instilled just about as well in the Sunday services of middle class Germans as it is in Madrasahs.

  30. Folie Deuce
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    “Every major faith tradition has tracked the political entity in which it arose; none has become a ‘world religion’ without the patronage of a militarily powerful empire and every tradition would have to develop an imperial ideology.”

    Let’s assume that is true. It is not a vindication of religion. The “imperial ideology” (without which the religion never would have spread in the first place) becomes hopelessly intertwined with the faith itself. For example, Jihad may been invented to serve political interests but that’s not really relevant to believers who see it as a religious obligation.

    • John
      Posted September 24, 2014 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      Yes, we seem to have short memories, or think that its only “other religions”. My father is one of the dwindling number of WWII veterans who faced the same type of brutality that ISIS displays fighting the Japanese – motivated through religion. Populations that are adherents to a religion are able to be manipulated to do terrible things, it may be a tool of imperial ideologies (as with Hitler), but one cannot excuse religion because it is the tool, and not always the cause.

  31. Folie Deuce
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    Scott Adtran is really not the right guy to cite to refute Robert Pape (there are a lot of problems with Adtran’s work too). Pape’s work has always been a minority view in security studies and does not stand up to basic scrutiny.

    One of Pape’s tricks is to focus on incidents rather than body count. Thus, a car bomb killing one person counts the same as 9/11 (which was a serious of attacks that Pape counts as one incident). If you focus on deaths instead of incidents, Pape’s own data shows Islamic groups accounting for 93.7% of deaths by suicide terrorism (a figure Pape never cites)and that figure assumes the PKK is a secular rather than an Islamic terrorist outfit.

    For an outline of the problems with Pape’s work, see this article: http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/suicide-bomb_577292.html?page=1

    • Posted September 25, 2014 at 3:03 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the link; I haven’t made a concerted attempt to find discussion of Pape’s thesis (I’m a biologist, after all!), so I haven’t been critical of it, but I have been suspicious. I’ll have a look.

    • Filippo
      Posted September 26, 2014 at 2:46 am | Permalink

      Atran and Harris locked horns several years ago on this subject at a gathering, the name of the (recurring) event escaping me, Weinberg, Tyson, numerous others attending, a William Blake illustration figuring prominently on its website and at the beginning of its video presentations.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 26, 2014 at 4:47 am | Permalink

        I remember the event video. As I recall Atran was not received well. After his talk, questions were hostile and the fact that he was working with Templeton funds was suggested as a biasing factor in his conclusions. – best I recall.

  32. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted September 24, 2014 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps there was some common environmental effect that contributed to the many historical examples of once-benign religions mutating into bloodthirsty mobs of Crusaders or jihadis, in the same way that overcrowding influences locusts.
    That’s pretty weak sauce as a vigorous defense of the moral power of religions, however.

  33. TJR
    Posted September 25, 2014 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Religions and political groupings poison each other.

    IMHO religion and nationalism are for most practical purposes the same thing, being based on the principles that:

    We are Different and Better

    In Group Good, Out Group Bad

    The local ruling class are part of the In Group

  34. reasonshark
    Posted September 25, 2014 at 2:23 am | Permalink

    Firstly, I seem to notice more and more the absolutism in many “counter” arguments across a variety of subjects. “Scientism” is the claim that “all” fields of inquiry or knowledge are science; religion causes “all” the wars versus religion causes “none” of the wars. Is this some kind of strawman in which an opponent’s arguments are exaggerated to something easier to rebut?

    Secondly, if Pinker, Haidt, Baumeister, et al. are correct, then no one factor was behind all the wars and mass killings of history. Many factors and causes were implicated. The most common and salient ones seem to be:

    1. A tendency to view a collective (ethnic, religious, political, etc.) as meat that happens to be in the way.

    2. A tendency to view a collective as scum so foul, contagious, evil, or otherwise dangerous that killing them is somewhere between a grim but necessary good and a full-blown first and best solution since they can’t be allowed to live.

    3. A tendency to think some political or religious utopia is so superior or blissful that anyone who objects to it has to be “dealt with” for their own “good”, or for the “common good”.

    4. A tendency to not see the individuals getting axed and to focus more on political games or on treating countries as though they were people, to be treated in any manner of the above.

