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Karen Armstrong

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Karen Armstrong (1944–) is a British author and former Roman Catholic nun, well known for her books on Abrahamic religion. Her most famous work is A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. She also writes religious articles for The Guardian.

Mysticism and compassion[edit]

After abandoning Roman Catholicism, she has become an advocate of religion-generic mysticism. The core of her view is "The principle of compassion or empathy is the basis for all [religions]". She generally attributes the atrocities of religion such as the Crusades and the Inquisition to a fundamentalist distortion of their core principles. She prefers monotheistic religions, which she sees as worshiping "a single, universal transcendence and source of sacredness" and cultivating "an internalized spirituality, and stressed the importance of practical compassion."[1] She insists that ancient religions were not believed literally, but instead were rooted in a form of non-literal thinking she calls mythos.

As such, her worldview links the virtue of compassion with belief in God, without caring too much about the details of how that God is conceived.

It is unclear that the separation between fiction that gave life meaning and everyday publicly empirical reality was as clear in ancient times as Armstrong contends that they were. Most Christians thought that they had to believe the events of the Bible were at least partially literally true (e.g. St. Paul stated if the Resurrection didn't happen, the Christian faith was mere foolishness in Corinthians 15:17).

TED prize[edit]

When awarded the TED prize in 2008, she, like all winners, was asked to present "One Wish to Change the World." She replied that "I wish that TED would help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion, crafted by a group of leading inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect."[2]

Historical precedent[edit]

Her notion of a radically transcendent God which is ineffable is a modern form of "apophatic" theology which holds that God is ultimately incomprehensible and that all anthropomorphic human conceptions of God fall short of the mark. Its best known modern spokesperson is theologian Paul Tillich, who spoke of God as a "Ground of Being" and a "God beyond God" who is not a "being among beings". Her distinction between mythos and logos loosely corresponds to what Tillich describes as the distinction between "ontological reason" and "technical reason".

Armstrong's religion-generic mysticism is similar to that advocated by Aldous Huxley in his book The Perennial Philosophy, although Huxley uses non-theistic language to describe mystical experiences and presents his philosophy briefly without voluminous apologetics or polemics. Huxley is a descendant of famed evolution-popularizer Thomas Huxley who was known as "Darwin's bulldog" and coined the word "agnostic".

Rationalist critics[edit]

Her most prominent rationalist critic is Daniel Dennett, who finds her views to be mushy, muddled, and confused. She arguably fits Dennett's definition of a "murky" who advocates accepting an ambiguous and mysterious world, as opposed to a "super" with clearly defined belief in supernatural miracles (or a rationalist "bright"). Dennett has argued that her confused worldview is part of the way that modern religion has evolved to protect its existence. Dennett's critique was presented as part of his presentation The Evolution of Confusion at the 2007 AAI conference. P. Z. Myers has also weighed in, objecting to her presentation of the history of religion.

Dennett has also critiqued the similar views of Paul Tillich,Wikipedia re the continuity of Tillich's "Ground of Being" with the Judeo-Christian God. The latter asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, gave Moses the Ten Commandments, vindicated the truth of Elijah's religion against the idolaters of Baal by sending fire from heaven, revealed the apocalypse to John of Patmos, inspired Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, and inspired the various peak experiences of other Christian mystics such as St. John of the Cross. Buddhist authors have argued that although "Ground of Being" may be a meaningful concept (although rationalists generally don't think so), both they and Dan Dennett claim it is false and misleading to claim any continuity between this and any variant of the Abrahamic God.

Personal history[edit]

Karen Armstrong joined a Roman Catholic convent at the age of 17, but had a largely negative experience there and departed after 7 years.[3] Her first major work was an autobiographical account of her stay there entitled Through the Narrow Gate. Since then she has published two additional autobiographical works.

In the years following, she searched for an alternative form of religion that would be more satisfactory to her than that in the convent, settling on a rather generic one-size-fits-all form of theistic mysticism.

Karen Armstrong is required reading on the syllabus of many courses in both seminaries and Religious Studies departments in universities.



