The unctuous and dangerous Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is a dangerous woman.

I say that because while she projects the image of amiability and compassion, her modus operandi is to repeatedly deny that any violence in the world comes from “true” religion, which she tautologically defines as “that form of religion which does not inspire violence.” Any brand of terrorism or seemingly faith-based malevolence, she argues, is really based on something other than true faith—perhaps politics, disaffected and angry youth, or (her favorite cause of terrorism) the colonialism of the West and the oppression of Palestinians.

This is dangerous because Armstrong, who has spent her life osculating the rump of faith and whitewashing the evils of faith, would have us ignore the fact that religion—”true” religion, for, after all, are there any “false religions”?—is a real contributor to harm in this world.  Yes, there are other causes for terrorism, but really, if there were no religion in the world, and no Islam in the Middle East, would there really be a nucleus around which terrorism could coalesce? As Steve Weinberg said:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

He’s not quite right here, for there are other things that make “good people do evil things,” including extreme ideology, a form of faith-based political belief instantiated in Maoist China. But in general he’s right: without faith, would Sunnis and Shiites be at each other’s throats, and would ISIL and Al Qaeda and Saudi Arabia be oppressing women, swathing them in sacks, mutilating their genitals, and killing and torturing people for homosexuality, adultery, apostasy, blasphemy and even blogging? Absent religion, what would cause people to do such things? And don’t forget that most Muslim violence is against other Muslims.

Even the New York Times‘s Thomas Friedman, hardly known for his strident criticism of religion, has had enough dancing around the real problem. In his latest column, “Say it like it is,” Friedman excoriates the Obama administration for tiptoeing around Islam as the cause of terrorism:

When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble. And this administration, so fearful of being accused of Islamophobia, is refusing to make any link to radical Islam from the recent explosions of violence against civilians (most of them Muslims) by Boko Haram in Nigeria, by the Taliban in Pakistan, by Al Qaeda in Paris and by jihadists in Yemen and Iraq. We’ve entered the theater of the absurd.

And this is why Armstrong is dangerous: she importunes us to ignore an important cause—perhaps the most important cause—of terrorism. How can we address that problem without a full appreciation of the factors that induce it?

The theme of all her books can be summarized in six words: Religion’s been given a bad rap.  And people lap up that trope like Hili with a bowl of cream. With the release of Armstrong’s new book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, the media’s been all over her like white on rice, fawning over her, feeding her softball questions, and generally trumpeting how wonderful and scholarly she is (for three examples, see here, here, and here).

Except she’s not. Her “scholarship” is tendentious and one-sided, and I see her as profoundly intellectually dishonest. The fact is that Armstrong is dining out—for a lifetime—by telling people what they want to hear, not what is true. It’s infuriating to see not only her gross distortions, but the way the media accept them uncritically. (There’s one recent exception—a book review that nails the problem with her “scholarship,” but I’ll write about that later today.) Such is the privilege that religion enjoys in the West.

For one really blatant example of Armstrong’s dishonesty, have a look at the interview she gave to a Dutch website, “There is nothing in the Islam that is more violent than Christianity.” It’s long, so I’ll show you just two bits (the misspellings are probably due to the interviewer’s having English as a second language; bolding—except for the question—is mine):

Are terrorists primarily traumatized?
“Some of them are, and some of them are plain wicked. Osama bin Laden was a plain criminal. But there is also great fear and despair among them. There have been surveys done by forensic psychiaters who interviewed people convicted of terrorism since 9/11. They interviewed hundreds of people in Guantanamo and other prisons. And one forensic psychiater who is also an officer of the CIA – so he is no softie like me! – concluded that Islam had nothing to do with it. The problem was rather ignorance of the Islam. Had they had a proper Muslim education they wouldn’t be doing this. Only 20% of them has had a regular Muslim upbringing. The rest are either new converts – like the gunmen who recently attacked the Canadian Parliament; or non-observant, which means they don’t go to the mosque – like the bombers in the Boston marathon; or self-taught. Two young men who left Britain to join the Jihad in Syria ordered from Amazon a book called Islam for Dummies. That says it, you see. . . “

Note her claim that a “proper Muslim education” does not produce terrorism. That’s Armstrong’s schtick, of course, for she claims to be the arbiter of what “proper” Islam is, as well as of all “proper” religions. That’s a dumb and tautological argument. Why is extremist Islam “improper”? After all, it’s taught in the madrasas and promulgated by many imams.

Further, she mentions only a single “forensic psychiatrist” who says that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism.  Well, there are others who conclude the opposite. I’ll cite just one: Nicolai Sennels, who just published a piece called “Why Islam creates monsters.” Sennels is no tyro: he’s a Danish psychologist who works with Muslim youth who have committed crimes, and has written a book called Among Criminal Muslims. A Psychologist’s Experience from the Copenhagen Municipality. What kind of scholarship is it to cite only a single source to buttress your claim when other sources say the opposite? At the very least, a good scholar would acknowledge and cite multiple points of view.

But this is even worse:

So you are saying that religion is a scapegoat?
“We’re piling all the violence of the 21st Century on the back of religion, sending it away, saying we have nothing to do with religion. While we still have to deal with the political situation. The supermarket attack in Paris was about Palestine, about Isis. It had nothing to do with antisemitism; many of them are Semites themselves. But they attempt to conquer Palestine and we’re not talking about that. We’re too implicated and we don’t know what to do with it. . .

How much intellectual dishonesty can you pack into four lines? First of all, where on earth does she get the idea that the supermarket attack in Paris was about Palestine? As far as I know, the attackers didn’t even mention Palestine, although I may be wrong. And her explicit attempt to explain the attacks as the results of Israel’s “oppression” of Palestinians is invidious. Is any attack on a Jew, anywhere in the world, a result of Israel’s policy toward Palestine? Does anybody think that such attacks would stop if there were a two-state solution? Given that Hamas and many Middle Eastern Muslims simply want Israel destroyed, that anti-Semitism is rife in the Arab media, and that many Islamic extremists want to abolish Western values and replace them with a caliphate, I doubt it. Armstrong simply cannot credibly play the Israel card to explain attacks on Jews throughout the world.

And look how she says this has “nothing to do with antisemitism.” Her reason: because both Jews and Arabs are Semites! Does she think that anybody will buy this argument? Armstrong knows full well that anti-Semitism is not hatred of anyone of Semitic extraction, but hatred of Jews. Given the cartoons and propaganda emanating from Arab state media, it’s a safe bet to conclude that there is tons of genuine anti-Semitism involved in terrorism. Does she really want people to believe that Arab hatred of Jews has nothing to do with attacks on Jews because, after all, “they’re both Semites.”  This statement alone should be highlighted by all the media that suck up to Armstrong and her books.

I won’t give any other excerpts, but you might want to read the interview for its other tidbits, like Armstrong’s approbation for sharia law at the end of her interview.

Finally, and I won’t dwell on this one, the New York Times also published an interview with Armstrong on the day after Christmas. It’s called “The Blame Game: Karen Armstrong talks about ‘Fields of Blood'”, so you know where it’s going. A few of her statements (indented):

Ever since 9/11, I have been asked to comment on the religiously motivated atrocities that regularly punctuate our news. Time and again, I have been informed categorically that religion is chronically prone to violence and has even been the cause of all the major wars in history — an odd remark, since the two World Wars were clearly fought for secular nationalism rather than religion.

Who are all these people who tell her that religion has been the cause of every major war in history? Could this scholar kindly name one person who makes such a claim?

If we speak in order to wound, we will make matters worse: in my research I have found that when a fundamentalist group is attacked, it invariably becomes more extreme. My problem with some current critics of Islam is that their criticism is neither accurate, fair, nor well-informed. I am sure they do not intend this, but in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe, we learned how dangerous and ultimately destructive this kind of discourse could be.

Yes, because criticizing Islam is not only likely to cause more terrorism, but is totally equivalent to how the Nazis “criticized” the Jews. What kind of scholarship is that?

And here’s her spiel on “authentic” religion:

Q: You also write that the Crusades were influenced by “a distorted Christian mythology.” What would you say to critics who might argue that it’s stacking the deck in an argument like this to decide when a religion’s beliefs are being “distorted” and when they’re not?

