God is Big These Days—suddenly very big—and thus there is no rest for Karen Anderson Armstrong. Michael Valpy profiles the ex-nun who is one of the world’s most authoritative commentators on religious issues.
It is mid-August. The sixty-one-year-old British ex-nun and author, arguably the world’s most lucid, authoritative and valuable living commentator on religion, leaves an international forum on religious fundamentalism in New York to fly to Canada for the Couchiching Conference north of Toronto. The subject is: “God’s Back with a Vengeance: Religion, Pluralism and the Secular State.” Before the forum in New York, she addressed the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona, and after Couchiching, she will go back across the border to the Chautauqua Institution’s annual symposium on religion in upstate New York, where she will speak on the Abrahamic vision for building a global neighborhood.
Somehow woven into this relentless global travel is the endless stream of essays she writes for the English-speaking world’s leading newspapers and magazines, her regular column for the British Guardian, her radio and television appearances, public and academic lectures, consultations with politicians (she has addressed members of Congress, the State Department, the U.S. intelligence services, and the United Nations), a promotion tour for her fifteenth book—an autobiography entitled The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness—and continuing research on her sixteenth book, which will be about what historians term the Axial Age, the period in the first millennium BCE when all the world’s great religions got their start.
She arrives midmorning at Couchiching ill, feverish and losing her voice. She wants quiet and sleep before her evening keynote speech. But, told that a journalist—me—has made the ninety-minute drive from Toronto for an interview prearranged by the conference organizers, she ends a too-brief nap to come resolutely to the conference center’s dining room to talk, a small, wan, tired woman speaking hoarsely and above a whisper.
She forgoes rest because Armstrong is a woman on a mission, a messenger bearing warnings for Americans and the world: Beware. Beware. Misbegotten U.S. foreign policy is pushing Islamic fundamentalists closer and closer to the use of weapons of mass destruction. Time is running out. The American administration and its allies have ignited a conflict that will last a generation.
It is, she says, just the beginning, and Pollyannish optimism about its outcome she labels a sin. “It is just the beginning. Even to call it a war on terrorism is a mistake,” she says. It is war, a religious war, launched in an era of mushrooming worldwide religious fundamentalist revolt against modernity and secularism. Fundamentalism, she says, is an enormous socio-political problem that must be addressed—it is splitting countries like Egypt, Israel and America into two camps—and the lessons from history are unequivocal: religious fundamentalists always, always become more violent under attack, whether in the Middle East, Iraq or in the United States itself.
Armstrong warns that this is a conflict frighteningly aggravated by the rising domestic political might of American conservative Christian evangelicals and traditional Roman Catholics. Whenever religion is allowed to enter political debate, positions become more absolute and the middle ground of compromise and flexibility erodes. Because religious behavior mirrors the culture in which it exists, she says, the Christian right in the U.S. has absorbed the endemic violence of U.S. society and taken on the vengeful Armageddon fantasies of the New Testament book of Revelation. She proclaims George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden to be parodies of each other with their talk of black and white, good and evil. “They’d probably get on pretty well if they could meet,” she says.
Our conversation, scheduled for a few minutes, lasts more than an hour, becoming a journey into the history and meaning of religion—and the nature of the sacred. Brushing aside solicitudes for her voice, Armstrong delves enthusiastically into institutional religion’s antagonism to women, Christianity’s twisted problems with sex, and secular society’s cataclysmic error in consigning religion and spirituality to the trash cans of history. From her wealth of religious knowledge, she flings out nuggets on the Biblical origins of scapegoating, the hysteria of the early church fathers on sex—”St. Jerome and St. Augustine were scarcely sane on the subject”—and a delicious anecdote about an Anglican bishop of London who proclaimed that he could not see a woman priest at the altar without wanting to embrace her.
“How he could even think of making that statement in public just astonishes me,” she says. “Men have hijacked religion. It is rubbish, who can be ordained and what kind of contraception can be used. The churches are doing a marvelous job of putting themselves out of business. The last time I went to church in Britain there were five of us and a dog.”
Listening to Armstrong, the image unavoidably creeps into one’s mind of the cartoon figure of a bearded, ragged man standing ignored on a Wall Street sidewalk, holding up a sign saying, “Repent!” But there is a much better image for Armstrong, that of the cerebral, literary, Old Testament prophet Amos who exercised his ministry in Israel between 760 and 750 BCE, in that Axial Age, when the world’s great faiths were born. Amos wags his finger outside the tents of the mighty; he denounces all levels of society for their spiritual apostasy, adherence to false and alien rituals, absence of compassion, oppression of the marginalized, and breach of elementary and unwritten laws of natural humanity. He writes in excellent Hebrew. He has a scholarly knowledge of historical traditions and Israelite and regional cult practices. He uses vivid imagery drawn from nature. He is an intelligent observer capable of articulating his insights and experiences in powerful, literary language. Armstrong is post-Axial Amos.
