Karen Armstrong

author and comparative religion scholar from Great Britain

Karen Armstrong, FRSL (born 14 November 1944) is a British author and commentator of Irish Catholic descent known for her books on comparative religion. A former Roman Catholic religious sister, she went from a conservative to a more liberal and mystical Christian faith. She attended St Anne's College, Oxford, while in the convent and majored in English. She left the convent in 1969. Her work focuses on commonalities of the major religions, such as the importance of compassion and the Golden Rule.

Karen Armstrong
I say that religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.


What I now realize, from my study of the different religious traditions, is that a disciplined attempt to go beyond the ego brings about a state of ecstasy.
The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion.
  • The Western media often give the impression that the embattled and occasionally violent form of religiosity known as "fundamentalism" is a purely Islamic phenomenon. This is not the case. Fundamentalism is a global fact and has surfaced in every major faith in response to the problems of our modernity. There is fundamentalist Judaism, fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist Hinduism, fundamentalist Buddhism, fundamentalist Sikhism, and even fundamentalist Confucianism.
    • Islam: A Short History (2000)
  • ...Muhammad was one of those rare men who truly enjoy the company of women. Some of his male companions were astonished by his leniency towards his wives and the way they stood up to him and answered him back. Muhammad scrupulously helped with the chores, mended his own clothes and sought out the companionship of his wives.
    • Islam: A Short History (2000)
  • Muhammad became the archetypal example of that perfect submission to the divine, and Muslims, as we shall see, would attempt to conform to this standard in their spiritual and social lives. Muhammad was never venerated as a divine figure, but he was held to be the Perfect Man. His surrender to God had been so complete that he had transformed society and enabled the Arabs to live together in harmony. The word Islam is etymologically related to salam (peace), and in these early years Islam did promote cohesion and concord.
    • Islam: A Short History (2000), Chapter 1: Beginnings
  • "My thoughts are not your thoughts. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so are my thoughts above your thoughts, my ways above your ways." … should be written over every … pulpit. … Because so often we think that God's ways are our ways. God's thoughts are our thoughts. And we created God in our own image and likeness saying, "God approves of this. God forbids that. God desires the other."
    This is where some of the worst atrocities of religion have come from. Because people have used [it] — to give a sacred seal of a divine approval to some of their most worst hatreds, loathings, and fears. Whereas to the great theologians — what I found when I was studying for A History Of God — the great theologians in all three of the monotheistic religions, Jewish, Christian, Muslim — all insisted that yes, God was personal. But God went beyond the personal.
    You shouldn't speak glibly about God … in Judaism you may not speak God's name as a reminder that any human expression of the divine is likely to be so limited as to be blasphemous. But God should challenge your assumptions … you shouldn't imagine you've got Him in your pocket.
  • A project like Pangea, which enables us to enter in to the situations of others, imaginatively, is fulfilling what the religions call the Golden Rule... going into one's own experience, and going into other's experience, and seeing the world from another perspective — that's what we desperately need in our dangerously polarized world.
  • I say that religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.

