Does Religion Decrease Compassion?
One of the sad and perplexing facts of this world is the millions killed and millions more whose lives are ruined by people justifying their violence by thinking they are acting in a higher cause. The twentieth century was a powerful exhibit of this human failing. The twenty-first is not showing it will be markedly better.
Religious conservatives say this bloody record proves the depravity of "fallen" human beings. Recent scientific experiments suggest something quite different, something of great value in helping us Pagans better understand our own spirituality.
A series of experiments recently published show that atheists and not very religious people act with greater empathy and generosity than "highly religious" people. A series of experiments were developed to explore how empathy influenced behavior. In all cases, people describing themselves as "highly religious" were markedly less empathetic, and acted generously more often from a sense of duty.
I believe there are important reasons for this, reasons that shed light on our own path's promise for maintaining, some would say restoring, civilized behavior in American society.
Ideology kills the heart
Religious dogma can apparently override people's natural tendency to empathize. Think of the countless horrific crimes done "in the name of God." Or the heartless actions against real people to benefit a zygote that has become the standard operating procedure for the "religious" right. Kansas just passed a law enabling doctors to withhold chemotherapy from pregnant women if it might cause an abortion. These people are as evil as people can get, I think. They are no longer fit for decent company. And they do it in the name of their religion.
In this respect, extreme monotheists share a remarkable similarity with those atheists who have brought great catastrophes upon humanity. Marxist dogma about class war and class consciousness hardened many revolutionary hearts and led to great crimes. (In saying this, I am in no way excusing the great crimes of those against whom they rebelled.) These men, most of them anyway, were not psychopaths; they were normal human beings blinded by an ideology they held with religious intensity.
Consider Vladimir Lenin, who led the Bolshevik Party to power in the Russian Revolution. Lenin told the writer Maxim Gorky, "I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps naively so, to think that people can work such miracles!"
He continued: "I can't listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid nice things, and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell." Lenin was trapped by his ideology to distance himself from his own heart. Apparently something similar may be true for religions relying on dogma that spreads distrust of the world.
Perhaps Lenin was reincarnated as a Kansas Republican.
Gus diZerega is a Gardnerian Elder with over 25 years practice, including six years close study with a Brazilian shaman. He has been active in interfaith work off and on for most of those 25 years as well. He has conducted workshops and given presentations on healing, shamanism, ecology and politics at Pagan gatherings in the United States and Canada. Follow Gus on Facebook.
Gus blogs at Pointedly Pagan.