Karen Armstrong on secularism, religion, and political violence

I found this long form by Karen Armstrong interesting food for thought. I’d love to see what you guys think of it:


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OK, straight off the bat, having seen only the title and before I’ve even read the thing; I predict this to be an apologists sophistry founded upon the authors predilection for finding novel methods of presenting well trodden paths of anti-reason.

But let’s just see shall we…

First few paragraphs; laying groundwork for the bait-and-switch.

We now take the secular state so much for granted that it is hard for us to appreciate its novelty, since before the modern period, there were no “secular” institutions and no “secular” states in our sense of the word. Their creation required the development of an entirely different understanding of religion, one that was unique to the modern west. No other culture has had anything remotely like it, and before the 18th century, it would have been incomprehensible even to European Catholics.

I read as: ‘You won’t be able to prove me wrong because I am espousing a new and dynamic interpretation of that which no human could have previously wrought, just like my fore-bearers.’

[Still waiting to be proven wrong, I like it when that happens but… don’t expect that here]

Getting a sense of the argument now: ‘No true religious person…’

Luther’s view of religion, as an essentially subjective and private quest over which the state had no jurisdiction, would be the foundation of the modern secular ideal.

Secularism grew out of modern philosophical religious piety like order grows out of chaos, see!

The pioneers of secularism seemed to be falling into the same old habits as their religious predecessors.

Re-branding human nature, I don’t doubt.

If we define the sacred as that for which we are prepared to die

I need a glass of wine. Be right back.

The Enlightenment philosophers had tried to counter the intolerance and bigotry that they associated with 'religion” by promoting the equality of all human beings, together with democracy, human rights, and intellectual and political liberty, modern secular versions of ideals which had been promoted in a religious idiom in the past.

The same secularism that is in fact just ‘true’ religious piety in disguise?

In almost every region of the world where secular governments have been established with a goal of separating religion and politics, a counter-cultural movement has developed in response, determined to bring religion back into public life. What we call “fundamentalism” has always existed in a symbiotic relationship with a secularisation that is experienced as cruel, violent and invasive…

I just threw up in my mouth a little.

I called out a bait and switch. Well, the bait was there but never the switch.

At no point was the following proposition ever actually dealt with:

The popular belief that religion is the cause of the world’s bloodiest conflicts is central to our modern conviction that faith and politics should never mix. But the messy history of their separation suggests it was never so simple

As far as I can tell the labored argument is that secularism is a cancerous growth out of religion which the religious body seeks to destroy as an infection. Religio-secularism is therefor responsible for the (super-)natural imuno-reponse of the religious world and is therefor responsible for the backlash as much as the murderous hordes of religiously fueled warriors.

Sophistry. Apologistry. Nonsense. Bullshit.

No true secularist concatenated with no true religion-ist.

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tl;dr people suck, regardless of their religious beliefs. :wink:

I’ve always thought it odd to expect religious people to do anything other than put what they imagine are the desires of their deities first, ahead of any secular state laws - if I believed in an all-powerful being who could condemn me to eternal damnation I’d sure as hell (hah!) do what I thought they wanted, too. Luckily I don’t.


That’s totally true… I think that’s kind of part of her argument in a way. She points out that the new state churches and secular states were pretty violent. But that doesn’t mean that we can try to figure out what the causes of state violence are or historically have been.

To be fair to religious people, I think we should take them on their actions, rather than on their belief in a god per se. If their god tells them to love thy neighbor, care for their communities, keep and open mind and heart to the world, etc, we should welcome that. If their god tells them to chop of the heads of their enemies (or most often, those in their faith who are dissenting, who, let’s face are the real victims here of groups like ISIS - other Muslims), then of course, they are pretty fucking evil… but the point is that there is this expectation that the way the west developed during the early modern period is THE WAY to develop, that the only way to run a state that is fair, democratic, and egalitarian is to have a secular state that upholds the values of secularism. It ignores the more complicated history of how… for lack of a better term… exceptional Europe and the US were (although maybe she’s getting into a little trouble here with Western exceptionalism) and the complicated history of religious states over all. I’d argue that it works for us, but we shouldn’t not reject a religiously oriented state out of hand. I think that’s what she’s getting at. We talk about self-determination, but often we don’t allow it to happen if it’s not happening “correctly”. It’s not either an ISIS caliphate or a state of atheists/secularists. There are infinite shades of grey… I mean, if tomorrow, Tibet became an independent state, and the Dali Lama could return to power as the head of state, do you honestly think there wouldn’t be an inordinate amount of pressure on him from the west to be only the spiritual leader of Tibet and to give up all political power to a secular government? And do you think that we would pay any more heed to the demands of the Tibetian people than we do to, say the Egyptians, who supported a (albeit flawed, yet democratically elected) government?

