Q&A: Karen Armstrong’s thinking shifts on religion and violence


Buddhists speak of the “third half of life,” and at age 70, Karen Armstrong is well into what might be called the third half of her career. First was a time as a member of a Catholic religious order — a nun — in England and as a student at Oxford. Next was a period when she served as the host of documentaries about religion on British television and the author of their tie-in books. And then came the impressive run of work she began with “A History of God” in 1993: big, clear, learned, opinionated books about religion, in which she at once cherishes the religious outlook and laments the abuses of religion, whether by churches, states or individual fanatics.

Such a book is “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” (Alfred A. Knopf: 512 pp., $30). Since 9/11 the conventional wisdom has insisted that religion and violence are inextricably intertwined. But Armstrong, who has never failed to call out religion for its failings, proposes that “modern society has made a scapegoat of faith.”

As in “The Battle for God” (about fundamentalism) and “The Great Transformation” (about the beginnings of the world religions), she moves confidently from one faith tradition to the next — and touches down on their encounters with violence: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the wars of religion following the Protestant Reformation, the bombings of the Boston Marathon. Her aim is to complicate the simple idea that religion has sponsored violence from its very beginnings.


She spoke in the lobby of a hotel in Washington, D.C., before giving a presentation about the book at a synagogue that evening.

When “A History of God” came out, you seemed to take a prosecutorial position toward organized religion. Now you seem much more religion’s advocate. Is that true, and if so, what accounts for the change?

Yes, it’s true. The change began while I was writing “A History of God.” I expected it to be like its predecessors: a rather smart, clever thing where I showed how people just “rejigged” the idea of God to suit their purposes. But things started to change there. I started seeing in depth how inadequate my idea of God had been. As a young girl, and a young nun, I thought of God as “up there.” Then reading all these people, Maimonides, Avicenna, Thomas Aquinas, all the great voices of the monotheistic tradition, and hearing them say that all our ideas of God are man-made and can’t possibly measure up to who God is — this was a start of the deepening of my understanding.

I tended to favor the individual and the mystical over the organized. But one of the things that I’ve learned is that religion is largely about community. People before Luther simply didn’t experience God in an individual way. You did it by living with the idea of God in community and acting kindly and creatively.

So much has happened involving religion in the 20 years since “A History of God.” Would you be here answering questions about a book with the subtitle “Religion and the History of Violence” if Islamic terrorists hadn’t struck the World Trade Center on 9/11?

In my TV years I worked on a series in Israel about the Crusades and the jihad. I had already started to think about both the current problems and the old problems but in a superficial way. And I deepened my thinking with my books on Jerusalem and then the book on fundamentalism, “The Battle for God”: Every single one of those fundamentalist movements is grounded in a sense of fear and a fear that could harden into rage. I’d also been disturbed by the anti-Islamic bias in Western culture, which goes back to the Crusades.


I wrote my book on the prophet Muhammad in the middle of writing “A History of God.” It was the time of the Salman Rushdie crisis. I hated the fatwa, of course, and I actually quite liked “The Satanic Verses.” What troubled me is the way his liberal supporters in the press moved from a condemnation of the fatwa to a condemnation of Islam as a violent, evil, bloodthirsty religion. I had an inchoate dread that this was something very dark. I understand how you feel when your creativity, your very life, is threatened. But I thought that we couldn’t afford this kind of rhetoric after what happened in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. It was this kind of bigotry that made the concentration camps possible.

So this book about the relation of religion and violence was begun as a way to write against the very idea that the one causes the other?

People start off these interviews by saying, “Of course nobody thinks that all wars are caused by religion” — and then they spend the rest of the interview trying to insist that it really is all about religion. I’m not saying religion is not implicated [in violence with a religious dimension]. But if we blinker ourselves and don’t look at all the other factors, we’re not seeing our situation straight.

The book is mostly devoted to the ways religion has sanctioned state violence and political violence. What about individual violence? The United States is said to be a notably religious society and a notably violent society. Is there a link?

In the West, the big thing that is pushing all this [violence] is a sense of meaninglessness — that life has no meaning. The men who arranged the bombings at the Boston Marathon were religiously nonobservant: They never went to the mosque. In surveys done of young men held up on terrorist charges since 9/11, only about 20% had had a religious upbringing. Many of them were nonobservant, or converts, or self-taught — like the young gunman in Canada, or the Nigerian converts who killed [British soldier] Lee Rigby in London.

Did you think of giving more attention to voices against violence in religious traditions?


Throughout the book I’ve tried to show how the various traditions devised ways to help people get over violence. How Jewish rabbis actually completely revised their interpretation of the Jewish scriptures to take the violence out. How the ideal of ahimsa took root strongly in India. And how Jesus, who was an excitable man, says that extraordinary thing: Love your enemies.

We’re living in a globalized world, and the great theme that religion can give us, and perhaps national mythologies cannot, is that we are profoundly interconnected. Our histories are intertwined; economically we’re absolutely bound up with one another; what happens in Syria has a blowback in Canada. So what the religions have insisted is that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group. You must love your enemies and reach out and practice what the Indian sages called equanimity: You cannot prefer one being to another. You cannot put yourself on a privileged pedestal, because that is no longer a rational response to our globalized world.

What do you make of Pope Francis?

Well, the other day I was asked what leader was doing something good in the world, and I said, “Well, I like what the pope is doing.” And then I stopped and realized I never thought I’d hear myself saying those words — never!

He is extraordinary, especially after the last two [popes]. He’s mastered the art of the gesture that speaks louder than words. Going home in the bus with the other bishops after he was elected. Living in that guesthouse, not in a palace but in a rather three-star-style apartment building. Leaning against the wall that separates the Israelis and Palestinians the same way he leaned against the Western Wall at Yad Vashem. What man does to man, what human beings do to human beings: that gesture had a huge impact in the Middle East.

He’s having a huge impact. I doubt it will last, because the Curia are willing to jump in on him. I just hope he’s with us for a while.


What’s your next book?

I’ve just finished this revision of the book on St. Paul — the same size as my little book on the Buddha, 50,000 words. And I thought I might like to do something about dying and death in the great traditions, because it’s something we push aside in our societies. Just as the religious traditions have a lot to tell us about reaching out to the other, the foreigner, the stranger, they probably have a lot to tell us about death and the process of dying.

Elie, a senior fellow with Georgetown University, is the author of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and “Reinventing Bach.”