A History of God (1993)Edit

  • The only way to show a true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God’s existence.
  • Respect only has meaning as respect for those with whom I do not agree.
  • Yet a personal God can become a grave liability. He can be a mere idol carved in our own image, a projection of our limited needs. fears and desires. We can assume that he loves what we love and hates what we hate, endorsing our prejudices instead of compelling us to transcend them.
  • Eventually, with regret, I left the religious life, and, once freed of the burden of failure and inadequacy, I felt my belief in God slip quietly away. He had never really impinged upon my life, though I had done my best to enable him to do so. Now that I no longer felt so guilty and anxious about him, he became too remote to be a reality.
  • Yet it is perhaps worth mentioning that the masculine tenor of God-talk is particularly problematic in English. In Hebrew, Arabic and French, however, grammatical gender gives theological discourse a sort of sexual counterpoint and dialectic, which provides a balance that is often lacking in English. Thus in Arabic al-Lah (the supreme name for God) is grammatically masculine, but the word for the divine and inscrutable essence of God—al-Dhat—is feminine.
  • The more I learned about the history of religion, the more my earlier misgivings appeared justified. The doctrines that I had accepted without question as a child were indeed man-made, constructed over a long period. Science seemed to have disposed of the Creator God, and biblical scholars had proved that Jesus had never claimed to be divine.
  • One of the most characteristic new developments since the 1970s has been the rise of a type of religiosity that we usually call “fundamentalism” in most of the major world religions, including the three religions of God. A highly political spirituality, it is literal and intolerant in its vision. In the United States, which has always been prone to extremist and apocalyptic enthusiasm, Christian fundamentalism has attached itself to the New Right. Fundamentalists campaign for the abolition of legal abortion and for a hard line on moral and social decency.
  • Muslim fundamentalists have toppled governments and either assassinated or threatened the enemies of Islam with the death penalty. Similarly, Jewish fundamentalists have settled in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with the avowed intention of driving out the Arab inhabitants, using force if necessary. Thus they believe that they are paving a way for the advent of the Messiah, which is at hand. In all its forms, fundamentalism is a fiercely reductive faith.
  • There is a distinction between belief in a set of propositions and a faith which enables us to put our trust in them.
  • People would continue to adopt a particular conception of the divine because it worked for them, not because it was scientifically or philosophically sound.
  • Human beings cannot endure emptiness and desolation; they will fill the vacuum by creating a new focus of meaning. The idols of fundamentalism are not good substitutes for God; if we are to create a vibrant new faith for the twenty-first century, we should, perhaps, ponder the history of God for some lessons and warnings.
  • Human beings are the only animals who have the capacity to envisage something that is not present or something that does not yet exist but which is merely possible. The imagination has thus been the cause of our major achievements in science and technology as well as in art and religion.
    • Chapter 7, God of the Mystics

Muhammad: A Biography of The Prophet (2001)Edit

  • The new radical Islam is not simply inspired by the hatred of the West, however. Nor is it in any sense a homogeneous movement. Radical Muslims are primarily concerned to put their own house in order and to address the cultural dislocation that many have experienced in the modern period.It is really impossible to generalize about the rise of this more extreme form of the religion. It not only differs from country to country, but from town to town and from village to village. People feel cut off from their roots: Western culture has invaded the interstices of their lives.
    • Chapter 1: "Muhammad The Enemy"
  • All truly creative thought is in some sense intuitive; it demands a leap forward into the dark world of uncreated reality. Seen in this way, intuition is not the abdication of reason but rather reason speeded up, encapsulated in an instant, so that a solution appears without the usual laborious logical preparations. A creative genius comes back from this undiscovered country like ones of the the heroes of antiquity, who has wrested something back from the gods and brought it to mankind. It is possible, perhaps, to see religious inspiration in a similar way.
    • Chapter 4: "Revelation"
  • Far from being the father of jihad, Mohammad was a peacemaker, who risked his life and nearly lost the loyalty of his closest companions because he was determined to effect a reconciliation with Mecca.
  • He was decisive and wholehearted in everything he did, so intent non the task at hand that he never looked over his shoulder, even if his cloak got caught in a thorny bush. When he did turn to speak to somebody, he used to swing his entire body and dress him full face. When he shook hands, he was never the first to withdraw his own. He inspired such confidence that he was known as al-Amin, the Reliable One.
    • Muhammad: A Prophet of Our Times
  • Deeds that seemed unimportant at the time would prove to have been momentous; a tiny act of selfishness and unkindness or, conversely, an unconsidered act of generosity would become the measure of a human life.
    • Muhammad: A Prophet of Our Times
  • He was simply a nadhir, a messenger with a warning, and should approach the Quraysh humbly, avoid provocation, and be careful not to attack their gods. This is what the great prophets had done in the past.28 A prophet had to be altruistic; he must not trumpet his own opinions egotistically or trample on the sensibilities of others, but should always put the welfare of the community first.
    • Muhammad: A Prophet of Our Times
  • The word qur’an means “recitation.” It was not designed for private perusal, but like most scriptures, it was meant to be read aloud, and the sound was an essential part of the sense. Poetry was important in Arabia. The poet was the spokesman, social historian, and cultural authority of his tribe, and over the years the Arabs had learned how to listen to a recitation and had developed a highly sophisticated critical ear.
    • Muhammad: A Prophet of Our Times
  • Monotheism is essentially inimical to tribalism: it demands that a people unite in a single community.
    • Chapter 6, The Satanic Verses
  • Muslims respect the pacifist message of Jesus (even though the Qu'ran points out that Christians can be very belligerent but they accept that force is sometimes necessary. If tyrants and loathsome regimes were not opposed militarily, evil would have swamped the whole world.
    • Chapter 7, Holy War

