TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Karen Armstrong, has written best-selling books about the religions of the world, but her new book starts with this sentence: We are talking far too much about God these days, and what we say is often facile.
She goes on to say: Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably undeveloped, even primitive.
In her new book, "The Case for God," she looks at the history of religion as a practical discipline that has taught how to discover new capacities of mind and heart, and how people through the centuries have translated doctrines into ritual or ethical action. Religion, she says, requires perseverance.
Armstrong's books include "A History of God," "The Battle for God," "Islam," "Buddha" and "The Spiral Staircase," which is a memoir about why she left the convent in 1969 after seven years, feeling she'd failed to find God.
Karen Armstrong, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You write that many people today think of God as the supreme being, a divine personality who created the world and everything in it, but God is not a being at all. We really don't understand what we mean when we say that he is good, wise or intelligent. What do you mean when you say God is not a being at all?
Ms. KAREN ARMSTRONG (Author, "The Case for God"): Well, the idea of God as a supreme being means that he is simply like us, writ large, and just bigger and better, the end product of the series; whereas this divine personality that we meet in the Bible was, for centuries, regarded simply as a symbol of a greater transcendence that lay beyond it.
Some theologians call this the God beyond God. And this God isn't just a being like you or me, or the microphone in front of me, or even the atom, an unseen being that we can find in our laboratories. What we mean by God is, some theologians have said, is being itself that is in everything that is around us and cannot be tied down to one single instance of being.
GROSS: Now, one of the recent language problems people have had with religion is deciding whether to call God he or she, and I think you would say none of the above.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: None of the above. God is neither he nor she and…
GROSS: So what are some of the difficulties that early religious theologians had in describing or naming what God is, and finding language to describe what they meant by God?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, always in the religious quest, India has been way out ahead, and way back in the 10th century before Christ, some of the Brahman priests there devised a ritual, which was a sort of competition. They went out into the forest, and there they made a retreat, put themselves into a different frame of mind.
They'd fast, and they practiced certain sort of breathing exercises, early forms of yoga, and then they came back, and the competition would begin. And the challenger would try to define the Brahman - that is, the ultimate reality in Hinduism, something that lies way beyond the gods, that is way beyond anything we can know and yet is within us all.
And he had to do this definition in a very sort of poetic and enigmatic way. And his opponents would listen to him very carefully, and then they would respond, moving on from what he had said and make their own definition of what Brahman - or we would say God - is.
And the winner was the priest who reduced everybody to silence. And in that silence, the Brahman was present. The Brahman was not present in the wordy definitions of the divine. It was present in the stunning realization of the absolute powerlessness of language and speech to describe this.
And that, I think, is an authentic model of religious discourse. A theology should be like poetry, which takes us to the end of what words and thoughts can do.
GROSS: Now, what you're describing sounds to me like maybe these are the theologians and scholars who are from the more mystical ends of the religions that existed then, the more educated theologians. But in terms of what most people observed, were they observing religion - do you think - in earlier times in a more literal way, where the gods were real, where the gods were namable, you know, something where God was a being or the gods were beings, depending on the religion?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, and indeed. I mean, in India and throughout the world, the gods were seen as real beings, unseen beings. And of course before the scientific era, there were so many aspects of life that were unseen - like wind, emotion - that are realities in our lives, and they thought the gods were more powerful than they. But they knew, too, that the gods were not the ultimate realities.
The gods were not like what we call God today. They were not omnipotent. The only thing that made them different from human beings is that they were immortal. They wouldn't die. But they had - they were bound by the laws of the universe just as much as we were.
They shared the same predicament, and gods and humans, they thought, would work together to preserve the cosmos and keep its energies going. But they also knew that there was a reality that the gods couldn't reach that lay beyond all this, and that they called Brahman.
Now, what the ancient Israelites did was a very daring thing. They took one of these gods, Yahweh, and said that is the chief symbol of this ultimate reality. And no one had done that before. There was a clear distinction, always, in people's minds between the gods and what the God beyond god.
GROSS: Do you think that monotheism brought us closer to believing that God was the one, that there was one creator called God?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: There is a danger in monotheism, and it's called idolatry. And we know the prophets of Israel were very, very concerned about idolatry, the worship of a human expression of the divine. Not just a statue, but simply even an idea or a thought about God. And there's always a danger that we will mistake this symbol for the absolute, for the reality to which it's supposed to point.