A History of God is the first of three of Armstrong's books with the word "God" in the title. It gained some favourable reviews in humanist journals. It discusses the shifts and developments in the concept[4] of God in various forms of belief and faith from early Judaism to the present day. Her follow-up to that book, The Battle for God, focused on the conflict between fundamentalist concepts of God and the modernist[5] concepts of God that Armstrong prefers on both moral and philosophical grounds. Her final book in the trilogy, The Case for God, has been treated more negatively by humanist critics, partly for her endorsement of the notion of a God so transcendent[6] that God does not "exist" in the ordinary sense of the term, but is rather a transcendent mystery like the Chinese concept of Tao.[7]

A History of God (1993)[edit]

In History, Armstrong appeals to the religious philosopher Rudolf Otto (1869-1937),[8] who in his book The Idea of the Holy (German: Das Heilige, 1917) developed the concept of the mysterium tremendum, which the Gale dictionary of psychoanalysis defines as "mystical awe (tremendum), a presentiment of divine power (majestas), amazement in the face of the "completely other" (mysterium), demoniacal energy, and paradox".[9] Referring to Otto, Armstrong insists that the sense of the numinous both is "basic to religion" and "preceded any desire to explain the origin of the world". She concludes that "when people began to develop their myths and stories, they were not trying to explain the origin of the world."[10]

The Battle for God (2000)[edit]

In Battle, Armstrong further distances herself from literalist religion on the basis of a distinction between two types of thinking, mythos and logos. She regards the latter as entirely concerned with practical matters, with the former concerned with ultimate human meaning which she claims "made no pretensions to historical accuracy". Religion, she says, should stay in the realm of mythos rather than logos, and she partly blames the scientific revolution for the literalization of religion.

The Case for God (2009)[edit]

In the last book of the "God" trilogy, The Case for God, Armstrong argues that God is essentially unknowable mystery, and that the universe is simply a "numinous reflection of the divine mystery".[11] In this book, she notes that attempts to reconcile faith and reason accelerated in the high Middle Ages, but she continues to blame the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th century for an over-literalization of religion.

A Short History of Myth (2005)[edit]

Armstrong's survey of the nature and development of mythology covers the phenomenon from paleolithic[12] to contemporary times.

Armstrong’s faith[edit]

Her faith is what one would call modern, in that it does not necessarily include a literal belief in the events described in the Bible. She has described herself as a "freelance monotheist". As such, she believes in a God that transcends space and the material world, but is not committed to any one religion's understanding of that deity (see Deism). She is interested in ways religion gives practitioners a sense of purpose in life, but uninterested in what religions say about human origins. Her views might be summed up with the quote:

Religious ideas and practices take root not because they are promoted by forceful theologians, nor because they can be shown to have a sound historical or rational basis, but because they are found in practice to give the faithful a sense of sacred transcendence[13]

and this from a written exchange with Richard Dawkins in the Wall Street Journal, wherein she wrote:

Religion was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace; today, however, many have opted for unsustainable certainty instead[14]

The truth of particular religious beliefs is not important to Armstrong. Rather, it is the fact of belief that provides the benefit of religious practice. This would be an example of what Dan Dennett calls "belief in belief".


Mythos and logos[edit]

The distinction between mythos and logos and the relegation of the former to religion and the latter to practical matters is debatable insofar as logos thinking is often concerned with understanding the way the world is without regard to its immediate practical usefulness, and many religious people even in ancient times literally believed their cultural mythology. The strictly non-literal mythos type of religion may have been more prevalent in pagan Greece than in ancient Judaism, while quite early in Christian history, Christians were arguing against pagan skepticism to put forward quite literal truth-claims.[15] Her claim that "Religion was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason" is debatable when confronted with both the first chapter of Genesis and the opening of the Gospel of John. She also fails to explain why the meaning-making function of mythos has to postulate something so transcendent as to be ineffable.

Her distinction between mythos and logos loosely corresponds to what Paul Tillich describes as the distinction between "ontological reason" and "technical reason", but Tillich never insists that the first is always linked to religion which is understood to be non-factual.

Armstrong's proposed program is to remove from Christianity and other religions its supernatural miraculous content, while adhering strictly to the non-literal form of thinking she calls mythos. Her suggestion is ironically similar to liberal Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann's proposal to "demythologize" Christianity. However, Bultmann continued to believe that God had spoken to humanity in a concrete and specific way through Jesus and understood historically that a literal supernaturalism had been a characteristic of Christianity throughout its entire history.

Mistakes about early believers[edit]

Ancient Jews believed at least some of their Scriptures, such as the stories of King David and Solomon, as real history, as did the 5th century theologian St. Augustine as evidenced in his book City of God. As early as his time (5th century), theology was defined as reasoning concerning the deity. St. Augustine's attempts to reconcile Christianity with Neo-Platonic philosophy are thoroughly imbued with logos thinking, although Armstrong views the permeation of religion with literal logos thinking as something that happened after the scientific revolution. The same may be said of early Christian conflicts about the nature of the Trinity, and much of the theology of Thomas Aquinas even though both Augustine and Aquinas have some of the mystical piety that Armstrong commends. It is true that Thomas Aquinas speaks of God as lacking in attributes in the way of ordinary objects in the observable universe, because for both Aquinas and Armstrong God is entirely beyond nature. However, Aquinas also holds that God has revealed Himself to humanity in a specific and concrete way and that understanding the divine speech is the proper subject of theology. Aquinas' concept of God is simultaneously somewhat mystical and a subject of logos-style thinking. Moving ahead to events just before the scientific revolution, much of the debates about the justification of sinners around which the Protestant Reformation was centered have have nothing to do with a de-literalized Christianity.

