Famous Freethinkers- Armstrong, Karen

“A God who kept tinkering with the universe was absurd; a God who interfered with human freedom and creativity was tyrant. If God is seen as a self in a world of his own, an ego that relates to a thought, a cause separate from its effect, “he” becomes a being, not Being itself. An omnipotent, all-knowing tyrant is not so different from earthly dictators who make everything and everybody mere cogs in the machine which they controlled. An atheism that rejects such a God is amply justified.”
— Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is an author, feminist and writer on Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. She was born into a family with Irish roots who after her birth moved to Bromsgrove and later to Birmingham.

From 1962 to 1969, Karen Armstrong was a nun in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. During this period she received a leave of absence from her religious order to study at St Anne’s College, Oxford University, where she read English, but left the order during her course of study. After graduating, she embarked on a doctorate (still at Oxford) on Alfred, Lord Tennyson while also teaching at the University of London. However, her thesis was rejected by an external examiner and she eventually left academia without completing her doctorate.

This period was marked by ill-health (Armstrong’s life-long, but at that time undiagnosed, epilepsy) and her readjustment to outside life. In 1976, she became an English teacher at a girls’ school in Dulwich, but her epilepsy caused her to miss too many school days, and she was asked to leave in 1981.

Armstrong published Through the Narrow Gate in 1982, which described the restricted and narrow life she experienced in the convent (and earned her the enmity of many British Catholics). In 1984 she was asked to write and present a documentary on the life of St. Paul. The research for the documentary made Armstrong look again at religion, despite having abandoned religious worship after she left the convent. She has since become a prolific and acclaimed writer on subjects touching on all of the three major monotheistic religions. In 1999, the Islamic Center of Southern California honored Armstrong for promoting understanding among faiths.

Many of Armstrong’s articles can be found at The Guardian. Her latest book, A Short History of Myth, analyzes the role played by myths in past and present societies. The Great Transformation : The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions will be published in March 2006.

Armstrong is a prolific scholar of religions and she has written on a multitude of faiths. She described her beliefs in a C-Span interview in 2000:

“I usually describe myself, perhaps flippantly, as a freelance monotheist. I draw sustenance from all three of the faiths of Abraham. I can’t see any one of them as having the monopoly of truth, any one of them as superior to any of the others. Each has its own particular genius and each its own particular pitfalls and Achilles’ heels. But recently, I’ve just written a short life [story] of the Buddha, and I’ve been enthralled by what he has to say about spirituality, about the ultimate, about compassion and about the necessary loss of ego before you can encounter the divine. And all the great traditions are, in my view, saying the same thing in much the same way, despite their surface differences.”

Other Quotes

“Religion is not a nice thing. It is potentially a very dangerous thing because it involves a heady complex of emotions, desires, yearnings and fears.”

“Whatever conclusions we reach about the reality of God, the history of this idea must tell us something important about the human mind and the nature of our aspiration.”

“A mode of knowledge rooted in silence and intuitive insight which gives meaning to life but which cannot be explained in rational terms.”

“Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal.”

“The human idea of God has a history, since it has always meant something slightly different to each group of people who have used it at various points of time. The idea of God formed in one generation by one set of humn beings could be meaningless in another. Indeed, the statement “I believe in God” has no objective meaning, as such, but like any other statement only means something in context, when proclaimed by a particular community. Consequently, there is no one unchanging idea contained in the word “God”; instead, the word contains a whole spectrum of meanings, some of which are contradictory or even mutally exclusive. Had the notion of God not had this flexibility, it would not have survived to become one of the great human ideas. When one conception of God has ceased to have meaning or relevance, it has been quietly discarded and replaced by a new theology. A fundamentalist would deny this, since fundamentalism is antihistorical: it believes that Abraham, Moses and the later prophets all experienced their God in exactly the same way as people do today. Yet if we look at our [three] religions, it becomes clear that there is no objective view of “God”: each generation has to create the image of God that works for it.”


Famous Freethinkers- Armstrong, Karen — 10 Comments

  1. I think your definition of “Religious Apologist” may be a bit broad. I have a very hard time dismissing a person based on a single source when that person is much closer to my belief set that that of the pope.

    As for Dawkins, I feel they he and his ilk are almost always correct, but lack any shred of tact in many cases, and are downright rude, usually needlessly, most of the time. If you are after beliefs similar to your own, he’s you man, and rightly so. He is also your man if zero tolerance is your preference and if making enemies therewith is your desire.

    In the end, I feel that she’s doing the best she can with the mind she’s got, whereas Dawkins is squandering much of his on small perceived victories over unworthy opponents. I do not dislike him as much as I am simply annoyed by the waste of his mind on such things, and by the harm he does by belittling people who probably do not deserve it.

  2. I find Karen Armstrong’s theology to be in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’s. Trying to pin down what they are saying can be like trying to nail jello to a tree.
    Would love to see a “debate” between her and Deepak Chopra. Would be interesting to see on what they would disagree.
    She was, BTW, the keynote speaker, gave the Ware Lecture, at the 2011 UUA General Assembly.

  3. Was she really! LOL! That’s an interesting venue for her, and probably a good one. Yes, she seems to have a hard time making a clear statement. She at least admits to some of the Humanist possibilities, though getting over the brink to a fact seems to elude her.

    I keep seeking a centrist Humanism, where that is possible, somewhere in the middle between Armstrong’s waffling and Dawkin’s strong-arming. There is room for agreement in there somewhere. It’s just difficult to find.

  4. Gloria Steinem said something like, “We became the men we wanted to find.”
    Maybe you are going to have to be that centrist Humanist you are seeking.

    The lesson I have taken from what has happened to UU is that religious power loves a religious vacuum. The accommodating UU humanists were out-flanked by Christian faith.

  5. I do not believe that we were outflanked; I believe we were done in by our inferior reaction time. Liberals and humanists need to think before they act; true believers and conservatives, having been spoon-fed all the answers, just need to act, as they are unencumbered by any requirement for a thought process.

  6. “true believers and conservatives, having been spoon-fed all the answers, just need to act, as they are unencumbered by any requirement for a thought process.”
    Yes, what you are calling “a thought process” I call intellectual consistency or intellectual integrity. Same same.

  7. Well, I see “thought process” as very basic, not at a level requiring much in the way of intellectualism, consistency or integrity. Even at that level, I find it lacking in true believers and conservatives. I suppose I should stipulate that “true” should also be seen to modify “conservatives.” 🙂

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