One of the foremost writers on theology and spirituality, Armstrong has been called "arguably the most lucid, wide-ranging and consistently interesting religion writer today".
Karen Armstrong is known and admired for her best-selling books, which include a history of the Bible and a biography of the Prophet Mohammed. She has studied the sacred texts of the world as well as philosophy, anthropology and history and recently wrote a response to atheists, The Case For God.
Her latest project is the Charter for Compassion. For Armstrong, compassion is a deep empathy with others, not a feeling of pity or concern.
She visited Brussels to speak at a debate on the role of religion in modern society, organized by the Centre for European Studies and spoke to New Europe in an exclusive interview.
Your view of compassion is based on empathy
It is at the heart of every spiritual, moral and ethical idea, religious or not. It’s based on the golden rule; treat others as you would want to be treated. Basically, that’s the heart of morality, but now it is an urgent necessity, because if we don’t treat all peoples as we would wish to be treated, we’re not going to have a viable world.
How would a compassionate European Union treat migrants?
Very often these immigrants have come to fuel our economy and haven’t come of their own free will. Both sides have some work to do. The immigrants have to remember what it was like when the Europeans colonized their countries and changed them forever. Remember the pain that caused, the pain that is still reverberating today and is the cause of many of our international problems worldwide.
Europeans have to remember that these people, who they have invited here to do cheap work are to be treated with dignity.
We’re going to have to learn to put yourself in the place of another and ask, “Do I like to hear my sacred traditions being trashed, be those of a religious, political or moral nature.” There are certain values that we have, such as free speech, which is seen as sacred and inviolable. What we are seeing is clashes of the sacred. Two people with different ideas and these have to be negotiated with greater maturity.
The Muslims have to stop being enraged, and falling into the trap, that, very often extreme people on the other side are trying to lure them into. If Europe fails this test, it is going to go right back to the 1930’s and 40’s.
There is a debate on has multiculturalism failed?
It will fail unless we can negotiate these differences in a mature manner. If we say we’re committed to liberal values and democracy, that means everybody’s voice has to be heard.
There is, unfortunately, also a secular radicalism, which doesn’t represent the majority. During the Denmark cartoons controversy, there was a poll of Muslim youth and 97% said that, while they were horrified by the cartoons, they were also horrified by those Muslims who were attacking and burning down embassies.
At the same time they did a survey among Danes, who said that yes, they believed in free speech but also were upset that those cartoons had given offence. That middle voice doesn’t get heard. It’s not exciting, but it shows the situation has become distorted.
What happens then is that both sides show themselves in the worst light. The West comes over as arrogant, racist, insulting and Islamphobic and the Muslims come over as atavistic, violent. That is not the whole of the reality; the middle ground has been erased. At the end of the crisis we both fulfill the others expectations of ourselves and the prejudices go a little deeper.
We’re more aware of ‘the other’ now, how are we adapting to that?
Not well, but we have got to adapt. Whether we like it or not, the other is there. If a market goes down in one part of the world, there’s a domino effect. We are interconnected. We’re no longer living in a ‘Belgium for the Belgians’ or ‘Britain for the British’. That’s gone because we’ve created this global market. It’s not some terrible plague that’s come along.
But our perceptions haven’t caught up with reality and unless we do that, we will be irrational. It’s irrational to think these people will go away.
This change is going to need politics.
I don’t hold much hope for politics. The people who have come to help me with the charter have, universally, been businessmen. Leading business, because they know you need peace and the big push for the charter is from business.
So far, politicians haven’t come up to help with the charter, it’s companies like Microsoft, Google, Starbucks. They say it makes business sense to treat your employees respectfully.
What is the aim of the Charter and the compassionate cities project?
We’re building an international network of cities dedicated to the pursuit of compassion, but it has to be practical, and when it is endorsed my Mayors and so on. Before they can qualify they need to produce a practical program, based on the needs of their locality, their problems and so on. Seattle has signed up and Chicago, Philadelphia and New Delhi are joining.
Atheists such as Richard Dawkins make a lot of criticisms that could be seen my some as valid on church structure
I don’t think they know very much about church structure or dogma. They just think it’s a set of beliefs. They don’t seem to know much about religion. What I think they do well, is to remind us that all religions could be held to have been guilty of intolerance and violence.
I just wish they would do it without falling into the trap of intolerance and bigotry themselves. It’s very important for religious people to have a dialogue with atheists and it has taken place in the past and been fruitful for both sides.
Is this a continuation of the old science versus religion debate?
It’s not that old. Science and religion have two different jobs to do. Any scientist can tell you what happens, but he can’t give meaning. The religions are at their worst when they try to give explanations about the origins of the universe, which are scientific. Even Calvin, of all people, said the Bible is not about astronomy. If you want to find out about that, go elsewhere. That sense has been lost.
Religion is helping us deal with problems with which there are no answers, such as sorrow, grief, mortality, cruelty and despair.
How do we get in touch with the Divine?
I wish I knew. Religions have developed ways and practices that help us to leave the self, to put the ego aside. Some of these are rituals, some are moral or ethical. This is where compassion comes in. If you’re going to be compassionate towards people, “all day and every day,” as Confucius put it, you have to put aside the clamorous ego, that can’t see outside its own perspective. Yoga is about getting rid of the I from your thinking. If you can do that, you can see the divine.
There’s a new age movement, with a new view towards spirituality
They can be self indulgent. They can be all about me and getting a nice warm glow. But religions should compel us towards compassion. There’s something wrong with your religion if it doesn’t.
How would you like to see your ideas develop?
It will be different in all parts of the world. We’re working in Pakistan and that will be difficult for young people because they’ve been distorted by a Wahabi ethos that was imposed on them in the 1980’s, but the charter is being taught in independent schools and it will remind them of the compassionate aside of Islam. There’s huge energy coming from there.
I want to twin cities and universities and get students to email each other, that starts to break down the patterns of ignorance, but it will be 10 years before we make any difference. This is long, slow work.