A Historian's Faithful Account
Once Rejecting Religion, Karen Armstrong Now Sees It as a Guidepost

By Sally Quinn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

NEW YORK -- After she left the convent, Karen Armstrong called herself an atheist. "I used to hate religion," she says. "I loathed it in my angry days."

Seventeen books later, she is recognized as one of the great religious historians, and she has reconsidered her label. She regards herself to be deeply religious but with no denomination. "Sometimes I call myself a freelance," she says in her melodious English accent. "I can't see any one of the great religions as superior to others. . . . I'm seeking to make sense of life, looking for its meaning and how we can have a better humanity."

Borrowing for the moment from Buddhism, she explains, "Nirvana is something within you. It is not an external reality. No god thunders down from the mountaintop. Just as the great mystics in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths all discovered, God is within the self. God is virtually inseparable from ourselves."

"Religion," she says, "is very complicated. Some do it very well. Some do it badly. It's an art form. Not everyone who plays the piano plays like Vladimir Ashkenazy."

* * *

Karen Armstrong is sitting in a restaurant in Manhattan sipping white wine and musing over her beliefs, her life, her work. Her new book, "The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions," is the second in a two-book deal, the first being "The Spiral Staircase," her enthralling account of her Catholic upbringing and her falling away from the church after leaving the convent in England. Knopf, her publisher, is so confident of its success that it has printed 100,000 copies.

At 61, she is short and light-haired with a spiffy new haircut she has just gotten for her book tour. Candid and self-assured, she has a pronounced sense of humor about herself and her work. She is quick to admit that her own religious beliefs are a work in progress.

"When I write my books, I find out what I think of religion," she says. And it is in her study that she feels the most spiritual. "I do nothing but my work for days. That's when things start growing, when connections are made. It's what the Jews do when they study the Torah."

Her new book is about the Axial Age, from 900 to 200 B.C., a time of ferment when four different philosophies took shape in four distinct cultures -- Confucianism and Taoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in the vicinity of Israel and philosophical rationalism in Greece. She describes the era as "one of the most seminal periods of intellectual, psychological, philosophical and religious change in recorded history," and when she talks about it, she makes it sound totally relevant to today's world.

"I was intrigued," says Armstrong, "with the similarities of the traditions that evolved even though the four cultures didn't have much contact with each other. For one, they did not seek to impose their own views on others. For another, what mattered was not what you believed, but how you behaved.

"These guys worked hard at it," she says, "to find a solution to the spiritual and political ills of humanity. The Axial Age people seem to be talking to us."

The sages of today's Western world, Armstrong says, "have been scientists -- people like Freud, Newton, Einstein, Bill Gates. They've done wonderful things for the world, cured many diseases. But all this has made the inner world difficult for us. It's made religion more problematic. We don't know where to stop. We've created weapons that can wipe out the world; we're destroying our environment. We can't seem to call a halt to it."

'The Terrible Mystery'

Armstrong's mother died a week ago at 84. She was ill and beginning to suffer from dementia. Reluctantly, Armstrong placed her in a nursing home, where she refused to eat and said she wanted to die. "I said, 'She's had enough.' " Still, the nurses tried to treat her. "They felt they had to do it. . . . It was almost an obscenity. She was on view, gibbering; her skin was beginning to rot."

Right before she died, her mother looked at her and said, "Go home." "She stared straight through me. What could curing her have meant? Years in a nursing home unable to recognize anyone? She only died because they couldn't find a vein to medicate her.

"This was the antithesis of the sanctity of life. The person she was had already died. If you say you believe in God, then God works in natural ways."

Armstrong's sadness is apparent as she talks. How does she deal with this kind of grief? "Being spiritual means allowing your heart to break. In the end, death "is the great mystery, the terrible mystery."

Armstrong says she went through a phase of being terrified of death. On her 45th birthday, "I felt the world crashing in on me. The black hole of death." But that feeling went away after she wrote "A History of God," the book that established her as a serious religious scholar. After that, she felt she had contributed something. "Now I feel quite at peace about dying."

She gets a lot of hate mail from "secularists who hate religion and feel I shouldn't be defending this evil stuff. I have no friends in London who are religious at all," she says. "People ask me not to talk about it when I'm invited for dinner. My British publisher asked me when I was going to stop writing about it. They said it was a dead end. Europe is beginning to look endearingly old-fashioned in its secularism," she says, "while the rest of the world is becoming more religious."

