Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Just A Little Nicer.

About Karen Armstrong's TED Talk

Religion scholar Karen Armstrong describes how compassion is the core principle in all world religions, in the form of the golden rule.

About Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous books on religion and compassion, including The Case for God, Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life, Fields of Blood, and The Great Transformation.

In 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize and began working with TED on the Charter for Compassion, created online by the general public, and crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Also in 2008, she was awarded the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal. In 2013, she received the British Academy's inaugural Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Transcultural Understanding.

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Can you introduce yourself, please?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: I'm Karen Armstrong. I'm a historian of religion.

RAZ: Do you ever say ex-nun?

ARMSTRONG: No. Well, not anymore, really. But I will do if you want.

RAZ: No, no, it's fine. I was just curious, yeah. Karen joined the convent at 17. She was miserable there and a total failure as a nun.

ARMSTRONG: Because a nun is nothing but the quality of her prayer, and my prayer was so bad, it was off the charts.

RAZ: So seven years later, she left, and she moved to Oxford to study English literature.

ARMSTRONG: And I just wanted to be secular and atheist, and I wanted to have nothing to do with religion ever again.

RAZ: And it was as a scholar in the secular world where Karen discovered compassion.

ARMSTRONG: Because I was so unhappy in my early years when I first left the convent, I used to be, really, quite of an unkind person.

RAZ: Huh.

ARMSTRONG: And I developed a very sharp tongue. I learned that in the convent, and I also learned it at the University of Oxford. Someone once said to me, do you realize you never say anything nice about anybody?

RAZ: Wow.

ARMSTRONG: But I started to learn about being compassionate, actually, with my study. And I also found that I was much happier.

RAZ: A few years ago, Karen wrote the book on compassion, literally. It's called "Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life." And even though she's the author, Karen admits she can't always practice what she preaches.

ARMSTRONG: I have a quick temper. I'm very impatient. I often harbor dark thoughts about people, as we all do because we're selfish beings.

RAZ: And it's - it must be hard because you have to be nice when you're talking about compassion. 'Cause...


RAZ: Right?

ARMSTRONG: Yes. It's a really...

RAZ: You're, like, trapped.

ARMSTRONG: It is. I'm supposed to be Miss Nice all the time. And sometimes I can see friends about to impart some really juicy bits of gossip,, and then they see me and their face falls. And you feel, what a party pooper I am (laughter).

RAZ: There you are, Miss Compassionate (laughter).

Back in the early '80s, Karen was sent to Jerusalem to help with a documentary on early Christianity. And while she was there, she started to read about Judaism and Islam as well. And she was amazed to discover that at the core of all these religions was compassion. More on that in a moment. Our show today, Just A Little Nicer. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today, Just A Little Nicer, ideas about compassion and empathy. So before the break, we heard from Karen Armstrong. She's a former nun who became a religious historian. And as she learned more and more about other faiths, she discovered that they all share a core principle. Here's Karen on the TED stage.


ARMSTRONG: For years, I'd been feeling frustrated because, as a religious historian, I've become acutely aware that, of the centrality of compassion in all the major world faiths, every single one of them has evolved their own version of what's being called the Golden Rule. Sometimes it comes in a positive version. Always treat all others as you'd like to be treated yourself. And equally important is the negative version. Don't do to others what you would not like them to do to you. Look into your own heart. Discover what it is that gives you pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. And people have found that when they have implemented the Golden Rule, as Confucius said, all day and every day, you dethrone yourself from the center of your world, put another there, and you transcend yourself. And it brings you into the presence of what's being called God, nirvana, Brahman, Tao, something that goes beyond what we know in our ego-bound existence.

RAZ: The Golden Rule sounds so simplistic. It's like something I'd say to my kids, right?

ARMSTRONG: But it's very difficult.

RAZ: Well, yeah. When you think about it, I mean, it really is all you need to know about your place...


RAZ: ...In the world.

ARMSTRONG: Absolutely. Just ask yourself if this is how you would like to be treated yourself, all day and every day. In England, we have a habit of when we've said something - done something nice for people, of saying, well, that's my good deed for the day, as though we could then return to our usual practice of unkindness, bitterness and - we've done it. We've got it out of the way.

RAZ: Got it out of the way, yes, and then can be evil and cruel.

ARMSTRONG: But not all day and every day. And if you did it all day and every day - it's impossible because we fail all the time - you would transcend yourself.

RAZ: I wonder if religion is the source of compassion, or is compassion the source of religion?

ARMSTRONG: I think compassion is in us. I think that the various religious traditions have emphasized the role compassion because it's deeply embedded in the structure of our humanity. It's instinctive. But compassionate ethos developed, you know, not in peaceful groves with people meditating peacefully on a mountaintop; they developed in societies like our own where violence had reached an unprecedented crescendo. And many of them, the Chinese sages in particular, said unless, now, we treat each other as we would wish to be treated, human beings will destroy one another. And that has never been more true than today, thanks to the weapons that we've created.

RAZ: Yeah, I mean, if compassion is the core of all the world's religions, as you write and argue, why do they seem so divisive?

ARMSTRONG: Because people don't - a lot of people just don't want to be compassionate. They'd rather be right. And people use their religions to make them - instead of surrendering the ego - to enhance their identity.


ARMSTRONG: We are living in a world where religion has been hijacked, where terrorists cite Quranic verses to justify their atrocities, where instead of taking Jesus's words - love your enemies, don't judge others - we have the spectacle of Christians endlessly judging other people, endlessly using scripture as a way of arguing with other people, putting other people down. Throughout the ages, religion has been used to oppress others, and this is because of human ego, human greed. We have a talent, as a species, for messing up wonderful things. So the traditions also insisted - and this is an important point, I think - that you could not and must not confine your compassion to your own group, your own nation, your own coreligionists, your own fellow countrymen. You must have what one of the Chinese sages call jian ai, concern for everybody. Love your enemies. Honor the stranger. We formed you, says the Quran, into tribes and nations so that you may know one another. And this - again, this universal outreach is getting subdued in the strident use of religion, abuse of religion, for nefarious gains. Now, I've lost count of the number of taxi drivers who, when I say to them what I do for a living, inform me that religion has been the cause of all the major World Wars in history. Wrong - the cause of our present woes are political. But make no mistake about it, religion is a kind of fault line. And when a conflict gets ingrained in a region, religion can get sucked in and become part of the problem.

RAZ: So if it's part of the problem, I mean, how do people, like - religious people, secular, whoever - how do we fix it?

ARMSTRONG: Well, that's why I wrote my "Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life."

RAZ: Fair enough.

ARMSTRONG: People kept asking me, how do I do this? This is all too enormous for me. I can't cope with it. And I was very much struck by the alcoholics anonymous program...

RAZ: Yeah.

ARMSTRONG: ...With its 12 steps because we're addicted to our pet-hatreds. We don't know quite what we'd do without the people we dislike. We meditate on their bad qualities, and they become almost our alter egos, everything that we are not. We define ourselves in this way. And when we say something unpleasant about somebody, we can get a sort of horrible buzz of pleasure, rather like the first drink of the evening. So we have to wean ourselves away from our addictions to annoyance and having pet-grudges and hatreds, but it's a project for a lifetime.

RAZ: That's Karen Armstrong. She's a religious historian and the winner of the 2008 TED Prize. After winning the prize, she launched the Charter for Compassion. If you want to find out more about it or watch her two TED Talks, go to Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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