A.True, there are multiple forms of any tradition, be it secular or religious: it is never possible to speak of an “essential” Christianity or Islam. Yet some interpretations are more authentic than others: the Crusaders conveniently forgot that Jesus told his followers to love their enemies, not to exterminate them. Such failures do not invalidate an entire tradition, however. The theory of natural human rights was a triumphant achievement, despite the fact that its early advocates — Thomas More, Alberico Gentili and John Locke — refused to extend these rights to the indigenous peoples of the New World.

Yes, Jesus said some stuff about loving your enemies, but has she forgotten what God himself supposedly said and did in the Old Testament? (Remember, too, that Jesus didn’t repudiate that, but came to uphold it.) And has Armstrong read the Qur’an? Being a scholar, she must have, but how does she deal with all the calls for war and extinction of unbelievers in that scripture? Finally, note that while she excuses religious ideas as a cause of terrorism, she directly implicates secular ideas (“the theory of natural human rights”) as responsible for oppression of native people. In other words, she’s promulgating a double standard.

Either all religions are “true” (in the sense of being authentic forms of belief) or all are false (in the sense of being delusions). Armstrong’s obdurate refusal to admit this has made her popular and wealthy.

h/t: Barry


  1. Chris
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    “When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movements become headlong – faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thoughts of obstacles and forget the precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it’s too late.”

    Attributed to Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert’s Dune.

    • jaxkayaker
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      Excellent. There are so many good quotes and observations in Dune.

      One of my favorites is “The highest function of ecology is understanding consequences.”

      • darrelle
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:58 am | Permalink

        I’ve always liked the Amtal Rule. Basically, to gain a thorough understanding of something, you have to test it to failure.

        • Davey
          Posted January 23, 2015 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

          I’ve always remembered, “Absolute power does not corrupt absolutely, absolute power attracts the corruptible.”

          • Posted January 23, 2015 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

            “If religions are diseases of the human psyche, as the philosopher Grintholde asserts, then religious wars must be reckoned the resultant sores and cankers infecting the aggregate corpus of the human race. Of all wars, these are the most detestable, since they are waged for no tangible gain, but only to impose a set of arbitrary credos upon another’s mind.”

            From The Demon Princes IV: The Face, by Jack Vance, a close friend of Frank Herbert’s and a far superior writer.

  2. h2ocean
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Is the institutionalized Islam in many countries that mistreats women, gays, and non-Muslims also “not true Islam” and reflect a lack of proper Muslim education”? Seems to me that those theocracies and the societies they create are the natural extension of what happens when you think a book is divinely written/inspired, take it seriously for that reason, and build a society around it.

  3. GBJames
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 9:42 am | Permalink


  4. Bhagwan
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    > many of them are Semites themselves.

    This laughable piece by a “scholar” of religion should be enough to dismiss her entirely.

    Should we even have to begin to explain to someone about the history or basis of Anti-Semitism that its NOT about such considerations as ‘are they the same tribe as me?’

    • Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      No, she is a liar.

      She knows exactly what is meant by the word “antisemitism” and that it has nothing whatsoever to do with hatred of other people (except Jews) who are classified by anthropologists as “Semitic”.

      And 99% of the people of the world, I’d wager, have no idea that Arabs are considered by anthropology to be “Semites”.

      The word “antisemitic” means a hatred of Jews, full stop, and everyone knows this, including KA.

      She is a liar in this as in virtually every main point she makes.

      • darrelle
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 11:04 am | Permalink

        That does seem to be the most likely explanation. It is thoroughly disgusting to see her given respect by the press. But, it is a perfect illustration of what is arguably the most damaging combination of behavioral attributes of human social groups.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted January 23, 2015 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

          Besides, her logic sucks. By saying that Jews and Palestinians are both semites, she is actually saying that the only difference between them is religion. Therefore, religion must be the problem.

          Stephen Sackur (BBC ‘Hardtalk’) interviewed Arafat’s widow the other day. She became quite worked up in her condemnation of Hamas. She said Arafat wanted a secular state and would have been appalled by the perversion of the issue by Islamic extremists.

          • Posted January 23, 2015 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

            Very good point, Heather.
            Of course we all know religion is the problem there, ethnicity can be a problem though, in other cases (eg. Rwanda).

  5. alexandra
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Did Christopher H ever get to demolish Karen A? Prof Coyne does a super job at that, but I’d love to watch/hear/read Christopher “debate” her. Her mind is no doubt unavailable to reason but it sure would be fun to watch her try to wiggle out of his stupendous faith-free verbal gymnastics. I searched briefly – no luck

    • Sastra
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      Iirc Richard Dawkins once did a side-by-side essay ‘debate’ with Armstrong in a magazine or newspaper. Iirc Dawkins and Armstrong both accused each other of not understanding religion.

      By the way, despite her constant attempt to distance herself from an ‘anthropomorphic’ God Armstrong does indeed imbue the via negitiva God with inherent mental characteristics. As soon as she stops insisting that God is an unknowable mystery the anthropomorphisms creep in despite herself.

      • Kevin
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

        That really says it all:

        Karen Armstrong does not understand religion.

        Considered by some to be an authority on this subject of God and faith and yet she does not understand the first thing about religion. Unfuckingbelievable.

    • Jeff Rankin
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      I became curious after reading your comment, but I couldn’t find anything by Hitchens either. I did find this article by Sam Harris (with a reply from Armstrong):

  6. Posted January 23, 2015 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Religions, at least the primary monotheistic manifestations, are forms of codified patriarchy with a supernatural sales pitch (aka unfalsifiable authority).

    Armstrong is culturally encrypted to such a degree that she meets criteria for Stockholm Syndrome.

    • Blue
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      This analysis in my opinion re ‘faith’ and re ‘religions’ is, in ALL of their aspects, spot – on: ” … … are forms of codified patriarchy with a supernatural sales pitch” and … … “unfalsifiable authority” equals a P E R F E C T anatomy thereof.


  7. observer
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    The attempt to distinguish between religion and politics is a lost cause. Not all politics is religion, but most religion is politics by another name.

    • darrelle
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      Exactly. These distinctions between religion and politics, and or culture, in this context is just plain false talk.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

        Except society gives religion an automatic pass for inclusion that politics doesn’t get. I’d love to see religion treated more like politics. As has been said before, how many babies are introduced as Democratic or Republican for example?

        • darrelle
          Posted January 23, 2015 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

          True. But that is a different context. I, and I think observer, was commenting about how it is unreasonable to claim that of all the various categories of “things that make us tick” that religion can be singled out as not being a significant contributor.

          Those things being religion, culture, politics, ideology, etc. All of those things are all inextricably intertwined and affect and inform each other. Actually, I’d say that religion, politics and ideology are all aspects of culture. Claiming that an Islamic radical is motivated by culture or politics, not their religious beliefs, is ridiculous because you can’t take the religion out of culture and you can’t take culture out of religion.

          I think this actually fits very well with the point you reiterated here. These are both examples of the special consideration that religion enjoys in our societies. You can’t criticize it, and you can’t claim it is a cause of problematic behavior.

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted January 23, 2015 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

            Yes. Sorry if it came across that I was criticizing either of you – I wasn’t.

            • observer
              Posted January 23, 2015 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

              No problem. You’re right that religion gets special consideration, and that’s what makes it so potentially dangerous.

              Historically, religion has functioned to define and enforce social roles as well as the structure of the state. It has worked because it claims supernatural legitimacy. Even in our secular society religion still serves the function, albeit to a lesser extent. This is why conservatives go nuts at the idea of separation of church and state.

              This is also why you can’t look at Islamic fundamentalism and say, as Armstrong does, “it’s all politics.” The politics and religion are inseparable. Neither can you look at it and say that any particular doctrine or action is strictly a function of the religion and has nothing to do with politics. One without the other is practically meaningless.

  8. Sastra
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    I say that because while she projects the image of amiability and compassion, her modus operandi is to repeatedly deny that any violence in the world comes from “true” religion, which she tautologically defines as “that form of religion which does not inspire violence.”

    To me the most surprising thing about Karen Armstrong is her regular use of the word “religion” rather than “Spirituality.”

