TED2008: Karen Armstrong and religions for peace

The TED Prize winner I was most moved by last year was photojournalist James Natchwey. He wished for TED’s help in getting access to tell a story, and ways to share the story doing digital technology. There’s a team of TED people looking for creative ways to tell the story – immersive environments, projections on the side of buildings, Reuters’ digital screen in Times Square. But we don’t hear what the story is – just that it’s very scary, and that governments are afraid that Natchwey will tell it. As Chris Anderson reminds us, not all these wishes get completed in three months.


The final prize winner this year is Karen Armstrong, an author who’s focused on the connections between the world’s religions. She comes by the work honestly – she became a nun as a young woman, then left the convent to become an English literature scholar. “Through a series of catastrophes, I found myself in television” – she claims this isn’t an uncommon trajectory. And despite her interest in staying far away from religion, she found herself making controversial programming on religion in the UK.

As she began producing these programs, she discovered that she was encountering Judaism and Islam for the first time and was fascinated by the relationships between these faiths. And some of the things she learned were surprising. “Belief, which we make such a fuss about today, is only a recent religious enthusiasm. It
surfaced in the west in the 17th century.” The credo isn’t a statement of belief, originally but a statement of engagement. Religion, she tells us, is not about believing but about behaving differently.

Specifically, religion is about compassion. “Compassion brings us to nirvana, to God’s mind. When we feel with the other, we dethrone ourselves from the center of the world, and put another there.” By putting aside the ego, we make it possible to see the divine. She quotes the Hebrew sage Hilel, who explains all of Judaism in two sentences: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is Torah – go and study it.” Beyond that basic injuntion, all else is commentary.

We’re living, she tells us, in “a world where religion has been hijacked, where terrorists recite Koranic verses to justify their activities.” We’re surrounded by “Christians endlessly judging others, using scripture to put others down.” Around the world, people use religion to oppress, not empower others. She tells us, “You cannot confine your compassion to your own group.” Real compassion means having concern for everybody, and honoring the stranger.

Armstrong believes that there’s a huge hunger for visions that bring people together in a compassionate way. She recently spoke in Pakistan and was met with huge crowds of people anxious to hear a friendly western voice, and anxious to hear the ways in which religion was failing people. The situation we face is a serious one, she tells us. “Any ideology that doesn’t promote global understanding is failing the test of time.”

Her wish is a simple one: “That you would help with the creation, launch and propogation of a charter for compassion crafted by a group of inspirational thinkers of the Abrahamic faiths.. based on the fundamental principle of the golden rule.” She sees this as a simple document, put together by leaders like Bishop Desmond Tutu, perhaps launched through the UN, and circulated through the entire world, helping make religion a source of peace in the world.

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2 Responses to TED2008: Karen Armstrong and religions for peace

  1. Derek Beres says:

    You nailed the main sentiment that underlies all her works – religion is expressed by behavior, not belief. Belief is abstract and does not necessarily reflect reality, even though every person’s reality is very much seen through the eyes of their beliefs. She expresses this point amazingly well in Holy War. I did not know she won the TED award this year, but glad to hear it.

  2. Pingback: TED中国粉丝团 » 今日TED演讲 » 四海一家的仁爱之道

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