All religious language must reach beyond itself into a sort of silent awe, and it was all too easy to end - stop it and say that, well, God is a bit like us writ large, with likes and dislikes similar to our own. And when the Crusaders went into battle in the Middle Ages to kill Jews and Muslims, they cried out: God wills it. This was their battle cry.
Now, of course, God meant nothing of the sort, but what these Crusaders were doing were projecting onto an imaginary deity that they were creating in their own image and likeness, and giving him a seal of absolute approval. And today, terrorists do the same.
So theologians and priests were very much alert to this. And so they devised spiritual exercises, not just for mystics, not just for an elite group, but for all the faithful to make them realize that when we talked about God, when we said God was good, we were doing this in a very inadequate way - that God couldn't be good like you or me, when we talk about a good person or a good meal or a good dog. We have an idea of what we're talking about, but God was, as the Muslims say, allah hu akbar - God is always greater than anything we can understand.
And in the Quran, for example, God is continually saying, look, everything I'm saying to you is an ayia(ph), a parable, a sign. Even the great statements like paradise or talk about creation or the last judgment, these are ayia. They're parables, symbols of realities that we, with our finite, earthbound minds, can't grasp.
GROSS: My guest is religion scholar Karen Armstrong. Her new book is called "The Case for God." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Karen Armstrong, and we're talking about her new book, "The Case for God." You describe in your book how most pre-modern cultures recognize that there are different ways, two different ways, of thinking, speaking and acquiring knowledge, and the Greeks called this mythos and logos. And I'd like you to briefly describe what mythos and logos mean, and how you think that applies to religion.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, logos is science or reason, something that helps us to function practically and effectively in the world, and it must therefore be closely in tune and reflect accurately the realities of the world around us.
Mythos was about the discourse, stories about the more difficult aspects of our humanity, about for which there were no easy answers. Like the fact that we are - we get sick, that there are all kinds of questions about suffering and pain that concern us, and for this, people turned to mythos.
And mythos and logos, they were not seen as in competition with one another. People felt we needed both, and each had its particular sphere of competence, and it was really rather dangerous to mix the two up.
GROSS: What do you mean by mixing the two up?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, if you're going to organize a hunting expedition, you need to be absolutely focused on the practicalities of your situation - where the animals are and the man force and the terrain. You can't go off into a dream about gods, and you can't mix myth into politics or the economy, though that's been done sometimes recently, I think, and it's not a good idea.
Now, if your child dies, or you experience a terrible natural disaster, you want a scientific explanation. But a scientist will be the first to tell you that it cannot help you to find some ultimate meaning and come to terms with this tragedy. That lies outside the remit of science, to find that kind of meaning.
GROSS: In your book "The Case for God," you talk about the 16th and 17th centuries as being the period when myth was discredited, and the scientific method was thought to be the only reliable means of attaining the truth. What happens in the 16th century and 17th century that discredits myth?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, we began to create modern science, and science in the 17th, 18th centuries achieved such spectacular results that everybody was focused on it, and myth looked awfully flimsy beside these scientific discoveries, which were backed up with the advanced mathematics and clear and concise proof.
So we started to want only information that was scientific, that could be proven logically. We were choosing logos and gradually, myth became discredited, and people weren't interested in this more elusive form of knowledge anymore.
GROSS: At the same time during this period, science starts to come in conflict with the church, like Galileo. You know, he said Copernicus was right, the planets didn't revolve around the Earth; the Earth revolved around the sun. And the church condemned this view as false and contrary to Scripture. He was accused by the Vatican of heresy and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. So is the time when religion and science really start butting heads?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: That's certainly a symptom, if you like, of a new kind of spirit that was coming into being. When Copernicus had actually presented his theory in the Vatican some 60 years earlier, the pope had given it a cautious approval, but things were tougher by the time you've had the Protestant Reformation. You've had terrible political disasters in Italy. It was a new, hard-line Vatican that wanted people to tow the line, and Galileo was not going to tow the line.
And so the pope made a terrible, terrible mistake when he condemned Galileo. There was no excuse for it. It was an absolute disgrace but also, Galileo made mistake.