I think over all, she’s arguing we need to see that it’s not religion that specifically causes violence, but it is the exercise of power of others that causes violence, and that can come in many guises - religious, secular, etc.

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Yes, her thesis is easily disproved just by looking at the bible…

Matthew 22:21

Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

Sorry Karen Armstrong, but the idea of state and religion being separable is an ancient one. I’d say “nice try,” but it wasn’t.


Well, the Dalai Lama was elected through regular democratic process…

but anyway, to come anywhere near close to giving her argument any credence, I’d have to first suppose that secularised rulers of historically religious communities thought of their crowd control methods as anything other than a veil of modernity to present to the outside world whist dealing with their embattled populace (when has a religion not felt (or been programmed to feel) embattled?).

It’s hard to pin her down because she doesn’t appear to actually be making any kind of an argument. Just an appeal to sophistry. “Oh, well; it’s more complicated than that”.

Well of course it’s more complicated than that. Humans have an innate tendency to look for the numinous in their lives. Morally bankrupt or self-confused ‘spiritual leaders’ take advantage of this neurological predisposition to violent effect. The idea that the nascent secular ideology is responsible for the innate corruption and laziness of the majority of the public in their quest to belong with their peers is associative at best and morally repugnant at worst.

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Ah but modern secularism is new and makes new mistakes which are new and not like the old mistakes of old. Even though the new mistakes are the same as the old mistakes which aren’t different anyway.

She specifically mentions that in her article:

Jesus’s famous maxim to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” was not a plea for the separation of religion and politics. Nearly all the uprisings against Rome in first-century Palestine were inspired by the conviction that the Land of Israel and its produce belonged to God, so that there was, therefore, precious little to “give back” to Caesar.

Whether you buy her argument or not is a different matter, of course.


True, but then that illustrates the point that religious doesn’t always equal non-democratic, which is one of the arguments she’s attempting to refute. Democracy can be a variable political tool and it works best when it actually represents peoples needs and desires for how they are governed. But all too often, the west doesn’t support democracy, but it supports democracy as it was defined by the French/American revolutions. We have a real blind spot for other kinds of democratic practices that aren’t constitutional and that’s a problem.

So have so-called secular leaders, though. Which is her point, I think. It’s not that secularism = bad, religious rule = good, it’s that folks like Sam Harris have done the exact opposite, said that religious = bad, secular = good, which historically hasn’t been the case. Her argument is that it’s not religion that is the cause of violence, but rather the pursuit and exorcise of power itself that is the problem, in whatever its form - religious or secular. She uses historical examples of both religious and secular violence to show that… She’s explaining why people in places like the middle east seem to reject the things we value - secularism, being one of those.

I don’t think that’s what she’s arguing, frankly. Western ideologies and imperialism are at the root of much of the violence in places like the middle east. where we regularly support dictators of a religious stripe because they were a counter to leftists secularists that we deemed bad. Now, we seem to be doing some of the opposite of that - supporting the military coup of an elected official in Egypt. Except of course, in the case of the Saudis, who regularly suppress their own religious minorities…

Incidentally, you can make the same sort of arguments about public vs. the private sphere… these are new fangled conceptions (historically speaking).

I meant that there are no true spiritual leaders.
In the Relgious or in the secular sense. They all attempt to leverage their power using the same innate tendancy of humanity.

I don’t disagree that secular leaders cause violence in the name of ‘goodness’, does anybody? Is that what she is arguing?

What on earth is she arguing?

Let’s look at the title of her piece for a clue (because there is very little else to clue us in as to her purpose):

The myth of religious violence

Well that seems pretty clear; she hopes to call into question the fundamental assumption that religiosity is innately associated with violence. But let’s continue with the tag line, perhaps that will offer some further enlightenment:

The popular belief that religion is the cause of the world’s bloodiest conflicts is central to our modern conviction that faith and politics should never mix.

I ask you; is it? Is that why religion and politics should not mix? Is it that glaringly central? Perhaps it is actually based upon a desire to keep the fundamentally non-rational basis of behavior out of processes which deal with the real exigencies of managing large groups of people? Where does the violence come into such a rational notion? Centrally, no doubt, to the human condition. This is going the way of the fundamentalist argument, ‘Submit to God, scum, for ye are evil’.

