But I wanted to draw attention to the secularism that Armstrong instead paints. This "aggressive secularism" may be more to blame for the violence we see than religion. She suggests this by ending her piece:
Many secular thinkers now regard “religion” as inherently belligerent and intolerant, and an irrational, backward and violent “other” to the peaceable and humane liberal state – an attitude with an unfortunate echo of the colonialist view of indigenous peoples as hopelessly “primitive”, mired in their benighted religious beliefs. There are consequences to our failure to understand that our secularism, and its understanding of the role of religion, is exceptional. When secularisation has been applied by force, it has provoked a fundamentalist reaction – and history shows that fundamentalist movements which come under attack invariably grow even more extreme. The fruits of this error are on display across the Middle East: when we look with horror upon the travesty of Isis, we would be wise to acknowledge that its barbaric violence may be, at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain.While Armstrong concedes in a number of places that there are religious elements in the causes of violence, she is keen to highlight the phrase "the myth of religious violence", as if there is no such thing as religious violence. Here is a quote from the article which I think sums up much of Armstrong's thinking:
In almost every region of the world where secular governments have been established with a goal of separating religion and politics, a counter-cultural movement has developed in response, determined to bring religion back into public life. What we call “fundamentalism” has always existed in a symbiotic relationship with a secularisation that is experienced as cruel, violent and invasive. All too often an aggressive secularism has pushed religion into a violent riposte. Every fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation, convinced that the liberal or secular establishment is determined to destroy their way of life. This has been tragically apparent in the Middle East.This highlights a paradox in Armstrong's views, which goes something like this:
- Religious violence is a myth.
- Aggressive secularism is responsible for the violence.
- Secularism targets religion, by separating it from politics.
If Armstrong wants to maintain that religious violence is a myth, then attacking secularism would hardly be the way to show that, if (as she seems to think, contra Law) secularism is cruel, violent and invasive to the religious sensibility. If religion wasn't an engine of violence then secularism would have nothing to provoke. To be fair, Armstrong points out religion's close association with politics in many of its forms, but this just re-iterates the issue for secularists: some religions want to monopolise the body politic and in a pluralist society that is undemocratic. This would be so for any ideology that looks to dominate (such as communism); but religion is the most prevalent form of this sort of authoritarianism and is also a privileged form. Religions have co-opted sacredness to inoculate them from criticism; some more successfully than others.
Now, I suspect that Armstrong does think that there is some religious element in much of the violence that is attributed to religion, but she maybe thinks it's overstated. If that is so, then I think her mission would be better served by acknowledging more clearly that religion is to blame for some of it, and to avoid phrases such as "the myth of religious violence".
Her article seems historically well-informed but is fatally flawed by this constant need to deflect the proper appropriation of blame away from religion to all the other, admittedly diverse, causal factors of violence. A reasonable modern atheist doesn't look to blame religion for all society's ills; she looks to assign the level of blame that properly attaches to religion but which for centuries has been diverted by religious privilege. Sadly some people, like Armstrong, still work to maintain that religious exceptionalism.