Does Religion Decrease Compassion?
While atheists do not believe there is 'divinity' in the world, neither do they believe it is fallen, a pit of snares for entrapping unwary souls. From this Pagan's perspective atheists can more easily trust their basic humanity and fellow feeling than can many right wing Christians, except when their views are overridden by ideology. But because other than "selfish gene" dogma, there is little atheistic ideology in American society. Marxism Leninism is virtually extinct. Therefore, as a class I would predict atheists are more compassionate than the "very religious" and the experiments I cited above suggest this is so.
Trusting in our empathy alone is ultimately insufficient. It does not enable us to overcome tribalism, a human trait that was once a strength and is now a curse. It takes time and experience to enlarge most human hearts to embrace more than those it encounters concretely. Here, insofar as it sensitizes us to a larger context, immanent forms of spirituality can help. Certainly my encounter with the Wiccan Goddess permanently changed, and opened more widely, my heart.
But even in this case, I think the person who trusts the world and his or her heart, and is comfortable in a diverse society, is on firmer ground than the person who follows what they believe God told them as orders from a scripture which emphasizing the world's depravity. The latter will do a generous thing when he or she believes it is demanded, and act with vicious malignancy when he or she believes the same authority so demands. The secular soul will rely more often just on his or her innate empathetic capacity.
I am very curious to see what such follow-up research discovers. I suspect it will find that Pagans and others emphasizing sacred immanence act significantly different from the "highly religious."
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.