Let’s continue:

But the messy history of their separation suggests it was never so simple

What? What was never so simple? The notion that violence is in the heart of all humans? The notion that all secular society wants is to protect itself from the screaming maw of violence it attributes to all religion.

This is not just shaky ground, it’s a fantasy of smoke and mirrors and tells many a tale of her ideological basis and underlying assumptions concerning the topic.

I do apologise if I’ve over posted or seemed overly angry in this thread but I detest the weak and willfully corrosive excuses for ideas she promulgates in her piece; with a passion.

But there’s that violence inherent to all humanity, breaking liminality, yet again.


Another western intellectual who seems to think that religion really means “Christianity, oh and those other two”.

That’s a good point and I think you’re right - but she’s dealing with specific issues in a specific place. She’s speaking the the largely secularized Christian west and the policies made by those countries that are being carried out in the Middle East, so yeah, it is focused on the Abrahamic faiths, but for a particular reason.

How so? Are you saying that no one acts out of conviction, that we’re all just out to accrue power to ourselves?

What is your criteria for “non-rational” behavior… because there is plenty of secular and scientific ideas that are or were historically irrational. Nationalism is not rational, and yet is often secular in nature (as she points out - a new faith). Eugenics was not rational, yet was wholly science based (of course, now rejected by most sane people). There was nothing inherently irrational in the religious orientation of the civil rights movement - it was based on the notion of the people’s individual humanity that must be respected. Our actions in the middle east since 9/11 have all been based on what are supposed to be reasonable arguments about protecting the homeland, but is slaughter people and not keeping up with the numbers killed actually rational? How is the drone program anywhere near rational?

What a makes you say this? We’ve always killed each other, so it must be natural? How is that rational thinking and what evidence to you have to argue that violence is natural to human behavior?

Violent acts are not inexplicably connected to the human condition - they have a history and a context, which can be understood and explained. She’s arguing that while people can and do act violently in the name of religion, it is not the reason or the only reason they are acting violently. Religion can and will be used to justify violence, but so are any number of other reasons - national security, for example.

And there are plenty of people who feel this way in our society, as well you should know. They blame unrest in various parts of the world not on history and context (which includes a long and violent history of imperialism and subjugation), but to what they consider people’s irrational beliefs in a god. By focusing on that, you elide the historical context, and make it ahistorical actions that have no basis in any kind of legitimacy. The west still sets the standard for what is justifiable actions in other words. That’s the argument that she’s trying to make. If people have rejected the American model of statehood, it’s probably in part because we constantly support repressive regimes in the region.

No worries. You have nothing to apologize for. I like that you’re engaging on the ideas rather than just name calling. I disagree, obviously, but I don’t take your anger personally. It was in fact why I posted this article because I was interested in some discussion and debate. :wink:

‘People do bad things because they are people. Some claim to be religious, some claim to be secular; but the rub is that there is no clear divide between these concepts when we take historical examples of powerful entities acting as carriers of their chosen flame. One of two flames taken from the same first-candle. Human violence.’

I get it (I think) but call into question the basis of her argument. Up may very well be down when viewed from the relevant perspective but what language game must we engage in to differentiate philosophical concepts in the context of such an intractably mired mitwelt?

I don’t see her as having called into question the concept of religious violence. Or even questioned the context of all-around violence. It smacks of American Republicans defending themselves by pointing out similar (if never quite the simulacrum of the) behaviour by the Dems.

I’m answering this on a bus and it’s difficult to type. Will revisit with a more complete answer laters.

oh. Just to add. Im getting the ‘violence in the heart of all’ from her coconceptualisation.

Is violence always illegitmate? I think we’d agree not necessarily. But maybe we can say that legitimacy of violence is a different set of questions. She arguing that violence that is backed and legitimized in a religious voice is treated as less legitimate than violence backed by a secular state in western discourse. So, first, I think she wants to get at the heart of this notion of how violence is made legitimate and who gets to make that judgement.

Okay, but honestly that’s not what I got out of her argument - I got that we need to understand why it happens in the first place - see it as historically contingent - and that it’s not religion that is necessarily at the root of violence. She points out, for example, the situation in the Balkans at the end of the Ottoman Empire - the people who carried out the Armenia genocide were Turkic nationalists, not religious fundamentalists (I do wish she had pointed out the Sykes-Pichot agreement when discussing the population swaps after the first world, because it was not just turkey pushing out people, the violence did go both ways and had the approval of the League of nations… but whatever). I think she’s arguing, contra Stephen Pinker, that modernity (including secularization) in Europe was a violent process and this was replicated the world over (including in the communist world in the second half of the 20th century).

