Karen Armstrong: Charter for Compassion

After last week’s lengthy discussion on religion and atheism, commenter Jim Royal pointed to a recent lecture by TED Prize winner Karen Armstrong. (If you’re not familiar with the TED lectures – “Inspired talks by the world’s greatest thinkers and doers” – you should make a point of looking into them.)

In the lectures, Armstrong discusses the idea that what lies at the heart of the Abrahamic religions is the simple notion of the Golden Rule: “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.” (Also available in variations such as “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.”) She argues that the nasty aspects of religion that we’ve become so familiar with in recent years are a function of ego and human nature, not something within religion itself. Rather, the core of religion is human compassion as expressed in the Golden Rule.

She calls on people to help create a “Charter for Compassion” among all the people of the world, and in particular those of the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), based on the Golden Rule.

The video is 21 minutes long, but well worth it.

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6 thoughts on “Karen Armstrong: Charter for Compassion

  1. I love the message of the Armstrong video. It transcends any individual faith and puts the focus entirely on where it should be: on compassion.

    I have one small quibble, which has to do with whether or not religions are actually capable of carrying this out.

    My understanding of how religions work — how they get their psychological hooks into people and thus inspire them to do things — makes an ecumenical approach like this difficult.

    To my understanding, religions work by providing a common cathartic experience for groups of people, which creates mutual fellow-feeling and solidarity. This cathartic experience tends to focus around sacrifice. Early religions practiced human sacrifice, then later animal sacrifice, then personal sacrifice (for example, fasting), and ultimately symbolic sacrifice (for example, the re-enactment of passion plays).

    All this allows the community to agree upon a set of symbols and activities that provide meaning. This agreement provides common ground for settling disputes, and a way to recognize those who are like you.

    It also means that anyone whose symbolic system is different from yours has the potential to invalidate and undermine your system of symbols and values. This is why the fault lines along which wars erupt are so often religious lines. Religions prevent wars only so long as everyone agrees to the same symbols and their meanings. They aggravate wars when there is no such agreement.

    Armstrong’s proposal must address this in order to be successful. I have no idea how that might be possible.

  2. Thank you, Blork!Listening to her words was a great start of this beautiful Sunday.

  3. She argues that the nasty aspects of religion that we’ve become so familiar with in recent years are a function of ego and human nature, not something within religion itself.

    Yes on EGO, no on not being within religion. I’ll use muslim examples because they are fresh in my mind right now from looking into the Fitna movie debacle. But I know if I looked into the bible I’d find similar citations but I simply can’t remember them right now.

    But here are a few citations or suras from the Q’ran:

    Prepare for them whatever force and cavalry ye are able of gathering, to strike terror, to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies, of Allah and your enemies.

    Sura 4, verse 89[4:89]

    They but wish that ye should reject faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing as they, so take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah. But if they turn renegades, seize them and kill them wherever ye find them, and take no friends or helpers from their ranks.

    Sura 8, verse 39[8:39]:

    Fight them until there is no dissension, and the religion is entirely Allah’s.

    So forgive me if I think that religion teaches hate and violence. Religion was created by the selfish man and therefore his ego is in the religion he created.

  4. Fitna is simply what its title says. Two examples to illustrate on why it is shallow propaganda are as follows.

    Firstly, a continuation from Verse 89 of Surah 4, is Verse 90, which is translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali as follows:

    Except those who join a group between whom and you there is a treaty (of peace), or those who approach you with hearts restraining them from fighting you as well as fighting their own people. If Allah had pleased, He could have given them power over you, and they would have fought you: Therefore if they withdraw from you but fight you not, and (instead) send you (Guarantees of) peace, then Allah Hath opened no way for you (to war against them).

    Secondly, another case of out-of-context citation. Another verse Geers cited was 8:60, and reads (as translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali):

    Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom ye may not know, but whom Allah doth know. Whatever ye shall spend in the cause of Allah, shall be repaid unto you, and ye shall not be treated unjustly.

    But consider the next verse that comes in that sura, 8:61 –

    But if the enemy incline towards peace, do thou (also) incline towards peace, and trust in Allah: for He is One that heareth and knoweth (all things).

    What do both verses I cite here imply? A compulsion – towards peace.

    There is so much more than meets the eye – don’t be easily fooled by bigotry and Geert’s convenient “citations of proof”.

    I think we should give Armstrong’s proposal a try. Religion is a powerful tool to mobilise the masses towards an objective, and if we can use religion to spread compassion, then why not?

  5. A wonderful speech putting it all together – as a teacher of the golden rule – respect for each other – through my manners and etiquette classes often I feel I am always swimming upstream against all that is evil in the world. On the one hand all parents throughout the world want their children to be of good character and respect each other – and they grow up and inherit a world that shuns anything “religious” in exhange for all that is secular – hence secular humanism.

    In short, she brings perspective to what all these “religious precepts” truly are all about – most intellectuals have missed this wisdom and understanding.

    This IS the solution – and despite man, his ego and corruptible nature to spin anything and everything he is involved in – this is what we as a species should strive to attain knowning we will experience failure but our world truly will be lost and implode within and upon itself if we do not at least try.

  6. I really enjoyed her talk, it was very heartening to see a religious voice distance themselves from hardline literal translations of scripture and instead focus on something that modern religion has been neglecting: compassion towards other religions.

    I do have one problem with her wish though, and its by way of Humanism. Arguably the most important tenant of Humanism is the Golden Rule. It is not a religious concept, it is a human concept.

    Personally, I live my life by the Golden Rule. I don’t live my life by scripture however, and instead prefer to learn towards Philosophy and Science, but I digress.

    I don’t like the fact that she specifically stated that she would like it signed by the three Abrahamic religions as if to go our of her way to neglect the rest of the world who doesn’t believe in the Old Testament. Buddism, Hinduism, Deism, Humanism are all left out – as well as the plenty of others I haven’t mentioned – for some reason. They are all (and some of the the oldest) proponents of the Golden Rule.

    I’m all for a charter of compassion, but broaden it to not specifically focus on the Abrahamic traditions. It should be signed by everybody, and cater to the natural altruistic tendancies of all human beings.

    Whether you believe they are there or not, it does not change the fact that they are.

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