Before becoming one of the great world religion scholars of our time and a self-proclaimed “freelance monotheist,” Karen Armstrong had given up on religion. Raised in England in the years following World War II, Armstrong became a Roman Catholic nun in the order of Society of the Holy Child Jesus when she was still a teenager. After seven painful years, Armstrong left the church, frustrated and fed up with what she felt was an overly dogmatic institution.

Following her unhappy experience with Catholicism, Armstrong spent the next 15 years distancing herself from religion, a system she felt had failed her. Then, following the success of her first book, Through the Narrow Gate (1981), a memoir of her tormented years as a nun, Armstrong moved to Israel in 1984 to make a documentary for a British television network on the life of Saint Paul. It was in Jerusalem that she encountered Judaism and Islam for the first time, and her interest in religion was restored. As she observed Jews, Muslims, and Christians living in close proximity to one another Armstrong noted the profound similarities between the core teachings of the three religions and their shared vision for a more compassionate world.

After her experience in Jerusalem, Armstrong went on to become a respected scholar of world religions, publishing over 20 books, including The Gospel According to Woman (1986), A History of God (1993), Buddha (2001), Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time (2006),The Case for God (2009), and, most recently, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2010). In February of 2008, Armstrong was awarded the TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) Prize, which grants recipients $100,000 to put toward realizing a wish. Armstrong’s wish was to create a Charter for Compassion, a document she hoped would transcend religious, ideological, and national differences and help to restore the message of the Golden Rule in the world. The charter was first drafted online by the public, then finalized during a meeting in Geneva by the Council of Conscience, a multifaith group of 18 religious leaders. In the fall of 2009 the final Charter for Compassion was unveiled, and to date over 75,000 people have signed the document.

Last November, Tricycle editors Rachel Hiles and Sam Mowe met with Armstrong while she was in New York to speak at a TED event hosted by the United Nations.

Artwork by Liz Rideal, "Artichoke," courtesy Liz Rideal and Gallery 339, Philadelphia
Artwork by Liz Rideal, “Artichoke,” courtesy Liz Rideal and Gallery 339, Philadelphia

How did you first conceive of the Charter for Compassion? The charter came into being after I won the TED Prize, which gives you a wish for a better world. I had long been frustrated by the fact that the religions of the world, which all have a compassionate ethos at the heart, haven’t been making a major contribution to one of the biggest tasks of our time, which is to build a global community where people of all persuasions can live together in peace and harmony. In fact, religion is often seen as part of the problem. So I asked TED to help me create, craft, propagate, and launch a Charter for Compassion that would restore compassion to the heart of the spiritual, religious, and moral life and make it an active force in the world. The charter was written by hundreds of thousands of people online on a multilingual website in Arabic, Urdu, Hebrew, English, and Spanish, and then it was composed by a council of 18 people representing six major world religions.

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