    5. A tendency to make it extremely uncomfortable, difficult, dangerous, or ineffective for people to either try to find out about the truth (what the perps themselves might call “distortions”, “misunderstandings”, or “demoralizing lies”) behind the atrocities or to speak out against it.

    6. Reckless confidence in any or all of the above campaigns, which would result in more casualties than a more prudent approach would.

    Overall, a surprisingly common theme is that most perpetrators of atrocities are, or at least consider themselves to be, highly moral and/or moralistic people, who to varying degrees demonize, dehumanize, or sometimes even deny the existence of their victims to the point where their pain and death vary from regrettable/manageable necessities to so badly deserved that even thinking about otherwise seems immoral. Certainly, the particular patterns and distributions of these motives vary not just from ideology to ideology, but among individuals within each ideology (and sometimes even within each individual, too).

    There are even different moral “relational models” that identify different types of moral thinking, such as Haidt’s five (Purity/Sanctity, In-group Loyalty, Authority, Harm/Care, and Fairness/Reciprocity), as well as Fisk’s four models plus the possibility of a “null” or “amoral” relationship. Each has their own “sins”, such as “insubordination” for Authority, “uncleanliness” in Purity/Sanctity, and “treachery/disloyalty” in In-group Loyalty. Throw in a Taboo mindset that makes even questioning these systems’ applications a sign of breaching morality, and you’ve got a potent recipe for disaster.

    In conclusion, while I agree not all religions cause wars, insofar as they contain moralistic and taboo elements that are either foundational to or play a major role in the conflict, it’s equally misguided to say they don’t cause any. It’s those moralistic and taboo elements that are the real “big enemy” here, the ones behind the non-commendable actions of religions.

  35. alainvh
    Posted September 25, 2014 at 2:30 am | Permalink

    If you attribute all the bad that is done in the name of (any) religion not to religion, but rather to culture and politics, then why is all the good that’s done in the name of (any) religion any different? It’s amazing that they never seem to realize something that obvious.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 6:01 am | Permalink

      Right. Further, the “good of religion” is not only often borrowed from culture and politics, but can be traced to natural altruism. This is seldom acknowledged by many religionists.

      • Alain Van Hout
        Posted September 25, 2014 at 6:41 am | Permalink

        Indeed. Of course, it makes sense for them to not acknowledge that, since it undercuts their entire thesis.

        In the end, what makes people do good or bad things, is their character and circumstances. The former is a matter of genetics, parental/social nurturing, and the wider social (including political) environment. Among those environmental factors, religion tends to be a big one, both for the good and for the bad.

  36. Chris
    Posted September 25, 2014 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    Karen Armstrong has written a supporting article in today’s Guardian…


    • Folie Deuce
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      That article was an excruciatingly painful thing to read. Am I the only one who came away with the impression that she prefers theocracy to separation of church and state?

    • eric
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      My favorite howler in that article has to be this one: “…and before the 18th century, it [secularism] would have been incomprehensible even to European Catholics.”

      A 30-second googling shows me the word secular arose in 13th century, in France. 😛

    • eric
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      Here’s another amusing gaffe. [Remember folks, according to Armstrong, secularization is a modern invention, so she doesn’t think it or fundamentalism existed prior to about the 1700s.]
      What we call “fundamentalism” has always existed in a symbiotic relationship with a secularisation that is experienced as cruel, violent and invasive.

      In contrast, code of Hammurabi, #110:

      In event a virgin of the temple opens [sells liquors] or enters a bar for the purpose of drink she shall be burnt up.

      Sounds pretty fundamentalist to me.

  37. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted September 25, 2014 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    I think Jerry’s hit the nail on the head towards the end of this article – what would it take to convince people like Armstrong and other professional apologists that religion WAS responsible for an atrocity like 9/11?

    I think this is more than just rhetoric – I think it’s about time we asked this question of Armstrong and others, with the expectation that, if they genuinely want to be seen as objective and reasonable, an answer will be forthcoming. If an answer isn’t then it’s pretty safe to say that they’re not approaching the issue rationally.

