Here is the transcript for Bill Moyers One on One — Karen Armstrong
One on One – Karen Armstrong 25:06min
1 Hello [00:00:01.9] and welcome.
2 As an (inaudible) in the Roman Catholic religion but then decided to expand her horizons and study other faiths.
3 Her best-selling books on comparative religion have now become a central reading in many theology courses.
4 This week on One on One, meet the Writer and Commentator on Religion, Karen Armstrong.
5 Born [00:00:31.4] into a family of Irish descent living in the English Midlands, she had a fairly uneventful childhood although the young Karen Armstrong did witness her father going through some tough financial times that shaped her view on life later.
6 She found her early school years tough and at quite a young age decided she wanted to escape the rat race, joining a convent to become a nun with the strict Society of the Holy Child Jesus.
7 It was an experience that triggered much of Armstrong’s rejection of institutionalized religion and a search for a deeper [00:01:00.0] and broader faith.
8 She gave up an academic career to write about her findings and the many fans of her best-selling books find her pragmatic perspective on religion something of a relief from the preaching of hard-lined conservatives in the religious world.
9 A strong global support from her readers has prompted Armstrong to continue to push for greater understanding and tolerance between the world’s various faiths.
10 Karen Armstrong, it’s such a delight to have some time with you. Thank you.
11 Thank you.
12 I – – I love this expression you have to describe yourself [00:01:30.0], that you are a freelance monotheist. Explain what that is?
13 Well, um that was a remark I made in a lighthearted way um and it’s sort of dogged me uh ever since I was a — uh sometimes wished I hadn’t said that.
14 What I meant was that, I’ve uh studied uh the three monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam now for about 20 years and I love – – draw nourishment from all of them and I cannot see anyone of them really as superior to any of the others.
15 Let [00:02:00.4] me ask you one thing though. With all that study you’ve done, the writing you’ve done over the years and you have studied these very thoroughly, what do you feel is the one lesson you have learned?
16 Um there are two, I think, uh if I may, one uh that um belief, accepting certain doctrines uh is not very important.
17 The uh our word belief in English meant commitment originally.
18 It meant — it was much more action oriented.
19 And that many of these so-called doctrines that we have say, in the Christian [00:02:30.1] world like, Trinity and Incarnation began originally as a call to action rather than just the acceptance of uh a particular idea.
20 The second thing is that all the world religions insist uh that there’s something wrong with your spirituality if it doesn’t lead you to practical compassion, to a profound respect uh for the uh for other people uh seeing other people as – – as sacred [00:03:00.1] and (inaudible) and unique.
21 That leads me to ask you, is it easy to discuss religion nowadays or has – – has extremism and sort of extreme views — have extreme views taken over too much?
22 Uh, well, no there’s – – I – – I still find that there – – there’s a – – wherever I go in the world in, whether it’s in Pakistan or United States or um or Europe uh people are hungry for uh – – uh a religious voice, they – – they want to hear about religion um [00:03:30.2] and – – and they’re well aware that extremism is uh the position of an extreme few.
23 Um I think too, in England it’s not so easy because England is a very, very, secular country um and among the chattering class it’s – – it’s almost de rigueur, not to talk about religion. I mean, people actually ask me not to mention my work when I go around for dinner.
24 So um I think there, they – – it’s – – it’s – – among the chattering classes here, religion is seen as passé uh but that’s [00:04:00.2] not so in – – in either the United States or Canada or the Muslim world, not at all.
25 A lot of people say that uh religion is the root of all conflict. You know, that it’s – – it’s if looking at any conflict going back you can put, you know, put the cause down the relation. Is that the case from all the research you’ve done?
26 No. It isn’t. Um I thought — I used to st – – start out with that um attitude myself and I’ve lost count of the number of taxi drivers who when I jump into a London cab ask me what I do for a living and I — I — and then they tell me, quite categorically, that religion’s [00:04:30.0] been the cause of all the major world in history – – wars in history.
27 Well, um the – – the major cause of – – of war and conflict is greed, fear, cruelty, envy, um hatred, ambition, um and it’s true however that religion and other ideologies, secular ideologies too have often been used to sort of give these uh rather self-serving and very destructive emotions, [00:05:00.1] a sort of uh – – uh – – uh some – – some kind of le — legitimacy.
