Unwinding the biggest enemies of religion: A conversation with Karen Armstrong

Source: CNA International Edition

Source: Mubeen Saadat

SINGAPORE: Not politics, not secularism and not even extremism.

Religion’s biggest enemies in today’s world are unkindness, selfishness and heedlessness, according to reknowned author and historian, Karen Armstrong.

The 74-year-old former Catholic nun turned author and historian was in Singapore for the inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS) in Singapore last week, when she spoke to CNA on her take on the state of religion and societies in the world today.

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong: “All religions are designed to teach us how to live, joyfully, serenely, and kindly, in the midst of suffering.”

With an impressive oeuvre translated into more than 40 languages, Armstrong has endeavored to explain and defend religion against the voices that challenge its place in society and question its relevance.

Born in Britain, the Irish author spent seven years as a nun before she left the church in a state of disenchantment. She thought she had “had it with religion”, as she described that juncture in her life in a landmark speech at a TED conference in 2008.

Armstrong would go on to author acclaimed books such as The History of God, Fields of Blood, The Case for God and more recently, The Lost Art of Scripture.

“I see religion as a kind of art form. Art gives us a sense of meaning and religion expresses itself in terms of art. So when it becomes prosaic dogmatism it loses its touch. It doesn’t touch the heart. It’s a constant process of building in a world which is often meaningless where you’re facing extinction and have to live with that day by day,” she said as the conversation began.


Resistance and opposition to religion has been inherent in the history of human civilisation, for as long as religion itself has existed. So I asked this advocate of faith – what is religion’s biggest enemy today?

“Unkindness and selfishness. Heedlessness of other people and a heedlessness of the environment and an increasing focus on money and materialism.”

“When religion just becomes a wholly private quest, it becomes selfish and myopic,” she added.

Armstrong underlined her support for the separation of religion and politics as it frees religion from “the basic inequity of any society.” While we have dreams of equity, no state has ever achieved it as injustice and unfairness continue to exist, she said, adding that when religion gets caught up in the state mechanism, it declines.

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