“Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. We thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11 changed all that.” So said Richard Dawkins, who until his retirement enjoyed the title of Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.
Some of us began to wonder whether Dawkins had secretly renegotiated the terms of his job, becoming instead the Professor for the Public Misunderstanding of Religion. To argue that one act of terrorism, however extreme, committed by members of one radical movement proved the harmfulness of all religion was a strange piece of reasoning. But, undeniably, it caught a popular mood, and the Dawkins-Hitchens denunciation of religious faith as a force for evil in the world has been on a roll ever since.
If the argument here were just about radical Islamism, this debate would at least have a clear and narrow focus. But the Dawkinsite argument is grafted on to an older tradition of anti-religious rhetoric going back to Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, who compiled an entire history of religiously inspired mayhem – from the brutal campaigns of the ancient Israelites to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the many “wars of religion” in western Europe. This is a heavy burden for any would-be defender of the faith to pick up and deal with.
Karen Armstrong does not flinch from this task. A prolific author of books about religion, she seems to have the right qualifications to be a moderate, non-dogmatic apologist for it: as a former nun, she can see things, so to speak, from both sides of the convent wall. Previously she has written about early religious history as well as modern fundamentalism; her new book runs from the one to the other, from Gilgamesh to bin Laden, covering almost five millennia of human experience in between. This is both an apologia and a history book, aimed always at 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.