    Every time we read one of these infuriating, vacuous, exculpatory puff pieces we should ask the person responsible what it would take for them to infer religious motivation from an unpleasant act. After all, they do it all the time with pleasant acts. It really is a very good question and it cuts right through all the waffly daydreaming. It’s telling that I can’t really think of anything that I could say to convince a religious apologist that something bad, anything bad, was inspired by religion.

    • Folie Deuce
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      Just like no amount of evidence could change Ken Ham’s mind, I don’t think any amount of evidence could change Armstrong’s mind. She already has all the evidence she needs, she just choices to ignore it.

      • Folie Deuce
        Posted September 25, 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink

        “chooses” not “choices”. An edit feature to correct typos would be a nice addition.

        • Posted September 25, 2014 at 8:17 am | Permalink

          I’m sorry but WordPress doesn’t provide an ability to edit your posts. People keep suggesting that I can bring this about, but I can’t!!

          • Posted September 25, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

            You should be able to! But iOS 8 isn’t sharing the Safari clipboard correctly … 😠 I’ve emailed you the link, Jerry.


    • eric
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      I am not so sure. Her latest article (see link in #36) is one long attack on the straw man argument ‘religion is the only cause of violence.’ She never really addresses whether she thinks it can be *a* source of violence.
      I agree she’s acting like an apologist – the strategy of not addressing the real argument is a pretty good indication of that. But I wonder if some journalist posed the yes or no question to her, whether she’d actually answer ‘no.’ My sense is she’d prevaricate but ultimately answer ‘yes’ (as in yes, religion can be a cause of violence). I have that sense because she seems to going a long way out of her way not to address the question, which says to me that she doesn’t want to admit her own answer to it.

  38. Jacques Beaudry
    Posted September 25, 2014 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    The satirical web site “Faking News” of India has an interesting take on this idea that terrorism has nothing to do with religion: not only that but even terrorists have nothing to do with terrorism. Saying so is just “terrorismophobia”!


    • Posted September 25, 2014 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      Super spoof! Not so far from the truth, considering the present opera featured at the Met, where the man who pushed a disabled Mr. Klinghoffer wheelchair and all into the Med is being apotheosised.

  39. Posted September 25, 2014 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    Oh, dear, another book from Karen Armstrong! The Guardian has a huge spread in today’s paper with an excerpt from the book entitled simply “The Myth of Religious Violence”. The excerpt ends with this:

    When secularisation has been applied by force, it has provoked a fundamentalist reaction – and history shows that fundamentalist movements which come under attack invariably grow even more extreme. The fruits of this error are on display across the Middle East: when we look with horror upon the travesty of Isis, we would be wise to acknowledge that its barbaric violence may be, at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain.

    This is getting a bit more than tiresome. Where has secularisation been applied by force? Perhaps, if it had been, and Iraq and Afghanistan had been placed under temporary military government (as in Germany following WW II), things might have been different, as people learned that secularisation could provide a net benefit. But, no, all the old religious structures and divisions were left in place. Indeed, Obama pulled out of Iraq while there was every sign that religious division and violence would increase, instead of putting a steadying hand on the tiller.

    Besides, the argument that Armstrong apparently makes is that other factors — economic, political, etc. — are always in effect, along with religion, in any conflict you care to name. Well, of course. Religions (and especially Islam) are deeply embroiled in economic and political events. But that scarcely means that the resulting violence is not religious, especially when it is so clear that religion is what focuses and exacerbates the violence.

    What the US apparently did not recognise when it invaded Iraq was the fact that only a strong man like Hussein was able to keep the warring religious factions at bay. Indeed, secularisation was not so much forced on Iraq as enabled (but not, as Armstrong supposes, by the West), because religious forces were subordinated to the political power struggles (which Saddam won). Having removed the strong man, all the religious forces reasserted themselves, with all the consequences of religious violence that have now surfaced with a vengeance.

    The point is that religion is a force which simply does not acknowledge boundaries. It is marked by zeal and deep emotional commitment, the kind that is difficult to arouse without a religion or a religion substitute. Stalin, knowing this, relaxed his hold on Russian Orthodoxy for a time in order to make the fight against Germany a holy war for Mother Russia. To suggest that religion does not play this role in economic and political conflicts is simply to misunderstand secular conflicts and the contribution that religion makes to them. Armstrong apparently wants to sequester religion, and imagine that, when economic and political issues are involved, they supervene upon and hijack the religious emotions present in the social context in which these issues are in contention. This is too stupid even to warrant comment.

