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Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 28, 2014

4.2 out of 5 stars 276 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, November 2014: Does religion lead to violence? This is the question that Karen Armstrong, the erudite former nun, asks in Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. Her answer is “no”—or more specifically, that religion is not itself a source of violence and the problem lies more deeply in “our human nature and the nature of the state.” To prove her point, she covers roughly five thousand years of religious history, from Gilgamesh to the present day. Along the way, she builds the case against those who state, often without much context, that “religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.” This is both an apologia and a wide-ranging and very readable lesson in the history of religion. It may not completely change the mind of everyone who reads it; but like everything Armstrong writes, it will leave them more enriched. –Chris Schluep


“Impressive . . . Particularly valuable is the book’s long historical span, which allows the reader to trace not just the early history of warrior faith in such societies but also its evolution in modern times . . . That long historical reach allows Armstrong to argue very convincingly against some modern clichés about religious violence . . .  Fields of Blood has a terrific amount to offer virtually any reader.”
--Philip Jenkins, The Christian Century

“A vast overview of religious and world history, sketching the early evolution of all global faiths . . . Armstrong denounces authoritarian secularism with eloquent passion . . . [and] does a good job of explaining why people who are deeply invested in traditional beliefs and social systems feel threatened and inclined to fight back.”
--The Economist

“Careful, fair, and true . . . Armstrong demonstrates again and again that the great spasms of cruelty and killing through history have had little or no religious overlay . . . [and that] an overemphasis on religion’s damage can blind people to the nonholy terrors that their states inflict . . . Apart from its larger argument, the book is packed with little insights and discoveries . . . The page-by-page detail of the book is much of the reason to read it . . . I generally end up judging books in two ways: by whether I can remember them and whether they change the way I think about the world. It’s too soon to know about the first test, but on the basis of the second I recommend ‘Fields of Blood.’”
--James Fallows, New York Times Book Review
 “A valuable, readable rebuttal of a pernicious contemporary myth. The problem is not that religion corrupts human nature, but that human greed too often corrupts religion . . . Armstrong goes through the centuries and assorted cultures to demonstrate again and again how religious principles and religious leaders were co-opted to support warfare.”
--Sarah Bryan Miller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“A convincing case that the relationship of religion to violence is complicated and ambivalent.”
--Molly Farneth, Commonweal

“In a lucid and fleet prose . . . Armstrong argues that religion has been made a scapegoat for wars and violence . . . [She is] one of the keenest minds working on understanding the role religion plays in cultures around the globe.”
–Graydon Royce, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Armstrong comes out swinging . . . [Her] prose is crisp and lucid, her command of fact encyclopedic, and her insights often brilliant.”
–David Laskin, The Seattle Times
“So important . . . [Fields of Blood] has been widely acclaimed for its scholarship, and deservedly so.”
–Maureen Fiedler, National Catholic Reporter
 “Thought-provoking . . . a tour-de-force of the history of the world’s major religions.”
–Rebecca Denova, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“[A] bold new book . . . Armstrong makes a powerful case that critics like Dawkins ignore the lessons of the past and present in favor of a ‘dangerous oversimplification’ . . . [Her argument] is strong enough to change minds.”
–Randy Dotinga, The Christian Science Monitor

“With exquisite timing, religious historian Karen Armstrong steps forth with Fields of Blood . . . Laden with example . . . [Armstrong’s] overall objective is to call a time-out. Think before you leap to prejudice, she says . . . Among the most interesting stuff in [her] book is her deconstruction of the modern Islamic stereotype . . . In the end, the point Armstrong feels most adamant about is that by blaming religion for violence, we are deliberately and disastrously blinding ourselves to the real, animating issues in the Middle East and Africa.”
–Patricia Pearson, The Daily Beast

“Elegant and powerful . . . Both erudite and accurate, dazzling in its breadth of knowledge and historical detail . . . [Armstrong] seeks to demonstrate that, rather than putting the blame on the bloody images and legends in sacred texts and holy history, we should focus on the political contexts that frame religion.”
–Mark Juergensmeyer, The Washington Post

“A timely work . . . This passionately argued book is certain to provoke heated debate against the background of the Isis atrocities and many other acts of violence perpetrated around the world today in the name of religion.”
–John Cornwell, Financial Times
“Detailed and often riveting . . . a mighty offering . . . Armstrong can be relied on to have done her homework and she has the anthropologist’s respect for the ‘otherness’ of other cultures . . . [Her] oeuvre is extensive, bringing a rare mix of cool-headed scholarship and impassioned concern for humanity to bear on the vexed topic of religion . . . [And she] is nothing if not democratic in her exposition.”
–Salley Vickers, The Guardian (UK)
“Eloquent and empathetic, which is rare, and impartial, which is rarer . . . [Armstrong] ranges across the great empires and leading faiths of the world. Fields of Blood is never less than absorbing and most of the time as convincing as it is lucid and robust . . . [This] wonderful book certainly cleanses the mind. It may even do a little repair work on the heart.”
–Ferdinand Mount, The Spectator (UK)

“Characteristically eloquent and instructive . . . Armstrong’s survey of four millennia of organized violence with religious overtones . . . aspires to put historical flesh on the bare bones of [the facts] . . . Modern society “has made a scapegoat of faith”, thereby obscuring and thus partly exonerating the far more massive crimes of modern secular states and armies, while also defaming the majority of religious believers who work for tolerance, justice and peace by nonviolent means . . . We are all awash in “fields of blood”. [This] engaging new book makes that case eloquently.”
–Scott Appleby, The Tablet (UK)