28 Uh and that’s unfortunate but in fact no. I mean, I think largely uh the wars have – – have been caused largely by state structures, by economic disparity, by greed for other people’s riches and wealth and that’s still the case today.
29 Uh but religion especially where a conflict becomes drawn out such as, has happened, say in the Arab-Israeli conflict…
30 Uh hm.
31 … uh religion gets sucked in, in the end. It becomes a part of the problem.
32. Let’s take you back. Your family is of Irish descent.
33 You were born in Wildmoor in Worcestershire uh before they moved, I think, soon when you were still young to – – to Bromsgrove in Birmingham.
35 What — what was early childhood years like?
36 Oh, there were OK. I mean, um me – – we – – I – – I wasn’t from a very religious family. We were Catholics.
37 Uh hm.
38 Uh but we didn’t take that very seriously. Yeah, so my decision later to become a nun was appalling [00:06:00.2].
39 It was lovely growing up in the countryside.
40 Uh and I – – uh I used to be taken out for walks in the afternoon with my sister in the pram and there’d be a sort of a being uh a fairy or someone in every tree or every grove and it was my way of uh sort of sacralising and making myself at home in my own landscape, I think.
41 Uh then when we were about 10 we moved into the city of Birmingham um and uh but he had a lot of ground. I mean, we have uh – – garden looked – – led directly into a park, so there was plenty of space to – – to run around and enjoy the natural world.
42 Um I was um I found school appalling.
43 Uh it was a mixture for me of both boredom and terror. Uh we were con — constantly sort of frightened by our teachers into behaving well and I would look at the clock wondering how it could pass so slowly uh except in the last two years then suddenly [00:07:00.3] I began to see the point of learning and reading because I was concentrating on the subjects I liked the best.
44 Now in terms of (inaudible) your family, your parents uh the kind of influence they had on you. How do you think they shaped your character, each of them?
45 Um my parents uh were a rather wonderful couple.
46 My father was 20 years older than my mother. My mother was very young when she had me.
47 My father became a Catholic rather to please my mother, I think and for social reasons. They are from many, sort of deep conviction.
48 They were very, very sociable.
49 Uh they loved having parties and uh they had very little money and what little they had they – – they actually lost.
50 My father…
51 Uh hm.
52 … uh went bankrupt when I was uh, about 14 or 15 which in those days was a real, real disgrace.
53 Uh hm.
54 But my mother was kind of an inspiration really because she had to go to work uh to sort of eek-out family finance and she’d had no training, no qualification at all but she was very clever [00:08:00.2].
55 And she got a job in Birmingham University in one of the departments of the medical school and by the end of her time there, when she left at 65, after 35 years there, uh she was running the department administratively and her research was in the byline of medical articles.
56 Uh she led – – and after that she led – – she went and did um a – – a university degree at the age – – did — doing her first examination ever at the age of 67.
57 Uh hm.
58 So it was rather a matriarchal family.
59 The women were often the strongest people there. Uh and my grandmother too was — I’m very like my grandmother, both I’m small in stature and the rest of my family are extremely tall.
60 All the cup –hooks were far out of my reach when I was growing up as a child.
61 Uh hm.
62 But my grandmother was very, very funny, very witty.
63 Uh she had problems and I think a lot of that problem was due to boredom.
64 Um I think uh I’ve been so fortunate in being able to be educated and uh [00:09:00.9] take — have a career. I think I don’t know what – – what I would’ve been like without – – without that.
65 I wonder with the – – the difficulties you saw your family going through with your father’s bankruptcy…
66 Uh hm.
67 … and – – and your mother having to work, how it shaped you? How it made — uh how – – how at least it influenced what you might do in the future? What you were thinking it all might do?
68 Well it – – it influenced me to become a nun, apart from anything else. It was – – I lived in Birmingham which is a very materialistic city. Um all the talk was about money and status and it was quite noticeable the – – when my father was in trouble. Uh we lost a lot of our friends overnight.
69 Uh hm.
70 Uh there were remarks made at school, for example, and the fact that my mother went out to work which is in the 1950s was pretty unheard of.
71 And I was – – uh the nuns actually took me uh on as – – on reduced fees (under) Catholic charity, paid for my education.
