We have all heard the argument – religion is responsible for most of the violence that has ever afflicted the human community.

Visions of troops marching into battle bearing the cross of Christ cause shivers to run down the spine of those of us who call ourselves believers and followers of Jesus. Our guilt for the arrogance and narrow-mindedness that has so often characterized presentations of faith makes us particularly susceptible to a sense of culpability for the pain characterizes so much of human interaction.

But, is it true? Does the practice of religion bear the burden of responsibility for the horrific and violent trajectory of human history?

Karen Armstrong in her latest book sets out to tackle that question. I have not read the book but Patricia Pearson has and gives an excellent summary and remarkably sympathetic review of the book here: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/10/29/karen-armstrong-s-new-rule-religion-isn-t-responsible-for-violence.html\

Pearson writes,

With exquisite timing, religious historian Karen Armstrong steps forth with Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. Her overall objective is to call a time-out. Think before you leap to prejudice, she says.

“When people claim that religion has been responsible for more war, more oppression and suffering than any other human institution, one has to ask, ‘more than what?’”

More than kingship? More than merchant greed? More than secular nationalist movements or industrial interests or mental illness or knitting groups? Is there even a comparative baseline?

Pearson points out that the factors that lead to war are vastly more complex and varied than can be accounted for by the simplistic analysis that isolates a single force as the sole cause.

To say that spiritual engagement somehow causes humanity to become violent is to ignore the obvious pressures on all human societies throughout history to accrue scarce resources, to shore up status and power, and to impose order on chaos. If anything, every new religion emerged at least in part as a protest against violence and oppression.

On the contrary,

religion cannot be extracted from the complex weave of human experience and explicitly held to account for our worst instincts.

Rather, Armstrong argues,

“Ancient religious mythologies helped people to face up to the dilemma of state violence, but our current nationalist ideologies seem by contrast to promote a retreat into denial or hardening of our hearts.”

The real danger in blaming religion for the violence in the world is that it prevents us from looking more deeply and seeking the systemic global causes that give rise to international conflicts. Patricia Pearson writes,

by blaming religion for violence, we are deliberately and disastrously blinding ourselves to the real, animating issues in the Middle East and Africa that are directly affecting us in the guise of terrorism and—it feels inevitable—further ground war. She cites the “arrogant silence” of the West as smart young people and apolitical families struggle under American-sponsored dictatorships and lose their lives and livelihood to drone strikes. “We cannot claim the high moral ground if we dismiss the suffering and death of the many thousands of civilians who die in our wars as ‘collateral damage,’” she argues.

Having acknowledged the just accusation that religion has often been arrogant, self-serving, manipulative, and violent, perhaps it is time for people of faith to stop apologizing, put aside our guilt and reclaim the beauty and truth that our belief systems exist to serve.

The reality is religion exists to callpeople to hold their hearts open to the beauty, mystery, wonder, and light of life that we call “Love.” In Christian tradition we attempt to support all those with whom we journey through this life in living lives of gentleness, kindness, compassion, and deep respect for all dimensions of life.

Clearly, those of us who affiliate with a religious institution fail as often as we succeed in fulfilling our true calling of living more gently on this earth. But our failures do not make us guilty for every turmoil and upheaval that has ever afflicted the human race. As much as we need to continue to repent where our failures cause pain, we need to rejoice where our commitments build and deepen the beauty of the human community on this earth.