We hear it everywhere today, implicitly or explicitly: Religion is inherently violent, and it causes wars. It is religion (in this case, Islam) that is leading the Islamic State militant group to champion and use violence -- even promote beheadings -- to achieve its ends. When we hear news about the Middle East, it is largely the story of sectarian struggles between Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims, or Israeli Jews vs. Palestinian Muslims, or a story about Christians being persecuted. Religion comes across as the culprit.
It's often the same when we study history. We learn about the Crusades as "religious wars" with European Christians seeking to drive Muslims from the Holy Land. The Inquisition is described as a campaign to wipe out heretics and others -- motivated 100 percent by religion. We even call the strife in Europe that followed the Reformation the "Wars of Religion."
That's why Karen Armstrong's new book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, is so important. It has been widely acclaimed for its scholarship, and deservedly so. It is also very readable. Armstrong is one of the world's leading scholars of religion, and she has studied all the major faith traditions.
I was privileged to interview her for "Interfaith Voices" last week on the important subject of her book.
Her conclusion about religion and violence? Here is what she says in the afterword: "We have seen that, like the weather, religion 'does lots of different things.' To claim that it has a single, unchanging, and inherently violent essence is not accurate."
Religion is often a presence in warfare, she says, but it's not the cause. The causes are political and economic, struggles for power, hegemony, wealth and territory. And leaders who seek power or wealth often try to use religion to achieve their own ends.
On the other hand, she notes, it is religion that most often calls us away from warfare toward peace. She quotes the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament and the Quran on that score.