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Karen Armstrong FRSL (born 14 November 1944 in Wildmoor, Worcestershire) is a British author of numerous works on comparative religion, who first rose to prominence with her highly successful A History of God. A former Catholic nun, she asserts that "All the great traditions are saying the same thing in much the same way, despite their surface differences." They each have in common, she says, an emphasis upon the overriding importance of compassion, as expressed by way of the Golden Rule: Do not do to others what you would not have done to you.

In February 2008 Armstrong called for a council of Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders to draw up a “Charter for Compassion," which would apply shared moral priorities to foster greater global understanding. In November of 2009, she unveiled the Charter for Compassion in Washington, DC and online.

Early life

Armstrong was born into a family of Irishmarker extraction who, after her birth, moved to Bromsgrovemarker and later to Birminghammarker. In her late teens, she became a nun in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, a teaching order, in which she lived from 1962 to 1969. Once she had advanced from postulant and novice to professed nun, she was sent to St Anne's Collegemarker, Oxfordmarker, to study English. Armstrong left the order while still an undergraduate. After graduating, she embarked on a DPhil on the poet Tennyson, but failed to complete it. This period was marked by ill-health – her life-long but, at that time, undiagnosed epilepsy discussed in her autobiography The Spiral Staircase – as well as the difficult readjustment to outside life.


In 1976, Armstrong became an English teacher at a girls' school in Dulwichmarker, but her illness caused so many days off work, that she was finally asked to leave in 1982. During this year she had published Through the Narrow Gate, a well-received account of her convent agonies. Largely on the strength of this, in 1984, Armstrong was commissioned by the UK's Channel Four to write and present a TV documentary on the life of St. Paul. Now came what Armstrong regards as her breakthrough experience. The actuality of being in Jerusalemmarker, and the way it seemed to defy her prior assumptions – she had become hostile to religion as such ; indeed it was partly the reason she'd been hired in the first place – had the effect of transfiguring her attitude to the world's religious traditions . Armstrong describes in The Spiral Staircase how all her work since has, in a sense, flowed from that comparatively brief period in Jerusalem. In 1996, she published Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. A major influence on Armstrong's whole approach to the world's religious traditions has been, as she implies in The Spiral Staircase, the work of the Canadian scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith.

The increasing interest in and debate surrounding Islamic issues has made Armstrong a popular speaker, causing some observers to credit her with being influential in conveying a "more objective" view of Islam to a wide public in Europe and North America.

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, was published in March 2006, and a measure of her success came that same year when she achieved a British accolade of being invited to choose her eight favourite records for BBC Radio's Desert Island Discs programme.

In 2007, Armstrong was invited by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore to deliver the "2007 MUIS Lecture".

Armstrong is a fellow of the Jesus Seminar. 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 US 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 taught for a time at London's Leo Baeck rabbinic collegemarker, 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 points out that religious fundamentalism is not just a response to but, paradoxically, a product of contemporary culture. "We need to create a new narrative, get out of the rat-run of hatred, chauvinism and defensiveness; and make the authentic voice of religion a power in the world that is conducive to peace."


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 2008 Armstrong was one of three winners of the TED Conference's TED Prize. Her TED Prize "wish": to initiate an international Charter for Compassion – to help restore the Golden Rule as central to religious practice and daily life throughout the world.

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's interfaith initiative was awarded the $100,000 TED Prize, backed by an international conference of leading figures in the fields of design, entertainment and technology.


Journal articles:
  • "Women, Tourism, Politics" (1977)
  • "The Holiness of Jerusalem: Asset or Burden?" (1998)
  • "Ambiguity and Remembrance: Individual and Collective Memory in Finland" (2000)

  • Through the Narrow Gate (1982)
  • The First Christian: Saint Paul's Impact on Christianity (1983)
  • Beginning the World (1983)
  • Tongues of Fire: An Anthology of Religious and Poetic Experience (1985)
  • The Gospel According to Woman: Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West (1986)
  • Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today's World (1988)
  • Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (1991)
  • The English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century' ' (1991)
  • The End of Silence: Women and the Priesthood (1993)
  • A History of God (1993)
  • Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (1996)
  • In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis (1996)
  • Islam: A Short History (2000)
  • Buddha (2000)
  • The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2000)
  • Faith After September 11 (2002)
  • The Spiral Staircase (2004)
  • A Short History of Myth (2005)
  • Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time (2006)
  • The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006) ISBN 978-037-541317-9
  • The Bible: A Biography (2007)
  • The Case for God (2009)


  1. Armstrong, Karen. The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out Of Darkness. New York: Random House, 2004.
  3. Karen Armstrong Speaker Profile at The Lavin Agency
  4. [1]

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