EVERY time Karen Armstrong tells a taxi driver what she does for
a living, the response is the same. She says: "I get sick of
hearing this mantra intoned in a tone of deep knowledge: 'Religion
is the cause of all the major wars in history.'"
They see a small, neat woman with a blonde bob who, they think,
needs to be told what's what - but nobody is more of an expert on
the history, culture, and influence of religion than Armstrong.
She has written more than 20 books on the subject, including
biographies of Buddha, Muhammad, the Bible, and even God. Perhaps
she should just lie about her job: "Sometimes, I just say 'I'm a
typist.' I think: 'I can't go through this again.'"
At other times, she attempts to resist what she calls the myth
of religious violence. She says, with a sigh: "You can try to say
it is not the case, and tell them about Jesus telling people to
love their enemies, but they say, 'Ah, they can never keep it up.
It always fails. Religious people always get fanatical and kill
"All these over-simplified remarks - their attitude is so
ingrained in our secular consciousness. I usually just let them
rant on, but it offends me at a level that is quite
So, to answer the point, she has written a new book, Fields
of Blood: Religion and the history of violence. She argues
that religion is being made into a scapegoat in the modern
"Having a scapegoat means you displace your sins and put the
blame elsewhere. They're not your sins any more. We are not looking
sufficiently at nationalism, aggressive colonialism, and our
inability to accept minorities, which resulted in the explosion of
the Holocaust, and the creation of a world with a new aristocracy,
the West versus the rest.
"All these things have to be looked at, instead of just talking
IF ANYONE should have a grudge against religion, it is Armstrong.
During her seven years as a nun with the Roman Catholic Sisters of
the Holy Child Jesus, she suffered physical and psychological
abuse. She escaped at the age of 25 to study English at Oxford, and
swore to have no more to do with faith; but it would not let her
She became famous with a memoir, Through The Narrow
Gate; and, for a while, she was a fixture on British
television and radio, with series including one on the life of St
Paul. Then she began to turn her attention to wider questions -
including the widest of all.
A History of God was an ambitious book, published in
1993, which traced the evolution of the idea of the divine through
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, taking in Hinduism and Buddhism
along the way. Her cool, even-handed ap- proach appealed to
believers and atheists alike, and brought the long view to a debate
that was becoming short-tempered.
Armstrong emerged as a strong voice for peace and reconciliation
after 9/11. She used the money from a TED Prize in 2008 to set up
the Charter for Compassion, which says: "We call upon all men and
women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and
The philosopher Alain de Botton has called her "one of the
handful of wise and supremely intelligent com-mentators on
religion. . . Her targets are religious fundamentalism on the one
hand, and militant atheism on the other: in other words, al-Qaeda
as well as Richard Dawkins."
Given all of this, I knock on the door of her Georgian terraced
house in Islington with some trepidation. At nearly 70, Armstrong
has the confidence to be welcoming rather than grand; but, when we
are seated by the window in straight-backed chairs, she wastes no
time in getting down to business.
"If we are saying Muslims are all deranged, all fanatical, it
means we are not looking at the situation as a whole. We are not
looking at the political distress, the sense of meaninglessness
that a lot of people have; the mess in the Middle East that is
largely due to Western colonialism, which set up these states in
such an inept way."
IF SHE did have the time and energy to pour the truth into the
ear of a taxi driver, what would she say?
"Well, first of all, there is a violence that is deeply inherent
in our human nature, without which we wouldn't have survived as a
species. We were professional killers in the greatest part of our
history, the hunter-gatherer period. As such, this aggression is a
biological fact of life in many men. We have never quite adjusted
to the quietness of civilisation, which is only 5000 years old
compared with the aeons that went before."
The warrior ethos is part of the human species, she says, and it
fused with religion to create nation states. On the other hand,
through-out history there have been believers who have opposed
"That has been just as much a part of religious history as the
jihads and the Crusades. So we have got to stop simplifying all
this, and talking about someone just picking up the Qur'an and
dashing out to bomb a London bus. This is simply not looking at all
the facts of life."
Muslims have thanked her for presenting their real views
sensibly, but others have accused her of being an apologist for
Islam. "I would say 'apologia' means an examination of something,
an explanation. So, yes. I am not apologising for Islam, or
glossing over its many faults.
"I have been responding to a lot of really unpleasant prejudice
about this religion, which has been about since the time of the
Crusades, and which is something we really cannot afford if we want
to remain true to our liberal principles and the sense that all
people are equal."
There are problems in modern Islam, she says. "It is true that,
because of the Wahhabi influence, the pluralism of Islam has been
very badly compromised. It is as if a small sect, deep in the south
of the United States, suddenly had the petrodollars to export and
impose its peculiarly uncharacteristic, and maverick form of
Christianity on churches around the world. That would transform the
face of Christianity."