She is asked, often, “How did you come to this?” Karen Armstrong’s journey into religion began in 1962 when, as a bright, idealistic seventeen-year-old, she entered the Roman Catholic convent of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in Britain “to lose my adolescent self in this great fulfilling religious experience and be transformed by God and filled with joy and serenity.”
Instead she found herself forced into obedience and senseless rules and taught, above all, never to question. When her order sent her to Oxford to study to become a teacher, she suddenly encountered professors who insisted she do quite the opposite: criticize and challenge everything around her. In the convent, she had been shut off from the world, removed from newspapers and television and outside friendships. At Oxford, she heard for the first time about Vietnam and the Beatles. She saw long hair, short skirts.
She found Oxford life impossible to reconcile with the rules of the convent when she returned home. One day she collapsed, weeping uncontrollably. She also had been experiencing blackouts and hallucinations—caused by epilepsy not diagnosed until a decade later—leading her to question her sanity. She quit the order in 1969, depressed and suffering from anorexia. It took her six years to readjust to secular society. She returned to studies in English literature and had her doctoral dissertation rejected. She taught for a while in a high school but ill-health forced her to quit. Halfhearted attempts at churchgoing soon turned to anger and atheism.
She began making television documentaries on religion that were award-winning but highly controversial, and TV executives pulled the plug on her broadcasting career. So she started writing books: first about her experience in the convent and the trauma of leaving it, then about the crusades, English mystics, religion’s treatment of women, Mohammed, and (in 1993) her History of God, the work that brought her to international attention with its thesis that God has been invented and reinvented through the centuries by the three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. More books have followed: histories of Jerusalem and Islam, a critically acclaimed study of fundamentalism, a life of the Buddha, and another autobiography.
“I never would have thought when I started all this,” she told an interviewer, “that it would have brought me so much to the center of public life. I do feel that if people are asking at this ghastly time in our history for elucidation, then this is something I must do.”
The idea that she would find peace and fulfillment in studying religion—and indeed, rediscover God—took Armstrong by surprise. Human beings, she resolutely believes, are naturally religious. “We are creatures who seek transcendence. We’re meaning-seeking creatures, we fall easily into despair.”
Always her thoughts lead to the essence of religion, its meaning to humankind, and its indomitable significance in human affairs. While Western Europe and a handful of other odd countries like Japan, Canada and Argentina remain in a religious cold belt—”locked,” as Armstrong puts it, “in the good old world of the mid-twentieth century when it was assumed that secularism was the commanding ideology and religion would never again play a major role in world events—aha! we got that wrong”— the rest of the world increasingly demands the presence of religion in public life.
It is a statement echoed by one of America’s most respected public research organizations, the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Its forty-four-nation survey shows that no fewer than eight in ten Africans see religion as very important personally, and that similar or greater majorities exist in the Middle East, most of Asia and in every Latin American country except Argentina. And that, significantly, the importance of religion to Americans mirrors far more closely the developing than the developed world. Indeed, the United States stands virtually alone among the world’s wealthiest nations in the value its people place on religion in both their private lives and the public square.
What becomes clear in conversation with Armstrong is that she is embarked not on one mission but two. The second is to proclaim that human religiosity is not dead but that good religion is in danger of being engulfed by bad. It is this second mission, as much as the first—her warning that fundamentalism must be acknowledged and addressed—that underscores Armstrong’s importance. She quotes Jung’s observation that so much religious practice seems designed precisely to prevent people from having a truly religious experience. One of the disorders of our time, she says, is the breakdown of the sacred. She quotes the Buddha: “Existence has gone awry.” She says, “Religion is like any other human activity. Like cooking, it can be disgusting.” Bad religion, she says, is the suffocation of the sacred by dogma, by man-made rules, by the arrogant idolatry of investing human values in an ineffable deity. “Idolatry,” she has written, “is not simply the worship of a false god; it occurs whenever a purely human value becomes the chief focus of religious aspiration.”
Bad religion, Armstrong says, is the stifling of the individual’s anarchistic search for transcendent meaning and absolute truth beyond ego. Good religion is the embrace of compassion and confrontation with the “other,” which are the matrix teachings of all the great spiritual movements.
