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.
In 1976, Armstrong took a job teaching English at James Allen's Girls' School in Dulwich while working on a memoir of her convent experiences. This was published in 1982 as Through the Narrow Gate to excellent reviews. That year she embarked on a new career as an independent writer and broadcasting presenter. In 1984, the British Channel Four commissioned her to write and present a television documentary on the life of St. Paul, The First Christian, a project that involved traveling to the Holy Land to retrace the steps of the saint. Armstrong described this visit as a "breakthrough experience" that defied her prior assumptions and provided the inspiration for virtually all her subsequent work. In A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (1993), she traces the evolution of the three major monotheistic traditions from their beginnings in the Middle East up to the present day and also discusses Hinduism and Buddhism. As guiding "luminaries" in her approach, Armstrong acknowledges (in The Spiral Staircase and elsewhere) the late Canadian theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a Protestant minister, and the Jesuit father Bernard Lonergan. In 1996, she published Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.
Armstrong's The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006) continues the themes covered in A History of God and examines the emergence and codification of the world's great religions during the so-called Axial age identified by Karl Jaspers. In the year of its publication Armstrong was invited to choose her eight favourite records for BBC Radio's Desert Island Discs programme. She has made several appearances on television, including on Rageh Omaar's programme The Life of Muhammad. She was an advisor for the award-winning, PBS-broadcast documentary Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet (2002), produced by Unity Productions Foundation.
In 2007 the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore invited Armstrong to deliver the MUIS Lecture.
Armstrong is a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars and laypeople which attempts to investigate the historical foundations of Christianity. She has written numerous articles for The Guardian and for other publications. She was a key advisor on Bill Moyers' popular PBS series on religion, has addressed members of the United States Congress, and was one of three scholars to speak at the UN's first ever session on religion. She is a vice-president of the British Epilepsy Association, otherwise known as Epilepsy Action.
Armstrong, who has taught courses at Leo Baeck College, a rabbinical college and centre for Jewish education located in North London, says she has been particularly inspired by the Jewish tradition's emphasis on practice as well as faith: "I say that religion isn't about believing things. It's about what you do. It's ethical alchemy. It's about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness." She maintains that religious fundamentalism is not just a response to, but is a product of contemporary culture and for this reason concludes that, "We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community."
Awarded the $100,000 TED Prize in February 2008, Armstrong called for drawing up a Charter for Compassion, in the spirit of the Golden Rule, to identify shared moral priorities across religious traditions, in order to foster global understanding and a peaceful world. It was presented in Washington, D.C. in November 2009. Signatories include Queen Noor of Jordan, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Paul Simon.
In 1999 Armstrong received the Muslim Public Affairs Council's Media Award.
Armstrong was honoured by the New York Open Center in 2004 for her "profound understanding of religious traditions and their relation to the divine."
She received an honorary degree as Doctor of Letters by Aston University in 2006.
In May 2008 she was awarded the Freedom of Worship Award by the Roosevelt Institute, one of four medals presented each year to men and women whose achievements have demonstrated a commitment to the Four Freedoms proclaimed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 as essential to democracy: freedom of speech and of worship, freedom from want and from fear. The institute stated that Armstrong had become "a significant voice, seeking mutual understanding in times of turbulence, confrontation and violence among religious groups." It cited "her personal dedication to the ideal that peace can be found in religious understanding, for her teachings on compassion, and her appreciation for the positive sources of spirituality."
She has also received the TED Prize 2008.
In 2009 she was awarded the Dr. Leopold Lucas Prize by the University of Tübingen.
Armstrong was honored Nationalencyklopedin's International Knowledge Award 2011 "for her long standing work of bringing knowledge to others about the significance of religion to humankind and, in particular, for pointing out the similarities between religions. Through a series of books and award-winning lectures she reaches out as a peace-making voice at a time when world events are becoming increasingly linked to religion."
On 12 May 2010, she was made honorary Doctor of Divinity by Queen's University (Kingston, Ontario).
On 30 November 2011 (St Andrew's Day), Armstrong was made honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Saint Andrews.
In 2013, she was waded the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding by the British Academy "in recognition of her body of work that has made a significant contribution to understanding the elements of overlap and commonality in different cultures and religions".
On 3 June 2014, she was made honorary Doctor of Divinity by McGill University.
Armstrong has been called "a prominent and prolific religious historian" by The Washington Post and described as "arguably the most lucid, wide-ranging and consistently interesting religion writer today". Juan Eduardo Campo, author of the Encyclopedia of Islam (Encyclopedia of World Religions) (2009), included Armstrong among a group of scholars whom he considered as currently conveying a "more or less objective" (as opposed to polemical) view of Islam and its origins to a wide public in Europe and North America. After the September 11 attacks she was in great demand as a lecturer, pleading for inter-faith dialogue.
Atheist activist Sam Harris criticizes Armstrong's "benign" view of Islam, contending that "Islam, as it is currently understood and practiced by vast numbers of the world's Muslims, is antithetical to civil society." Harris is also strongly critical of Armstrong's "religious apology" of Islamic fundamentalism, accusing her and like-minded scholars of political correctness. Armstrong has also attracted the criticism of Evangelical Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig. In Craig's response to a debate between Armstrong and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins published in the 12 September 2009 issue of The Wall Street Journal, Craig criticizes Armstrong's "anti-realist" views about statements concerning God, particularly her assertion that "'God' is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence." Craig argues that Armstrong's view of God as ineffable is "self-refuting" and "logically incoherent". Craig also disputes Armstrong's characterization of the religious views of early Christians.
In 2014, Armstrong commented on comedian Bill Maher's criticism of Islam by telling Salon "this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe. This is the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe." Maher responded to Armstrong's comments by telling Vanity Fair, "It’s beyond stupid. Jews weren’t oppressing anybody. There weren’t 5,000 militant Jewish groups. They didn’t do a study of treatment of women around the world and find that the Jews were at the bottom of it. There weren’t 10 Jewish countries in the world that were putting gay people to death just for being gay. It’s idiotic." After that Armstrong reiterated her criticism of Maher by telling The New York Times, "My problem with some current critics of Islam is that their criticism is neither accurate, fair, nor well-informed. I am sure they do not intend this, but in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe, we learned how dangerous and ultimately destructive this kind of discourse could be."Journal articles
"Women, Tourism, Politics" (1977)
"The Holiness of Jerusalem: Asset or Burden?" (1998)
"Ambiguity and Remembrance: Individual and Collective Memory in Finland" (2000)
Through the Narrow Gate (1982)
The First Christian: Saint Paul's Impact on Christianity (1983)
Beginning the World (1983)
Tongues of Fire: An Anthology of Religious and Poetic Experience (1985)
The Gospel According to Woman: Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West (1986)
Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today's World (1988)
Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (1991)
The English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century (1991)
The End of Silence: Women and the Priesthood (1993)
A History of God (1993)
Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (1996)
In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis (1996)
Islam: A Short History (2000)
The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2000)
Faith After 11 September (2002)
The Spiral Staircase (2004)
A Short History of Myth (2005)
Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time (2006)
The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006) ISBN 978-0-375-41317-9
The Bible: A Biography (2007)
The Case for God (2009) Vintage ISBN 978-0-307-26918-8
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2010) ISBN 978-0-307-59559-1
A Letter to Pakistan (2011) Oxford University Press ISBN 978-0-19-906330-7
Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014) Bodley Head ISBN 9781847921864