Karen Armstrong, author of many popular works of religious history, recently published Fields of Blood, a book designed to defend religion -- both in general and in its many particulars -- from the charge lobbed by "New Atheists" in general and Islamophobes in particular that religion motivated much of the world's history of violence. In the current issue of The Nation, David Nirenberg takes Armstrong apart for both inconsistency and naivete. He takes a darker view, noting how the apocalyptic imagination of Zoroastrianism has influenced all the Abrahamic religions in a way that seems inconsistent with Armstrong's idealization of religion as (in Nirenberg's paraphrase) "a benign and fundamental source of empathy, love of the other and cognitive comfort in an otherwise incomprehensible cosmos." For Nirenberg, imagining the violent end of the world as the climax of a war between good and evil doesn't seem empathic or loving, though it may give cognitive comfort to some. In his account, Armstrong excuses all such phenomena by arguing that religions turn violent only when believers are "traumatized" by oppression or faith is corrupted by political concerns. If Nirenberg describes her fairly, Armstrong seems to be saying that true religion is incapable of violent thoughts, or that any violent thoughts that emerge do not follow from the core tenets of any particular faith. Nirenberg himself says "we must be willing to explore the myriad potentials of our many religious traditions, rather than simply defining the more violent ones arbitrarily out of existence."
Liberal apologists for religion, as Armstrong seems to be, work from the premise, often grounded in personal experience, that devout believers are often good, benevolent, peaceful people. Their assumption is that religion is important if not essential to these people's benevolence. They defend religion in part because they feel the good people should not be denied their source of inspiration, solace, etc., and in part because they fear that many people won't be so good without that inspiration. The classic case is Martin Luther King. Christopher Hitchens, a New Atheist, argued that none of the good things about King were necessarily religious. Apologists for religion question whether King would be as motivated to do good, or as effective as he was, without an essentially religious inspiration. They believe that his ideas about equality, integration and nonviolence have something to do with belief in God. Whether they're believers themselves or not, apologists for religion appreciate the logic that deduces the brotherhood of man from the fatherhood of God, while some question whether more materialist viewpoints are as compassionate and caring. In short, a belief persists that any ideal of justice must have a metaphysical or transcendent basis to be compelling. The apologists know what they want religion to be, and they can point to examples in hopes of proving that it is what they want it to be, no matter how many examples may indicate that it's something else entirely. However, it's a mistake to try to deduce the essence of religion, in order to determine whether it's violent or not, from subjectively selected exemplars like King. At the very least, we can't attempt to answer the great question debated between Armstrong and Nirenberg without asking why people become religious, or why religions developed among us, in the first place. Some may say God is love, but was he born from love? Some say Islam is peace, but did it rise in peace? Unless they can answer such questions convincingly, with facts rather than faith, the apologists of religion are only indulging all too predictably in wishful thinking.