Home > Andrew Sullivan, Atheism, Karen Armstrong, Religion, TED > Failing the test of time

Failing the test of time

On October 6th Andrew Sullivan posted on his blog his thoughts on Karen Armstrong and “genuine faith.” They argue religion is not about beliefs, per se, but about “the practice of daily compassion.” He posts a video Karen Armstrong speaking at TED which you can find through the above link. His post and her video, which he highly praised, prompted me to write him an email.


Hey Andrew,

I really appreciate your work and intellectual honesty. Your blog educates and challenges me everyday. Often I find myself in agreement with you. Yet on religious issues, we’re often at a crux. I just watched Karen Armstrong’s TED lecture you posted and found myself feeling as I usually feel as an atheist when watching or reading similar material. You seem think we’re smug too often (it’s possible), but when she implies that the only way to compassion is through religion I can’t help but feel slighted.

After a quick jab at Europe’s secularism, she argues that religion needs to embrace the golden rule and become a global ethos. Going on she says, “whatever our wretched beliefs, this is a religious matter, is a spiritual matter, is a profound moral matter.” Well, I honestly am not trying to be too sensitive but I’m not religious and think that I can embrace the compassion found in the golden rule. Isn’t she suggesting that only through religion can the world be compassionate with other nations? If so, what does that say about those without religion? If she is not saying that, why is religion necessary to promote as she sees it? Why not just promote the value of compassion itself?

I don’t doubt that for you religion is “the practice of daily compassion.” You and she argue further that it is not about beliefs, but how humans live. From your writings I know you believe Jesus Christ is actually divine — doesn’t that belief matter? Sorry for the repeated questions but, if it is not about beliefs why belong to a specific religion at all? I’m sure I’m right about this but you also have acknowledged that atheists can be compassionate too. I get why religion works for you personally; I don’t understand why anyone such as Karen Armstrong feels the need to promote religion specifically if moral values can be promoted in absence of doctrinaire religious beliefs.

She rightly argues that “our current situation is so serious, at the moment, that any ideology that doesn’t promote a sense of global understanding and global appreciation of each other is failing the test of the time.” If I’m wrong, o.k., but religion seems to be failing that test. For too many people in this world it is a tribalizing ideology. Let’s try directly promoting the values we all find important without the religious baggage. If people become more compassionate yet remain religious despite that secular conversation than great. But I see no reason to promote religion in the hopes that it will have the side effect of increased global harmony.

All the best

Her solution just seems so convoluted to me. First, wrestle religion away from the huge numbers of religious who take their beliefs seriously. Convince them (through reason?) to see religion as Karen Armstrong sees religion and practice it as such. Then promote that version of religion as a means to make the world more compassionate and less tribalistic. Bear in mind that for this to be successful she needs to not only convince moderate and educated Christian Americans but essentially transform religion as practiced by different religions. How this is a realistic strategy is beyond me.

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