Historical falsehood[edit]

It is historically false to say, as Armstrong does, that Christian theology only became literalized after the scientific revolution and previously only operated in the realm of mythos. It would be more correct to say that both modes of thinking operated in the Middle Ages. Armstrong's claim that literal religion rests on a "metaphysical mistake" engendered by the scientific revolution of the 17th century is not convincing, although it is true that it is only since then did a species of Christian fundamentalism emerge that insisted on the complete inerrancy of the Bible, and earlier generations of Christians allowed parts of the Bible to be interpreted allegorically. But even in the pre-Protestant days in which it was understood that portions of the Bible should be treated allegorically, all Christians believed literally in the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus. Armstrong has to ignore much of the history of Christian theology in order to maintain the rigid separation of mythos and logos and to claim that before the rise of modern science, Christianity was only concerned with the former.

Transcendent mystery[edit]

Armstrong's claim that God is simply and only an ineffable transcendent mystery beyond the material world does not seem to be the concept of God underlying the Exodus story, Jesus' preaching in the Synoptic Gospels, nor the Book of Revelation, although it has been argued that it is implied in the Jewish prohibition of pronouncing God's name, and God's declaration to Moses that his name is simply "I will be what I will be" or "I am what I am".[16] While Christian theology does indeed postulate a God beyond matter and space which is the primal source of all else, the Christian God is believed to genuinely interact with the world. How a God beyond the material world (particularly a timeless one) can interact with it is a problem which has vexed philosophers from the pre-Christian Aristotle to medieval thinkers like Aquinas and contemporary "process theologians", always falling back on some concept of an "open" nature amenable to influence from outside itself. (This issue is discussed by Armstrong herself near the end of Chapter 1 on A History of God.) In all attempts to resolve the conundrum, God is believed to be simultaneously utterly transcendent and to interact with the world. By contrast, Armstrong's God of mythos barely has a will for any particular outcome at all, and does not take any initiative in speaking to humanity.

Faith or trust[edit]

In her essay Metaphysical mistake subtitled "Confusion by Christians between belief and reason has created bad science and inept religion", Armstrong distinguishes between two types of faith, one of which involves believing a set of propositions and the other involves an active trust of the will in God. She explicitly states

"It was during the late 17th century, as the western conception of truth became more notional, that the word "belief" changed its meaning. Previously, belief meant "love, loyalty, commitment". It was related to the Latin libido and used in the King James Bible to translate the Greek pistis ("trust; faithfulness; involvement"). In demanding pistis, therefore, Jesus was asking for commitment not credulity...By the late 17th century, however, philosophers and scientists had started to use "belief" to mean an intellectual assent to a somewhat dubious proposition."

However, the notion of faith as an active trust remained prominent in Protestantism long after the 17th century, fundamentalism notwithstanding (Martin Luther said "Faith is a living, bold trust in God's grace"), while long before the 17th century Thomas Aquinas wrestled with the problem of the relationship of revelation to reason, largely because he saw faith as an "assent of the intellect" to revealed truth. Armstrong and Luther are/were both heavily invested in the concept of faith which Armstrong sees as being the result of overinvestment in scientific thinking characteristic of the era after the scientific revolution of the 17th century.

Roman Catholic versus Protestant[edit]

It could be historically argued that the distinction between faith as belief and faith in trust is better characterized as a difference between classic Roman Catholic and classic Protestant thinking rather than a difference between Christianity before and after the scientific revolution, in spite of the fact that Protestantism has been rife with doctrinal debate.

Similarly, in the early days of Protestantism, there was a tendency to opt for more literal interpretations of the Bible because earlier allegorical interpretations seemed sometimes so outlandish. It had little to do with the rise of science. The division between allegorical vs. liberal interpretations of the Bible can also be viewed as more of a Catholic vs. Protestant distinction, at least before the rise of liberal Protestantism. The more extreme literalism of 20th century fundamentalist Protestantism is arguably more of a backlash against both Biblical historical criticism and the rise of the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin rather than due to a literal-mindedness promoted by science.

Armstrong's claim that strong literalism is confined only to modern fundamentalism is historically untenable, and her God is a largely static entity that seems to be largely a state of mind, even though it is the literal mindset which she accuses of being "static", while in History of God she celebrates an ecstatic concept of God.

