"Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen. It was necessary to pick one's way over the bodies of men and horses." This was how the historian Raymond of Aguilers described Jerusalem in 1099, as he watched Christian crusaders conquer the city. "Men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins," he observed. "Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers, since it had so long suffered from their blasphemies."
When people make generalized arguments about the inherent violence of religion, this is the kind of thing they're probably thinking of: the unapologetic, triumphalist bloodletting of the Crusades; the decades-long slaughter of the Thirty Years' War; and the dehumanizing murder sprees of contemporary jihad. And it is this kind of argument that motivated Karen Armstrong to write her newest book, aptly titled Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, which was published last week in the United States.
The book tackles a simple question: Has religion been the cause of all the major wars in history? If you want to save yourself several hundred thousand words, the short answer is: no. Any student of history could point out that conflicts from the campaigns of Genghis Khan to World War I had non-religious motivations. During the talks she has already given about the book, Armstrong told me in an interview, the first person to ask her a question always says something along these lines: No one actually believes that religion is the cause of all major wars in history.