“Compassion is the key to religion, the key to spirituality. It is the litmus test of religiosity in all the major world religions. It is the key to the experience of what we call God—that when you dethrone yourself from the center of your world and put another there, you achieve extasis, you go beyond yourself.” She quotes the Buddha again: “First, live in a compassionate way, and then you will know.” The Buddha, she says, like Mohammed, Jesus, Socrates and the Hebrew prophets, taught humankind how to reach beyond pettiness to absolute value. Enlightenment was the discovery of a sacred realm of peace in the depths of one’s own self and thus the finding of strength to live creatively in this world of pain and sorrow.
She has written, “One of the reasons why people have problems with religion today is that they assess it rationally, and expect to comprehend its insights immediately. But theology is—or should be—poetry, an attempt to express the inexpressible.” Logos—reason, the belief in obligatory doctrine as the word of God—has replaced mythos, the mythical consciousness that informed pre-modern Christianity and the world’s other great religions, the belief that God cannot be known but that the enduring effort to find God is the essence of spirituality. “Yet it seems,” says Armstrong, “that we find it almost impossible to think symbolically. An object has no meaning unless we can prove that it once existed physically. We need to recover a sense of the importance of the creative imagination in the religious quest.”
In a post-Auschwitz, post-September-11 world, a new spiritual quest is “the only thing that will save our world,” she says. The quest begins with an honest understanding of religion in the world today.
Fundamentalism, she says, is the natural byproduct that follows establishment of a secular, liberal society. “So to every [secular advance] in society, there is a fundamentalist riposte. We have to be grown-up about it. All major social change is contested. It always has been, and whenever you try to suppress a fundamentalist movement, you drive it to extremity.”
It happened first in America, she says, where religious fundamentalism was born (she acknowledges she doesn’t like the word, but it has become the shorthand symbol for what is transpiring in so much of global religious life). She cites the 1925 Scopes trial that pitted Biblical creationism against Darwinian evolution as the prime example of what happens when fundamentalism is attacked.
“Before the Scopes ‘monkey’ trial—when the secular press ridiculed the fundamentalists and said they had no place in the modern agenda—fundamentalist Christians had been literal in their interpretation of scripture but creation science was the preserve of a few eccentrics. After the Scopes trial, they became militantly literal and creation science became the flagship of their movement. Before the Scopes trial, fundamentalists had often been on the left of the political spectrum and had been willing to work alongside socialists and liberal Christians in the new slums of the industrializing North American cities. After the Scopes trial, they swung to the far right, where they remained. They felt humiliated by the media attack. It was very nasty. There was a sense of loss of prestige, and, above all, a sense of fear.”
The form of Islamic fundamentalism today espoused by Osama bin Laden, she says, was formed in Egyptian concentration camps in the middle of the last century when Nassar interned members of the Muslim Brotherhood for doing nothing more incriminating than handing out a few leaflets. They were imprisoned without trial, submitted to physical and mental torture, executed. Islamic fundamentalism took root in modern Turkey when the Sufi mystic orders were abolished. It took root in Iran when the Shah ordered soldiers to tear the veils off women and had people shot in the street for protesting against the obligatory wearing of Western clothes at Muslim shrines.
The common thread? Tyrannical Islamic leaders, who were supported and too often kept in place by Western governments, bent on playing catch-up with the West and bringing their countries into the same secular modernity, but trying to do in a few brief decades what in the West had taken three centuries. “With the way some of the Muslim rulers have tried to secularize,” she points out, “Islamic fundamentalists are not wrong to experience it as a dreadful assault, supported by the West.”
With Jewish—and also Islamic—fundamentalism, she says, the crux is the State of Israel and the Palestinian question. “That is the focus. It is the same syndrome: fear of secular modernity.” And the perceived puppet-master’s hand of the United States: “Osama bin Laden was not particularly interested in Palestine when he started on this. His main focus was Saudi Arabia. But he knew his audience. He knew that if he wanted to call on large numbers of supporters, he need only draw attention to the plight of the Palestinians.
“And now Iraq is going to become like this. Those pictures from the U.S. military prison will become iconic in the same way as the pictures every night on Al-Jazeera of Israeli tanks bulldozing Palestinian homes.
“If warfare and violence becomes endemic in a society, religion gets sucked into that. Religion comes from where our dreams come from, and if our dreams become disturbed, everything about us becomes disturbed in times of war and violence.”
This is a world, says Armstrong, where more and more small groups are nearing the capability—if they haven’t already achieved it—of mass destruction that was formerly the prerogative of the nation-state. “When I say we don’t have much time, I mean that the chance of an extremely alienated group getting hold of some appalling weapon and using it is increasing every day.”