72 And I could see that this was not a value that I – – I wanted anything to do with and so uh at the age of 16, I decided that I [00:10:00.3] wanted uh a life that wasn’t dedicated to materialism and money and all these false values and that I would become – – enter a convent and I would become sort of Buddha –like and serene and uh holy and inspiring and it didn’t actually happen.
73 But that was – – that was – – that and I think that – – that experience really pushed me towards that.
74 Uh hm, it was the Society of the Holy Child Jesus that you were…
76 … (inaudible), what was – – what was life like in that environment? People sort of know the stereotype uh you know, image of it but was it – – was it that kind of very isolated and closed off environment?
77 It was isolated.
78 Uh we were deliberately – – while we were being trained uh – – uh I was kept away from any news or newspapers.
79 They did tell us for example, about the Cuba crisis…
80 Uh hm.
81 … the Cuba missile crisis in uh 1962 which happened just after I entered uh because, the world seemed about to end.
82 They thought they’d better notify us but then they forgot to tell us that the uh crisis [00:11:00.4] was over and we weren’t supposed ever to ask for news of the world, so for three weeks we were left scanning the horizon for mushroom clouds until finally one of us snapped. So it was that kind of isolation.
83 When I left uh the religious life in 1969, I’d never heard of the Beatles for example.
84 I’d never heard of Vietnam which my fellow students at Oxford were very exercised about.
85 I knew none of the names of politicians.
86 So it was isolated.
87 Um it was also tough.
88 Uh people who read my books say it reminds them of boot camp uh and it — uh and that’s uh not as out uh odd as you might think because it was a Jesuit Order.
89 Uh hm.
90 We had the Jesuit rule and St. Ignatius had been a soldier and his idea was to make Jesuits uh soldiers of Christ that would obey simply like that, not asking why or wherefore um and when you’re being trained as a soldier uh you know, you have to be [00:12:00.2] toughened up.
91 And so the – – it – – was and I think what ultimately uh made me decide to leave, was uh that it was not a kind place and increasingly I began to feel that this had very little to do with Christianity or the Gospels.
92 Um and but I wouldn’t have missed that time, not for anything.
93 I wouldn’t be here talking to you now if I hadn’t done that. It started me out in some kind of quest.
94 I – – I read that you said that the Brits literally drove you to being suicidal though, at one point?
95 Uh not – – that was after I left.
96 Uh this is – – what you – – we had in those days and it wouldn’t happen now because I was trained before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council came into effect and that did drastically change the way young nuns were trained.
97 Uh hm.
98 Um but I – – I – – so I had the old system at its very last gasp but it did needed – – need reform but it was a form of conditioning [00:13:00.7].
99 Um and once I left the convent I found it impossible to exist outside that environment.
100 I’d been conditioned for that and though I didn’t want to die particularly, I didn’t know how to live and I entered a state I think of uh extreme depression, a sort of grief, like for about six years uh rather like you might have after a uh a bereavement or uh – – uh a very painful divorce.
101 And I also had the problem that I was having all kinds of symptoms uh of terror, of I would suddenly be engulfed in terror or I’d go out somewhere and um we suddenly end up in a completely different place from where I’d intended to go, fortunately, I always ended up in a quite edifying place like the Tate Gallery or something.
102 Uh but uh they – – they – – this was later discovered uh to be uh a temporal lobe epilepsy uh as a [00:14:00.1] birth injury on that temporal lobe which interferes with memory and emotion and fills people with this kind of en – – all engulfing dread and fear.
103 So I thought I was losing my mind really um and the diagnosis of that epilepsy was one of the happiest days of my life, I must say.
104 You found the cause, yeah?
105 Well, and then and I had some medication and I knew what was causing it.
106 Um so they were – –those was – – were really, really difficult years.
107 And you’d gone from being a nun in this isolated environment to St. Ann’s College in Oxford…
109 … of course, and totally different environment of course, you know, a time – – at a time when things were very outgoing and liberal…
110 Well it was 1968, the summer of love in Oxford, not that I was participating in that, I was far too uh still (inaudible) still (inaudible) still a nun in my – – in my head and in my mind and there were a – –the –the — St. Ann’s was a very political college, so there was a lot of demonstration about Vietnam and – – and uh endless uh – – uh war against the Oxford authorities and demands [00:15:00.4] to change the syllabus.