NOW interview (2002)Edit

The Sufis ...the mystical branch of Islam … insisted that when you had encountered God, you were neither a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim. You were at home equally in a synagogue, a mosque, a temple or a church, because all rightly guided religion comes from God, and a man of God, once he's glimpsed the divine, has left these man-made distinctions behind.
NOW Interview (1 March 2002) with Bill Moyers, at PBS
  • There are some forms of religion that must make God weep. There are some forms of religion that are bad, just as there's bad cooking or bad art or bad sex, you have bad religion too. Religion that has concentrated on egotism, that's concentrated on belligerence rather than compassion. … But then you have to remember that this is what human beings do. Secularism has shown that it can be just as murderous, just as lethal … as religion. Now I think one of the reasons why religion developed in the way that it did over the centuries was precisely to curb this murderous bent that we have as human beings.
  • Compassion is not a popular virtue. Very often when I talk to religious people, and mention how important it is that compassion is the key, that it's the sine qua non of religion, people look kind of balked, and stubborn sometimes, as much to say, "what's the point of having religion if you can't disapprove of other people?" And sometimes we use religion just to back up these unworthy hatreds, because we're frightened too.
  • Ironically, the first thing that appealed to me about Islam was its pluralism. The fact that the Qur'an praises all the great prophets of the past. That Mohammed didn't believe he had come to found a new religion to which everybody had to convert, but he was just the prophet sent to the Arabs, who hadn't had a prophet before, and left out of the divine plan. There's a story where Mohammed makes a sacred flight from Mecca to Jerusalem, to the Temple Mount. And there he is greeted by all the great prophets of the past. And he ascends to the divine throne, speaking to the prophets like Jesus and Aaron, Moses, he takes advice from Moses, and finally encounters Abraham at the threshold of the divine sphere. This story of the flight of Mohammed and the ascent to the divine throne is the paradigm, the archetype of Muslim spirituality. It reflects the ascent that every Muslim must make to God and the Sufis ...the mystical branch of Islam, the Sufi movement, insisted that when you had encountered God, you were neither a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim. You were at home equally in a synagogue, a mosque, a temple or a church, because all rightly guided religion comes from God, and a man of God, once he's glimpsed the divine, has left these man-made distinctions behind.
  • All fundamentalist movements… whether they're Jewish, Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, all begin as an intra-religious debate, an intra-religious struggle. Then, at a later stage, fundamentalists sometimes reach out towards a foreign foe and hence the Muslim feeling that American foreign policy … is holding them back.
  • At the beginning of the twentieth century, every single leading Muslim intellectual was in love with the west, and wanted their countries to look just like Britain and France. Some of them even said that the Europeans … were better Muslims than they themselves, because their modern society had enabled them to create a fairer and more just distribution of wealth, than was possible in their pre-modern climates, and that accorded more perfectly with the vision of the Quran.
    Then there was the experience of colonialism under Britain and France, experiences like Suez, the Iranian revolution, Israel, and some people, not all by any means… have allowed this … these series of disasters to corrode into hatred. Islam is a religion of success. Unlike Christianity, which has as its main image, in the west at least, a man dying in a devastating, disgraceful, helpless death. … crucified, and that turned into victory. Mohammed was not an apparent failure. He was a dazzling success, politically as well as spiritually, and Islam went from strength to strength to strength. But against the West, it's been able to make no headway, and this is as disturbing for Muslims as the discoveries of Darwin have been to some Christians. The Quran says that if you live according to the Quranic ideal, implementing justice in your society, then your society will prosper, because this is the way human beings are supposed to live. But whatever they do, they cannot seem to get Muslim history back on track, and this has led some, and only a minority, it must be said, to desperate conclusions.

