Religion In The Modern World: Karen Armstrong

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Karen Armstrong is one of the most original thinkers and sough-after speakers on the role of religion in the modern world. Her bestselling books, including A History of God, examine the differences and the profound similarities between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and their impact on world events.

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A recurring theme in many of your writings has been the centrality of religion to the human experience.  What do you make of the secularization thesis which gained considerable currency in the West, namely that with industrialization, the progress of science and the ascendancy of reason, religion would steadily decline in both the personal and public spheres?

The secularization thesis has, I think, been proved false – that, at least, is the opinion of many scholars. In the middle of the 20th century, it was assumed that religion would never again play a major role in world events – but then in the late-70s and early 80s, it seemed to make a come-back. In fact, it had never gone away. It was simply that secularist Western pundits were not looking properly!

The Iranian Revolution of 1978-79, for example, was not a return to religion. The people had never abandoned their Shiism. It was only the Westernized elite who regarded faith as passé. In Israel, the Orthodox and Religious Zionists had been in the state all along ~ they just increasingly came out of the woodwork.  The same was true in the United States: after the disaster of the so-called Monkey Trial in 1925, the fundamentalists slunk away but formed a counter-cultural society, with their own bookstores, publishing houses, colleges, and churches. When they were strong enough in the late 1970s, they simply made their presence felt. The only place where religion has not made a come-back is Europe ~ and I think that is largely due to the horrors of 20th century history there, which religious leaders have not responded to at sufficient depth.

Some have argued that we are witnessing the resurgence of religion in many parts of the world. Do you agree? Is there evidence that we have entered a more religious age, or is it simply a case of religion being more conspicuously entangled with the numerous political conflicts between the West and different parts of the Muslim world?

I think what lies behind your question is the understanding of “religion” as a separate activity, a personal, private affair that has nothing to do with “politics” or the economy or any other aspect of mundane life. But this is a view that is unique to the West. It was developed during the 17th century and it was part of our modernization. No other society has a view of religion that corresponds to this. In the premodern world, in all cultures, what we call “religion” pervaded all aspects of life; it was part of the human quest for meaning – the desire to infuse all aspects of life with profound significance, so that they ultimately “mattered.”

Before the modern period, all political ideologies were what we would call “religious.” “Religion” was never a separate activity that somehow got “mixed up” or “entangled” (to use your word) with politics. Rather, early modern Western thinkers were making a massive act of abstraction, as it were, trying to extract the gin from the cocktail. And they were never very successful. Nationalism, for example – a 19th century invention – encourages a highly-fervid devotion to the state – with rituals, mythology, and high emotion. It’s still a religious activity – the state has become something that one may be expected to die for.  That is, it is sacred. That doesn’t mean supernatural; the supernatural is just one of many ways of expressing the sacred.

Why is it that the three Abrahamic faiths have had such difficulty finding common theological ground, or at least establishing the basis for a productive and wide-ranging dialogue?

I am not sure what planet you live on, but there is a huge amount of this kind of dialogue going on – I am often in the thick of it. I have just come back from Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world, giving some lectures on Compassion (which is a key value in all three of these faiths). The talk there was all about the profound similarities and “common ground” that the faiths all share. There is also a lot of very lively and high-level interfaith activity ~ between Muslims, Buddhists, Protestants and Catholics. The same is true in the United States. The trouble is that what the media pick up are the noisy views of those who feel threatened by this and want to rebuild the barricades between the faiths. The more global we become, the more some people want to retreat to denominational, cultural and religious ghettoes, while others thrive. Some people need to feel that their faith is unique, special and the only one. Just as others like to feel that their nation or their cultural tradition is way and above the best. This is all about ego – and the faiths all tell us that it is ego that keeps us from enlightenment. But some people simply want to use religion to inflate and support the ego, hence their stridency. They don’t want to get rid of their egotism and chauvinism, because they feel they will have nothing left

Are the different conceptions of God espoused by Christianity, Judaism and Islam an insuperable obstacle to effective coexistence and cooperation?

If these ideas of God are deep enough and understood properly there is absolutely no problem, because all these faiths insist that nobody can have the last word about God. What we call “God” is transcendent; it goes beyond what words and thoughts can do. And they all insist that our conceptions of God can never fully express the ultimate reality. Religious language always points beyond itself to the ineffable. That is the meaning of symbolism.  This was the theme of my book A History of God. I used to teach Christianity in a Rabbinical College; at the end of my lesson on the Trinity, there was always a moment when the students’ jaws dropped: “Oh!” they would say, “That’s okay; it’s like our Kabbalah.” The trouble is that despite our technological brilliance, our ideas about God these days are remarkably undeveloped, even primitive. Many of us first hear about God at the time we are being told about Santa Claus, but our ideas about Santa change and develop as we mature, but our ideas of God often get stuck at an infantile level.

Is there an irresolvable tension between the noblest teachings and exhortations of religious prophets and seers on the one hand and the interests and practices of religious institutions?

