The Armstrong Twelve-Step

Karen Armstrong is an ex-Catholic nun turned monomanical apologist for all faiths. She has written approximately 900 books, all of which rehearse the same argument; it is summarised here. Armstrong gets an easy ride critically for all kinds of reasons – Richard Holloway, reviewing her latest work, begins: ‘It feels irreverent, if not actually blasphemous, to question a work by Karen Armstrong.’ And he adds a para of praise:

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is both a manifesto and a self-help manual. As a manifesto, it promotes her campaign to place compassion at the heart of religion; as a manual modelled on the 12-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous, it offers exercises aimed at increasing our own compassion. It would make a brilliant guide for leaders of retreats and workshops on the compassionate life, and as a repository of digested wisdom from the world’s religions I cannot recommend it too highly.

Of course it would be amazing to have a world built on love and kindness. But Holloway can’t help but challenge Armstrong’s assertion that ‘the essence of the main religions boils down to compassion’:

At a meeting of primates of the Anglican communion, I was accused by one archbishop of filling Hell with homosexuals, because I was giving them permission to commit acts that would guarantee them an eternity of punishment, for no sodomite can enter Heaven. My worldly compassion for gay people, my campaign to furnish them with the same sexual rights as straight people, was actually a kind of cruelty. The price of their fleeting pleasures in this world would be an eternity of punishment in the next.

I can think of other examples from other moral spheres where an attempt to act compassionately towards certain categories of sufferers runs counter to Christianity’s doctrinal certainties.

What could explain such lack of compassion we so often see in Christianity and Islam? Holloway: ‘They exist to secure life in the world to come for their followers and any guidance they offer on living in this world is always with a view to its impact on the next.’ Exactly. If you see life as nothing more than a preparation for death you are hardly going to have much concern for suffering in the mortal world. It is also worth reminding that if you meet someone who argues with conviction that Jews or gays or unmarried women are bound for the bad fire then it is normally because this is what he actually believes.

And the converse applies. The knowledge that we are all hurtling into the big sleep drives people to take the hand of a friend or lover as we fall. Despite Armstrong’s fumbling disclaimer – ‘we hope that atheists and agnostics, instead of berating religion (a policy that, as history shows, tends to make religious movements more extreme), will also sign up to the charter, working alongside the religious for a more compassionate world’ – I can’t help but suspect that the Charter for Compassion is yet another attempt to declare a religious monopoly on virtue.

All the compassion and kindness in religion – and more! – can be found in the artists and poets and philosophers of the material world. It also comes from the clear and demonstrable fact that we are all common animals with needs and cares and desires, and from the instinctive feeling that there is only one planet and one life.

Twelve steps? Auden only needed one: ‘We must love one another or die.’

Update: The New Humanist carries an excellent review of Armstrong’s book by Ophelia Benson of Butterflies and Wheels.

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4 Responses to “The Armstrong Twelve-Step”

  1. Ophelia Benson Says:

    Ha…snap. I said much the same thing as the good bishop. He said

    “But is she correct in suggesting that, au fond, the essence of the main religions boils down to compassion? It is probably correct where Buddhism is concerned and it is from Buddhism that her best insights and examples come. I think she is on shakier ground when she applies it to Christianity and Islam. Christianity and Islam are redemption religions, not wisdom religions. They exist to secure life in the world to come for their followers and any guidance they offer on living in this world is always with a view to its impact on the next.”

    I said (in the New Humanist)

    “The categorical assertion of the Charter for Compassion is very strong: “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions.” The problem with that should be obvious: it is not true. The principle of obedience to God lies at the heart of many religious traditions, and it is a modern illusion to think that is identical to compassion.”

  2. skidmarx Says:

    Talking of monomanical apologists, I asked if you were happy with only hearing one side of every story on the Assange thread on Shiraz, but my comments still seem to fail to appear.

  3. maxdunbar Says:

    Found a couple that ended up in the spam file (I’m saying nothing) and have now been released onto the blog, in all their glory.

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