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14 November 1944
Wildmoor, Worcestershire, England
|Alma mater||Oxford University|
14 November 1944
Wildmoor, Worcestershire, England
|Alma mater||Oxford University|
Karen Armstrong FRSL (born 14 November 1944) is a British author and commentator 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 while in the convent and majored in English. She would become disillusioned and leave the convent in 1969. She first rose to prominence in 1993 with her book A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Her work focuses on commonalities of the major religions, such as the importance of compassion and the Golden Rule.
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 18, she became a member of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, a teaching congregation, in which she remained for seven years. Armstrong claims she suffered physical and psychological abuse in the convent, according to The Guardian newspaper:-
But the sisters ran a cruel regime. 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.
In 1976, Armstrong took a job as 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 TV 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 was 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 achieved the distinction of being invited to choose her eight favourite records for BBC Radio's Desert Island Discs programme. She has made considerable appearances on television, including appearances on Rageh Omaar's programme The Life of Muhammad. She was also an advisor for the award-winning, PBS-broadcast documentary Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet (2002), produced by Unity Productions Foundation.
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 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.
Armstrong was honoured by the New York Open Center in 2004 for her "profound understanding of religious traditions and their relation to the divine."
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." 
Armstrong was honored 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."
Armstrong has been called "a prominent and prolific religious historian" and described as "arguably the most lucid, wide-ranging and consistently interesting religion writer today". Juan Eduardo Campo, author of the Encyclopedia of Islam (Encyclopedia of World Religions) (2009), included Armstrong among a group of scholars whom he considered as currently conveying a "more or less objective" (as opposed to polemical) view of Islam and its origins to a wide public in Europe and North America. She is a regular speaker on the Abrahamic tradition; in the last decade increasing interest in and debate surrounding Islamic issues has brought her even wider visibility. After the September 11 attacks she was in great demand as a lecturer, pleading for inter-faith dialogue.
Atheist activist Sam Harris criticizes Armstrong's "benign" view of Islam, contending that "Islam, as it is currently understood and practiced by vast numbers of the world's Muslims, is antithetical to civil society." Harris is also strongly critical of Armstrong's "religious apology" of Islamic fundamentalism, accusing her and like-minded scholars of "political correctness." Armstrong has also attracted the criticism of Christian philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig. In Craig's response to a debate between Armstrong and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins published in the September 12, 2009 issue of The Wall Street Journal, Craig criticizes Armstrong's "anti-realist" views about statements concerning God, particularly her assertion that "'God' is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence." Craig argues that Armstrong's view of God as ineffable is "self-refuting" and "logically incoherent." Craig also disputes Armstrong's characterization of the religious views of early Christians.
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