    It’s become very common in certain liberal, ecumenical circles to make a big fat distinction between “religion” (human distortions and interpretations of the Divine) and “Spirituality” (the actual mystical connection with and expression of the Divine.) In fact, this attempt to divide God off from the believers is an old staple in more traditional religions, which frequently distance “man’s rules” of religion from the direct knowledge of “God’s rules” gained through the infamous Personal Relationship. By eschewing this simple, easy, but wrong-headed semantic tactic Armstrong thus manages to muddle the topic even more.

    Bottom line, she’s technically promoting Spirituality and the sense of inner peace and acceptance which comes during mystical experiences. She’s then coupling that with all the lovely ways the Little People express this through their religions. If it’s not inner peace and acceptance, though, then it’s not real religion/spirituality. God/Spirit provides the measurement.

    The problem with Spirituality though is the same problem with religion: losing the touchstone of the world and skeptical criticism when judging what is — or is not — promoting peace, harmony, love, acceptance … and purity. Especially that last one. What looks cruel or hateful or wrong or misguided to those stuck in the physical world can turn out to be kind, loving, true, and wise when you see everything in the Big Sacred Picture. Divine Truth supercedes the wisdom of the world.

    Big problem. It can go very wrong, and no way to turn it back because faith is epistemic privilege.

    I can easily imagine that suicide bombers are not just motivated by hate, but by a sincere and genuine love of God. The hate is a temporary thing, the love is eternal. Before paradise and enlightenment can be achieved we have to purge the wickedness of the world. Duh.

    Religion is utopian. Spirituality is utopian. They seek the perfection of God. Getting rid of evil is like getting rid of pollution and returning to an immaculate state of Innocence and Love. What’s wrong about eliminating toxins?

    Big problem. Again. The framework justifies the otherwise unjustifiable and there’s no opportunity or hope of reasoning someone out of what they proudly and defiantly did not reason themselves in to. Armstrong is dangerous because she supports this process and ignores the fact that it can’t be checked by appeals to a nebulous and always wise common spiritual source.

    • gluonspring
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      “I can easily imagine that suicide bombers are not just motivated by hate, but by a sincere and genuine love of God. ”

      This is a very on target observation. Once you’re consequentialist analysis of things includes an infinite component, ordinary reasoning is thwarted. No finite harm, even the destruction of the entire Earth, can compare with an infinite good that might result. I don’t doubt that the Inquisition thought of themselves as doing good, and perhaps even as helping the people they tormented to find a path to eternal bliss.

      I agree also that the word “utopian” is a good one to bring up in this context. All forms of utopianism strike me as dangerous because they paint a picture of a good endpoint, even if it’s an endpoint in the real world, the perfect society, that is so good that it justifies all sorts of truly awful “medicine” now. Many of the horrors we have witnessed in human history come from the wedding of someone’s beautiful utopian vision with a leader’s personal megalomania. So long as everyone is focused on the vision all the bad stuff seems justified. Only to those not in on the vision does it seem so obviously wicked.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        It seems a bit inadequate after all you’ve both written, but Well Said.

      • Pali
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

        “I don’t doubt that the Inquisition thought of themselves as doing good, and perhaps even as helping the people they tormented to find a path to eternal bliss.”

        You can still find plenty of this viewpoint in modern Christianity – recall how the recent goddy Kevin Sorbo movie ends with the “atheist” professor getting hit by a car, but because he converts before dying, the pastors look at the event (and it is presented to the audience) as a good thing.

    • Posted January 23, 2015 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      Sastra, this is not the first time you said it the way I would have liked to say it. As excellent as Jerry’s initial post.

  9. Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    I personally think that Obama has to soft-peddle on Islam, while combating its darker side while calling it terrorism. The political fallout from doing otherwise would create more complications than it would be worth.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      Yes. I think of it as being like a political version of the Jedi Mind Trick.

      “This is not true Islam. Islam is a religion of peace. Muslims do not commit acts of violence. Those are not the doctrines you’re looking for. Move along.”

      • rexsalad
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 11:14 am | Permalink

        I agree, and eloquently stated. His position may Iinfluence the framing within muslim communities, at least domestically.

        • rexsalad
          Posted January 23, 2015 at 11:27 am | Permalink

          ..that said, my personal position is that calling out religious b.s. is a good, constructive, and necessary thing for us, the people, to do.

          • rexsalad
            Posted January 23, 2015 at 11:40 am | Permalink

            Like, I would rather the “Islam is a religion of peace” people work together towards making that a more credible or justifiable statement, than to circle the wagons.

    • Posted January 23, 2015 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      Thomas “The Mustache of Wisdom” Friedman is a particularly frustrating opinionator. I can’t imagine anyone believes it’s the job of the POTUS to apply a broad brush to “linking” religion to the motivation of our enemies; that’s for regular people to do. I also don’t think Obama is “fearful” about anything. And even though Friedman has written some eloquent and intelligent analyses, I will never get over his role in promoting the second Iraq war: Duncan Black documented his parroting of the Bush administration’s repeated “six months” to various achievements in the war, none of which ever panned out of course, so many times that Black dubbed the six month timeframe a “Friedman Unit,” or “F.U.” Also, at the beginning of the engagement, Friedman applauded what he perceived as the invasion telling the Arab world “suck in this.” I find it disgusting that a person would take the support for war, especially that war, to that level of locker room punkishness. Hard to take that out of my evaluation of anything he says.

      • GBJames
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        I agree with you about Friedman. But he’s pretty much on target in this case.

        • gluonspring
          Posted January 23, 2015 at 2:11 pm | Permalink


          My dream is that one day whenever a pundit is on screen there is a little pop-up scrolling scorecard of their past pronouncements and how those panned out. The commentariat is almost singularly unaccountable for bad advice.

          Maybe also their past scandals, just for context. Dick Morris or Eliot Spitzer, for example, could have a little “prostitution” icon on the screen when they are talking.

        • Posted January 23, 2015 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

          Pretty much, but the bit about Obama is bullsh**t. If he’s suggesting there are gains to be made by a distinction between good Muslims and extremist ones, he’s pretty much full of it. He’s also pretty much playing the ST game by mansplaining to the Muslims what they do and don’t believe – the BoBos like him might not use “Islamaphobe” to refer to someone who correctly states that Islam is the problem not just the “extremists,” but I’m pretty sure they would wag a finger at them. Those who criticize the special exemption for religions’ non-violent injustice are even more correct, and that view is that much more unacceptable to the punditry.

          And, again, he said “suck on this” was good policy and we saw how that turned out: it makes me wary of his definition of a “good outcome” and undermines my trust in what he means and wants to see happen based on his prescriptions.

  10. jaxkayaker
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Wow, Armstrong sounds completely clueless. I’d love to read a back and forth between her and Jerry. She should be made to read her own criticisms of others, then immediately confronted with her own statements to which those same criticisms apply.

  11. Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    I wouldn’t bother calling Armstrong intellectually dishonest. She’s just dishonest.

    “Yet some interpretations are more authentic than others: the Crusaders conveniently forgot that Jesus told his followers to love their enemies, not to exterminate them. Such failures do not invalidate an entire tradition, however. The theory of natural human rights was a triumphant achievement, despite the fact that its early advocates — Thomas More, Alberico Gentili and John Locke — refused to extend these rights to the indigenous peoples of the New World.”

    What nonsense that demosntrates an amazing willful ignorance of this bible and of history. JC says directly, bring unbelievers before me and kill them. We have the revenge fantasy of Revelation, where this happens with this god’s approval and participation.

    And there is nothing about human rights in the bible, only “believer” rights.

  12. Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    My take on “tell it like it is” is that this is neo-Nazizm. The middle-east was largely sympathetic to — if not allied with — Hitler.

    Among the anti-Israel protestors I see no one protesting the plight of Armenians or Kurds. Or Tibetans. Or any of the other dispossessed people.

    • Posted January 23, 2015 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

      The history of the world is a history of dispossessed, mostly forgotten by now, people.
      It is not reasonable that we only go back in recent history to be concerned about the dispossessed. The tide of humanity rolls on to new territories (for them) and force the peoples already there to move on, marry into the new family or die.

