IN 1899 an international peace conference was held in The Hague to decide the laws of war. One topic discussed was the devastating armaments being used by European armies to subdue their overseas colonies, such as the Armstrong gun and the Shrapnel shell. Sir John Ardagh, a conference delegate, defended this practice. “The savage, like the tiger, is not so impressionable and will go on fighting even when desperately wounded,” he argued. In other words, mass slaughter was more humane. Fifteen years later the same weapons were tearing up the Western Front.

Fields of Blood: Religion and the history of violence is filled with stories like this, stories of such casual horror, and after a while they lose their sting. As Sir John’s defense showed, secular values worked just as well when trying to justify these horrors. That said, religion, too, has been one of the most popular excuses — something the book’s author, Karen Armstrong, admits from the outset. What she disputes is the idea that religion is inherently violent, or that religious belief makes conflict inevitable. Instead, Fields of Blood looks at the many ways these fundamentals of human experience have been bound together for the last five millennia.

Armstrong’s account begins in Mesopotamia, around the time that civilization itself started. The ancient Sumerians were some of the first to found cities, build political institutions, and create armies. An aristocratic class took control of the military, initially to defend their settlements, but later they used this monopoly on violence to dominate their subjects. Throughout Fields of Blood, Armstrong draws our attention to this second type of violence — the structural violence — as a subtler but no less brutal form of harm.

Aristocrats, freed from the need to farm, turned their efforts to science and poetry. Thanks to the Epic of Gilgamesh, we have some record of their religious practices too. According to Armstrong, the Sumerian pantheon was a celestial prototype for life on earth: “The Sumerians knew that their stratified society was a shocking departure from the egalitarian norm that had prevailed from time immemorial, but they were convinced that it was somehow enshrined in the very nature of things and that even the gods were bound by it.”

Little surprise that later kings and generals would hijack popular religious teaching to serve their own ends. Even though Jesus himself was a pacifist who lived among outcasts, after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (312AD), Christianity was absorbed by an imperial ideology. Similarly, as Arab armies overwhelmed the kingdoms of the Levant in the early decades of Islam, Muslim leaders embraced the more militant Muhammad of ahadith — the recorded sayings and stories of the Prophet — who “gave fighting a spiritual dimension it never had in the Quran.” Yet, whenever this hijacking took place, alternative religious movements developed in response. As the Romans brought Christianity into the centers of power, the earliest monastic communities were founded on the edges of the Egyptian desert. While the Umayyad Caliphs built an empire stretching from Afghanistan to Spain, the mystic and ascetic branch of Islam later known as Sufism was also established.

Armstrong is not debating orthodoxy. Although critical of certain religious traditions, her main aim is to show how the same creeds can give rise to different interpretations. Fields of Blood covers everything from Hindu Brahmins to Wahhabi jihadists, but its 400 pages could be summarized in a single sentence: “Identical religious beliefs and practices have inspired diametrically opposed courses of action.” It is impossible to talk about religions as if they had a unified essence or compelled their followers to act in only one way.

The point is obvious but, as Armstrong notices, too often ignored in contemporary conversations about belief, where we hear that religion has been behind half the wars of history. Advocates of this position include the most prominent of the New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. In the years after 9/11 the New Atheists weaponized secularism by inverting Ivan Karamazov’s famous dictum: it was belief in God, they argued, that made everything permissible. There have always been good people, always been bad people, but only religion can turn the good into bad, licensing acts of cruelty that would be unimaginable to a non-believer.

This was an impressive critique, and at times convincing. Over the last decade and a half we have seen countless crimes committed on apparently theological grounds. The New Atheists argued that such acts of aggression were not only to be found on the fringes of faith, but they were a consequence of the blind righteousness at the center of religion. Get rid of religion and the bombs, the beheadings, the kidnappings, and the massacres will all stop.

Despite the popularity of this view, treating faith as an independent set of ideas that can be isolated from the rest of life is an odd habit: very modern, very Protestant, and — Karen Armstrong points out — very misguided. To understand why, look at the shifting meaning of the word belief. The Middle English beleven might be defined as “commitment” or “loyalty” — a sense still implied by the phrase “I believe in you.” But after the Reformation, the definition changed. Belief became the intellectual acceptance of a doctrine, transforming it from something you do to something you think. Religion stopped being a matter of public obligation and became an issue of private conscience.

With a new model of faith came a new model of the state, responsible for protecting its citizens but not for saving their souls. “In Luther’s political writings we see the arrival of ‘religion’ as a discrete activity, separate from the world as a whole, which it had previously permeated,” says Armstrong. Locke’s liberal social contract was based on this principle, as was the Founding Fathers’ separation of church and state.

But for most of human history, people have had a far more generous understanding of religion. This was articulated more fully in Karen Armstrong’s 2009 book The Case for God, which raced the reader through the three thousand years of Western theology, while emphasizing just how literalist, even fundamentalist, our current notion of the divine is. We increasingly think of religion as an institution or philosophy, easily excluded from other experience. Yet, outside of the West, our narrow conception of religion is hard to translate.