111 So – – and that time you decided you know, yeah, while at Oxford that’s it no – – no more being a nun.
112 Was it a sense of giving up on religion, as such?
114 That didn’t come for about six or seven years after.
115 It was – – I remember waking up – – I moved to London to take up a job at London University for a while and um I remember on the first Sunday I woke up in my London flat and I thought I’m not going to church.
116 That’s it.
117 Uh I had tried to get in touch with God for all those years.
118 I’d failed.
119 I was completely unable to pray.
120 Um the kind of prayer that we were taught in the content was not my kind of prayer uh it – – it didn’t suit me and the heavens remain closed. I think I had an idea – – I had a good idea of God.
121 Uh I was expecting things that were impossible um and – – and I just found prayer utterly boring and tedious.
122 So I just let it all go and I thought that was it.
123 I thought from now on [00:16:00.3] uh that’s the end of me and religion.
124 I, if I – – I used to see somebody on the London Underground reading a book on religion I used to feel (inaudible) ill, never dreaming for a moment that I would be writing these, some of these books at a later stage.
125 You wrote you’re – – you’re experiences in the convent uh in your book, Through the Narrow Gate which I gather actually made you quite a target for some sort of devout or even I guess you know, hard–line Catholics.
126 Yes, especially in this country. It’s not so in the United States where Catholicism is more relaxed but Catholics in England definitely feel rather ghetto like. There has been centuries of persecution here and so – – and there’s also (inaudible) of us are Irish and that means that never is – – never – – you never really feel quite English either uh because of the problems between Ireland and Eng – – and uh Britain.
127 So uh when one of – – somebody breaks ranks and as it were, washes dirty linen in public, that uh I’ve never been quite forgiven uh by that.
128 Though I have been [00:17:00.5] very much embraced by my old religious order which is in – – in recent years which has been uh very wonderful uh a nice reconciliation there.
129 You did – – before the writing, you did think about a career in academia and uh I think you had that kind of, a bit of uh you know, with – – with London University, a bit of fuss over the PhD.
130 Well no. Not a fuss.
131 It was Oxford University.
132 Oxford, University (inaudible).
133 And I failed it.
134 Um and they – – they – – and I failed it in a rather odd way.
135 The – – the University just said – – decided the – – it hadn’t been properly examined uh but they decided that the sanctity of the Oxford doctorate meant that it couldn’t be re-examined.
136 Uh so that was the end of my academic career.
137 And that was awful because I was just beginning to recover from the convent.
138 I thought that this was something that I could do and then to have that sort of very notorious and public failure, the row about this went on for five months while they decided what to do with me.
139 So that was another awful thing.
140 But in fact, I’m very glad now, in retrospect because my aim had been [00:18:00.2] to teach English Literature and I’d now be teaching English Literature uh in somewhere like Reading or (inaudible) or uh but, in fact, I’ve had a much more interesting life the uh and I think a more useful one.
141 Uh and – – and – – and I don’t think the academic world would have suited me.
142 Um it’s a bit narrow.
143 Uh the – – the – – the – – I uh the kind of writing that I do is not in fashion with academia.
144 I take these big subjects and in academia you polish a little tiny area.
145 So I think actually that was – – that bad failure (inaudible) nudged me into a different direction, a better direction for me.
146 What was it that triggered the writing, if you will?
147 What was it made – – that made you want to write about religion?
148 Oh well, I wrote my first book uh simply because people said, “You really ought to write about this.”
149 And then, I lost my teaching job.
150 My – – my life uh for uh until – – for the first 50 years of my life consisted of one disaster after another.
151 I’d be going along, say in the convent uh [00:19:00.2] then in academia and the – – the whole thing would collapse, yeah, after about six years or so.
152 Um and I was a schoolteacher and then because of my epilepsy I was asked to leave.
153 And then I wondered what on earth I was going to do, having been invalided out of teaching…
154 Uh hm.
155 … and then I got a telephone um uh call from uh Channel 4 Television which had just opened up. They’d never do this now but they asked me I would like to write and present a six part documentary on St. Paul working with an Israeli film company in Jerusalem.