He was also - could be quite an intransigent human being. He believed in mythos and logos. He believed that you shouldn't mix the two, and yet he kept continually bringing up Scripture in a way that was no longer quite safe to do in this new, hard-line climate.
But actually, this wasn't the beginning of the end because just a little later when Newton, the great Sir Isaac Newton, starts his great discoveries, science and religion became best friends. Science and religion fell passionately in love with one another.
GROSS: What do you mean by that?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, because Newton and Rene Descartes said that they'd found proof for God, and the churchmen - theologians, priests, church bishops - they were intoxicated by this notion of a scientific religion, a scientifically based religion that was in touch with the most exciting thought of the day and that could give them cast-iron certainty. And so they started to make Newton's God absolutely central to Christianity.
GROSS: What was Newton's God? How did he prove that God existed?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, Newton and Descartes, too, both felt that unless you had God, the solar system made no sense. God was absolutely essential, they thought, to the universe. Something needed to start the whole thing off, to get things going. And Newton discovered such a magnificent order in the universe that he said that the only way you could explain this was by an absolute, divine intelligence that was omnipotent, omniscient, all-knowing, and that - and here I quote - was also very well-skilled in mechanics and geometry.
He said that you couldn't have a solar system unless you had an intelligence designer. Well, of course, we know what happened. It was only a few generations before later scientists were able to dispense with God as the beginning of the universe, a necessary explanation.
GROSS: You see this coming together of science and religion and the use of science to prove that there is a God as opening the door to two fairly new phenomena. One is fundamentalism, and the other is atheism. Let's start with fundamentalism. How do you see the coming together of science and religion as creating - or at least opening the door to -fundamentalism?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, once this scientific religion caught hold, people started to read the Bible in a literal manner, where they never had before. Nobody before the 17th, 18th century understood the first chapter of Genesis as a literal account of the origins of life.
GROSS: Is that true? Like, I didn't really know. Is it really true nobody saw it as literal before?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, no, because you could always have a new version of it. And right up to the 16th century, you find people making up entirely new creation myths. The great Jewish mystic Isaac Luria, 16th century, created an entirely new creation myth that bore absolutely no relation to Genesis at all.
Now, if someone did that today, there'd be hell to pay because people would say you can't do that. It contradicts the Bible. But Luria's story, his new myth, inspired a Jewish mass movement from Poland to Iran. It was the only theology in the Jewish world to gain such universal acceptance.
St. Augustine had made it quite clear, too, in the Christian world, that if a biblical text contradicted Scripture, that text must be re-interpreted and given an allegorical interpretation. And that remained the practice of the church right up until the 16th century.
So right up on the dawn of the scientific revolution, you have John Calvin saying that the Bible has nothing at all to tell us about science, and he's very cross with what he calls frantic persons who are trying to impede science by saying it doesn't agree with the Bible. He said if you want to learn about cosmology, don't go to the Bible; go elsewhere.
GROSS: And you say that this coming together of science and religion also opened the door to a new form of atheism.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, because really, the certainty that people were beginning to expect from religion was unsustainable. Once you've got people like Laplace, who says - a French physicist of the early 19th century - who says that he doesn't need the god hypothesis, he can account for the universe perfectly well without God - and finally Darwin. Then no longer is the advanced thought of the day with religion, as it had been for 200 years.
Now, people are expecting absolute certainty. They're expecting scientific proof. And when they don't get it, and when science no longer comes up with the goods they want, atheism becomes inevitable for some people.
GROSS: So you're saying this is relatively new because until the 16th and 17th century, no one expected that science could prove the existence of God. Therefore, nobody expected that kind of literal proof.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Nobody expected literal proof from Scripture, and that's whether you look in the Jewish world, people like Maimonides (ph); in the Muslim world, people like Abu Sina or Al-Ghazali; or in the Christian world with Thomas Aquinas.
Thomas Aquinas in his great work the "Summa Theologica," he says yes, now here are some proofs to show that something brought something into existence when there could have been nothing. But then he pulls the rug out from under our feet and says, but we don't know what it is we've proved. All we've proved is the existence of a mystery. We have no idea what God is. And that's basically the way religion was left at the time.
Religion wasn't about answering questions that we could answer perfectly well by our powers of logos, of reason and science. Religion was helping us to deal with aspects of life, facts of life for which there are no easy answers.
