Biography of Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong (born 14 November 1944) is a British author and commentator of Irish Catholic descent known for her books on comparative religion. A former Roman Catholic religious sister, she went from a conservative to a more liberal and mystical Christian faith. She attended St Anne's College, Oxford, while in the convent and majored in English. She left the convent in 1969. Her work focuses on commonalities of the major religions, such as the importance of compassion and the Golden Rule.

Armstrong received the US$100,000 TED Prize in February 2008. She used that occasion to call for the creation of a Charter for Compassion, which was unveiled the following year.

Personal life

Armstrong was born at Wildmoor, Worcestershire, into a family of Irish ancestry who, after her birth, moved to Bromsgrove and later to Birmingham. In 1962, at the age of 17, she became a member of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, a teaching congregation, in which she remained for seven years. Armstrong says she suffered physical and psychological abuse in the convent; according to an article in The Guardian newspaper, "Armstrong was required to mortify her flesh with whips and wear a spiked chain around her arm. When she spoke out of turn, she claims she was forced to sew at a treadle machine with no needle for a fortnight."Once she had advanced from postulant and novice to professed nun, she enrolled in St Anne's College, Oxford, to study English. Armstrong left her order in 1969 while still a student at Oxford. After graduating with a Congratulatory First, she embarked on a DPhil on the poet Tennyson. According to Armstrong, she wrote her dissertation on a topic that had been approved by the university committee. Nevertheless, it was failed by her external examiner on the grounds that the topic had been unsuitable. Armstrong did not formally protest this verdict, nor did she embark upon a new topic but instead abandoned hope of an academic career. She reports that this period in her life was marked by ill-health stemming from her lifelong but, at that time, still undiagnosed temporal lobe epilepsy.Around this time she was lodged with Jenifer and Herbert Hart, looking after their disabled son, as told in her memoir The Spiral Staircase.Armstrong is unmarried. Although described herself as a "freelance monotheist," more recently she said, "I wouldn't even call myself a monotheist anymore. … If anything, I'm a Confucian, I think."


In 1976, Armstrong took a job teaching English at James Allen's Girls' School in Dulwich while working on a memoir of her convent experiences. This was published in 1982 as Through the Narrow Gate to excellent reviews. That year she embarked on a new career as an independent writer and broadcasting presenter. In 1984, the British Channel Four commissioned her to write and present a television documentary on the life of St. Paul, The First Christian, a project that involved traveling to the Holy Land to retrace the steps of the saint. Armstrong described this visit as a "breakthrough experience" that defied her prior assumptions and provided the inspiration for virtually all her subsequent work. In A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (1993), she traces the evolution of the three major monotheistic traditions from their beginnings in the Middle East up to the present day and also discusses Hinduism and Buddhism. As guiding "luminaries" in her approach, Armstrong acknowledges (in The Spiral Staircase and elsewhere) the late Canadian theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a Protestant minister, and the Jesuit father Bernard Lonergan. In 1996, she published Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.

Armstrong's The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006) continues the themes covered in A History of God and examines the emergence and codification of the world's great religions during the so-called Axial age identified by Karl Jaspers. In the year of its publication Armstrong was invited to choose her eight favourite records for BBC Radio's Desert Island Discs programme. She has made several appearances on television, including on Rageh Omaar's programme The Life of Muhammad. Her work has been translated into forty-five languages. She was an advisor for the award-winning, PBS-broadcast documentary Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet (2002), produced by Unity Productions Foundation.

In 2007 the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore invited Armstrong to deliver the MUIS Lecture.Armstrong is a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars and laypeople which attempts to investigate the historical foundations of Christianity. She has written numerous articles for The Guardian and for other publications. She was a key advisor on Bill Moyers' popular PBS series on religion, has addressed members of the United States Congress, and was one of three scholars to speak at the UN's first ever session on religion. She is a vice-president of the British Epilepsy Association, otherwise known as Epilepsy Action.