Religion in America, she says, is “in the balance.” Fundamentalists in the U.S. are following the pattern of fundamentalists elsewhere in the world, absorbing the violence from the culture in which they exist. Says Armstrong, “They want a male religion where Jesus ain’t no sissy. The gun lobby is important to them.” She says American fundamentalists, like fundamentalists elsewhere, see themselves as fighting a war—a war against secularness, against a liberal modernity that is perceived as bent on erasing religion from U.S. public discourse.
Armstrong’s concerns are echoed by Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, who spoke at the same Couchiching Conference as Armstrong. He says religion has become a systemic, hard-wired feature of U.S. presidential elections, driven by a new coalition of conservative Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants and fuelled by fear that American culture is being taken over by militant secularism. He characterizes the emerging alliance between more traditional Catholics and evangelical Christian Protestants as “one of the huge stories in U.S. politics—it’s a political realignment of major proportions.” When the religious mix is adjusted to include conservative, observant Catholics, who are divided between the two parties, the total reaches about forty per cent of the electorate.
To illustrate, Lugo says that the key electoral constituencies of both major parties are now the two most highly religious segments of the U.S. public—black Americans on the Democratic side and white evangelical Protestants on the Republican side, together representing more than a quarter of the electorate. “The views of the two communities on religion and public life are virtually identical,” he says. “They differ on economic policy, they differ on foreign policy. But in talking about religion in public life, about taking religion into account in public policy and the use of religion in political campaigns, these are the two communities from which we get the highest favorables in the country.”
Lugo contrasts the 1960 presidential election, when John F. Kennedy had to travel into the Deep South’s Protestant Bible Belt to promise that his Catholicism would have no influence on his public life, to the 2004 campaign, when Catholic bishops cheered on by evangelical Protestant leaders told Democratic candidate John Kerry to pay attention to Vatican teachings on abortion. “The tussle between Kerry and the bishops” took on huge significance because conservative Catholics are divided between the two parties and because many of them are concentrated in important swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. “It’s a fascinating reconfiguring and reshuffling of religion and political events in the U.S. What has caused it? My whole sense is that it’s a fear that a very militant secularism is driving religion from public life and increasingly besieging faithful believers.”
In overwhelming numbers, Americans approve of politicians talking publicly about their religious beliefs and welcome the presence of religious discourse in public policy debate. Three-quarters of Americans think there’s nothing wrong with George W. Bush saying he relies on his religious beliefs to make decisions. Half of Americans say they would not vote for an atheist. Nearly sixty per cent believe journalists should question politicians about how their religious beliefs might affect their decisions.
And, as Armstrong says, whenever religion is allowed to enter political debate, positions become more absolute and the middle ground of compromise and flexibility erodes. To fundamentalists, she says, tolerance of the “other” is a sin. “This goes to feminism, which is seen as a visceral threat. Fundamentalism is a revolt against modernity and one of the characteristics of modernity has been the emancipation of women. Fundamentalists in every religion tend to overplay the traditional role of
women as part of their countercultural riposte. They talk in frank ways of feminism’s castrating effect. This goes to the absolute hysteria about the gay syndrome. This goes to abortion, which has become a symbol of everything that is wrong about modernity.”
Her two prescriptions?
America—and Britain is just as culpable, she says—is alienating Muslims, who were initially horrified by September 11. It is strengthening Al-Qaeda by the Iraq war and its awful aftermath. The U.S. and Britain must change their foreign policies, the first step being to find a just solution to the Palestinian conflict and the second being to stop supporting “appalling rulers in the region like the Saudis, like Saddam himself, who was supported by the West for a long time. Iraqis aren’t stupid. They remember this. To quote Thomas Friedman, we’ve used these people like so many gas stations. As long as they give us cheap oil and support Israel, we don’t mind what happens in their country.”
Secondly, she says, “We need to reclaim religion from the religious politicians who run it, who are just like other politicians—they speak for their own party and they can’t be sufficiently pluralistic.”
Recently, she told a Scottish interviewer, “Religion is not about belief; we’ve got hung up on that concept since the Enlightenment in the West. Religion is about doing things that change you. I think a lot of people just want to rinse their minds of all this rotten theology they’ve been force-fed that’s been bad and thoughtless and careless and heartless. Here’s the world crying out for religion to be reclaimed from the terrorists—that needs a message of compassion. And instead there’s a lot of very facile, lazy, inadequate theology, making people learn catechisms, coming out with glib remarks, like ‘God knows what he’s doing.’ Or just arguing on abstruse points of doctrine. It’s nuts. It’s not surprising people are sick of it. I’m sick of it myself!”
What will come of the spiritual quest she prescribes? “I don’t think it will be a belief in a conventional God, but that’s of no interest or importance.”