Founder of The Charter for Compassion
As a result of her 2008 TED Prize, Karen Armstrong has set out to create The Charter for Compassion, a universal framework for understanding religion based on the principles of justice and respect; to complete it, she has reached out to the UN and to thousands of religious leaders. "We need to create a new narrative, get out of the rat-run of hatred, chauvinism and defensiveness; and make the authentic voice of religion a power in the world that is conducive to peace."
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.
12 Steps to a Compassionate Life
One of the most original thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world—author of such acclaimed books as A History of God, Islam, and Buddha—now gives us an impassioned and practical talk that can help us make the world a more compassionate place. Karen Armstrong believes that while compassion is intrinsic in all human beings, each of us needs to work diligently to cultivate and expand our capacity for compassion. Here, in this straightforward, thoughtful, and thought-provoking talk, she sets out a program that can lead us toward a more compassionate life.
The Great Transformation
From Karen Armstrong, the bestselling author of A History of God and The Spiral Staircase, comes this extraordinary investigation of a critical moment in the evolution of religious thought. In the ninth century BCE, events in four regions of the civilized world led to the rise of religious traditions that have endured to the present day—the development of Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Armstrong, one of our most prominent religious scholars, examines how these traditions began in response to the violence of their time. Studying figures as diverse as the Buddha and Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah, Armstrong reveals how these still enduring philosophies can help address our contemporary problems.
The Spiral Staircase
In 1962, at age seventeen, Karen Armstrong entered a convent, eager to meet God. After seven brutally unhappy years as a nun, she left her order to pursue English literature at Oxford. But convent life had profoundly altered her, and coping with the outside world and her expiring faith proved to be excruciating. Her deep solitude and a terrifying illness—diagnosed only years later as epilepsy—marked her forever as an outsider. In her own mind she was a complete failure: as a nun, as an academic, and as a normal woman capable of intimacy. Her future seemed very much in question until she stumbled into comparative theology. What she found, in learning, thinking, and writing about other religions, was the ecstasy and transcendence she had never felt as a nun. Gripping, revelatory, and inspirational, this talk is an extraordinary account of an astonishing spiritual journey.
The Case for God
In this talk, Karen Armstrong gives a nuanced exploration of the part that religion plays in human life, drawing on the insights of the past in order to build a faith that speaks to the needs of our dangerously polarized age. Moving from the Paleolithic age to the present, Karen Armstrong details the great lengths to which humankind has gone in order to experience a sacred reality that it called by many names, such as God, Brahman, Nirvana, Allah, or Dao. Focusing especially on Christianity but including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Chinese spiritualities, Armstrong examines the diminished impulse toward religion in our own time, when a significant number of people either want nothing to do with God or question the efficacy of faith. Why has God become unbelievable? Why is it that atheists and theists alike now think and speak about God in a way that veers so profoundly from the thinking of our ancestors? Answering these questions with the same depth of knowledge and profound insight that have marked all her acclaimed books, Armstrong makes clear how the changing face of the world has necessarily changed the importance of religion at both the societal and the individual level.
Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence
For the first time, religious self-identification is on the decline in American. Some analysts have cited as cause a post-9/11perception: that faith in general is a source of aggression, intolerance, and divisiveness—something bad for society. But how accurate is that view? With deep learning and sympathetic understanding, Karen Armstrong sets out to discover the truth about religion and violence in each of the world’s great traditions, taking us on an astonishing journey from prehistoric times to the present.
While many historians have looked at violence in connection with particular religious manifestations (jihad in Islam or Christianity’s Crusades), Armstrong looks at each faith—not only Christianity and Islam, but also Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Judaism—in its totality over time. As she describes, each arose in an agrarian society with plenty powerful landowners brutalizing peasants while also warring among themselves over land, then the only real source of wealth. In this world, religion was not the discrete and personal matter it would become for us but rather something that permeated all aspects of society. And so it was that agrarian aggression, and the warrior ethos it begot, became bound up with observances of the sacred.
In each tradition, however, a counterbalance to the warrior code also developed. Around sages, prophets, and mystics there grew up communities protesting the injustice and bloodshed endemic to agrarian society, the violence to which religion had become heir. And so by the time the great confessional faiths came of age, all understood themselves as ultimately devoted to peace, equality, and reconciliation, whatever the acts of violence perpetrated in their name.