Dennett, Sagan, and Hitchens[edit]

Ironically, although Armstrong's distinction between faith as trust of the will rather than subscription to a creed, leads her to say it is a mistake to "believe in belief", her world picture comes across to Daniel Dennett as precisely just that, a "belief in belief" or "faith in faith". And although she distinguishes between logical logos thinking and meaning-making mythos thinking, her views appear to her rationalist critics as neither logical nor meaningful.

Ironically, both Carl Sagan and Christopher Hitchens have acknowledged the importance of the Armstrong's beloved "numinous" (without reference to either Armstrong or Rudolf Otto who coined the concept), but both have stressed the importance of divorcing it from any concept of the supernatural whatsoever,[17] rather than use it as an apologia for a purely mystical non-literal religion as Armstrong does.

Reception among humanists[edit]

Dawkins in his Wall Street Journal exchange with Karen Armstrong spoke of the silliness of any notion of promoting a God who does not exist in a common-sense use of the term. He wrote:

If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They'll be right.[18]

Daniel Dennett has pointed out that virtually all of Armstrong's theology is made up of deepities and use mention errorsWikipedia such as "God is the God behind God"[19] which he describes as a fundamentally meaningless statement. He also quotes Armstrong's statement in A case for God "God is no being at all" as being logically equivalent to "No being at all is God"—crude atheism. If there is no being corresponding to God then a non-existent God cannot have any attributes and cannot be behind anything for example. In his presentation at Atheist Alliance International on modernist theology, Dennett read aloud some of Armstrong's statements about God not being an ordinary "being" using the voice of the Saturday Night Live character, the "pathological" liar, adding the latter's often used phrase "Yeah, that's the ticket", illustrating his point that Armstrong was like a magician with a visible card up his sleeve.

In the same presentation, Dennett suggested that atheists have two opponents whom he labeled "supers" and "murkies". The former have literal and clear supernatural beliefs in miraculous occurrences such as the virgin birth of Jesus. The latter claim that human existence is ultimately mysterious and unknowable. Dennett regards the theology and philosophy of murkies to be mostly sophistry. Arguably, Armstrong's earlier book, A History of God, got a better reception from rationalists as it was largely an attack on what Dennett calls "supers". However, A Case for God consists entirely of a spirited defense of the the position Dennett calls "murky".

Blogger "Shiraz socialist" finds that much of her work contains actual attacks on reason (her separation of mythos and logos notwithstanding), and misinformed attacks on philosophical Darwinianism.

Her piece in Foreign Policy entitled "Think Again: God" drew at least two hostile humanist posts with regard to her characterization of humanism, one of which said she was simply wrong in stating that "Karen Armstrong says new atheists want to expunge religion from human consciousness" and another which said she was wrong to assert that Hitchens and Dawkins claim that "God is the source of all human cruelty".[20] PZ Myers' rebuttal to the same piece by Armstrong heavily quarrels with her reading of the history of religion, in addition to finding her philosophy debatable.

Fairly charitable view[edit]

A charitable view of Armstrong is that she is a religion-generic version of a Cafeteria Christian; she is an acknowledged expert on Abrahamic religions and is rational at least part of the time. To the extent that Armstrong encourages compassion and the Golden Rule, she does good as well as spreading illogical thinking. Karen Armstrong says she advocates the Golden Rule, but presumably she does not like it when other people go after her the way she goes after Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. New York Times review of Battle for God
  2. The Learning Channel: The Charter for Compassion Draws Strength from a Simple Idea
  3. Karen Armstrong’s time as a nun involved physical and psychological abuse.

    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.[1]

  4. See the Wikipedia article on concept.
  5. See the Wikipedia article on Modernism in the Catholic Church.
  6. See the Wikipedia article on Transcendence (religion).
  7. Armstrong p. 13, pp. 125-126
  8. See the Wikipedia article on Rudolf Otto.
  9. International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, by the Gale Group, Inc.
  10. Armstrong History of God, Chapter 1
  11. Armstrong Case for God p. 182
  12. See the Wikipedia article on Paleolithic religion.
  13. Armstrong Islam: A Short History
  14. Man vs. God Wall Street Journal September 12, 2009
  15. See Jennifer Hecht's book Doubt: A History for support for this argument.
  16. See Erich Fromm's You Shall Be as Gods for a version of this argument.
  17. Hitchens discusses this in the BBC documentary The Four Horsemen, and Sagan discusses it in his novel Contact
  18. R. Albert Mohler Jr., A Tale of Two Atheists., 14 September 2009.
  19. Daniel Fincke, Deepity., 13 October 2009.
  20. Karen Armstrong, Think Again: God. Foreign Policy, November/December 2009.