War: God's Conflict?

With a NATO war in Afghanistan, the U.S. war in Iraq, in addition to battles between Pakistan and the Taliban, and skirmishes in many Arab countries, questions have surfaced about the role of religion in international conflict. Karen Armstrong, author of several books on religion, takes on the topic of God and war in a recent article of Foreign Policy Magazine.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Part of what is fueling the conflict in Pakistan is, of course, competing visions of what the world should be; visions rooted in conflicting interpretations of what Islam demands. But Pakistan is certainly not the only part of the world where the casualties of religiously inspired conflicts are mounting. That leads some to ask: Is it time to try to get God out of our lives, at least our political lives?

Karen Armstrong takes on this extremely sensitive question in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine. She's a bestselling author of many books about matters of religion and spirituality, including her latest, "The Case for God," and she joined us now from London. Thank you so much for being with us.

Ms.�KAREN ARMSTRONG (Author, "The Case For God"): Thank you.

MARTIN: In your piece, you say he question isn't whether God is alive or dead in political thinking, but is God a force for good in the world? How do you answer that question?

Ms.�ARMSTRONG: Well, religion is difficult to do well. If the political environment in which a religious movement is flourishing is unhealthy in any way, is fraught with conflict or tension, then it's likely that God will not be a force for good in the world. But whether we like it or not, whatever the pundits or the intellectuals or the politicians say, there is a religious revival going on in nearly every part of the world at the moment - except in Western Europe, which is beginning to look remarkably, even endearing old-fashioned in its secularism.

So the idea is really, I mean, God is here, whether we like it or not. The aim should be to make sure that God religions flourish in healthy, peaceful, just conditions.

MARTIN: You seem to be saying, forgive me for being - not to be trivializing, but you can't beat it, then at least understand it.

Ms.�ARMSTRONG: Yes. I think very often I find that foreign policy people tend to sort of look down their noses at religion. I remember after the Iranian revolution, for example, it said that a member of the State Department in the U.S. said in exasperation, who ever cared about religion? But if they had taken a little time to study the history of Shiism and its recent manifestations in Iran, they would have avoided some unnecessary mistakes.

So religion is one of the factors on the ground that needs to be taken into account, in a scholarly, balanced way; just like the physical environment, like the economy, like social conditions.

MARTIN: Is that really possible? Aren't you inevitably going to bring your own faith commitment, or lack thereof, to an analysis of the situation because by definition, to many people, faith is a mystery that cannot be explained to those who don't adhere to it or don't wish to for whatever reason.

Ms.�ARMSTRONG: There are things you can find out about a religious tradition, and there's plenty of helpful books around that will enable you to do that without compromising your own beliefs in any way. I mean, you have to set beliefs aside if you're planning a foreign or economic policy, in many, many other fields, and it should be possible to look in an appraising, intelligent and educated way at religion.

The more we learn about other people's religion, the less frightening it seems, and the more we start to understand what's going on in people's minds and hearts. That's just as important as knowing what's going on in the economy.

MARTIN: To whom is this article directed? I was curious about that from the beginning, because as you mentioned, there is a religious revival around the world, with the exception of Western Europe. I mean, the leaders of the United States government in this administration - the previous, the one before that -have always been religious committed men in one form or another. So why do you feel the need to make the case for God, as it were?

Ms.�ARMSTRONG: Well, I was in Washington a couple of weeks ago, having dinner with a whole bunch of people - some from the White House, some from the Defense Department, some from the political media programs - and they were all, sort of, saying, well, we don't really need to know about religion.

So it really, to them, I think; saying look, things are not black and while. They're not as they seem. I mean, you mentioned in your start-up that Pakistan, conflict there seems fueled by religious hatred. In fact, Pakistan is quite a secular country in many ways. It actually reminds me of 1950s Britain in several important respects - a Britain that I grew up in. And it's by no means, as rabid as it seems.