That sounds like what George W. Bush tried to do in 2003. "Yes.
BUT isn't Islamic State a terrifying example of violence
inspired by religion? "Far more Muslims have been killed by ISIS;
they have been the biggest casualties. This is much more a mess
coming from state intervention in Iraq, which destabilised the
In some ways, she welcomes secularism: "I don't want a lot of
mullahs telling me what to do." But she does warn that secular
societies have their own forms of violence, too. "We can't be
complacent, and say that if we just get rid of religion from
politics then peace will break out. In Egypt, for example, the West
has been so delighted that the Muslim Brotherhood is out, they are
not reporting adequately the awful things that this renewed
dictator-ship is doing."
Does she see Britain as a secular nation now? "Yes, there is a
disinterest in religion. I have friends who ask me not to mention
it when I come round." Really? The world's foremost historian of
religion is asked to shut up about it at dinner parties? "Yes. They
say, 'Look, don't talk about this stuff.' Or else they studiously
avoid all mention of it."
Believers in a secular society have the freedom to speak out,
she says, but the Church of England and others have some catching
up to do. "This is somewhere the clergy have failed to engage with
the huge problems we have experienced in the last century.
"The Holocaust, for example, raised huge questions about the
nature of God. That needed to be grappled with, and the history of
anti-Semitism needed to be aired. The big divide between rich and
poor, even in this country, is something that should be troubling a
THAT kind of call to arms raises a personal question: where does
this former nun stand with God now? Having examined faith so
carefully, is she now detached from it completely?
"Oh no, I'm not detached from faith at all. I don't belong to a
Church. I just can't get to grips with the Church of England, and
British Catholics don't like me much at all," she says.
"I jumped over the wall. They don't mind that in the States:
American Catholicism is not so paranoid." How would she describe
her God? "I prefer not to describe God. That is the whole point of
The Case for God: you can't describe it.
"The important thing [about religion] is doing it. Working up in
my study, I will get moments of transcendence, awe, and wonder.
There are milliseconds of prayer. That is what Jews say they get
when they study Torah and Talmud. The Benedictine monks who used to
have to do divine study, reading the scriptures for hours, would
get the same."
She considers her daily work to be a similar kind of religious
practice. "I'm upstairs from nine until six, grappling with issues
of faith and God and spirituality, and trying to sort of express
the wonderful learning I encounter in academic tomes that are
unreadable for most people.
"So, I would say I am very much engaged, even though I'm not a
paid-up member of a church, or a mosque, or a synagogue. The
Muslims always say: 'Don't, for God sake, convert, because you'll
be no use to us.' Not that I have any intention of doing so." Now,
that would be a scoop. "Yeah. I'm too much of a wine-lover for
She cannot do yoga, and flees from meditation. "I was so bad at
Ignatian mediation in the convent, it has given me a sort of phobia
about anything like that."
Faith is often best experienced in community: does she have
anyone to be with? "Yes. Muslims, Jews, Christians. I've got
churches I go to in the United States, Harvard particularly. Here,
not so much, I must say. No, not at all."
What box does she tick on the census form, when it asks for her
religion? "Just . . . n/a."
SHE tries to live by what she calls the Golden Rule, an idea
that runs through all faiths: do as you would be done by; or do not
inflict anything on others that you would not like to suffer
yourself. "Trying to follow it does mean you are displacing
yourself from the centre of your world," she says.
But some would say she is too liberal and too vague about what
it all really means; so does her refusal to define God mean that
she has stopped believing altogether? "No. The divine, or
transcendence, has been a fact of human life. The trouble is that
when we try to encapsulate it in words, we bring it down to size.
One of the things that changed everything for me was discovering
that the great thinkers all knew that.
"They said: 'Ah, what we say about God cannot measure up to the
reality.' They made people con-scious of that, like the Jewish
practice of not uttering the word of God. Or the Muslim refusal to
depict the divine in representational art in any form. The Bible is
a sort of starter-kit in a way, then it moves beyond."
Presumably, some religious leaders say that that is a cop out?
"Yes, they do, but that is a sign of the spiritual idiocy of our
time. A lot of our religious thinking is extremely primitive.
Thomas Aquinas would be turning in his grave to listen to some of
these clerics talking in this simplistic way, as if God is their
boss or something, whom they know, and keep in line with, and
issues clear directives."
Having spent more time than most people looking at the history
of God, Armstrong says that her sense of wonder has not diminished,
but increased. "Religion is at its best when it holds you in an
attitude of reverent wonder, and helps you to ask questions," she
says, with a broad smile. "Even if you don't find the answers."
Fields of Blood: Religion and the history of violence by
Karen Armstrong is published by Bodley Head at £20 (Church
Times Bookshop £18).