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (2004)Edit

  • We are, the great spiritual writers insist, most fully ourselves when we give ourselves away, and it is egotism that holds us back from that transcendent experience that has been called God, Nirvana, Brahman, or the Tao.
    What I now realize, from my study of the different religious traditions, is that a disciplined attempt to go beyond the ego brings about a state of ecstasy. Indeed, it is in itself ekstasis. Theologians in all the great faiths have devised all kinds of myths to show that this type of kenosis, or self-emptying, is found in the life of God itself. They do not do this because it sounds edifying, but because this is the way that human nature seems to work. We are most creative and sense other possibilities that transcend our ordinary experience when we leave ourselves behind.
  • The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God's name, it was bad theology. Compassion was the litmus test for the prophets of Israel, for the rabbis of the Talmud, for Jesus, for Paul, and for Muhammad, not to mention Confucius, Lao-tsu, the Buddha, or the sages of the Upanishads.
  • I tremble for our world, where, in the smallest ways, we find it impossible, as Marshall Hodgson enjoined, to find room for the other in our minds. If we cannot accommodate a viewpoint in a friend without resorting to unkindness, how can we hope to heal the terrible problems of our planet? I no longer think that any principle or opinion is worth anything if it makes you unkind or intolerant.

The Case for God (2009)Edit

The Case for God : What Religion Really Means (2009)
  • Religion is hard work. Its insights are not self-evident and have to be cultivated in the same way as an appreciation of art, music, or poetry must be developed.
    • Ch. 1 : Homo religiosus, p. 8

Ode interview (2009)Edit

"The reason of faith" by Michael Brunton, in Ode magazine (September - October 2009)
  • A lot of the arguments about religion going on at the moment spring from a rather inept understanding of religious truth … Our notion changed during the early modern period when we became convinced that the only path to any kind of truth was reason. That works beautifully for science but doesn't work so well for the humanities. Religion is really an art form and a struggle to find value and meaning amid the ghastly tragedy of human life.
  • The cosmology of the ancient world was telling you about the nature of life here and now. Genesis is not about the origins of life. There were many other creation stories current in Israel at that time and no one was required to believe in that one.
  • People like Thomas Aquinas would say we can't talk about God as a creator because we can only have in our heads the idea of a human creator and that can't apply to God. We can't even say that God exists because our notion of existence is too limited to apply to God. People were instructed to think about this in those terms.
  • Newton and Descartes started to try and prove that God existed in the same way as they would try and prove something in the laboratory or with their mathematics … And when you try and mix science and religion you get bad science and bad religion. The two are doing two different things. … Science can give you a diagnosis of cancer. It can even cure your disease, but it cannot touch your grief and disappointment, nor can it help you to die well.
  • It's not easy to talk about transcendence, just as it's not easy to play or listen to a late Beethoven quartet … You have to practice quite hard, like you do with any art form. Religion is hard work.

Quotes about ArmstrongEdit

This is the "apophatic" tradition, in which nothing about God can be put into words … Armstrong is not presenting a case for God in the sense most people in our idolatrous world would think of it. ~ Simon Blackburn
  • This is the "apophatic" tradition, in which nothing about God can be put into words. Armstrong firmly recommends silence, having written at least 15 books on the topic. Words such as "God" have to be seen as symbols, not names, but any word falls short of describing what it symbolises, and will always be inadequate, contradictory, metaphorical or allegorical. The mystery at the heart of religious practice is ineffable, unapproachable by reason and by language. Silence is its truest expression. The right kind of silence, of course, not that of the pothead or inebriate. The religious state is exactly that of Alice after hearing the nonsense poem "Jabberwocky": "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don't exactly know what they are." … Armstrong is not presenting a case for God in the sense most people in our idolatrous world would think of it. The ordinary man or woman in the pew or on the prayer mat probably thinks of God as a kind of large version of themselves with mysterious powers and a rather nasty temper. That is the vice of theory again, and as long as they think like that, ordinary folk are not truly religious, whatever they profess. By contrast, Armstrong promises that her kinds of practice will make us better, wiser, more forgiving, loving, courageous, selfless, hopeful and just. Who can be against that?
    The odd thing is that the book presupposes that such desirable improvements are the same thing as an increase in understanding — only a kind of understanding that has no describable content. It is beyond words, yet is nevertheless to be described in terms of awareness and truth.
  • Like Austen, and in a polished English accent, Armstrong is sharp-witted, quick to ridicule nonsense, and a good storyteller. … In conversation, Armstrong spins the threads of her research with agile, unhesitating precision, leaping across centuries of scripture, philosophy and theology.

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