Unwinding the biggest enemies of religion: A conversation with Karen Armstrong

green and white leafed plantsSINGAPORE: Not politics, not secularism and not even extremism.

Religion’s biggest enemies in today’s world are unkindness, selfishness and heedlessness, according to reknowned author and historian, Karen Armstrong.



The 74-year-old former Catholic nun turned author and historian was in Singapore for the inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS) in Singapore last week, when she spoke to CNA on her take on the state of religion and societies in the world today.

With an impressive oeuvre translated into more than 40 languages, Armstrong has endeavored to explain and defend religion against the voices that challenge its place in society and question its relevance.

Born in Britain, the Irish author spent seven years as a nun before she left the church in a state of disenchantment. She thought she had “had it with religion”, as she described that juncture in her life in a landmark speech at a TED conference in 2008.

Armstrong would go on to author acclaimed books such as The History of God, Fields of Blood, The Case for God and more recently, The Lost Art of Scripture.



“I see religion as a kind of art form. Art gives us a sense of meaning and religion expresses itself in terms of art. So when it becomes prosaic dogmatism it loses its touch. It doesn’t touch the heart. It’s a constant process of building in a world which is often meaningless where you’re facing extinction and have to live with that day by day,” she said as the conversation began.


Resistance and opposition to religion has been inherent in the history of human civilisation, for as long as religion itself has existed. So I asked this advocate of faith – what is religion’s biggest enemy today?

“Unkindness and selfishness. Heedlessness of other people and a heedlessness of the environment and an increasing focus on money and materialism.”

“When religion just becomes a wholly private quest, it becomes selfish and myopic,” she added.

Armstrong underlined her support for the separation of religion and politics as it frees religion from “the basic inequity of any society.” While we have dreams of equity, no state has ever achieved it as injustice and unfairness continue to exist, she said, adding that when religion gets caught up in the state mechanism, it declines.

It was from here that the author went into details about what she thought religion should be about – compassion.

Religion compels us to go out and help others, “to see the other like yourself”, she said, describing it as “the golden rule” that is common to all faiths.

“It’s become some kind of holy little thing between me and Jesus. If Jesus were here he would have something very strong to say about that because he was constantly, like any prophet, concerned about justice and equity. So any religion that is simply turned in and upon itself is corrupt.”

She added that religion should be to help all to be more compassionate to one another, reiterating the golden rule which she has emphasised is a global imperative during her speeches.

“It’s ego that destroys us. It makes us selfish, it makes us heedless of others, of the environment and heedless of ourselves.”


Armstrong’s relentless and well-documented efforts to propagate compassion include the establishment of the Charter for Compassion which she mooted at a 2008 TED Conference. That has gone on to become a global movement involving religious thinkers and leaders.

Throughout her travels, the author expounds on the notion that religion “has always been activist”.

“Even the Buddha that we often see locked in meditation, in a trance, when he achieved enlightenment, he was told that he had to go out and heal a suffering world. He commanded his monks not to just hug their spiritualities themselves but travel throughout the world for the alleviation of suffering. Jesus the same. The Prophet Muhammad the same. All of them were concerned about suffering, equity, pain and trying to alleviate it,” she said, never failing to draw attention to the universal nature of compassion.

This, Armstrong said, was essential in the religious quest.

But that quest, today, is set in the context of what she agreed was a new normal – especially in the West – with increasingly open expressions of antagonism, isolationism, and hate speech towards religions and communities.

In a climate of caustic debate over Brexit in her home country, immigration in the US, Islamophobia and terrorism, the notion of compassion can be a difficult sell, and Armstrong attributed this environment partly to how communities have become part of a global society intertwined in many ways that people can’t bear. “Hence the retreat into nationalistic ghettos.”

“In the west it is becoming more common. That happens when you see decline and fall. Rome for example, at the end of its long glorious career started electing appalling rulers. We’ve got Trump and we might have Boris Johnson. This maybe a symptom of decline.”

In 2014, she published Fields of Blood, seen as a significant piece of literature that addresses one of the common allegations levelled against religion – that it has and continues to be a source of violence that was responsible for wars and atrocities against humanity.

Armstrong delves into ancient faiths and modern secularism in the book as she attempts to dispel sweeping and aggressive statements against religion that “are recited like a mantra by American commentators and psychiatrists, London taxi drivers and Oxford academics”.

“Just to dump it all on religion is unrealistic and just as I say, any historian on warfare will tell you we go to war for dozens of reasons … To dump it all on religion is making a scapegoat of religion and not looking at some of the other important social problems that we have that is helping to produce this,” she said.


In the book, she also discusses the link between nationalism and violence, stating how religion had little to do with the two world wars and that “nationalism has been far more productive than religion” in inspiring terrorism.

“I think one of the problems in the west is nationalism. Nationalism is a 19th century product and very early in the history of nationalism, Lord Acton a British historian in the late 19th century said that it had a fatal flaw. That the emphasis in the nation state, on ethnicity, culture and language would make it very difficult for people who didn’t fit that national profile. And he said that with chilling accuracy that in some cases they could be enslaved or exterminated.”

That’s something we have seen in the 20th century, she added.

“The Armenian massacre to create a purely Turkic state, the Holocaust, and finally Bosnia. I think part of it is nationalism.”

More than once during our interview, Armstrong discusses her detractors and naysayers in the context of her strongest advocacy for religion. As our discussion ends, she brings it back to her focus on compassion.

“If we’re going to give up on compassion, then God help us. Then you get Auschwitz, you get the Gulag. You get hard-heartedness, you get people uncaring about poverty, uncaring about the suffering that we’re seeing worldwide at the moment.”

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