Armstrong, who has taught courses at Leo Baeck College, a rabbinical college and centre for Jewish education located in North London, says she has been particularly inspired by the Jewish tradition's emphasis on practice as well as faith: "I say that religion isn't about believing things. It's about what you do. It's ethical alchemy. It's about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness." She maintains that religious fundamentalism is not just a response to, but is a product of contemporary culture and for this reason concludes that, "We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community."Awarded the $100,000 TED Prize in February 2008, Armstrong called for drawing up a Charter for Compassion, in the spirit of the Golden Rule, to identify shared moral priorities across religious traditions, in order to foster global understanding and a peaceful world. It was presented in Washington, D.C. in November 2009. Signatories include Queen Noor of Jordan, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Paul Simon.In 2012, the Jack P. Blaney Award for Dialogue recognized her outstanding achievement in advancing understanding about and among world religions, and promoting compassion as a way of life. During her award residency in Canada, Armstrong gave the "State of the Charter for Compassion Global Address" and co-launched a compassionate cities initiative in Vancouver.


In 1999 Armstrong received the Muslim Public Affairs Council's Media Award.Armstrong was honoured by the New York Open Center in 2004 for her "profound understanding of religious traditions and their relation to the divine."She received an honorary degree as Doctor of Letters by Aston University in 2006.In May 2008 she was awarded the Freedom of Worship Award by the Roosevelt Institute, one of four medals presented each year to men and women whose achievements have demonstrated a commitment to the Four Freedoms proclaimed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 as essential to democracy: freedom of speech and of worship, freedom from want and from fear. The institute stated that Armstrong had become "a significant voice, seeking mutual understanding in times of turbulence, confrontation and violence among religious groups." It cited "her personal dedication to the ideal that peace can be found in religious understanding, for her teachings on compassion, and her appreciation for the positive sources of spirituality."She also received the TED Prize 2008.In 2009 she was awarded the Dr. Leopold Lucas Prize by the University of Tübingen.Armstrong was honoured with the Nationalencyklopedin's International Knowledge Award 2011 "for her long standing work of bringing knowledge to others about the significance of religion to humankind and, in particular, for pointing out the similarities between religions. Through a series of books and award-winning lectures she reaches out as a peace-making voice at a time when world events are becoming increasingly linked to religion."

On 12 May 2010, she was made honorary Doctor of Divinity by Queen's University (Kingston, Ontario).On 30 November 2011 (St Andrew's Day), Armstrong was made honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Saint Andrews.On 20 March 2012, Karen Armstrong was awarded the 2011/12 Jack P. Blaney Award for Dialogue for her work in advancing understanding about and among world religions.In 2013, she was awarded the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding by the British Academy "in recognition of her body of work that has made a significant contribution to understanding the elements of overlap and commonality in different cultures and religions".On 3 June 2014, she was made an honorary Doctor of Divinity by McGill University.In 2017 Armstrong was bestowed Princess of Asturias award in recognition of her investigations into world religions.


Armstrong was described by philosopher Alain de Botton as "one of the most intelligent contemporary defenders of religion", who "wages a vigorous war on the twin evils of religious fundamentalism and militant atheism". The Washington Post referred to her as "a prominent and prolific religious historian". Laura Miller of Salon described her as "arguably the most lucid, wide-ranging and consistently interesting religion writer today". Juan Eduardo Campo, author of the Encyclopedia of Islam (2009), included Armstrong among a group of scholars who currently conveyed a "more or less objective", as opposed to polemical, view of Islam and its origins to a wide public. After the September 11 attacks she was in great demand as a lecturer, pleading for inter-faith dialogue.Armstrong has been criticized as misunderstanding theology and medieval history, especially in conservative publications First Things and National Review. Hugh Fitzgerald, writing for the New English Review, criticized Armstrong's description of Christopher Columbus as a "Jewish convert to Catholicism", a theory that Fitzgerald suggests is not supported in mainstream academia.



Journal articles

See also

Abrahamic religions

Interfaith dialogue


External links

Author Spotlight at Random House

Profile at Islam for Today,

Charter for Compassion,

Karen Armstrong at IMDb

Interview with Karen Armstrong on "The Bible",

The reason of faith Ode magazine, 2009

Articles by Karen Armstrong on the 5th Estate blog,

Karen Armstrong at Library of Congress Authorities, with 47 catalogue recordsAudio and videoKaren Armstrong at TED

My wish: The Charter for Compassion (TED2008)

Let's revive the Golden Rule (TEDGlobal 2009)

Audio: Karen Armstrong in conversation on the BBC World Service discussion programme The Forum,

Appearances on C-SPAN

Interview with Karen Armstrong on "A History of God", "The Case for God", "Sacred Nature" (University of Sheffield, 2022)

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