Why the Religious Right Fears Empathy

In the days before Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation, we witnessed a strange spectacle: religious-right Christian after religious-right Christian spoke out against her nomination on the grounds that she valued empathy, and that this was an undesirable quality for a judge to have.

Coming from a religion whose founder supposedly said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” this is laughably absurd. Empathy is one of the founding moral teachings of Christianity, and here we see prominent Christians viciously attacking it. But in a deeper sense, I think this tells us something important. I don’t believe attacks on empathy are a temporary position employed by the religious right for political advantage. I think that they’re sincere when they claim to detest empathy, and that their abhorrence for it is an essential part of their worldview.

Let me refer again to Dave Schmelzer’s Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist. Although Schmelzer’s more willing than most to credit atheism for the good it’s brought about, he still seems unable to avoid the atheists-are-angry-misanthropes invective that’s ubiquitous in Christian apologetics books:

“[T]he tone… in the case of the ‘nastiest’ atheist writers, at least – does tend toward arrogance and sanctimony. I mean, do these authors seem happy to you? Is that worth noting?” [p.38]

and then there’s this classic bit of propaganda, an exchange which he claims happened while he was speaking to an atheist students’ club at a local university:

“In my presentation, I had told some inspiring (to me) stories about heroic, faith-driven responses to Hurricane Katrina, so I hazarded, ‘To you, then, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina is not so much that so many people were killed or driven away from their homes, families, and community. You’re saying that that’s no more tragic than, say, whatever damage was done to the coastline.’ He agreed with that and pressed his point by saying, ‘A person’s death and a tree’s death should have the same value in the big picture.’” [p.111]

Atheists think humans are no more valuable than trees! (Insert gasp of horror from Christian readers here.)

Call me a skeptic, but I just can’t take this story seriously. I think I can say that I’m pretty familiar with what atheists tend to believe, and I’ve never met or heard of an atheist who believes anything remotely like this. I’m all but certain that Schmelzer has misreported this conversation. It may not have been intentional: knowing what we know about the fallibility of memory, he may have misremembered it in a way that fits with his conception of how atheists think.

What does this have to do with empathy? I’m coming around to that.

Having read countless deconversion stories, I’ve seen one element that reappears in many of them: the moment when a person, on the brink of losing their faith, begins to see atheism as a genuine possibility, as a live option, and is exhilarated by the thought:

For a few seconds, I was not a religious mind, viewing atheism from behind a plexiglass shield and handling it with industrial gloves, but a neutral mind, considering what the world looked like through both religious and atheistic eyes. For an ephemeral moment, I saw that the anomalies present in my religious perspective dissolved in the light of atheism. (source)

The more time that I spent reading essays by atheists, agnostics and freethinkers/humanists, the more I began to realize with a mixture of both fear and joy that I was thinking more like an unbeliever, similar to before I actually became a Christian approximately seventeen years earlier. I felt a certain kind of excitement building inside of me that was a very freeing experience. (source)

Perhaps more than any strictly intellectual argument, this is the factor that makes you most likely to convert to a given worldview: whether you truly empathize with the people who hold it, whether you can put yourself in their place and understand their reasoning.

The religious right, of course, has no interest in people coming to think this way about any worldview other than their own, which is why they disparage empathy in general. But they’re especially terrified of people coming to think this way about atheism. This is why every presentation of atheism in their writing is carefully tailored to horrify ordinary Christians – to depict atheists as evil, immoral misanthropes (people no more important than trees!) whose views are so obviously beyond the pale that they can be dismissed without further reflection.

This is why, if you ask a theist why they think people become atheists, you rarely get an answer other than cartoonish stereotypes like, “They hate God and want to rebel against him.” They can’t give good answers to this question because they’ve never thought about it themselves. By design, they specifically steer away from thinking about it.

This is also why proselytizers so often spread the lie that atheists have no basis for morality, and try to blame us for every evil under the sun. I’ve attacked this falsehood often, but I’ve come to realize that it’s more than a merely factual confusion. We can’t just point out that apologists are wrong about this and expect them to stop saying it. They say it because they need to say it – because it’s a crucial part of their worldview that atheism be blamed for everything bad that happens, in order to keep their followers safely away from it.

Although we need to keep speaking out against this tactic, it isn’t a battle we can win by words alone. As I said, the religious right says this because they need to, because instilling fear of different viewpoints is a vital part of their strategy, and no correction we offer will convince them otherwise. What we need to do is to be visible – be outspoken, be loud and proud, and don’t be afraid to introduce ourselves as atheists. The more people get to know us, the more they’ll see that religious stereotypes about us have no basis in reality, and the more isolated and ineffectual the people who insist on pushing those stereotypes will become.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Ritchie

    Wow! Really shocking. I was taken by surprise when the word ‘liberal’ became a dirty word, but ‘empathy’?

    The mind boggles.

  • Anon Ymous

    Whenever I ask theists why they believe people become atheists, they tell me something along the lines of “Because they cannot live within the laws of God, they become desperate to believe in anything that allows them not to have to”.