The environment thanks you (unlike my suburban living, car driving ass)! Enjoy the bus ride!

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Which means “Christianity” in context.

Ima go back and read the article again in light of your perspective. But not tonight.

LOL typo but… yeah. I like it.

Maybe co-conceptualisation though.

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Well, I think she’s focused on Western/Christian interpretations of Islam, but yes. Again, fair enough, but she is talking about specifically the west and the secular Christian world-view. I don’t think she’s doing that to deny the existence or reality of other faiths, but because she’s focusing on a particular issue within that context…

FYI - John Gray wrote a review of Karen Armstrong’s new book:

@Israel_B it distinctly discusses non-Abrahamic, non-western religions…

I read it again.

Who is Karen Armstrong, what is she likely to be arguing for, what is the motivational subtext to her promotion of her ideas, how does the world impact and how does she intend for the world to be impacted by her ratiocination of principle?


I say that religion isn’t about believing things. It’s about what you do. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.

She maintains that religious fundamentalism is not just a response to, but is a product of contemporary culture and for this reason concludes that, “We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.”

Perhaps, buried in there, is an excuse for her weak equivications.

The myth of religious violence

The popular belief that religion is the cause of the world’s bloodiest conflicts is central to our modern conviction that faith and politics should never mix. But the messy history of their separation suggests it was never so simple.

The popular belief that religion is the cause of the world’s bloodiest conflicts

I wouldn’t argue with the principle here but she’s framing it to allow for weaselling room.

Were they really the world’s most bloody?

The direct cause of the conflicts? etc.

Why are we focusing on ‘conflicts’ specifically, why not ‘violence’? Violence would also capture ‘conflicts’… but it’s to be conflicts and uprisings we are to concentrate on… for reasons I’ll leave to your imagination to uncover.

Oh! Silly popularity!

I think the moderating phraseology would be something like; ‘Religion is responsible, by multitudinous avenues, for much of the violence in societies it dominates’; there, nice and fair; funny how it still sounds galling and wretched, no?

faith and politics should never mix.

She is a ‘Brit’, speaking to an American and Americanised audience, whom she knows well, so her turn of phrase for ‘Separation of Church and State’ is instead; ‘…faith and politics should never mix.’ Is she pandering to an American audience? Certainly it’s not a formalised notion in Brit-Land. Our politicians have been debating whether or not the Hallowed shores of the glittering Isles of Great Goodness Britain should even entertain such a confabulated notion.

Nick Clegg restates view on separation of church and state

Oh but maybe she’s just treating it in such universal tones because, deep down, isn’t that just what everyone believes? Apart from most of the religious people on the planet, of whom she is one; and one avowed to breaking down “political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries”, isn’t it just an assumptive, a-priori condition of our modern cultural mindset?

So, the argument to make, then, is: ‘It is not, or perhaps, Should not be an accepted truth’. How is she to go about illuminating this misunderstanding?

the messy history of their separation suggests it was never so simple.

The plot thickens.

The ferocious cruelty of these jihadist fighters, quoting the Qur’an as they behead their hapless victims, raises another distinctly modern concern: the connection between religion and violence.

That’ll have been, what? Since the enlightenment then? How modern are we talking here?

‘People believe’ …there is a violent essence inherent in religion, which inevitably radicalises any conflict because once combatants are convinced that God is on their side, compromise becomes impossible and cruelty knows no bounds.

After all, warfare and violence have always been a feature of political life, and yet we alone drew the conclusion that separating the church from the state was a prerequisite for peace.

There’s that American leaning again, with the actual phrase now in use. ‘Church and State’.
So, the argument is to be framed against the backdrop of conflicts, concerning a modern mode of secular behaviour that we mistakenly believe excludes the function of religion to radicalise those conflicts.

So, to the meat of the argument:

The words in other languages that we translate as “religion” invariably refer to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive.

This reads like a warning “It’s going to be really hard to pin down what I meeeeaan”. /singsong

Reinforced by the quote from Ghandi -

“Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

Before the modern period, religion was not a separate activity, hermetically sealed off from all others; rather, it permeated all human undertakings

She’s not making the point that I am about religiously fuelled violence dominating cultures but It’s still ironic that she would acknowledge this, especially as this ‘permeation’ is what the ancstors of her American audience fled to avoid.

The Crusades were certainly inspired by religious passion but they were also deeply political: Pope Urban II let the knights of Christendom loose on the Muslim world to extend the power of the church eastwards and create a papal monarchy that would control Christian Europe. The Spanish inquisition was a deeply flawed attempt to secure the internal order of Spain after a divisive civil war, at a time when the nation feared an imminent attack by the Ottoman empire. Similarly, the European wars of religion and the thirty years war were certainly exacerbated by the sectarian quarrels of Protestants and Catholics, but their violence reflected the birth pangs of the modern nation-state.