Industrialization and modernity have ushered in an epoch of spectacular and unexampled violence, although, as Armstrong explains, relatively little of it can be ascribed directly to religion. Nevertheless, she shows us how and in what measure religions, in their relative maturity, came to absorb modern belligerence—and what hope there might be for peace among believers of different creeds in our time.
At a moment of rising geopolitical chaos, the imperative of mutual understanding between nations and faith communities has never been more urgent, the dangers of action based on misunderstanding never greater. Informed by Armstrong’s sweeping erudition and personal commitment to the promotion of compassion, Fields of Blood makes vividly clear that religion is not the problem.
The Battle for God
In our supposedly secular age governed by reason and technology, fundamentalism has emerged as an overwhelming force in every major world religion. Why? This is the fascinating, disturbing question that bestselling author Karen Armstrong addresses in her brilliant new book The Battle for God. Writing with the broad perspective and deep understanding of human spirituality that won huge audiences for A History of God, Armstrong illuminates the spread of militant piety as a phenomenon peculiar to our moment in history. Contrary to popular belief, fundamentalism is not a throwback to some ancient form of religion but rather a response to the spiritual crisis of the modern world. As Armstrong argues, the collapse of a piety rooted in myth and cult during the Renaissance forced people of faith to grasp for new ways of being religious--and fundamentalism was born. Armstrong focuses here on three fundamentalist movements: Protestant fundamentalism in America, Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, and Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt and Iran--exploring how each has developed its own unique way of combating the assaults of modernity. Blending history, sociology, and spirituality, The Battle for God is a compelling and compassionate study of a radical form of religious expression that is critically shaping the course of world history.
The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness
Karen Armstrong begins this spellbinding story of her spiritual journey with her departure in 1969 from the Roman Catholic convent she had entered seven years before--hoping, but ultimately failing, to find God. She knew almost nothing of the changed world to which she was returning, and she was tormented by panic attacks and inexplicable seizures. Armstrong's struggle against despair was further fueled by a string of discouragements: failed spirituality, doctorate, and jobs; fruitless dealings with psychiatrists. Finally, in 1976, she was diagnosed with epilepsy, given proper treatment, and released from her "private hell." She then began the writing career that would become her true calling, and as she focused on the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, her own inner story began to emerge. Without realizing it, she had embarked on a spiritual quest, and through it she would eventually experience moments of transcendence--the profound fulfillment that she had not found in long hours of prayer as a young nun. Powerfully engaging, often heartbreaking, but lit with bursts of humor, The Spiral Staircase is an extraordinary history of self.
The Great Transformation
In the ninth century BCE, the peoples of four distinct regions of the civilized world created the religious and philosophical traditions that have continued to nourish humanity to the present day: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Later generations further developed these initial insights, but we have never grown beyond them. Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for example, were all secondary flowerings of the original Israelite vision.
Now, in The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong reveals how the sages of this pivotal "Axial Age" can speak clearly and helpfully to the violence and desperation that we experience in our own times. Armstrong traces the development of the Axial Age chronologically, examining the contributions of such figures as the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the mystics of the Upanishads, Mencius, and Euripides. All of the Axial Age faiths began in principled and visceral recoil from the unprecedented violence of their time. Despite some differences of emphasis, there was a remarkable consensus in their call for an abandonment of selfishness and a spirituality of compassion. With regard to dealing with fear, despair, hatred, rage, and violence, the Axial sages gave their people and give us, Armstrong says, two important pieces of advice: first there must be personal responsibility and self-criticism, and it must be followed by practical, effective action.
In her introduction and concluding chapter, Armstrong urges us to consider how these spiritualities challenge the way we are religious today. In our various institutions, we sometimes seem to be attempting to create exactly the kind of religion that Axial sages and prophets had hoped to eliminate. We often equate faith with doctrinal conformity, but the traditions of the Axial Age were not about dogma. All insisted on the primacy of compassion even in the midst of suffering. In each Axial Age case, a disciplined revulsion from violence and hatred proved to be the major catalyst of spiritual change.