Although the book is framed as a polemic response to what is essentially a straw-man question, Armstrong has isolated an interesting quality of contemporary discourse about religion: It’s really, really vague. Contemplating whether violence is inherent in religion might seem like a pastime limited to college debating societies or educated retirees who have a lot of time for book talks (or dilettante journalists, for that matter), but this idea has an intangible and problematic power in Western culture—the focus of Armstrong’s study. Even posing the question at the center of Armstrong’s book assumes that there’s a unified thing called “religion” that has stayed constant over thousands of years of human life.
But, as Armstrong points out in the book, “there is no universal way to define ‘religion,'” particularly when it comes to comparing mono- and polytheistic faiths. “In the West we see ‘religion’ as a coherent system of obligatory beliefs, institutions, and rituals … whose practice is essentially private and hermetically sealed off from all ‘secular’ activities,” she writes. “But words in other languages that we translate as ‘religion’ almost invariably refer to something larger, vaguer, and more encompassing.”