    Of course, the fact that I am a lesbian, and it was admitting that fact to myself that forced me to look at whether or not my beliefs in God were true, may have something to do with the answer I get. It’s certainly why all theists believe *I* left the fold.

    For a certain value of truth they’re right, of course… though it was my second choice of three that I ended with. If I had been really willing to skew anything to believe what I wanted to believe, I think I would have come up with a worldview that believed that God is still real, loves me (and everyone else), and that the verses referring to homosexuality being verboten are really just mistranslations or relics of the culture of the time.

    And yes, I know people who believe exactly that.

  • Andrew

    In the days before Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation, we witnessed a strange spectacle: religious-right Christian after religious-right Christian spoke out against her nomination on the grounds that she valued empathy, and that this was an undesirable quality for a judge to have.

    I think you may have missed the point. I didnt follow the Sotomayor confirmation that closely, but my understanding isnt that her opposition wasnt concerned about her valuing empathy, but that her empathy towards latinos would lead her to make biased decisions, which is a bad thing for a judge.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    I mean, do these authors seem happy to you?

    Gosh, these writers harped on a point at least this once, and I saw it and they seemed upset. That must mean that everyone who agrees with them is never happy, any of the time. Horseshit! Should I conclude that because Pat Robertson gets upset about things, he must be a miserable person?

    ‘A person’s death and a tree’s death should have the same value in the big picture.’

    Even if that’s a perfectly accurate retelling, who cares? So there’s a crazy guy on the side of atheism… he didn’t have to get there by being a reasonable person. There are crackpots of all shapes, sizes, and flavors; showing that one guy who thinks one thing is nuts does not mean that anyone else who thinks that one thing is also nuts. I think trees are awesome, and I regard their deaths as different sorts of “bad thing,” and I tend to value humans more than trees. Most of the time. I value the life of the General Sherman tree more than that of Dick Cheney, for example – should those ever come into conflict, I’ll side with the tree.

  • http://www.broadsnark.com Mel

    I was just thinking something along these lines the other day. Except the conclusion I came to was that conservatives seem incapable of empathy – or at least their empathy is extremely selective. Liberals tend to try to empathize with all people (not saying they succeed, but they seem to try). Conservatives only seem to empathize with certain people and dehumanize everyone else.

    That’s what I was thinking at first. But then I thought about how liberals in Santa Cruz used to talk about people in “fly over” states and realized that dehumanizing your “enemy” is pretty common all around. I mean surely we have all met at least one non-believer who does not even try to empathize with religious people? I know I have.

  • Alex, FCD

    I’ve also noticed that Christians who are actually concerned about feeling empathy and doing good works and suchlike are generally unconcerned about the existence of atheists.

    Andrew:

    I didnt follow the Sotomayor confirmation that closely, but my understanding isnt that her opposition wasnt concerned about her valuing empathy, but that her empathy towards latinos would lead her to make biased decisions, which is a bad thing for a judge.

    Oh, well they’re just racists then.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The Republicans appear eager to oppose Obama on any issue, on any grounds. I am waiting for Obama to make statements in favour of motherhood and apple pie, so that the Republicans can voice their opposition.

  • exrelayman

    ‘I mean, do these authors seem happy to you?’ – Exactly, especially when applied to the Bible. Where is there any humor in it?

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    the lie that atheists have no basis for morality … They say it because they need to say it – because it’s a crucial part of their worldview that atheism be blamed for everything bad that happens, in order to keep their followers safely away from it.

    Fear is fuel for Evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. People within their folds have to be sheltered from all the harmful traps that Satan has set for them “out there.” They talk a lot about joy, and are often happy, but their happiness always exist alongside fear – of “the world,” Satan, hell….

  • http://uncyclopedia.org/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Andrew “I think you may have missed the point. I didnt follow the Sotomayor confirmation that closely, but my understanding isnt that her opposition wasnt concerned about her valuing empathy, but that her empathy towards latinos would lead her to make biased decisions, which is a bad thing for a judge.”
    No. Her problem was that Obama nominated her. Alito said the same when he was nom’d, and his family history is the wrong kind of European. Clarence Thomas said basically the same things during his nomination, and there wasn’t a peep about his empathy being bad. And he’s brown.
    Obama could’ve nominated Bork and the Republicans would’ve opposed it.

  • prase

    This theory seems a bit oversophisticated. I prefer to think that

    1) the mentioned attacks on empathy were indeed for political reason (that’s simpler explanation, and I’m using Occam’s razor),

    2) even if not, the critique of empathy by two right-wingers doesn’t necessarily generalise to all believers.

    I don’t even think that the believers perceive a need to fear empathy. Having empathy doesn’t imply acceptance of the other side’s opinion.

  • Wedge

    prase,

    Most Christians insist that on some level atheists know or believe that there is a god and reject him.

    Because if they really don’t believe and really didn’t ‘choose’ not to, their god must be punishing people for making an honest mistake. That is nasty on a level most people don’t have trouble understanding, emotionally.

