Does Religion Decrease Compassion?
Less ideology, more heart
The best counterexample helps actually strengthen my point that it is not religion, but dogma, that hardens our hearts and makes us worse people.
Among Christians, and almost uniquely anywhere, Quakers have played a central prominent role in many of the best reform efforts of the modern world. Most spectacular was their spearheading so much of the effort to abolish slavery, which had dominated many societies for thousands of years. Quakers are Christians, but they are Christians with a difference.
Quakers emphasize the voice of God within, not without, in the form of scripture. For a very long time, Quakers were the only Christians I am aware of that practiced religious toleration as a principle rather than as a grudging concession to a pluralist reality they could not subordinate.
On this continent, Christians killed Quakers for being the wrong kinds of Christians. For their part, future Southern Baptists found endless Biblical passages supporting slavery and called the Quakers heretics, proving yet again the ability of ideology to override the heart and decency. Their descendents, the most prominent among them anyway, are no different.
It is no surprise to me that many Pagans find themselves comfortable among Quakers. Modern Quakers de-emphasize scripture and emphasize direct encounters with the Sacred. Given my view that, properly approached, the Sacred can be accessed everywhere, there is no contradiction between a Pagan sensibility and a Quaker one. Those Pagans who are also Quakers would seem to agree.
But one cannot be a Catholic and a Quaker. Or a Southern Baptist and a Quaker. The Catholic and Southern Baptist God is wholly without, the world fallen, and our own minds suspect as deluded tools of error or worse in the absence of churchly domination.
Hence, if the earlier points are true, the long record of atrocities and depravities committed by Catholics and Southern Baptists thinking they are acting as God wills, and so overriding their humanity, as Lenin admitted he had to override his. The packaging is different but the heartless contents are remarkably similar.
Both Pagans and Quakers believe that the sacred manifests immanently, within the world. As such, we believe our nature, when we listen, is in harmony with or even an expression of the divine. Empathy and compassion are to by honored, respected, and perhaps most importantly, trusted.
The recent speech given by Republican State Representative Maureen Walsh, of Washington, voting in favor of gay marriage despite her party, is an excellent example of how when the heart overrides theology, very compassionate things happen.
If this is true, then religions of sacred immanence and the divine within will likely encourage greater compassion and generosity by encouraging connection with the heart rather than dogma. They do so by making us more aware of the larger contexts within which we live our lives, and that these contexts are ones best appreciated through the heart. I predict that experiments comparing very religious transcendental monotheists and very religious believes in sacred immanence will uncover a most interesting difference.
Perhaps here is one place where many atheists and Pagans can find interesting common ground. Many atheists love this world, they exult in its beauty, are fascinated by its subtle rationality, and intrigued with our efforts to better understand it. Recent scientific work is demonstrating that morality exists within animal life as well as human life. Morality is at least an emergent quality of life on earth. This attitude easily bleeds over into considering the more-than-human world as valuable in its own right, and so worthy of protection and even a kind of veneration. Where along the continuum of caring this attitude becomes seeing the world as Sacred, or an expression of the Sacred, is anyone's call. I guess the ultimate distinction is that many Pagans believe the world is aware of them in some sense in return. But not all Pagans do and many atheists consider the world as anything but inert. One prominent atheistic scientist described himself to me as a nontheistic pantheist.
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.