"People are always astonished when I tell them how religious Americans are," she says. She is very admiring of American religiosity, except for the religious right. "Like most fundamentalists, they have a pernicious, horrible, paranoid view of the 'other,' " she says. "It used to be that the Soviet Union was the enemy described in the book of Revelation that would bring about the last days. Now, they've switched to Islam. They had to regroup. But you can't equate true religion with hatred."

She mentions the "Left Behind" series about the world ending. "It's a strange thing in this country that people have this view of the world. If these people went to a psychiatrist, they would be diagnosed with a psychological disorder. The fact that so many people subscribe to this shows a profound unease, fear, a feeling of impotence, rage and pent-up fury."

"Here in America," she says, "religious people often prefer to be right rather than compassionate. They've lost the Axial Age vision of concern for everybody."

'Demon-Infested World'

Even though Armstrong grew up Catholic, "Jesus was very uncomfortable for me. I find him a bit daunting and scary."

"He was always gazing at me reproachfully from a crown of thorns. I believed that I had done this to him. He had died for me. It's a heavy trip for an 8-year-old." Even after she had decided to devote her life to Christ, when she prayed, nothing happened. "It was like the emperor has no clothes. But it's hard to admit that if you're a religious person and you're not getting it." Eventually, she left the Holy Child Sisters convent. She was 24.

Most of her friends who left got married right away. She never did. Nor has she ever had children. "It was not a conscious choice," she says wistfully. "I wasn't very appealing to men. It's not about what you look like."

For years she suffered from undiagnosed epilepsy. When she had seizures, she thought they were religious hallucinations. After leaving the convent, "when I should have been mating," she says, "I had all those years of undiagnosed epilepsy. I was locked in a demon-infested world without tablets."

After so much suffering, does she believe in God?

"It's a mistake to define God," she says. "I gave it up a long time ago. . . . 'To define' literally means to set limits. That is a travesty to try to define a reality that must go beyond our human thinking. The idea of a God overseeing all of this death and despair is untenable. That's the antithesis of God," she says. "If you looked at the history of the 20th century, who is overseeing this? Elie Wiesel says that God died at Auschwitz. That's just one human idea of God as overseer, and it's a childish idea of God."

In her own life, she refers often to the Indian word dukkha, or suffering. "Buddha would say that life is suffering. There is no why to it. Suffering and unsatisfactoriness. Indians say, 'Start with the pain of life and let it crack you open.' " In the story, Buddha was shielded from suffering until three gods came in disguised as old age, sickness and death. "Then his heart was broken. He realized that life was dukkha. That's what I felt when I was looking at my mother. That life was dukkha."

What works for her, she says, is to "allow the pain to break you open. Then you can begin your quest. Because that's when you can learn compassion. If you shield yourself from suffering as a lot of our society is set up to, then it's hard to relate to suffering in others. Once you discover what it is that gives you pain, then you must refuse under any circumstances to inflict that pain on others. It's quite easy to numb yourself instead of looking at it as a spiritual opportunity."

Dangerous Stereotypes

Because she had written a book about Islam, Armstrong found herself in great demand after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, flying all over the United States to give lectures and interviews explaining Islam to Americans.

"I always knew that Islam was not a violent religion," she says. "For 1,500 years Islam had a far better record of living peacefully than Christians. The point is to separate out the extremists we have in all of our monotheistic religions from the mainstream."

Stereotypes of Islam are dangerous, she said. The Holocaust, the slaughter in Bosnia -- "all that killing is about deeply entrenched stereotypes."

Because of the parallels with the Axial Age, Armstrong believes, it's highly possible that the world is at another religious turning point. "In every single case, the catalyst of major religious change was revulsion from warfare and aggression."

Her idea is to start a new "theology of power," based on the Golden Rule. "To understand that other people and other nations, however remote and alien, are in real terms as important as Washington."

The United States is unique in the world, she says, the only superpower. "So what do you do? Do you start wars nobody can win? Al-Qaeda can't bring down the U.S., but the U.S. can't bring down al-Qaeda, either."

"Believing in God is neither here nor there," Armstrong says. "You have to make that belief work for the world. Christianity is about looking at other people's point of view. It's 'kenosis,' or emptying of the self. It means you have to dethrone yourself from the center of your world and put others there.

"Religion is hard. But then you begin to lose the hard edges of yourself and start to glimpse the other. All of the Axial Agers practiced what the Chinese called jian ai or concern for everybody. Not just for your own group, but for everybody. And if we don't do that, I don't see how we can save our planet."

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