Lifestyle & Belief

The origins of religion

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Karen Armstrong is the author of nearly 20 books on religion. When her breakthrough book, "A History of God" appeared in 1993, she quickly became one of the world's leading historians of spiritual matters.

Her work displays a wide-ranging knowledge of religious traditions -- from monotheistic religions to Buddhism. That expertise is on full display in her latest book, "The Great Transformation," which charts the origins of many of the world's religions, including Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. What's remarkable is that all these spiritual traditions emerged in the same historical era -- the "Axial Age" -- from 900 to 200 B.C.

Armstrong tells "To the Best of Our Knowledge's" Steve Paulson that these traditions emerged as responses to the rampant violence of their time. And she says our own time has a lot in common with that age:

"It was one of the great, interesting discoveries to me. I couldn't believe it when I was researching this against the backdrop of our own time, when religion is often used to justify atrocious acts. But in every case the catalyst for religious change had been a revulsion, a disciplined turning away from violence."

The spiritual message that rejected violence: "First of all they all insisted in very different ways, but they came to the same conclusion, that you must give up and abandon your ego. That the cause of violence, hatred and human evil is very largely rooted in desperation about the ego. We are egocentric creatures, and so the sages said that the root cause of suffering lay in our desperate concern with self, which often needs to destroy others in order to preserve itself. And so they insisted that if we stepped outside the ego, then we would encounter what we call ... God, Nirvana or the Tao."

According to Armstrong, this common message is what we now call the "Golden Rule."

Armstrong says that we should really think about how we define God and religion: "Religion is a search for transcendence, but transcendence isn't necessarily sighted in an external God, which can be a very unspiritual, unreligious concept. The sages were all extremely concerned with transcendence, with going beyond the self and discovering a realm, a reality that could not be defined in words.

"And the trouble is that we define our God too closely, we say God is the Supreme Being. Well in my book ... "A History of God," I pointed out that the most eminent Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians all said that you couldn't think about God as a simple personality, an external being. It was better to say that God did not exist, because our notion of existence was far too limited to apply to God."

"I think sometimes the way monotheists talk about God is unreligious ... because people very often talk about Him as if He's some kind of acquaintance whom they can second-guess. People will say, 'God loves that, God wills that and God despises the other,' and very often the opinions of the deity are made to coincide exactly with that of the speaker."

As for the assertion by some that Islam encourages violence, Armstrong says "That' simply not true ... this kind of inflammatory talk ... about Islam is convincing Muslims all over the world who are not extremists that the West is incurably Islam-phobic, and will never respect their traditions.

"I would say there are more passages in the Bible than in the Koran that are dedicated to violence. And I think what we all ought to do, religious people in this day and age, is to look at our own sacred traditions -- our own -- not just pointing a finger at somebody else's, but our own. Christians should look hard and long at the Book of Revelations, and they should look at those passages ... that speak of the destruction of the enemy. It is not enough to point an accusing finger at another faith ...".

For Armstrong, the proper practice of religion requires some work: "Basically religion is hard work, it's an art form, it's a way of finding meaning -- like painting, like music, like poetry -- in a world that's violent and cruel and often seems meaningless."

"To the Best of Our Knowledge" is an audio magazine of ideas - two hours of smart, entertaining radio for people with curious minds. More "To the Best of Our Knowledge"

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