It was these European wars, in the 16th and 17th centuries, that helped create what has been called “the myth of religious violence”.

I’m glad we’re finally getting to hear about it, this myth, caused by this shallow pool of time.

If the wars of religion had been solely motivated by sectarian bigotry, we should not expect to have found Protestants and Catholics fighting on the same side, yet in fact they often did so.

After briefly flashing a tease of the true underlying bait of the argument, religious violence, she quickly switches back to reinforcing the ‘conflict’ framing by using the example of ‘natural’ religious enimies fighting alongside one another; see? That disproves religious violence that does.

These wars were neither “all about religion” nor “all about politics”. Nor was it a question of the state simply “using” religion for political ends. There was as yet no coherent way to divide religious causes from social causes. People were fighting for different visions of society, but they would not, and could not, have distinguished between religious and temporal factors in these conflicts. Until the 18th century, dissociating the two would have been like trying to take the gin out of a cocktail.

Remember how mixed up it all was and in some places, still is and how we mistakenly think that we are no longer mixed up with it; ‘Fighting’ as we are for ‘different visions of society’. Conflicts, yeah?

Henceforth Europe would be divided into smaller states, each claiming sovereign power in its own territory, each supported by a professional army and governed by a prince who aspired to absolute rule…

When the new word “secularisation” was coined in the late 16th century, it originally referred to “the transfer of goods from the possession of the church into that of the world”. This was a wholly new experiment. It was not a question of the west discovering a natural law; rather, secularisation was a contingent development.

Power changed hands from the Church to the ‘Pre-ordained by God’.

The beginnings of your there Secularism don’t seem too Secularistic no more, do they? Huh? /20’s Gangster

Secularism was designed to create a peaceful world order, but the church was so intricately involved in the economic, political and cultural structures of society that the secular order could only be established with a measure of violence.

This’ll be that mixed-upness we were expecting.
Secularist fantasists found they had to use violence to gain control of the people who were overcome with religious fantasies.

Is there any doubt that people use violence to control people? What bearing does the abuse of power, in and of itself, have on the notion of religiouly caused violence? Does it show it to be a myth? **Does the pure fact of the existence of violence undermine the concept that religion is responsible for the violence it causes?**This constitutes the core of her argument and she goes on with some examples.

In almost every region of the world where secular governments have been established with a goal of separating religion and politics, a counter-cultural movement has developed in response, determined to bring religion back into public life. What we call “fundamentalism” has always existed in a symbiotic relationship with a secularisation that is experienced as cruel, violent and invasive. All too often an aggressive secularism has pushed religion into a violent riposte. Every fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation, convinced that the liberal or secular establishment is determined to destroy their way of life.

If some Muslims today fight shy of secularism, it is not because they have been brainwashed by their faith but because they have often experienced efforts at secularisation in a particularly virulent form.

More examples of how externalised secularism pushes into the ‘political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries’, and they push back.

After a bumpy beginning, secularism has undoubtedly been valuable to the west, but we would be wrong to regard it as a universal law. It emerged as a particular and unique feature of the historical process in Europe; it was an evolutionary adaptation to a very specific set of circumstances.

The enlightenments and the establishment of America and then eventually a less violent state of affairs in the West is not based on some underlying inalienable rights or expectations we should have concerning quality of life but rather a weird evolutionary path brought about by exceptional circumstances we experienced unlike anywhere else.

What the hell is she even arguing here? It’s for bloody Original Sin! Holy Crap I didn’t see it before, she’s actually arguing for the chaos of original sin, that is real cultural reality! No wonder she wants compassion to break down the walls of the big, mixed-up mess.

She wants to ‘SAVE’ them, not fail to violently inflict some fantastic and vapid notion of secularity on people as that just begets more violence.

And she kind of just peters out doesn’t she. The bait and switch of ‘religiously caused conflicts’ with the ‘responsibility of religion for the violence it causes’ was only ever a smokescreen that she could use to segue into giving examples of violently founded, special-circumstances western-secular-society causing violence itself. No revelation that undermines the fantasy of religious violence, no exculpatory evidence which exonerates religion from the violence it causes.

Just a false equivocation of religion with general human activity and the accusation that secularity is the Real Culprit for the cause of violence as we strange mutants try to violently force it on people for whom it could never, will never work.