      • Posted January 24, 2015 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

        Yep. I think it’s important to recognize this. Imagine what we would have to do if we had to somehow compensate all of written and unwritten history’s dispossessed. The Neanderthals for instance, how to compensate them?

  13. Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Wait Thomas More was a proponent of human rights? The guy that burned people who disagreed with him? And she didn’t even mention Thomas Paine…you know, the guy that wrote ‘The Rights of Man’.

  14. Carol
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    I’m guessing that you reject the idea that all wars are, at base, resource wars? If people were secure in their homes and livelihoods, would they be likely to jump on whatever ideological (religious or political) bandwagon came their way?

    • gluonspring
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      Bin Laden was rich, was he not?

      • Carol
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        Yes, but wasn’t he supposed to be avenging invaders in Muslim lands? In other words, “Stay away from my resources!”

        • Dave
          Posted January 23, 2015 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

          Bin Laden didn’t care about resources. His principal complaint was about the presence of infidel western soldiers on the Arabian peninsula – the holy soil of Islam. And what resources does Afghanistan possess? Bin Laden spent years there fighting the infidel Soviets in the name of Islam. He wasn’t trying to protect Afghanistan’s opium poppy fields.

          • Carol
            Posted January 23, 2015 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

            Since when isn’t land (the Arabian Peninsula) consider a resource? And what were the Soviets, before the U.S., doing in Afghanistan if not trying to stake out resources?

            Rare Earth: Afghanistan Sits on $1 Trillion in Minerals – NBC …
            Sep 5, 2014 – Despite being one of the poorest nations in the world, Afghanistan may … “Afghanistan is a country that is very, very rich in mineral resources,” …

            That’s not to mention the pipeline crossings it affords.

            • Dave
              Posted January 23, 2015 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

              The land mass of Saudi Arabia is not a “resource”. It’s almost all barren, uninhabitable waterless desert worthless for agriculture or anything else. If it didn’t have oil under the surface it would be one of the most insignificant and irrelevant places on the face of the Earth.

              And please, no more of this pipeline nonsense about Afghanistan. NATO went into Afghanistan in 2001, over a decade ago. If these mythical pipelines were so important, then where are they? You can build a land-based pipeline anywhere, and the cost of circumventing Afghanistan would be far less than what would be required to drive it through the wretched place and then defend it from the savages that live there. Same with its alleged mineral wealth. It’s not worth anyone’s trouble to try and exploit them, so they are not really “resources” at all.

              • Carol
                Posted January 23, 2015 at 3:37 pm | Permalink


              • Posted January 23, 2015 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

                Single-factor explanations of historical events are, to a first approximation, always gross oversimplifications at best and hopelessly wrong at worst.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      My personal opinion is that ‘resource wars’ is a modern liberal take, putting our values on people with different values. For a start, resource was often a euphemism for greed. Some wars were fought for the glory of a leader, or to force religious beliefs on another people, or to provide inheritance for a son who couldn’t wait for your death, thus neutralizing him. Wars inevitability cost more than they gain.

      Despite what most people think nowadays, most of those who fought in the Crusades did so for religious reasons – the Church promised forgiveness of all sins. You could even pay someone to go in your place and still get the benefits. Almost no one gained financially from going on Crusade, but the religious benefits and prestige were huge. The First Crusade was basically to give a bunch of lawless French knights who were wreaking havoc around the country something to do. Dealing with the gang problem so to speak. The religious aspect caught on and the idea took off.

      • Posted January 23, 2015 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

        “Wars inevitability cost more than they gain.” Is that so? I’m not 100% sure about that. Did the wars against the indigenous ‘Indians’ in the USA cost more than than they gained? The wars in the Dutch East Indies, particularly the Moluccas (cloves and nutmeg)? The minerals and harvests taken from the Belgian Congo? I do not really think so, and clearly not inevitably so.
        I really like the second part of your post, although again I’m not 1005 sure it is correct, more like 995…:).

        • Posted January 23, 2015 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

          These ‘5’s at the end of the numbers should be ‘%’ (percent). So sorry.

        • gluonspring
          Posted January 23, 2015 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

          “Wars inevitably cost more than they gain.”

          I definitely think there are examples of exceptions to this. While the British wars with the French were probably financial losers, their taking on and making colonies of lots of weaker countries seemed to pay for itself handsomely.

          I think in the modern era, though, it is becoming much closer to being a universally true statement. When you roll in with guns facing off swords: profit! When you roll in with fancy guns and face… less fancy guns: quagmire.

          I think in the modern era deadly weapons are so cheap and ubiquitous that it makes it very difficult to win a war without basically killing all the people of fighting age and destroying the place you are fighting. We’ve entered and era where it’s either total destruction of an enemy or a quagmire, neither of which is profitable.

          • darrelle
            Posted January 23, 2015 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

            I’m not so sure it is because of weapons parity. A superpower could, from purely a military capability stand point, easily crush a much smaller / less capable opponent. I think the major changes that have occurred are more political and economic. Political and economic associations / relationships constrain countries much more in modern times.

            • Heather Hastie
              Posted January 23, 2015 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

              I said “inevitably”, but I didn’t mean all, and your points are well made.
              Obvious examples where the cost is more are WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam.

              • John Scanlon, FCD
                Posted January 24, 2015 at 9:30 am | Permalink

                Seems to me the big winners in every case were the owners of armament manufacturers. It may be impossible to identify who they really are now, but traditionally that means the royal families of Europe, who have many friends and relatives in the ruling parties of the US. It’s the big CUI BONO that doesn’t get asked enough when people debate the cause of wars.

      • Carol
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

        “For a start, resource was often a euphemism for greed.”
        A resource is something I have. If you try to take it, then there will be conflict. You may be greedy, or you may simply be needy. Either way, we’re fighting over resources.

        The history books say the Crusades were about access to Jerusalem and the invading hoards:

        “These two aggressive moves by the Turks started a chain reaction beginning with the Christian emperor of Byzantium sending envoys to the pope seeking help.”

        “Ambassadors from the emperor of Constantinople [Byzantium] came to the synod and humbly implored the lord pope and all faithful Christians to send him help to defend the Holy Church against the pagans. For these pagans were then ravaging those parts, and had conquered almost all the territory up to the walls of Constantinople.”—Bernold of Constance Chronicon (1099)

        Invasions into already occupied lands constitute resource wars in my book. Religion is just the vehicle used to get there.

        • josh
          Posted January 23, 2015 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

          The question is why someone in Europe would care about lands in the Middle East. The answer is, at least partly, religion. I’m sure some went with hopes of plunder or acquiring profitable holdings, but it’s too much of an oversimplification to say that everything is about resources. (Unless perhaps you define resources so broadly that the statement becomes a tautology.)

          Look at the Falklands Conflict. You will say they were land resources but they are practically worthless islands, especially compared to the cost of fighting. The war makes no sense until you take into account nationalistic and pride-driven reasons for it.

          Or look at the Albigensian Crusade. There were power conflicts related to land and wealth I don’t doubt, but the driving force was the ideological control of religion.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted January 23, 2015 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

          That explanation of the start of the Crusades is wrong. It is the answer given in basic history, but it was the excuse, not the reason. It is the one that suits the Church, which is why it became the standard answer. Nothing had been done about Constantinople for years, but popes’ efforts over years to control the knights wasn’t working and finally they hit in this excuse. Jerusalem had been occupied with no big problems for hundreds of years.

          I have researched this extensively, and I could argue this fully, but I don’t want to put a 3,500 word essay (already written) on Jerry’s site.

          • Posted January 24, 2015 at 3:40 am | Permalink

            You could put it on your own an ð link to it…

            Sent from my iPhone. Please excuse all creative spellings.


      • Posted January 23, 2015 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

        At least some of the Crusades were authorized and promoted directly by the Pope, head of the Catholic church, as well as religious and political leaders not as highly placed. To that extent, the Christian religion was directly responsible for Crusader terrorism.

        Crusading knights were drawn from many countries, as well as France. (However, better that rambunctious French knights terrorize the countryside further away from Rome. Crusaders lived off the lands they travelled through. I’m sure that the residents were glad to see them go).