What happens is that when conflict becomes rooted in a region, religion tends to get sucked in and becomes part of the problem. So I think I was just sort of untangling a few of the shibboleths that people often - in media, in political life - adhere to; like God and politics don't mix, for example. And that's sometimes true, and sometimes it's not.

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MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we're going to continue our conversation about God and politics with writer Karen Armstrong, and if you want to hear more of our conversation about the role of faith and public life here and abroad, please go to our Web site. That's the TELL ME MORE page of the new npr.org. Please stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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MARTIN: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, not every young, educated and politically active college graduate is headed to work in a law firm or the government. Some are headed to the farm. We'll tell you why. We found out in our weekly peek into the Washington Post Magazine, that's coming up, but first we continue our conversation with Karen Armstrong. She's the author of many books about religion and spirituality and a history of religion.

At a time when many observers are blaming religious fundamentalism, and in some cases, religion itself, for a host of international conflicts, she has written an article for Foreign Policy magazine, taking on what she sees as dangerous myths about the role of God in global relations.

Karen, you say in your piece, that unfortunately, it is not a myth, it is true that God is bad for women. You say that even when a tradition begins positively for women, as with Christianity and Islam, within a few generations men, as you put it, drag it back to the old patriarchy. So what is to be done?

Ms.�ARMSTRONG: That's one of the real flaws of all the what we call the major faith traditions. Even the Buddha had a major wobble when it came to admitting women into the Buddhist monastic order.

Even in Christianity and Islam, which started out with a positive message to women, within a few generations, as you say, the old patriarchy is reasserted. But now, you know, in all the major traditions, women are making a comeback. Buddhist nuns are demanding that their orders are taken as seriously and given the same status as those of the male monks. And we've got women fighting for ordination in some of the Christian dominations and to the rabbinate in Judaism, and you know, there are surprisingly articulate and forceful number of Muslim feminists who are, you know, forcing their men-folk to look at the Quran, at the hadith of the prophet, of the prophets' practice - and demanding that their men-folk respect what would seem to have been the prophets' wishes regarding the equality of women.

So this is a flaw that has to be addressed. Of course, unfortunately, in the fundamentalist movements, which are in every single faith, rebelling against secular modernity, there is a retrograde movement tending to overstate the traditional subservient role of women. Because one of the hallmarks of modernity, of modern society, has been women's emancipation. And so as they created that counter-cultural protest against modernity, fundamentalists - be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim - tend, as I say, to over-emphasize the traditional role.

MARTIN: Well, that's kind of bad news for half the population.

Ms.�ARMSTRONG: It is indeed, but on the other hand, help is at hand. Women are making a substantial contribution. I hope they'll make a good one. I hope that when women do come to power in religion and in politics, they bring something fresh to the table and don't just slide into the old, patriarchal, male roles. You know, Mrs.�Thatcher was a bit of a disappointment in that respect, for example.

MARTIN: Well, another conversation for another day, but... And finally, just to conclude, your piece is clearly - I don't know whether you want to call it a shot across the bow - at least a direct sort of answer to many of the arguments by secularists about why religion should not have a place in our public life. You address this questions as God is the enemy of science, you say he doesn't have to be; that God is incompatible with democracy, you say clearly not. So you wished for secularists to rethink their attitude toward religion. Is there any way in which you would want the religiously committed to think about, to rethink their attitude about that?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Absolutely, yes. I think we have a choice right now in both our religious and our secular traditions. We can either emphasize those that speak of exclusion, of distain, of hatred, and these are in all traditions - be they religious or secular - or we can emphasize those that speak of compassion, of respect for other people, of a quest for justice. And the religious people need to make that message come forth loud and clear.

MARTIN: Karen Armstrong has spent much of the past 25 years writing about the centrality of religion to the human experience. Her most recent book is "The Case for God." It's available now.

She recently published an opinion piece in Foreign Policy magazine about God in social and political life. If you want to read the piece in its entirety, we'll have a link on our Web site. Just go to NPR.org.

Karen Armstrong, thank you so much for being with us.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you.

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