Fields of Blood goes further, arguing that this narrowness is the reason so many blame religion for cruelty and conflict. Step back from the modern mindset, approach religion as something closer to culture or character, and it will no longer make sense to present it as a cause for anything. It is not religion that makes us violent but us that make religion violent.

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Most religions agree that our deaths are meaningful. Sacrifice is a ritualized enactment of this meaning. When a soldier is killed in combat, his or her loss will be described as a sacrifice to suggest that the death was not futile but in the service of some higher cause. Warfare, like worship, can provide even the most aimless life with a sense of purpose. Fields of Blood is interested in these moments when religion and violence resemble each other. “One of the many, intertwined motives driving men to the battlefields has been the tedium and pointlessness of ordinary domestic experience,” Armstrong observes. “The same hunger for intensity would compel others to become monks and ascetics.”

Perhaps this is why religion, like violence, is such a hard habit to break. In the late 18th century, not long after France’s revolutionary government dismantled the country’s Church, they established a new religion: the Culte de la Raison, based on Enlightenment principles. The Culte was inaugurated during a splendid ceremony in Notre Dame, newly rechristened as a Temple of Reason. Then, having overthrown an oppressive ruling class on behalf of the people, revolutionary armies went around the provinces destroying any opposition to the new republic. In one appalling campaign in the Vendée, a quarter of a million farmers, artisans, and shopkeepers were killed for trying to hold onto their Catholicism.

With the French Republic the paradox of modern politics was first exposed. “The new nation-state would labor under a fundamental contradiction: the state (the governmental apparatus) was supposed to be secular, but the nation (‘the people’) aroused quasi-religious emotions.” Nationalism gave patriotism a fanatical edge. Fields of Blood makes the case that it is nationalism — not religion — that carries most the responsibility for the imperialism of the 19th century, the world wars of the 20th century, and the intermittent genocides that stain both these periods.

Things get a bit messy here. “If we can define the sacred as something for which one is prepared to die,” Armstrong writes, “the nation had certainly become the embodiment of the divine, a supreme value.” However, if the nation-state has turned nationalism into a surrogate belief system, then “religion” is still to blame for the catastrophic events of our recent history. A perverted form of religion maybe — replacing creeds with constitutions, swapping Pater Noster for Patria Nostra — but the same sacrificial impulse. Without intending to, Fields of Blood makes the case for more secularism.

Armstrong could have avoided this trap. In truth, many of those who die for their country are fighting for something less lofty: devotion to friends and family, for example. Nationalism exists in as many varieties as there are nations; to blame it for any particular conflict is reductive. For a complex situation, isolating just one cause means misunderstanding the situation — as Armstrong made clear about those who single out belief. Fields of Blood is rigorous about untangling the knotted relationship between religion and violence but surprisingly woolly when it comes to other causes of conflict.

Which brings us back to “structural violence.” Throughout Fields of Blood, Armstrong tries to show how the exploitation of the productive majority by the spoiled minority can be just as damaging as cut-and-thrust conflict. She goes on to argue that structural violence is the real reason behind much of the hostility blamed on religion. Scratch the surface of religious violence and you will always find a deeper injustice or inequality. For her, structural violence in the Middle East — a consequence of the historic abuses of colonialism, the shoddy settlements left by outgoing empires, and the subsequent meddling of anxious superpowers — largely explains the terrorism that troubles it today.

Armstrong is right to criticize the scapegoating of religion, to emphasize the political basis of terror, and to recognize that the rich and powerful bear some responsibility for the aggression of those they oppress. However, in doing so she makes another scapegoat out of structural violence — and that’s something even more elusive than religion. To suggest that there is some equivalence between a drone attack and a terrorist attack is morally sensitive, but to equate economic exploitation with suicide bombing is ethical nonsense. This would have been prevented if Armstrong had laid out some basic political principles. Instead, Fields of Blood raises hard questions without answering them: In what cases can violence be justified? Is structural violence preferable to all-out war? And are mainstream religions in any way liable for the fundamentalists who commit violence in their name? After all, these are not abstract questions, not philosophical parlor games, but our most serious foreign policy challenges.

This is a shame, because Fields of Blood is, otherwise, a far more valuable guide to religious violence than the popular polemics against faith. Defeating terrorism requires a sincere effort to understand what it is that drives men and women toward extremism. The New Atheists are not much help here. In their uncompromising attitude toward belief they offer no guidance for engaging with believers. A more balanced approach makes for less passionate prose but might ultimately work. Karen Armstrong’s books have shown again and again the value of such an approach, and Fields of Blood is no exception. However, by tacking on a rather clumsy argument about inequality — that other fashionable area of contemporary debate — the sense of balance is lost, and she begins to look like the polemicists she has so elegantly criticized.

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Guy Stagg is a freelance journalist based in London. He is currently writing a book about pilgrimage.