        There were knights who chose a penance of going on Crusade to the Holy Land rather than some other form of punishment for their misbehaviors/sins. As I recall, Richard the Lionhearted was one such. So, it wasn’t all about reward in Heaven.

    • Kurtis Rader
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

      Speaking only for myself, yes, I reject the idea that all wars are “resource” wars. That characterization probably is true of people who instigate the war. But even then it is frequently not because they (or their community) lack sufficient resources to be “secure in their homes and livelihoods” as you imply. Rather, it is because they covet the resources controlled by others and desire to increase their own wealth and power. However, it seems clear that most of the people who support the war are doing so for other reasons. The primary one being hatred of “the other” which is a viewpoint that religion is very good at instilling in a community.

  15. Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Friedman makes the very important point that Islamist violence is largely carried out against other Muslims. ISIS is essentially carrying out a sectarian war, just part of the larger Sunni-Shia conflict, which is entirely within the Islamic faith. Much of the Taliban violence is against those it does not feel are Islamic enough (such as killing Muslim girls who go to school). Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has largely been fighting other Muslims in Yemen. It’s sometimes been claimed that those killed by Islamic extremist terrorism have overwhelming been Muslims themselves. While I don’t know if that has ever been quantified, it doesn’t seem an unreasonable assertion.

  16. Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Also her take on the Nazis sounds like a version of Godwin’s law, except that internet chatrooms are replaced by her own sounding room.

  17. Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    The first question that KA needs to have posed to her in an interview:

    Ms. Armstrong: You often say that the violence that we see perpetrated in the name of religion is not actually driven by religious feelings. You say that is is the result of an “improper” or “false” understanding of religion or religious education.

    Please define for us all what, exactly, is a “false” or “improper” religion (or religious education) and tell us why it is false or improper?

    Follow-up: Aren’t all religious viewpoints valid? Who are you to decide this?

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      Good one. Another question might be – ‘could you describe a hypothetical terrorist attack or general atrocity that meets your criteria for being religiously motivated?’, ie. what would it take for her to admit that an atrocity is religiously motivated?

      I thought the Charlie Hebdo attacks were unprecedented in that the religious causes of the killings were so utterly irrefutable – in past attacks there’s always been just enough wriggle-room for apologists to decouple Islam from the violence.

      As a result I honestly thought that the Charlie Hebdo attacks were a watershed moment. Yet there were plenty of people(not quite as many as usual but still plenty) who denied that religion played any part.

      So if the slaughter of a group of blaspheming cartoonists, by Islamic killers who publicly asserted that their motivations were religious, that took place in a country that is famous for its refusal to go along with U.S. invasions of Islamic countries, is not an example of religiously-motivated violence what the hell is?

      It’d be good if Armstrong, Aslan, Myriam Francois-Cerrah and the rest of the religious apologists were asked to answer this.

      • Posted January 24, 2015 at 7:47 am | Permalink

        Just this week I attended a small talk by an imam at a very small library in Ontario. The point of the talk was to explain to the mostly WASPY audience what islam is and what it is not. In the Q and A afterward, it became clear to me that the real point of the talk was islamic apologetics. For example, the imam (who had a PhD in something islamic and had lived in Egypt but who now resides in a moderately sized Ontario town), said something to the effect of “Of course the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists should not have been killed, but what was the point of insulting muslims except to cause offence?”. The idea of free speech was lost on him. Even the library employee who ran the Q and A stepped in to try and help with his apologetics by saying that in fact in Canada we do have anti-hate speech laws and people have been charged and convicted of hate speech using these laws. When I interjected that no-one in Canada has been charged for drawing cartoons of Mo, she tried several times to ignore my comment and just restated what she said (which was true) but which was not what the current point being made was about. Finally she relented and asked for a different question from someone else. (This lady is not a muslim as far as I can tell) So even non-muslims will go out of their way to distort and obfuscate instead of “offending”.

        I asked the imam to clarify a statement about women’s rights that he made where he claimed that yes some countries that are islamic, have a poor record of women’s equality, but others have good records, and he used the comparison, about how there have been no U.S. presidents that are women,and yet many islamic countries have women politicians and presidents or equivalent. He said that there are political reasons and cultural reasons for the differences in women’s rights in different countries, and these are not related to what is in the Koran. So I read out loud a chapter of the Koran that I had with me. It’s the one that says that if your wife does not obey you, you first deny her your bed, then if that doesn’t work, you beat her. It is pretty clear that that is what it says.

        Guess what he said?: “That book you have there is a poor translation of the original Arabic”. (It was the “Penguin Classic 1990 5th revision) version. I wanted to follow-up with “What would the best translation of this phrase be?” or “Are there any parts of the Koran that say GOOD things about women and the rights of people, or that show Mo in a good light, that are also POORLY translated?”. I couldn’t because the lady running the show called for other questions, and would not let me have a follow-up.

        It’s a pound your head against the wall and talking to a wall situation that the world is up against.

        • Dermot C
          Posted January 24, 2015 at 10:37 am | Permalink

          Re; male/female relations in Islamic jurisprudence. Turkey: under Muslim law, if a husband failed to provide coffee for his wife, that was grounds for divorce. I have no reference for date but the book is ‘Turkish Cookery’, Net Turistik Yayinlar, 1992 (!). I’d love for it to be true. x

  18. ploubere
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    If we’re to approach the topic rationally, then the issue would be whether religion is the cause of bad behavior or merely correlates to it. Can it really make a good person do evil things? It seems to me that people act according to their nature (and this connects to the argument over free will), and use religion to justify what they wanted to do anyway. If that’s the case, then religion is not so much evil as just irrelevant.

    But another way to look at it is that the act of rationalizing is itself evil, and is a necessary step before committing evil deeds. In that sense, religion then is an enabler of evil.

    So without Islam, would tribal groups still kill each other? Yes, of course. Humans are homicidal by nature. But Islam is a very convenient rationalization that they use to justify their acts.

    • Posted January 23, 2015 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      Well, apply this to the 9/11 attacks on the US (or the Charlie Hebdo attack for that matter).

      A group of 19 (or 20) middle class, educated, employed (or at least highly employable) men, some with families, get together and decide, as a group on an elaborate plan to hijack American airliners, and fly them into buildings killing themselves and thousands of others.

      But, not because their brains have been hijacked by religion and its doctrines of jihad and martyrdom and heaven.

      No, these middle class guys would have done this anyway, in the absence of religion.

      It’s what they always wanted to do with their lives. It’s not Islam or its doctrines.

      Yeah, right.

      I’m laying this on sarcastically; but I’m hoping and assuming that you don’t really think that religion is a popst facto rationalization (rather than the primary motivation) for suicide bombing and the policies of, for instance, ISIS and The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

      • ploubere
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        I am simply saying that we can’t make that assumption without some evidence to support it. Was it solely Islam that caused otherwise normal people to behave irrationally? If religion didn’t exist, would there be no terrorist attacks? These may be, to some extent, testable hypotheses, although to do so, one would have to get pretty far into the subconscious of the individuals involved. We could form a control group – atheists, who are much less likely to commit terrorist acts, and thus seemingly prove the assumption. But it’s muddled by whether there is causation or just correlation. Perhaps people prone to religion are also prone to violence (look at the pope, he was threatening to punch people last week). Perhaps it’s the other way around – violent personalities invent religions.

        What is demonstrable, through historical evidence, is that humans are homicidal and genocidal by nature, and capable of great cruelty.

        So if religions didn’t exist, would that change our nature? That may not even be a valid question, because the invention of religions also is a historically demonstrable human characteristic.

        What does work, and is also demonstrable, is that education can raise people above their base nature. The best antidote to religion and violence is rational thought.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted January 23, 2015 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

          Very interesting idea. My thought is to look at psychopaths. They’re born, but whether they turn out to be sadistic rapists or useful citizens is often (not always) contingent on their upbringing.

          Education, especially that where you learn to think critically, is key imo.

          I think things like the Taliban shooting Malala Yousufzai and thousands of other students is because they know it will eventually lead to their demise. Instead of having the courage to educate themselves, they lash out with violence.

