The Modern West and the Primitive East (RELS 348)

The Myth of Religious Violence” by Karen Armstrong, The Guardian, 25 September 2014 discusses the popular belief that the West, because of its secularity, is modern. The East, due to non-secularism, is irrational and primitive. Many have come to believe there is nothing peaceful about religion, only that it is a perpetuator of violence and radical behavior. Religion is also perceived to be a barrier to achieving modernity in the East.
Armstrong reviews the history of secularization in order to demonstrate how strange this idea is. She cites The Crusades as sparking the myth of religious violence. Most believe Protestants and Catholics butchered one another in the name of religion. Armstrong reminds us it was also a “conflict between two sets of state builders”. If wars were only fueled by religion, we cannot explain the instances when Protestants and Catholics have fought together, which occurred during the French wars and the Thirty Years War.

Martin Luther viewed religion as a private endeavour dissociated from the state. This became the modern secular ideal and it was hoped it would create a peaceful society. Pioneers of secularism ironically resorted to violence to disentangle the Church’s permeation into society. The Enlightenment came and went, producing a superficial tolerance of ethnic minorities. Over time, tolerance was replaced with resentment.

No matter the location, any attempt made to separate religion and politics caused a counter movement that would bring religion back into the public sphere; convinced secularism will destroy their way of life. Fundamentalist movements under attack have grown more extreme, ISIS being our present day poster-child. The violence seems barbaric. However, Armstrong believes that ISIS and similar groups are the result of forced secularization policies by the West.

I strongly agree with Armstrong. It angers me that the West imposes secular ideals as if they are universal law. Religion gives us purpose and meaning. It elevates us to a higher sense of self and builds communities. None of the main world religions have ever stated that violence is acceptable. Countless colonizers and scholars in the West love to cherry-pick facts and twist the truth when it suited their purposes. This has been duly noted in Robert Irwin’s For the Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies. Religion has the ability to be synonymous with progress. The sheer amount of knowledge and technology developed under empires, especially the Islamic empire, demonstrates religion, scientific progress and modernity can co-exist and create flourishing societies.

Violence causes heartbreaking loss of life. However, when we take away ones’ religion, we take away their way of life, their belief systems and coping mechanisms. We destroy them from the inside out. I cannot think of any other type of devastation as terrifying as that.

– K



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