GROSS: Karen Armstrong will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "The Case for God." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with religion scholar Karen Armstrong. Her new book is called "The Case for God." When we left off, she was talking about how religion and science first came into conflict, and how that led to a new form of atheism from people who demanded scientific proof of God.
What's your response to an atheist like Richard Dawkins, who wrote a best-selling book explaining his atheism, and using scientific thinking to disprove the existence of God and he calls religion supernatural thinking?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, Dawkins is a great biologist, and I have been inspired by his account of natural selection. He's helped me to see the wonder of that. And it certainly deals a blow to the simplistic idea of God as creator that has taken root in the West since the early modern period. And many religious people talk about God today in a way that's really quite simplistic, even primitive, and give rise to the kind of attacks that Dawkins - I think he sometimes goes too far in his attack, but we - thinking about God and talking about God far too easily.
Very often people hear about God when they're little and when - at the time they first learn about Santa Claus. And over the years, their ideas about Santa Claus have changed and developed. But their ideas of God have got stuck in this rather infantile mode, which mistakes the symbol that God is supposed to be for hard fact. And so I think that in pointing out that you can think about God in this way, Dawkins could have done a service to religion in getting people back to a more developed and symbolic sense of the divine that lies beyond us.
GROSS: So you agree with him in rejecting a literal-minded version of religion. But where do you start to disagree with him?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I think some of his characterizations of religion are a bit - sort of simplistic and uninformed, really. I don't like the way he says that we should withdraw all respect from religion because whether he likes it or not, the vast majority of human beings on the planet wants to be religious, want to live in relation to transcendence. And it seems to me that you don't want to wipe out a species or to exterminate it. You want to nudge it, perhaps, into a more healthy form of evolution, if I can put it that way, and I don't like his aggression. I think that in our very polarized, dangerously polarized world, we can't afford yet another divisive discourse that puts us at odds with one another.
GROSS: Let me ask you a big and impossible-to-answer question, which is: What do you think religion is for?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Religion is about helping us to deal with the sorrow that we see in life, helping us to find meaning in life, and helping us to live in relation to that transcendence that I was speaking about earlier. Religious people are ambitious. They want to feel enhanced. They want to feel at peace within themselves. They want to live generous lives. They want to live beyond selfishness, beyond ego.
All the world religions say that the way to find what we call God or Brahman, Nirvana, or Tao is to get beyond the prism of egotism, of selfishness which holds us in a little deadlock and limits our vision. That if we can get beyond that, especially in the practice of compassion, when we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, we live much more richly and intensely.
GROSS: You were in a convent for seven years. You were committed to Christ and to the church, and then when you left, when you decided that this life was not for you, you left religion behind for a while.
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GROSS: And then you made the study of the religions of the world, basically your religion scholarship of, you know, religious scholarship became like a religion to you. And every time you're on the show, I like to kind of take your pulse and see...
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GROSS: ...where are you now in terms of what religion means in your life. So where are you?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, for me, my study, my study of these wonderful, wonderful texts has become my form of meditation or contemplation. And when I'm sitting at my desk or even in the British Library, I can have moments of awe and wonder and excitement that lift me up beyond myself, give me intonations of something touching me deeply within. And that's become my path, and I can't see any one of the world religions as superior to any of the others. Each has its own particular genius and each its particular flaws. And it's pushed me into a more compassionate mode of living.
GROSS: Do you practice any kind of rituals, meditation, prayer, because you talk about religion in your book as being a way of living, as being a practice?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: So do you have any kind of practice to help you get that kind of focus that you want in life?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: It is my study, for me, and I can't pray. I'm absolutely hopeless at prayer. Large...
GROSS: Why do you think you're hopeless at prayer?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, when I was in my convent, we'd have to make a meditation every morning for a whole hour, and I could not keep my mind on this for one minute at a time. My mind would instantly go skittering off down a whole - alleyways of distraction and worries and anxieties. And I think I just seem to encounter absolute emptiness and nothingness. I had a very simplistic idea of God. I had the idea of God as this divine personality that would somehow get in touch with me. There'd be some kind of encounter. Now I realize I was barking up the wrong tree. That isn't what God is at all.
But those years of failure, every morning going into that church and coming out not having meditated at all, left me with a kind of fear of meditation, if you like. The thought of a sort of a worry about it, just like some people might have after having had a, say, a bad sexual experience, that they don't want to go there again. And the last thing I ever thought I would end up doing is writing about religion and yet, here I am.