        • Sastra
          Posted January 23, 2015 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

          Was it solely Islam that caused otherwise normal people to behave irrationally? If religion didn’t exist, would there be no terrorist attacks?

          I think this is the wrong question. No bad idea exists in complete isolation. We could just as easily excuse fascism by wondering whether the Nazi ideology alone caused otherwise normal people to behave irrationally. If violent totalitarian governments didn’t exist, would there be no more violence?

          No. But we don’t therefore withhold accountability from violent totalitarian dogmas.

          I think it makes more sense instead to see how far religion in general — or a particular religion in particular — helps to uniquely motivate or justify a particular act or acts of violence. Of course the tendencies are already in human nature and pop out anyway. But unless we have a situation where babies are born and children are raised in no religion at all and allowed to choose, as adults, which one best suits their own personality, I think the view that religion is only used to excuse what people would do anyway is unlikely. It provides a a narrative framework where what looks like evil to the evil is good to the Godly.

          • JonLynnHarvey
            Posted January 23, 2015 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

            Re your last sentence, St. Ignatius of Loyola literally told the early Jesuits to believe the Pope if he said black was white or vice-versa.

          • Posted January 24, 2015 at 8:12 am | Permalink

            Of course almost no action is due to ONE cause only. So? Religion is A if not THE STATED reason of many of the current terrorist attackers. Although he did not use any examples from the current islamic terrorism spree, or from religious thinking in general, I think reading Richard Dawkins’ “The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind” essay, will give some insight into why looking for single reasons, or disputing whether religion alone is responsible for terrorists’ actions is not an argument to be having.

  19. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I suspect KA is overcompensating for a short period early in her life in which she DID criticize religion harshly- right after she left her convent at age 24 in which she had not had a good time. A very early book of hers on the Crusades pretty much blames them on Christianity outright.

    She then had some sort of second conversion in which she saw the positive side of religion, but she rationalizes in this in deeply inconsistent ways that involve some slippery definitions of words, and dubious sociology.

    You can say fundamentalist religion is not healthy or humane or “spiritual” or good for people and you can suggest maybe other religious groups are better options, but you honestly cannot say fundamentalism isn’t really religion.
    (I occasionally wonder if KA has an adverb-adjective confusion between something being “true” religion or “truly” religious. Unlike some atheists I am happy to label Einstein’s sensibilities as religious by a broad definition, but I am NOT willing to say snake-handlers are NOT religion.)

    While the !*seductive appeal*! of ISIS, or other fundamentalisms may very well be rooted in a variety of economic and/or psychological causes, once enough people have bought
    !*into*! ISIS and their brand of Islam, then ISIS & their religion becomes a real entity that is a player in the game, a link in the chain of causes!! (A causes B which in turn causes C doesn’t imply writing off B as irrelevant!)

    (Yes, the economic devastation suffered by Germany after World War I may be a !*cause*! of Naziism, but one the Nazis arrived, we can genuinely talk about the Nazi party and its beliefs being the !*cause*! of many things including the Holocaust!! No one blames the death of 6 million Jews on the draconian provisions of the Treaty of Versailles!! And as I posted a few days ago here, no one blames the British persecution of the Puritans for the latters behavior in the American witch trials!!)

    Her remark about Jesus loving enemies is not apropos, because the New Testament is a blended overlay of conflicting materials from Jewish-Christian, Pauline Christian, and Gnostic sources. (To be fair, I think some atheists are insufficiently aware of this as well!) As Bart Ehrman has said, the 4 Gospels are really 4 different religions. Armstrong has said that the test for a valid interpretation of the New Testament is whether it is centered on the Golden Rule. Well, others think the acid test is if acknowledges Jesus died for your sins. ALL readings of the Bible are selective, or as one of my seminary profs said there is always a sub-canon within the canon.

    One could in principle hold Armstrong’s apophatic theological beliefs, while not descending into the flawed sociology and history that she does!!
    In “Case for God” she cites Augustine as an authority to back up apophatic theology, but seems to ignore St. A’s literal belief in many parts of the Bible. In “A History of God” she overstates the degree to which Gnostics allegorized the Bible, though they did so moreso than the mainstream.

    Armstrong is perhaps correct one should heed the Biblical injunction to take the log out of one’s own eye before taking the speck out of one’s brothers, but if guy with the speck is killing cartoonists, such introspection has to be back-burnered and postponed.

    I remember 20 years ago seeing KA on the Bill Moyers PBS series on Genesis. Of the commentators she was in the middle of the bell-curve. They ranged from exciting (Rebecca Goldstein and Elaine Pagels) to OK but dull (Karen Armstrong) to strained attempts to make Genesis super-profound (Leon Kass).

    Armstrong’s third autobio “The Spiral Staircase” has a couple of pages which remain to me one of the most intriguing and fascinating pieces of writing about the Beatles I have ever read. (They also reveal a lot of Armstrong’s personal discomfort and vulnerabilities). I wonder how she would have done as a music critic.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      PS I finally felt compelled to look up unctious in the dictionary and having defended Krista Tippett against the charge before, I concede I had a mistaken sense of what the word means. Excessively piously moralistic is one definition.

      • Posted January 23, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        And that would be Krista Tippett and KA …

        • JonLynnHarvey
          Posted January 23, 2015 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

          I thought it meant “slick” like on overly well-dressed evangelist or in the sense that Bill Clinton was called “slick willie”

    • gluonspring
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      Religion is a garment woven out of many threads. Finding a single golden thread does not make the overall look of the garment less drab. Declaring the golden thread to be the only true part of the garment is just silly.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

        I like that. What you wrote reminded me of a line from Larkin’s Aubade, the greatest poetic meditation on religion and death I’ve ever read.

        ‘…religion used to try / that vast, moth-eaten, musical brocade / created to pretend we never die’

  20. Posted January 23, 2015 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this article. I think you probably speaking for a great many of us who aren’t in a position to express ourselves publicly about Karen Armstrong’s softly-spoken wickedness.

    She is deceitful, because she knowingly shifts the blame for religious violence to anything BUT religion.

  21. Dave
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Armstrong says that it is not possible to speak of an “essential” form of Christianity or Islam…but then presents a classic ‘essentialist argument’ that there are truer forms of these religions that sometimes are overlooked by their followers…Plato would be proud.

    • Posted January 23, 2015 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, like the “ground of all being” nonsense, it’s an idea completely untethered from reality and which no actual, living, breathing religious believer (aside from a few academics) would ever recognize or own to.

  22. Randy Schenck
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Even when Armstrong attempts to stay on the topic of religion she falls flat. The Crusades were cause by distorted Christian Mythology? Yes, I believe most people refer to that as the Catholics. Who is she kidding. Was pope Urban II distorting Christianity?

    Also, someone should tell Armstrong that the CIA could not interview terrorist any more than jello. Did she not read any of the investigation of the CIA on this matter?

  23. Gordon Hill
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Part of the problem is that some or most atheists equate religion with theist, a view at odds with religious scholarship. It’s akin to creationists claiming evolution is only a theory. Until those who disagree use agreed terminology, the discord will persist.

    What’s the difference between terrorists who call themselves Muslims and KKK/Skinheads who call themselves Christians. Neither fits the characterization of either religion and both are dismissed a deviants by their religion.

    One problem with both Islam and Christianity is , with the exception of specific denominations, there are no leaders in charge. Anyone who wants to create a denomination can do so and have.

    • Posted January 23, 2015 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      “most atheists equate religion with theis[m], a view at odds with religious scholarship”

      Are all religious scholars in agreement?

      There are scholars of atheistic Zen Buddhism who maintain that it is not a religion.

      And philosophers such as A. C. Grayling (admittedly, an atheist) define religion as involving one or more supernatural entities.

      So… I’m not sure how that leads to your following points?

      Or are you talking about (erroneously) equating religion with believers (theists)?


      PS. Most atheists probably don’t think about is at all.

      • Gordon Hill
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

        Of course all religious scholars are not in agreement. There are always disagreements as to the characterizations of uncertainties and religions are primarily based on uncertain beliefs, a redundancy. Scientists also disagree on the uncertainties. The difference is that science is mainly objective and religion mainly subjective.