156 Well, of course I said yes and here I was unemployed.
157 Um I knew a little bit about St. Paul but not much but I thought I could learn on the job and indeed I did.
158 I had a, uh but the – – the big thing was I went to Jerusalem.
159 And it was that trip to the Holy Land that really changed a lot (inaudible)?
160 It completely changed things.
161 Uh first of all I knew – – when I arrived I knew nothing at all about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
162 Uh [00:20:00.1] but immediately uh you’re thrown into it uh but also I start – – I – – when you – – you’re in Jerusalem uh you’re rubbing up against both Judaism and Islam, religions that I knew absolutely nothing about.
163 Uh my uh Catholicism had been very parochial. We didn’t even think Protestants were really on the map as Catholics.
164 Um but when you’re in Jerusalem I start – – I – – I had to do a little – – you – – you see these face, you’ve – – realize their profound interconnection with each other, uh, at the same time as you realize their profound differences.
165 Um and I start – – and started learning uh about them, all three, and developing something that I called triple –vision…
166 Uh hm.
167 … to try to see them, all three at a tangent because some of the worst atrocities have happened when one religion gangs up on the other or when two faith traditions gang up on a third and uh so [00:21:00.5] I – –uh I – – I – – started writing about that.
168 I – – my relationship with the whole uh – – the whole meaning of religion I think, started to change.
169 That begs the question what difference do you think the work has made, through the books you’ve done?
170 Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know.
171 People tell me you – – you’ve changed my life and you – – know I – – did – – in – – in, you know – – in – – in – – it’s – – in Muslim audiences the – – you know, people are so enthusiastic uh some of them, not all about my work uh and it’s something that I – – I – – you don’t – – when you’re writing you don’t really think of what effect you have.
172 It’s just the – – the struggle that you had, if you like of – – of writing a book, is itself, so all absorbing, all-consuming.
173 Now, when you won the prestigious TED prize, in 2008 you – – you soon after setup the uh Charter for Compassion. Explain that? Who supports it? And what’s it’s supposed to achieve?
174 Well, um TED, they give you some – – when you – – TED conferences, when they – – when you win their – – one of their prices uh they give you some [00:22:00.2] money but more importantly, they give you a wish for a better world which they will help you to come about – – to – – to bring true and I knew almost immediately what I wanted, because, as a religious historian, it’s long been a frustration to me uh that the religions all preach the ethic of compassion.
175 That doesn’t mean feeling sorry for people or uh gusts of sentimental emotion.
176 It means treating others as you would wish to be treated yourself.
177 And so the religions should be making a major contribution to the chief task of our time, which is to build a global community where people can live together in harmony and respect.
178 And it seems to me that unless now, we learn to implement that golden rule globally, so that we always treat all peoples, even our so-called enemies as we would wish to be treated ourselves, we’re not going to have a viable world.
179 So I asked TED to help me to create this charter.
180 It was uh [00:23:00.7] contributed to by hundreds of thousands of people online, on a multilingual website.
181 Uh it was actually written and composed by uh a leading activist, in six of the major world religions Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists and uh Confucian.
182 Um and it’s uh – – it’s – – it’s to – – it’s (a) was to restore compassion to the heart of religion and moral life.
183 I’d like it to be cool to be compassionate, for it to be one of those buzzwords.
184 But also the charter was primarily a call to action.
185 And I’m happy to say in a way that uh TED never expected, it’s taken off in ways that we would have dreamed um, and we’re starting now a campaign to create an – – an international network of compassionate cities.
186 Uh we’ve already got on board Seattle which declared the charter last year.
187 Louisville in Kentucky is following.
188 Uh, but there are uh about [00:24:00.3] 50 people going – – 50 cities worldwide going through the process now.
189 And one of the things that I’m – – insist on is that a compassionate city must have a global outreach, must be doing something to create global understanding and awareness.
190 I’m thinking for example, of twinning cities…
191 Uh hm.
192 … so, that Lahore could twin with Chicago, for example.
193 And, so uh the – – the – – the – – so that this – – I can start to break down some of these barriers of ignorance and [00:24:30.2] distance and prejudice but often I’m afraid to say fanned by the media uh which often presents the most negative things about – – about, each – – about each other – – about ourselves.
194 Let me ask you about how you’d like to be remembered?
195 What you’d like your legacy to be?
196 A peacekeeper, I think, someone, who has, helped people to try to understand one another at a difficult point in history.
198 Karen Armstrong, I thank you very much for your time.
199 Thank you.