On 16 May 2018, Karen Armstrong, Four Freedoms Award Laureate 2008, gave a lecture on “Toleration or Compassion?” The lecture was organized in cooperation with the Roosevelt Foundation to coincide with the 2018 Four Freedoms Awards.

Karen Armstrong OBE is a historian of religion, whose books have been translated into forty-five languages. They include, A History of God, which was an international bestseller; Islam: A Short HistoryA Short History of MythThe Spiral Staircase: A Memoir; and most recently Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.

In our troubled world, religion is often seen as part of the problem rather than the solution; it is often assumed to be essentially intolerant of difference and inherently aggressive. Freedom of religion is, of course, one of the Four Freedoms enunciated so clearly by President Roosevelt. But it is always useful to look closely at the terms used to discuss such issues, and that is what Karen Armstrong proposed to do in this lecture.

First, the term ‘religion’ itself needs careful re-examination; in the Western world, since the Enlightenment, we have developed a perception of religion that is shared by no other culture and our current notion of religion would have seemed very strange indeed to most Europeans before about 1800. Second, ‘tolerance,’ another word favored by the Enlightenment philosophes and crucial to our notion of ‘religious freedom,’ needs to be revisited and assessed if we want to look rationally and creatively at our current predicament. Finally, the word ‘compassion’ is not an Enlightenment word; it too is much misunderstood today, especially, for linguistic reasons, in the Netherlands.

Karen Armstrong discussed these terms in the light of what we now know about religious traditions globally in the hope of charting a new vision for the future.

The lecture was recorded, and is available here.