        As for religious scholars disagreeing as to what constitutes a religion, you need go no farther than humanism, within which there are religious and non-religious groups. Still, they are atheists.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      Dismissing the differing beliefs of another member of your religion doesn’t make them any less a member. I’m sure most Christians want to separate themselves from the WBC, KKK, and skinheads. That doesn’t mean they’re not Christian. Same with DAESH, AQIP, Boko Haram etc. Although it’s different because atheism isn’t a belief system, there are atheists I wouldn’t want to be associated with.

      • Gordon Hill
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

        The KKK and Skinheads are not members of a Christian religion. They are tyrants who have co-opted the name, but none of the practice. Anyone who reads the teachings of Jesus can figure that out easily.

        Saying you are a Christian or Buddhist or atheist or Republican or Socialist or intellectual is a self ascribed label begging the question, “If I was accused of being a (___fill-in-the-blank__) could they find enough evidence to convict me?”

        True enough about atheism not being a belief system. Atheism is a disbelief; however, when someone says I am an atheist, they are making a statement about their disbelief which is a belief.

        • josh
          Posted January 23, 2015 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

          “The KKK and Skinheads are not members of a Christian religion. They are tyrants who have co-opted the name, but none of the practice. Anyone who reads the teachings of Jesus can figure that out easily.”

          If they worship Christ as the central figure of their pantheon, then they are Christian. Jesus said his enemies would burn forever and that his followers were to sell their cloaks and buy swords. It’s not too hard to get violence towards Jews out of that. He didn’t address dark- vs. light-skinned people, but was notably silent about slavery and generally conveyed the idea that people should accept their lot in the worldly order.

          • Gordon Hill
            Posted January 23, 2015 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

            Making an assumption you are not a Christian, a non-Christian defining what constitutes Christianity is akin to a non-scientist characterizing what constitutes science; therefore, the creationist view that ToE is just a theory is equally valid.

            • Posted January 24, 2015 at 5:44 am | Permalink

              Did Gordon just say that *anyone* who reads the teachings of Jesus can recognize false Christians, then turn around and say non-Christians can’t be credited with having insight into what true Christianity is?

              That’s a stunning display of religious apologist fan dancing, worthy of Karen Armstrong.

        • GBJames
          Posted January 23, 2015 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

          Good to know that you’re the one who gets to define what a real Christian is, Gordon. Sadly, many other self-defined Christians think it is their’s, not your’s. How are we to know which of you are right?

          • Gordon Hill
            Posted January 23, 2015 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

            Read my comment, please. I do not define what a Christian is. Nobody can. It’s a label attached to someone who believes they follow the teachings of Jesus which are variously interpreted.

            • GBJames
              Posted January 23, 2015 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

              I stand corrected. You are the world authority on who isn’t a true Christian! Good to know!

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

                Please reread the comment… There is no one who is the world authority on anything, especially religion for which there is no evidence, only imagination .

              • GBJames
                Posted January 24, 2015 at 8:34 am | Permalink

                Then, Gordon, you need to explain this:

                “The KKK and Skinheads are not members of a Christian religion.”

                I’m sorry, but you simply can’t claim authority to define people in and out of membership in a religion and simultaneously claim not to do so.

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted January 24, 2015 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

                Nice try… 😉

              • Dermot C
                Posted January 24, 2015 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

                @ Gordon Hill

                ‘What’s the difference between terrorists who call themselves Muslims and KKK/Skinheads who call themselves Christians? Neither fits the characterization of either religion and both are dismissed as deviants by their religion.’

                NT quotes.

                Matt 13:40-42
                As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.
                The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;
                And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

                Luke 19:27 (Jesus speaking in a parable)
                But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.

                Gal 1:9
                As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.

                Quotes from the Koran:

                A fire “whose fuel is men and stones” awaits them (2:24).

                “Do not say that those slain in the cause of God are dead. They are alive, but you are not aware of them” (2:154).

                “But the infidels who die unbelievers shall incur the curse of God, the angels, and all men. Under it they shall remain for ever; their punishment shall not be lightened, nor shall they be reprieved” (2:162).

                How do terrorists not fit these characterizations of their religions? From their religions’ own holy books? x

              • GBJames
                Posted January 24, 2015 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

                Huh? I’m not trying anything. Apart, perhaps, to get you to resolve an obvious contradiction.

  24. Jeffery
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    If not religion, what, then, is the reason for the call for the killing of apostates?

    • Posted January 23, 2015 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      I agree, but I suppose there are those who think that some other nonreligious belief system would fill the void and that it, too, would mandate the killing of nonbelievers. It seems to me that religious apologists like Armstrong think that even if religion didn’t exist, something else would fill in and WOULD CAUSE EXACTLY AS MUCH VIOLENCE AND MISERY AS RELIGION.

      • Keith Cook or more
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        I am unhappy to say there probably is other reasons to kill on a large scale or any other scale. China and Russia, Pol Pot all had a swing at it for nutty reasons. The Yamamomo, a hunter gatherer society (Stephen Pinker’s great book on violence) are very much alive and killing at a rate we would gasp at if we found ourselves amongst them for example. This is not letting religion off the hook as he also describes religion’s contribution with disturbing clarity.
        We humans have nothing to pat ourselves on the back about with or without Armstrong. But she is a hindance to minimizing violence in the short term as we seek to understand it (ourselves) a proximate goal and I am fully behind calling her out, she deserves no less. Status, prestiege and wealth are power motivations in perpetuating a lie, it makes one want to vomit at the harm this non violent masquerade conserves.
        Violence is about the human condition Armstrong has little understanding of it, let alone the religions she mothers it seems. She is also not alone with that of course but we can learn from it.

      • Sastra
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        It seems to me that religious apologists like Armstrong think that even if religion didn’t exist, something else would fill in and WOULD CAUSE EXACTLY AS MUCH VIOLENCE AND MISERY AS RELIGION.

        Only if this something else BEHAVED EXACTLY LIKE A RELIGION.

        Her reasoning is just so off. The absolutism, faith, dogma, fanaticism, devotion, certainly and utopianism of religious faith aren’t suddenly made less problematic because political ideologies which resemble religion are bad, too. In the long run it’s easier to argue with other people who think they’re right than it is to argue with other people who think they’re channeling God and have humbled themselves out of the picture.

      • Posted January 23, 2015 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

        To paraphrase Voltaire: if we had no religion we *would* invent one.
        Communism had so much commonalities with Abrahamic religion: The destiny of the chosen people (the proletariat), prophets (Marx, Lenin,.. ), fallen angels (Trotsky), The damned (bourgeois and Kulaks), A Pope even more semi-devine than the actual Vatican one (Stalin, Mao), A promess of paradise/utopia. Others have elaborated much more than my poor brain can think of now, but communism eerily resembles religion.
        As for Fascism, “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Gott” was easily replaced by “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer”.
        Can I rest my case? Or should we elaborate?

  25. friendlypig
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Let’s face it, as one of the Kuwaiti Imams who called for a global ban on the criticism of religion and their prophets might have put it: It is unacceptable that that those apes and pigs of Jews can criticise Islam, without censure.

    Of course it’s nothing to do with religion.

  26. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    This is yet again another great essay, and I think it would work very well as an essay in, say, Slate magazine.

  27. peepuk
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I saw her last Sunday on our national TV, first time I saw her.

    At least she didn’t think that religion and politics mix well, and that makes her maybe somewhat less dangerous.

    My understanding is that she thinks religion is poisoned by politics.

    I would argue it’s the just other way around.

    • Posted January 23, 2015 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      Plenty of scope for miscegenation there, either way. But I agree, keep the religion out of politics.

      • peepuk
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        It wouldn’t be a happy marriage 🙂

        • Posted January 25, 2015 at 4:35 am | Permalink

          The religious would want to procreate, the politician would just want to screw you. (humor)

  28. Brygida Berse
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    I remember the same apologist tone (and quite similar vocabulary) used in the defense of the communist rule in the Eastern Bloc: all the problems with the planned economy, abuses of power and political repressions were attributed to “errors and distortions” of the underlying idea (which, of course, was good and pure).

    • peepuk
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      Seems to be my main theme: pure ideas do not really exist. If you find one, you almost sure you are wrong.

