We interviewed Karen Armstrong in 2004 and were gripped by her intellectual, passionate, and singular insight into religion in our world. This week we are repeating that program. It is among the many engaging shows from our archives worth hearing again.

In preparing for this rebroadcast, I listened to Armstrong’s recent talk at the 2008 TED conference. While her speech echoed many of the themes she and Krista spoke about four years ago, she shared some new ideas that keep me interested in continuing to follow her broad perspective. Here’s an excerpt (or watch the entire 20-minute talk above):

“I found some astonishing things in the course of my study that had never occurred to me. Frankly, in the days that when I thought I’d had it with religion, I just found the whole thing absolutely incredible. These doctrines seemed unproven, abstract, and, to my astonishment, when I began seriously studying other traditions, I began to realize that belief, which we make such a fuss about today, is only a very recent religious enthusiasm. It surfaced only in the West, in about the 17th century. The word ‘belief’ itself originally meant to love, to prize, to hold dear. In the 17th century it narrowed its focus, for reasons that I’m exploring in a book I’m writing at the moment, to mean an intellectual ascent to a set of propositions — a credo. ‘I believe’ did not mean ‘I accept certain creedal articles of faith.’ It meant, ‘I commit myself. I engage myself.’ Indeed, some of the world traditions think very little of religious orthodoxy. In the Qur’an, religious opinion — religious orthodoxy — is dismissed as zanna — self-indulgent guesswork about matters that nobody can be certain of one way or the other but which makes people quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian.

So, if religion is not about believing things, what is it about? What I’ve found is that, across the board, religion is about behaving differently. Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God, first you do something, you behave in a committed way, and then you begin to understand the truths of religion. And religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action: you only understand them when you put them into practice.”

Share Your Reflection



Remarkable. I am inspired by her insight and courage. I really hope that religion will be reclaimed in years to come.

I think it might be possible to unify the purpose of religions under the banner of compassion, but if politics continues to have its own agenda, its own goals, purposes, methods and relies less on compassion and more on marketing and attendant deceptive practices, I can only see the two diverging. What would Karen say about that? If the big split occurred around the time of Descartes, toward a more 'intellectualizing' of religion, then turning 'heart-ward,' toward compassion,' means giving up reliance on intellectual thought - or at least controlling it in the name of too much egoism/egotism. I see humanists, generalists and tolerant-types as relying on 'science,' 'evidence,' and ecumenism [lifting up all against some form of darkness]. I see the resurgence of 'atheists' as a tendency toward denouncing all types of reliance on anything other than 'what works.'

In the name of the spirit, go from head to heart. --- a pilgrim

As a member of the Bahai Faith, its founder,Bahaullah has instructed us to, "Consort with the followers of all religions with a spirit of friendliness and fellowship." Further He has stated, "If religion is the source of discord and disunity, rather there be no religion at all." The whole purpose of religion is to bring about unity, if religion does not bring about unity it ceases to be religion. At a local fair for the past twenty years I have had the priviledge of speaking with many people of many faiths and my only goal is to find something we each have in common. Thank you Karen Armstrong and NPR for all the wonderful work you do! Gratitude, Veronica

P.S. I have two different flyers on the Golden Rule, quotes from the world's religion, I would like to give to Ms. Armstrong. I think they would be helpful in her mission. Where do I send them?

all the great traditions are about compassion? well im a 2 year old theravada buddhist. compassion for me is the act of relieving my suffering and that of others. as for orthodoxy - it is definitely present in Theravada, but i have seen the light and will endeavour not to be dogmatic.