Reasonable Doubts Blog

Karen Armstrong Reevaluates Religion

Posted in defining religion by Cheryl Berman on the August 26th, 2010

I recently watched a TED lecture that was recorded in February of 2008 given by Karen Armstrong. Karen Armstrong was a nun in her earlier life but eventually abandoned Christianity and became entirely disenchanted with religion. She tried but failed to pursue a career in literature and wound up working for television. She focused on religious programming, mostly debunking the “myths” of religion for an admiring London audience. But at one point, she explains in this TED lecture, she traveled to Israel on assignment for a program on early Christianity. In Israel she encountered Judaism and Islam for the first time. And there in this “tortured city” she goes on to say that she became aware of the profound connection between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Armstrong returned to the study of religion, although this time academically. She pursued a career in comparative religion and wrote such bestsellers as The History of God and Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.

It was this new found approach to religion that brought Armstrong back to what she calls the “true sense of what religion can be.” Whereas before religious doctrine has seemed abstract and unlikely Armstrong learned that religious doctrine is not what what truly lies at the root of religion. In her autobiography The Spiral Staircase Armstrong describes a scene in which she is discussing religion with a Hyam Maccoby a Jewish librarian from the Leo Beck College in North London. They were talking about the famous story of the pagan who came to Hillel and asked to be taught the entire Torah on one leg. Hillel stood on one leg and responded, “do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study.” Armstrong was shocked that Hillel could summarize the entire Torah without one word of ideology. Where was belief in God? Hyam explained to her that”theology is just not important in Judaism, or in any other religion really. There’s no orthodoxy as you have it in the Catholic Church. No complicated creeds… No infallible pronouncements by a pope. Nobody can tell Jews what to believe. Within reason you can believe what you like. (235)” Armstrong sat for a while trying to take all that in. It went against everything she had previously understood about religion. Years later she would come to learn what I wrote about in my very first blog post which is that the definition of belief is not an intellectual assent to certain propositions. Belief means to hold something dear, to love. It is an existential position, not a rational one. It was only later on in our history that religious belief took on intellectual overtones. (Armstrong claims it was in the 17th century but I think it must have been earlier – when lists of dogma began to appear in the middle ages.)

So if religion isn’t about certain ideas what is it about? Hyam Maccoby explained to Armstrong that religion is about behavior. Once you start inculcating certain behaviors into your daily life you begin to understand certain truths. And Armstrong witnessed the beauty and the energy of this type of approach when she visited Israel. In The Spiral Staircase she writes “In Judaism, the study of Torah and Talmud had never been as goal directed as some modern scholarship. Yeshiva education was not a matter of acquiring information about Judaism; the process of study itself was just as important as the content, and was itself transforming: the heated arguments, the intensive interaction with a teacher, the question and answer methodology all propelled students into a heightened awareness of the Divine presence.(288)” Even the most intellectual of all religious institutions – Torah learning – is transformed into a religious experience – a behavior – so the student not only has learned something related to Jewish law or ideology, he has also tasted the presence of God. And it is that brief whiff of eternity that ultimately changes him as a person.

In her TED lecture, Armstrong chose to focus on a different aspect of religion. She asked herself the question: What is the common root of all religions? She concluded that compassion was common to every ideology. Every major religion espouses some version of the golden rule as quoted by Hillel above. Armstrong claims that religion has been hijacked by extremists who feel that ideology defines its core when in reality compassion defines its core and I think she has an excellent point on more than one front. Clearly on the larger world stage terrorists and religious extremists have hijacked religion for their own agendas. But even on a smaller scale I think we need to start reevaluating our religious priorities. I don’t know how, but in many communities sleeve length and the size of a person’s kippah has become more important than Hillel’s summary of the entire Torah on one leg. Compassion has taken a back seat to evaluating the level of religious observance of our fellow man and I wonder what Hillel would have to say about that.

Here’s the link to the TED lecture:

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