  29. Dermot C
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    The problem, I think, is that many people still really do assume that the Holy Books contain some kernel of particularly and uniquely wise insight: even if those people no longer believe in God. And therefore they give criticism of the 3 main holy scriptures an uncritical free pass. (Armstrong, of course, has no such excuse).

    Take the Qur’an. We all know how easy it is to find there the most shocking and evil prescriptions: they abound. Yet if you quote several of these phrases to a secular debater, as I did, they will call it ‘pretty violent’, which is like calling Tamerlane a naughty boy. Even when presented with the actual words of the Qur’an, rational, liberal and socialistic people self-censor. Because of the fear of appearing racist, they hold back: and because of the fear of asserting one’s moral superiority over the real ideas in the Qur’an, they hold back.

    It takes a long time to change someone’s point of view. In the human conversation outside normal political structures, that is, online, on telly, radio and in the press, I think the direct questions should be asked. To quote from the Qur’an, “[We] shall let them live awhile, and then shall drag them to the scourge of the Fire. Evil shall be their fate”(2:126) and then to ask a Muslim scholar to explain that. How can that be interpreted in a peaceful way?

    There is a lot more in the same vein from sura 2: and that is not even to mention the notorious sura 9. Why do we not just quote directly from the Qur’an and ask its apologists to explain? The wavering audience are the ones to convince. x

    • gluonspring
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      I think part of the problem for KA and some others is that they *have* read the Bible and they realize that the OT has plenty of wicked pronouncements of it’s own, putting all the non-believers to the sword except for the virgin girls which you take for yourself, and the sort. She knows that stuff is there. And yet, the obvious genocidal violence of the OT does not fairly characterize the religion she grew grew up with, or the religion of her friends. She knows this fact too. The Nuns she lived with may not have been pleasant, but they didn’t have OT zeal for genocide either. Modern Jews are generally not genocidal in an OT way nor are modern Christians. So people like Armstrong have a first hand experience of how their own personal faith can be something much more palatable even while the text itself is full of repugnant things. Modern believers, of course, reinterpret the OT in various ways to make it not apply to us, or to not be the wicked thing it so obviously seems. By analogy, they transfer this over to Islam. Of course, they say, the text says backward and seemingly wicked things. Our text does too! But look how nice our religion is despite this? See, that’s not the *essence* of their religion. That’s not what current believers are believing. So the hunt is on to find the one golden thread in the waste of each faith and declare that the real deal.

      With Judiasm and Christianity she is closer to right because the process of humanizing those religions from their archaic roots is further along. Islam is a bit closer to it’s archaic roots culturally and this shows and makes the effort to paint it as benign more strained.

    • Posted January 25, 2015 at 4:41 am | Permalink

      I have. You get more apologetics. Even though the Koran is a perfect book, the translations are not and it is really only to be understood in its original language while chanting it musically. This is the answer I got (in so many words and some other contexts) from an imam who HIMSELF was writing an english translation!!!?

      • Dermot C
        Posted January 25, 2015 at 6:43 am | Permalink

        And the reaction of the audience, Steve? x

  30. Posted January 23, 2015 at 2:50 pm | Permalink


    Sent from Samsung tablet

    • Posted January 23, 2015 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      You forgot the two subsequent 6s …

  31. Michael Michaels
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Every single Muslim I’ve communicated with in the last month has told me, uncatagorically, that Real Muslims don’t do violence. The Quran doesn’t not promote violence or murder.

    If I mention Imam’s and Muslims that read the Quran differently, they say it’s impossible, there is only one interpretation of the Quran. I point out the story of Rushdie. You can’t believe the internet.
    I quote translations of the Quran on the internet, and show them alternate interpretations.
    You can’t believe anything on the internet. I assume if I had an actual printed version and it agreed with me, I’d be told I have a bad copy.

    I ask how do they know they have the right one? Because they read it. How do they know, even though the book is 1500 years old, it uses ancient language, it needs to be translated and interpreted?

    They ignore all evidence, all arguments. When or if a second Muslim shows up with a different view, he or she leaves and stops answering.

    It’s so frustrating. I get better conversations from my cat. Heck, I get better conversations from my dog.

  32. Posted January 23, 2015 at 6:58 pm | Permalink


    “”true” religion, for, after all, are there any “false religions”?” Of course there are–all the ones that fail her test. At that, give her credit: for most believers, the only true religion is their own.

    But here: “she directly implicates secular ideas (“the theory of natural human rights”) as responsible for oppression of native people”–you’ve misunderstood. She’s simply saying that, when first promulgated, the theory’s creators weren’t yet quite modern enough to include non-WASPs in their calculation.

  33. Another Tom
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Remember, to keep on god’s good side Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all required to kill apostates, but only if you’re not a “true believer” (TM), but one who actually believes in your scripture.

  34. kelskye
    Posted January 24, 2015 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    It’s quite sad, really. Why can’t religion be multi-faceted? That it provides people with comfort and a sense of community. That it promotes charity and brings moral thinking to our attention. That it fosters out-group hostility, and dehumanises its enemies. That it gives cover to horrible acts. etc.

    I read the debate between Blair and Hitchens and Blair took a similar strategy. Yes, religion does bad things, but “true religion” isn’t the bad things. It’s quite convenient that true religion never has to be anything other than a rhetorical defeater for criticism of religious fanaticism. Way too much special pleading…

    • Sastra
      Posted January 24, 2015 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Funny how the outcome of “True religion” has an uncanny way of looking exactly like the ideals of humanism.

      • kelskye
        Posted January 25, 2015 at 12:17 am | Permalink

        Indeed. But it’s always worth remembering that humanism is never a complete ethical philosophy because it lacks that indescribable feature only religion can provide.

        • Posted January 25, 2015 at 3:58 am | Permalink

          What about “religious humanism”?


        • Sastra
          Posted January 25, 2015 at 10:59 am | Permalink

          Yes. Humanism doesn’t give its adherents the capacity to say “God settled it, so we’re done now.”

          Nor does it grant humanists the wonderful feature of extended high-level discourse, of getting into whether or not the other guy understands God correctly. Those delightful discussions can happily entertain theists of all stripes for years — decades and centuries, even.

  35. Posted January 24, 2015 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne you wrote:

    “Further, she mentions only a single “forensic psychiatrist” who says that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism. Well, there are others who conclude the opposite. I’ll cite just one: Nicolai Sennels, who just published a piece called “Why Islam creates monsters.” Sennels is no tyro: he’s a Danish psychologist who works with Muslim youth who have committed crimes, and has written a book called Among Criminal Muslims. A Psychologist’s Experience from the Copenhagen Municipality.”

    Looked everywhere for this book and could not even find an image of the cover (that often works for books out of print). Found a mention that it was “forthcoming” in 2010 but no publication date or review. I read the article “Why Islam creates monsters” and found no evidence of anything remotely scholarly but did find a lot of prejudice, recycled stereotypes, no historical depth and no distance at all on the part of the author with his own culture and its assumptions. He worked as a psychologist in a prison and claims to have treated 150 Muslim youths. Nothing he says about them or about himself shows he is equipped to deal with his own confirmation bias. Nothing he says indicates he is basing his statements on anything other than personal and unsystematic observation. He makes no reference to other articles or studies of any kind. I read a few other interviews with him or articles by him and found the same thing as well as the exact same phrases over and over again.

    If you criticize Armstrong for citing a single source and then only cite one yourself, it had better be a credible one.

    • Another Tom
      Posted January 25, 2015 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      All of the Abrahamic religions require barbaric violence, it’s just that certain Muslims haven’t learned to ignore those bits like Christians and Jews have. Have you even read the old testament?

  36. Posted January 24, 2015 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    On the subject of tip-toeing around Islam, there is evidently also an effort to polish up the life and accomplishments of King Abdulla. People are calling him a “reformer” and a “strong advocate for women” without acknowledging that he was a *monarch* of a state known for oppression of women, minoroties and independent thought. Will Wheaton had some interesting things to say about Abdulla.

    • Posted January 24, 2015 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, those were not Wheaton’s words but rather Zack Beauchamp. The correct link is here.

%d bloggers like this: