Among people who know nothing about religion and dont care much about factual information (an unfortunately large demographic), Karen Armstrong has become something of a sensation. But for those who think that claims about religion, ethics, or history should have some grounding in reality, Armstrong is considered an embarrassment.
Armstrong has been criticized by Christians for her ignorance of Christianity, from Jews about her ignorance of Judaism, from Muslims for her ignorance of Islam, and from historians for her ignorance of history. As Hugh Fitzgerald wrote in the New English Review :
For Karen Armstrong history does not exist. It is putty in the hands of the person who writes about history. You use it to make a point, to do good as you see it. And whatever you need to twist or omit is justified by the purity of your intentionsand Karen Armstrong always has the purest of intentions.
Unfortunately, good intentions trumps ignorance, which is why Armstrong was awarded the 2008 TED prize and granted One Wish to Change the World. Her TED Prize “wish”, to initiate an international Charter for Compassion that helps restore the Golden Rule as central to religious practice and daily life throughout the world, was unveiled last week.
Promoting compassion and the Golden Rule are certainly noble efforts. It would seem to be an easy task, then, to create a charter with which most people could agree. But Armstrong naturally fails in the effort, failing to get even the most liberal bandwagon jumpers to sign on. Yet it does includes some notable names. The primary affirmers of the statement include the Dalai Lama, Queen Noor of Jordan, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Deepak Chopra, and Goldie Hawn. From that august list you can probably guess at the type of content the document contains.
Here is the full text of the Charter for Compassion (including my comments on the document):
The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.
Perhaps this is true if we define all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions as (a) only those practiced today, (b) those whose basic texts and beliefs can be interpretedor reinterpretedin the most liberal manner possible, and (c) necessarily excluding all examples that contradict our feel-good definition (e.g., Wahhabism).
Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
What is remarkable about this statement is the careless use of languageeven by Armstrongs lax standard. The wording is clearly pro-life (savvy abortion supporters know to use the phrase persons since it is inarguable that fetuses are, biologically speaking, human beings). But Armstrong is neither savvy, nor logically consistent. As she wrote in 2003 after President Bush signed a law outlawing partial-birth abortions:
[W]hile it may be religiously impossible to sanction abortion undertaken for trivial reasons - for mere social or professional convenience - it may be tragically necessary to sacrifice a potential life to nurture the life we have already. This is also a sacred requirement. The foetus may have to die for the sake of its mother’s physical or psychological health, for the economic survival of the family, or to prevent a marital breakdown that would damage its siblings. And that is why the woman has to make this painful choice, as only she can evaluate her circumstances. But we should never lose our sense of the awful gravity of the procedure, because - as in ancient religion - therein lies our sense of life’s sacred value.
Referring to a fetus as potential life isscientifically speakingnonsense. It might be fine for, say, a superstitious Amazonian tribesman to speak this way. But any educated person should be embarrassed to publicly make a claim that is so irresponsible and contrary to basic biological fact.
It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating otherseven our enemiesis a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.
Armstrong respects all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions because she believes (wrongly) that “All the great traditions are saying the same thing in much the same way, despite their surface differences.” But will she still respect these traditions when they hold positions that conflict with her own views of chavinism? Of course not. For her, religions is only legitimate when it supports what she already believes.
We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beingseven those regarded as enemies.
Where exactly is this ancient principle to be found? Isnt it the case that this principle is a modern invention, often used to provide a less embarrassing interpretation for religious claims that have been held for millennia?
How does Armstrong square this idea with her claim that No religion has in practice been good for women, and in adopting a pro-choice position, some liberal Christians are beginning to redress centuries of oppression by taking women’s rights seriously.
We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries.
Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.
Armstrong believes that compassion can break down down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries by reducing all views to the same incoherent spiritual mush that she herself believes, an ideology that allows you to justify the slaughter of millions of babies in the name of being compassionate.
But what if the most weak and innocent of humans have be die? Sometimes its just a sacred requirement, right?
If this is what Armstrong means by compassion, perhaps the world is better off without it.