Karen Armstrong (born 14 November 1944) is a British author and commentator of Irish Catholic descent known for her books on comparative religion. A former Roman Catholic religious sister, she went from a conservative to a more liberal and mystical Christian faith. She attended St Anne's College, Oxford, while in the convent and majored in English. She became disillusioned and left the convent in 1969. Her work focuses on commonalities of the major religions, such as the importance of compassion and the Golden Rule.
Armstrong received the US$100,000 TED Prize in February 2008. She used that occasion to call for the creation of a Charter for Compassion, which was unveiled the following year.
Armstrong was born at Wildmoor, Worcestershire, into a family of Irish ancestry who, after her birth, moved to Bromsgrove and later to Birmingham. In 1962, at the age of 18, she became a member of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, a teaching congregation, in which she remained for seven years. Armstrong claims she suffered physical and psychological abuse in the convent; according to an article in The Guardian newspaper, "Armstrong was required to mortify her flesh with whips and wear a spiked chain around her arm. When she spoke out of turn, she claims she was forced to sew at a treadle machine with no needle for a fortnight."
Once she had advanced from postulant and novice to professed nun, she enrolled in St Anne's College, Oxford, to study English. Armstrong left her order in 1969 while still a student at Oxford. After graduating with a Congratulatory First, she embarked on a DPhil on the poet Tennyson. According to Armstrong, she wrote her dissertation on a topic that had been approved by the university committee. Nevertheless, it was failed by her external examiner on the grounds that the topic had been unsuitable. Armstrong did not formally protest this verdict, nor did she embark upon a new topic but instead abandoned hope of an academic career. She reports that this period in her life was marked by ill-health stemming from her lifelong but, at that time, still undiagnosed temporal lobe epilepsy.
Around this time she was lodged with Jenifer and Herbert Hart, looking after their disabled son, as told in her memoir The Spiral Staircase.