The Secular and the Sacred, One More Time


Fields of Blood – Religion and the History of Violence, by Karen Armstrong

Armstrong’s confession here lies in the growing opinion among the general populace that institutionalized violence, such a war, genocide, or slavery, is the engine that drives religion. Not so, says the author; both secular and religious worlds have known their share of violence.

She begins with the pre-modern world, in which there was little separation within a culture between religion and activities we today place in the secular world. Violence in the premodern world was between cultures, with no assessment of blame for such violence on any subset of a culture. I’m skipping a lot here, but Armstrong believes as technology and the Enlightenment’s tool of reason began to separate a culture into subsets, the secular world, while espousing a lot of high-minded thought, had a dark side: the Enlightenment was the purview of the well off, and that group had little to say about slavery, the subjugation of poorer peoples and cultures. Meanwhile religion, while espousing similar high-minded ideals, favored war and genocide to protect its ability to develop and preserve those high-minded ideals.

I find a lot of fault with Armstrong’s reasoning here, but this is a book review not a philosophical debate. Her history, while accurate, homes in on only those facets of cultural development that might support her thesis. Still, her arguments are detailed and well documented. In the end, however, the failures of human social development seem not to be either secular or religious; instead, they’re the failures within the psyche of humanity itself

This isn’t a casual read; it’s academic in nature, and if you’re a proponent on one side or the other of the secular-sacred debate, you might want to pore over this book for weeks on end.

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

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