Yes, that is always a problem. All human institutions are imperfect and very often religious leaders behave just like political leaders; they want their faith tradition to be the best ~ as a politician cannot admit any faults in his own party and will go to any means to ensure its success. It is a form of institutional idolatry.

In your view, are the major religious traditions capable of making a significant contribution to the way we address the critical challenges presently confronting humanity (e.g. environment, war and peace, rights of women and minorities, poverty)? If so, what might such a contribution look like? What would be the implications for religion if we were to conclude that such a contribution is not feasible?

Certainly, the major religious traditions could make a magnificent contribution to all these issues. Faith traditions are not monolithic; they are multi-faceted and cover a huge spectrum of views. The earliest religious activities in the ancient world were intensely preoccupied about preserving the environment, for example. This goes back to your last question. It is very frustrating to me that religious leaders are not dealing with issues sufficiently, but spend their time talking about questions of orthodoxy or sexual practices. I would think that their main contribution should not be to come out with a “policy” that can be expressed in a sound bite but to go deeper. They all agree about the pernicious effects of ego and that is what is bedeviling us, because often Western culture is all about ME – my happiness, my fulfillment, even my nice spiritual warm glow.

We cannot solve the questions of environment, for example, without a spiritual revolution (that has nothing to do with “belief” – see my book The Case for God): unless we are prepared to give up some of our comforts – such as unlimited travel, unlimited heating and air-conditioning, unlimited driving of cars – we will not save the planet. But we don’t want to sacrifice for the greater good, so we are still in this very serious mess.

Again, the question of poverty: It is a religious as well as a political and ethical matter that so many people are hungry and do not have clean water. This is a scandal and it should make us profoundly uncomfortable. But we want to protect our precious selves from this discomfort so we block it out. It is another scandal that tens of thousands of civilians have died because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and there has been no sustained public outcry about this in the West. Why? Because we want to see our precious selves in a good light and we don’t regard these people as quite on the same level as “us”.

The great faiths all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own congenial group: you must have what the Chinese sages called: jian ai ~ “concern for everybody.”

In November 2009 you were instrumental in launching the Charter for Compassion? What was the thinking behind the initiative? How would you describe its progress since?

The Charter sprang out of my concern with the above issues. All the faiths have an ethos of compassion, expressed in the Golden Rule: Never treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself. They insist that this is the test of true spirituality. Yet we never seemed to hear about it. The Charter was to recall morality, spirituality, and religion to this ethos and make it central to public and private life. Unless now we learn to implement the Golden Rule globally, ensuring that all peoples – whether we like them or not – are treated in the way that we would wish for ourselves, the world will not be a viable place. This began as a religious initiative, but many of the people who have come forward to help me have been secularly minded business men and women.

The idea is to find ways – realistically, creatively, and practically – to implement the Golden Rule in the difficult political and social realities of 21st century life. It is not just a “feel good” project. And it is going forward well. We have started a cities campaign, in which the mayor endorses the Charter and puts compassion – in this practical way – on the city’s agenda. So far there are eighteen compassionate cities and last month the Conference of US Mayors endorsed the Charter and urged cities across the nation to adopt it. After my trip to Indonesia, Jakarta is in the process of becoming a compassionate city.

My dream ultimately is to “twin”  these compassionate cities ~ so that a US city can “twin” with a city in the Middle East, exchange news, visits, develop electronic friendships, etc. so that some of the misapprehensions we have about one another can be eroded. In Pakistan, one of the leaders of the Charter, they are concentrating on Compassionate Schools, introducing compassionate teaching into core subjects in the curriculum and the effect of this has been electrifying. So far there are 35 of these schools – we started small in order to “pilot” the project and learn from mistakes. The aim in ten years is to have 5 thousand schools and reach 2 million children, who will be the leaders of tomorrow. In September last year, ISNA – the largest Muslim organization in North America – endorsed the Charter; they are building a network of compassionate mosques and compassionate schools, and bringing compassion into Imam-training. That is just a few of our projects.

Karen Armstrong is interviewed by Professor Emeritus Joseph A. Camilleri OAM, La Trobe University


Karen Armstrong is one the most original thinkers and sought-after speakers on the role of religion in the modern world. Her bestselling books, including A History of God, examine the differences and the profound similarities between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and their impact on world events.

The Globe and Mail described her as “perhaps the world’s best-known living writer on religion.“

A former Catholic nun who left the convent to study literature, Karen Armstrong is an authority on world faiths, religious fundamentalism and monotheism. Her poignant and captivating talks, spark worldwide debate and healthy discussion. Armstrong’s bestselling books include The Battle for God, The Spiral Staircase, The Great Transformation and, most recently, The Bible: A Biography. She was a key advisor on Bill Moyers’ landmark PBS series on religion, has addressed members of the U.S. Congress, and was one of three scholars to speak at the UN’s first ever session on religion. The Sunday Times calls her “a bridge between religions.”

In 2013, Karen won the inaugural British Academy Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Transcultural Understanding. The jury awarded the £25,000 prize in recognition of her body of work that has made a significant contribution to understanding the elements of overlap and commonality in different cultures and religions. 

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