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Karen Armstrong is a British author 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. Her work focuses on commonalities of the major religions, such as the importance of compassion and the Golden Rule. She recently joined Oprah on Super Soul Sunday to talk about the Charter of Compassion, which grew from the $100,000 TED Prize she received in 2008.

She has addressed members of the US Congress on three occasions, lectured to policy makers at the US State and Defence Departments, and addressed the Council on Foreign Relations.

In 2013, she will be the inaugural recipient of the British Academy Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Transcultural Understanding. She is a Trustee of the British Museum and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Literature.

She is the author of A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam: A Short History, The Great Transformation, The Bible: the Biography, The Case for God, and, most recently, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.

Maranda Pleasant: What drives you? What are you passionate about?

Karen Armstrong: I am continually trying to find meaning in the world. If we cannot find some ultimate significance or value in our lives, we fall very easily into despair. My study of religion, which I regard in many ways as an art form, is a search for meaning. I have become convinced, through my studies, that the only way to achieve a safe, just and viable world is to live by the Golden Rule. This is what drives my writing. I want to point out this interconnectedness, point out the beauty of the faith in all traditions without exception, show the complexity of the atrocities that we have experienced, and our shared culpability as a species.

MP: How do you handle emotional pain?

KA: I remind myself that my pain is not unique. Everybody suffers. I particularly like chamber music. Beethoven’s string quartets express pain itself; it is not MY pain. My greatest solace is my study. If I am deprived of my study, I can become lost, unhappy and unhinged. I think I get from my books what other people get from family or a relationship or from prayer. So when I am miserable, I want to get to my desk. Occasionally when I am deeply involved in my study, I will get mini-seconds of wonder, awe, and delight ~ everything suddenly slots together and becomes whole.

MP: If you could say something to women everywhere, what would it be?

KA: Let us bring something new to the table. Let us use our pain always to remember the others, bring them into the conversation, and get beyond the stereotypes and prejudices that create injustice all over the world. Many entire nations are marginalised by the more powerful nations. That is causing imbalance, violence and terror. Women must do their best to introduce another perspective.

MP: What is one important cause you are supporting right now?

In 2008, I won the TED Prize and got a wish for a better world. So I asked TED to help me create a Charter for Compassion that would restore the Golden Rule to the centre of moral, religious, political and private life. The Charter is a short document, composed by leading thinkers and activists in six of the major world faiths. It has now become a global initiative, especially active in Pakistan, the Middle East, the United States, and the Netherlands. The goal is to make the Golden Rule a practical and realistic reality in our dangerously polarised world. What our world needs now is to implement the Golden Rule globally, so that we treat all peoples ~ whoever they are ~ as we would wish to be treated ourselves. The Dalai Lama said that the Cities Campaign is the single most important thing that is happening on the planet.

MP: What projects are you working on right now?

I am writing a book on the thorny issue of religion and violence. I think it will challenge some of the rather facile and uninformed assumptions that people have about religion. It is people who are violent, rather than “religions”; and since we secularised our politics we have had two major world wars, the Holocaust, the Soviet Gulag, and the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ~ none of which were inspired by religion. If we want to understand the dangers of our world, we can no longer accept the old received ideas. Intelligence doesn’t just mean tracking down terrorists; It means finding out what is in people’s hearts and minds and discovering the complexity of most issues.


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