GROSS: My guest is Karen Armstrong. Her new book is called "The Case for God." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is religion scholar Karen Armstrong. Her new book is called "The Case for God." I wonder if you've been following this: there was a poll that was released by the Public Policy polling firm, and they polled New Jersey residents, and one of the questions they asked was if they think President Obama is the anti-Christ and...
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh dear.
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GROSS: Did you hear about this?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: No, I didn't.
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GROSS: Okay. Eight percent of the people polled said yes, and 13 percent said they weren't sure. And then among Republicans, 14 percent said yes, Obama is the anti-Christ, and 15 percent said they weren't sure. What does that say to you?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Anti-Christ is a kind of bogie. It's a fundamentalist bogie, the epitome of evil that challenges true faith. And to pin that on a human being is a kind of very worrying projection. We're making scapegoats and looking at people to blame for the immensely difficult and complex problems of our world. Anti-Christ is a kind of bogie. It has no real roots in the Christian tradition. And...
GROSS: It doesn't?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Not really. It's a couple of chance remarks of Saint Paul, and then there's the "Book of Revelation." But the whole idea of there being end-time battles reflects a more, sort of Zoroastrian view of the world. And I think it reflects a very pessimistic view of life, that the world seems to be so evil that it's hurtling towards some unimaginable catastrophe in which the evil and the evildoers will be vanquished, and Christ will be victorious. The Christ of Revelation will fight anti-Christ in terrible, end-time battles.
This, you know, if people came to psychiatrists with this kind of fantasy, the psychiatrist would probably denote a profound disorder, a profound neurosis. And the fact that it has such a grip in America is a sign of, I would say of an unhappy society, dare I say it.
GROSS: You see a big difference between America and England when it comes to religion in general, fundamentalism in particular.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh well, England is just not interested in religion at all, and I think only about 6 percent of Britons attend a religious service regularly. And atheism is almost de rigueur among the chattering classes of London, which makes it a rather lonely existence for me here. I mean, friends will actually ask me not to speak about religion when I come around to dinner, as though this was some kind of really, a retrograde subject, and find it difficult to imagine why I should bother with this discredited stuff.
But then we are beginning to seem endearingly old-fashioned in our aggressive secularism because in the rest of the world, outside Western Europe, there is an immense religious revival. And a lot of it, like that anti-Christ thing, reflects real A, the aggression that we have inherent in the modern world. The 20th century was a terribly violent century, and religions absorbed some of that violence - and also profound anxieties. We've got so much to worry about at the moment that perhaps it's no wonder that it surfaces, perhaps, in a religious form.
GROSS: You recently made a wish while getting an award...
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GROSS: ...that, what did you call it, compassion committee or something that...
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Charter for compassion.
GROSS: A charter for compassion. Explain what your wish is.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I was given this award by the TED conferences, and they like to give a prize to people whom they think have made a difference in the world, but with their help could make an - even more of an impact. And so my wish was that they would help me to create and craft a charter for compassion that would restore compassion to the center of the religious life. And instead of seeing religion as part of the problems of our world, would actually help religion to make a positive contribution towards peace. And so the charter's being written now, and it will be launched in November.
But primarily, it's a call for action - not just the sort of feel-good factor - so that compassion, which is at the heart of all morality, of all religious systems, far more important than believing things or accepting orthodox views, should be - speak again loudly and clearly in our world. And I shall be working on this now, I think, for the rest of my days.
GROSS: As part of a group that you're trying to organize around compassion, do you want that to be an antidote for some of the more extreme forms of religion that are forming now?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, definitely because you know, when we hear about religion, when it hits the headlines, it's either something like that anti-Christ poll, or else we hear the voices of hatred or extremism, or we hear our church leaders condemning things, like condemning homosexuality, or enforcing rigid beliefs. And this is not what religion is about. Religion - all the world faiths have developed their own version of what's been called the Golden Rule: Don't do to others what you would not like them to do to you. And they've said, all of them, that that is the essence of faith.