“From Gilgamesh to bin Laden, [Armstrong covers] almost five millennia of human experience . . . Supplying the context of what may look like religiously motivated episodes of violence, in order to show that religion as such was not the prime cause . . . She is no doubt right to say that the aggression of a modern jihadist does not represent some timeless essence of religion, and that other political, economic and cultural factors loom large in the stories of how and why individuals become radicalized.”
–Noel Malcolm, The Telegraph (UK)

“Fluent and elegant, never quite long enough . . . as much about the nature of warfare as it is about faith . . . [Armstrong] is taking issue with a cliché, the routine claim that religion, advertising itself as humanity’s finest expression, has been responsible for most of the woes of the species . . . The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Wars of Religion, even modern “jihadi” terrorism: each is investigated . . . The picture is bleak, but certainly accurate . . . Exploitation and oppression continue . . . but these provide a challenge for the godly and the godless alike. The proposition, like the book, is noble.”
–Ian Bell, The Sunday Herald (Scotland)

“A well-written historical summary of what have traditionally been viewed as “religious” wars, showing convincingly that in pretty much all cases it was not so much religion as it was political issues that fueled the conflict.”
–Augustine J. Curley, Library Journal (starred review)

 “Provocative and supremely readable . . . the comparative nature of [Armstrong’s] inquiry is refreshing . . . Bracing as ever, [she] sweeps through religious history around the globe and over 4,000 years to explain the yoking of religion and violence and to elucidate the ways in which religion has also been used to counter violence.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Epic in scale . . . a comprehensive and erudite study of the history of violence in relation to religion . . . Armstrong leads readers patiently through history . . . her writing is clear and descriptive, her approach balanced and scholarly . . . An intriguing read, useful resource and definitive voice in defense of the divine in human culture.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Armstrong again impresses with the breadth of her knowledge and the skill with which she conveys it to us.”
–Ray Olson, Booklist (starred review)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (October 28, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307957047
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307957047
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (276 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #65,895 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By S. McGee TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 12, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is perhaps one of the most ambitious books I've ever read, and perhaps one of the most timely. As terrorists set about beheading hostages in Syria and Iraq in the name of Islam, Karen Armstrong has published a exhaustive analysis that sets out to get us to accept the proposition that it may not be religious doctrine alone that is responsible for violence.

In other words, enough of the lazy thinking.

Not that Armstrong herself would ever be rude enough to use a phrase like that. On the contrary, she simply lays out her theory, and lets the evidence do the talking. She clearly recognizes the strong opinions that people today have on her chosen topic, which is precisely why she has focused on it. She equally clearly believes that their exhausted cliches simply aren't up to the task of describing the far more complicated reality. Indeed, religious violence, she states flatly, may have less to do with religion than with politics and social order.

To make her case, Armstrong goes all the way back to the Sumerians, and the rise of agrarian societies that produced a surplus: a surplus that was purloined by the elite, who kept the vast community of peasants at subsistence level and kept them in line with their religious order. Indeed, in Armstrong's analysis, from the earliest days until the Enlightenment and the modern era, the sacred was tied intimately to political authority and political legitimately. And it was balanced. If violence was religious (the Inquisition; the crusades) so, too, were thoughtful leaders advocating peace and harmony (the Buddha, the Jains, on down to St. Francis and even Salah-ad-Din, who allowed Christians to leave Jerusalem unharmed at the height of the crusades.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Karen Armstrong's new book offers a dense but readable overview of the relationship between religion and violence. Although she only cites one of them by name, and that only briefly, Armstrong is plainly responding to the spate of books and articles by New Atheists arguing that religion causes much of the world's violence. Her counter-argument is that, while religion has often played a role in mass violence, other political and social factors are also relevant, and that the role of religion in public life has often been to reduce violence as well as to increase it. Her survey focuses heavily on the history of the three Abrahamic faiths, though ancient Indian and Chinese traditions are also discussed in the opening chapters. Broadly speaking, Armstrong's argument is convincing. It helps that she is less reductive and dogmatic than those to whom she is replying, allowing for the unpleasant side of religious history without allowing it to warp her presentation.

That's not to say she's perfectly even-handed or always persuasive, though. The early chapters deal with periods for which hard evidence is scant to non-existent, so some degree of reconstruction is required, opening up the possibility that Armstrong is unconsciously interpreting the evidence in a way that fits her theory. (Her model of ancient Israelite and Jewish history, for example, involves a peaceful, communal tradition in which the only violent and authoritarian impulses come from the Priestly redactors. Possible, I suppose, but not especially likely.) One also wonders why Armstrong has chosen the traditions she has, and not brought in the indigenous religions of Africa, North and South America, etc. But of course no book can do everything, and the scope of this one is already considerable.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence by Karen Armstrong is a scholarly look at the correlation, or lack thereof, of religion and violence from the formation of the first primitive communities through today. Armstrong examines all religions, with a particular focus on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The first part of the book focuses on the formation of organized communities as well as the corresponding religion in various regions of the Eurasian continent. In every community, violence is first seen not when religion comes on the scene, but when people are organized into communities and resources become scarce, or a ruling group raises to the top and wants to keep their power. It was the forming of agricultural communities that allowed for a surplus of food, which allowed a small group from the community to control the surplus and in effect rule everyone else. It was only through violence that a surplus was maintained. Armstrong seems to find no direct correlation between religion and violence. Instead, in each community, both existed and fused and some later point.

Another key point is that religion as we see it now is not how it was viewed through most of history. There was no distinction between the sacred and the secular. All aspects of life were intertwined and therefore, while it may seem to us that there was a causal relationship between religion and violence, the ancient peoples who lived the events would never have seen things that way. The sacred was secular, and the secular sacred; to split the two and say strictly religious motivations, or strictly the competition for resources is what drove violence, would be as foreign a concept to them as the smart phone.
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