    Certainly, there were economic and political issues in Syria and Iraq that contributed to the rise of armed opposition to the established governments in the region. But Armstrong fails to notice that religion is not a peaceful subtext to these conflicts, and even attracts people who have no connexion with the economic or political issues involved. Thus they become primarily religious wars, in which the original economic and political problems are submerged by religious fanaticism. There is no way to separate the religious and the economic and political factors in the convenient way that Armstrong supposes, and then simply deny that the violence is in any way due to religion, especially when the primary justification given by the leaders of these conflicts is religious.

    Regarding the Tamil Tigers I have a question. The Tamils are a Hindu enclave in a largely Buddhist nation. The Tigers are, we are constantly told, secularists. But did Hinduism not enter this conflict at all as is so often suggested when the supposed origins suicide bombing is mentioned? (Of course, the Japanese kamikaze’s beat the Tigers to it by several decades.) That is hard for me to believe, though I am ready to be set right about it.

    • Folie Deuce
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 8:12 am | Permalink

      Regarding the Tamil Tigers, Sam Harris has argued that there was a Hindu element to their actions.

  40. Isaac
    Posted September 25, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    It is interesting that Atran is being used here as a rebuttal against fathiests and in suppoort of the view the suicide bombers are actuated by religious fervor, when Sam Harris gave him a tongue lashing a while ago for claiming quite the opposite. Did Scott Atran undergo an about-face change in his attitude toward religion?


    • Folie Deuce
      Posted September 25, 2014 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      This is discussed in post 31 above.

  41. Chris
    Posted September 25, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I think you can make a good case that the Abrahamic religions did all start out as ‘good’ things in which people practiced a peaceful, caring, community lifestyle and that as they grew, the rot inevitably set in as it always does with any human institution and all three religions, though especially Christianity and Islam, later came to be abused and manipulated to justify the actions of the rulers of the day. Stories and characters would be invented and retroactively inserted into religious history to justify whatever bad things the ruling class needed to at the time. This process explains exactly how all the contradictions in these religions accumulated.

    But that doesn’t mean that the thusly subverted religion doesn’t then go on to influence believers in its turn. The whole *point* of ‘poisoning’ the religion is to influence its believers and get them on side. So of course the poisoned religion is going to poison people by return and once a religion has accumulated enough poison and enough followers it’s surely quite capable of being a ‘bad political force’ in its own right?

  42. Bob Michaelson
    Posted September 25, 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Although I agree with a great deal of what Jerry says here:
    1. (Minor point) Hitler did not “single” out the Jews. Many millions of gypsies, homosexuals, socialists, communists, etc. died in his concentration camps. I think it would be difficult to claim that e.g. the communists were killed for religious reasons.
    BTW, Jerry talks here about violent origins of Islam, but doesn’t mention here the violent origins of Judaism, e.g. the conquest of Palestine as boasted of in the Bible. Most religions had violent origins, I suspect.
    2. (Major point) Given a choice between Pape’s statistical evidence and Atran’s anecdotes, I know which I’d give more credence to.
    Some of the other attacks on Pape cited here: the Weekly Standard, is, after all, just the Weekly Standard (and I must admit that I am not interested in reading those extreme right-wingers). Gartenstein-Ross’s review of Cutting the fuse has unconvincing arguments such as his statement that foreign occupation existed from the time of Cyrus the Great, but suicide attacks didn’t begin then – well, there weren’t bombs then, either!
    I haven’t = and won’t – read deeply in this issue, but what I have read suggests that occupation is a strong predictor, though not usually a sufficient cause, in inducing suicide bombing; extreme religious beliefs probably enhance the likelihood of suicide bombing but are clearly not sufficient, nor are they necessary.

    • Folie Deuce
      Posted September 26, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Pape is used by apologists not merely in the context of suicide bombing but to explain away all terrorism as having nothing to do with religion. Pape’s arguments are problematic enough in the context of suicide bombing (where his own data does not support his conclusions).
      If one wants to argue that Islam has nothing to do with Islamic terrorism (as Armstrong and others do), Robert Pape’s research is insufficient to support that conclusion.

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