That it is that, not our beliefs and - that bring us into relationship with what we call God or Brahman or Tao, and it's that that gives meaning to our lives. And so I want to restore compassion to that and so that we have instead of religious antagonism, religious aggression, we have a voice that speaks continually of compassion; that endlessly tries to put us, make us put ourselves in the position of the other. Because I'm worried that if we don't manage to implement the Golden Rule globally, so that we treat all peoples, wherever they are, as though they were as important as ourselves, that we - I don't think we'll have, if we don't do that, a viable world to hand on to the next generation.
GROSS: The way you've portrayed it in your book and in our interview, religion used to be something that was understood as myth. And it's only later on in modern times, when science comes in, that there's this more literal version of it. And it used to be more about compassion, too. But you know, just really, isn't it true that throughout human history, there have been religious conflicts?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh, yes.
GROSS: Both within religions and between religions. And that…
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.
GROSS: …religion has always been a force for - for bad as well as for good.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, because that's what we are. That's what the Garden of Eden story is telling us about, that good and evil are inextricably combined in our - in our hearts, in our - all, every single individual. And of course, a lot of people don't want to be compassionate. They'd rather be right. And they - a lot of people get a kick out of hating people. And God, as I've said earlier, can be abused and made to back up that hatred, because religion is very difficult to do well. And it's not the easy thing that people imagine. It's not a question of just bopping down to church and singing a couple of hymns. It requires a daily effort to overcome the ego that holds us back from enlightenment. And a lot of people don't - are not quite ready for that.
It must also be said that a lot of the tensions that we - religious violence that we see in the world today, as well as in the past, has been the result of political tensions. And when violence becomes ingrained in a region, where warfare becomes chronic in a region, such as the Middle East or Afghanistan, then religion gets sucked into the whole unholy mess and becomes a part of the problem, too.
GROSS: Now, you know, your view of religion isn't that there's a personal God who has some kind of physical manifestation and who can appear to you and speak to you. But some people have - say that they've experienced that manifestation of God. They've had some kind of direct contact or message from God. How do you - how do you process that?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Far be it for me to decry anybody's religious beliefs or religious experience. And if religion - your experience of God speaking to you or whatever, compels you to live a more compassionate life, then it's doing its job. And if it's filling you with respect and awe for the natural world and for all God's creatures, it's doing its job. What we call God comes to us in many ways. I couldn't make the personal God work for me. But that's not to say it won't work for other people. We all experience the inimitable, limitless God in as many different ways as there are human beings.
GROSS: Karen Armstrong, really good to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: Karen Armstrong's new book is called "The Case for God." Coming up, the case for network TV. David Bianculli reviews last night's Emmy Awards and previews the new fall season that starts tonight. This is FRESH AIR.
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Karen Armstrong, (born November 14, 1944, Worcestershire, England), English author of books on religion who was widely regarded as one of the leading commentators on the subject in Great Britain.
At age 17 Armstrong entered a Roman Catholic convent. Though she had “pictured the religious life as a series of philosophical conversations sandwiched between prayerful ecstasies,” she was rudely awakened. She entered the convent just as the Second Vatican Council was getting under way, long before its reforms were introduced into Roman Catholic institutions. Armstrong found herself searching for God in the midst of the severe and outdated Victorian subculture of her convent. After seven years in the convent she emerged a nonbeliever, and she recounted her journey in the autobiographical Through the Narrow Gate (1981).
Armstrong graduated from the University of Oxford with a degree in literature. She then taught modern literature at the University of London before becoming the head of the English department at a girls’ school. By 1982 she had become a freelance writer and broadcaster, and her new profession gradually led her back to the subject of religion. She began describing herself as a “freelance monotheist.” In 1983 she wrote and presented a six-part television documentary series on the life and work of the Apostle Paul. Much of the background work for the series was done on-site in the Middle East, where Armstrong gained a fresh appreciation for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. She then went on to produce other television series, including Varieties of Religious Experience (1984), Tongues of Fire (1985), and Genesis: A Living Conversation (1996). A teacher at the Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism and the Training of Rabbis and Teachers, she was also an honorary member of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists.
Armstrong’s books include Beginning the World (1983), The Gospel According to Woman: Christianity’s Creation of the Sex War in the West (1986), Muhammad: A Western Attempt to Understand Islam (1991), The End of Silence: Women and the Priesthood (1993), A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (1993), The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (2000), The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006), The Case for God (2009), and Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014).
Armstrong was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2015.