Ms. Armstrong, who calls herself a “freelance monotheist,” is among the foremost religious historians, writers, and thinkers in the world. A former Catholic nun, she’s written biographies of Buddha, the Prophet Mohammed, and St. Peter as well as the best-selling books The Battle for God, A History of God: The 4000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. Ms. Armstrong talked to me about her writing and research process, her struggles with life after leaving the convent, religious fundamentalism in all its many forms, and Islam in the modern world.
FAITH L. JUSTICE: When did you start to write?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: My first book, about my life in the convent, was published in 1981 — it was a long time after leaving. I found people tended to introduce me at parties and suppers as, “Here’s Karen. She used to be a nun.” I would spend the entire meal being questioned about it and I didn’t have time to explain why — the interior stuff and the rationale that made sense of all these things. So I told funny stories and trivialized the experience. After awhile, I wanted to remember it as it was and try to deal with it in some way. The first drafts were very angry. My agent at the time asked, “If it was that bad, why did you stay so long?” The book was a way of coming to terms with the experience and seeing the positive side as well as the negative. Now writing is my living. It’s what I do.
FLJ: Why did you take up the religious life?
KA: For a number of reasons, because motivation is never simple. There was a religious aspect to it — I wanted to find God, or what I thought might be God. I had a teenage oversimplified view: I would find the divine, be filled with peace and serenity, lose all that adolescent anguish and misery, and overnight become a wise saint. I was also very shy and very uncomfortable socially. I was okay at lessons and exams, but socially and emotionally? In the early 60’s, before things loosened up, it was a bad time to be a woman, if you weren’t pretty. Now you can find your own style.