    Empathizing with an atheist makes believing in a just and loving god really, really hard.

    I’ve run across the flat, bull-headed refusal to comprehend an atheist’s point-of-view many times. I think Ebon got it. I don’t know if it was necessarily, consciously that attitude behind the attacks on Sotomayor, but the rejection of empathy is real.

  • Mad House

    It’s always amusing to have a person whose religion invented the thumbscrew call you a nihilist.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    It’s always amusing to have a person whose religion invented the thumbscrew call you a nihilist.

    But understandable that they should disdain empathy.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I think all group think requires a lack of empathy, at least for those outside the group. The imposition of a collective definition of morality requires that those who subscribe to the group definition see those who do not subscribe to the group definition as subhuman and unworthy of their concern. I think this once served many useful purposes in the development of humanity, and made it much easier on the conscience to capture and kill the other or rape women (God said it was ok; God told me to do it), thus ensuring the survival of the group, but now threatens our demise. Divisive group ideologies, including and especially religion, have got to go in order for humans to survive.

    It’s funny, because secular humanists/rationalists/freethinkers/atheists are the ones accused of espousing some version of Social Darwinism, but, in truth, there is nothing more quintessentially “Darwinian” than the tribal, group think espoused by religion, demonizing the other.

    When the religious right expresses their racism and misogyny and anti immigration attitudes, they are playing out a script that is as old as humanity itself. I just worry that we aren’t evolving fast enough to save ourselves.

  • Andrew

    No. Her problem was that Obama nominated her. Alito said the same when he was nom’d, and his family history is the wrong kind of European. Clarence Thomas said basically the same things during his nomination, and there wasn’t a peep about his empathy being bad. And he’s brown.
    Obama could’ve nominated Bork and the Republicans would’ve opposed it.

    hehe yea your probably right. Anyway I wasnt trying to say the Republicans were correct in their assissment of her, but that Ebon had mischaratirized their complaints about her. They wernt saying her empathy was bad, but the biased opinions she might hold as a result of said empathy is a bad thing.

    Would Sotomayor have been too biased towards her own people to serve on the Supreme court? I dunno, I didnt follow the confirmation closely enough to judge. I doubt it though, since afaict, that decision wasnt based off her record as a judge, but on some remarks she made that I suspect were taken out of context. But thats entirely beside my point.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    prase,
    Things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. Of course the attacks were politically motivated. But there are other motivations involved, too – saying “it’s political,” and leaving it at that, strikes me as an oversimplification. I honestly think that a lot of these folks (Republicans) believe that the opposition is morally wrong, antithetical to their religion, and a threat to the culture they’d like to see dominant. To Republicans, judging by the way they talk, these things “go together.” So the motivations here, in addition to being political, are also morally, religiously, and culturally charged.

    The excessive Othering in which they engage, insofar as it forms the basis of their beliefs and policies (we’re right, they’re wrong; we’re good, they’re evil; we’re civilized, they’re barbarians; we’re saved, they’re damned), predicts that they would be opposed to anything which would put a stop to that Othering and thereby cast their actions (and the actions throughout history of those like them) in an extremely unfavorable light. They cannot abide this.

    Look at the alleged Israeli conquest of Canaan in the Bible. Raping, pillaging, murderous insanity simply abounds, and this is only one example of it (Fox’s treatment of the Israeli aggression into Gaza is frighteningly similar). It is barbarism, through and through, canonized and celebrated as an unambiguously good thing. But they don’t see it that way, they see that story as an example. The Hebrews were good people, according to them, while the Other was an infectious evil which could not be appeased or reasoned with (read: converted), and should be shown no quarter up to and including wiping them out. If the Bible is right both factually and morally (they insist repeatedly that it is), then this is the only way to interpret such stories. Empathizing with the Other changes one’s moral paradigm, and thereby makes it impossible to reconcile one’s current moral paradigm with a long-running historical one which, on their worldview, must continue to be seen as right.

    Republicans probably don’t all reason it out that far, but a good deal do. For many similar reasons, Creationists insist that evolution must be disbelieved since it will lead to questioning the Bible, which is “just not done.”

    Somewhat beaten by Sarah (great points!), but only because I had to interrupt my writing for what turned out to be a three-hour meeting. Blargh.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Well… yeah.

    I agree with the folks here who say that the pushback on Sotomayor was mostly political, that “empathy” was code for both “liberal” and “Latina,” and that Obama could have nominated Jesus Christ and gotten flak from the far right. (Exhibit A: The flak he got from the far right for rescuing those reporters who were imprisoned in North Korea. For fuck’s sake.)

    But I also agree with Adam: empathy is dangerous to religion, or at least to hard-line dogmatic religion. Empathy means imagining what it would be like to be someone else, to think something other than you do, to feel what another person is feeling. And that’s often the first step out of religious belief. I’m reminded of Julia Sweeney, in “Letting Go of God,” saying to herself (paraphrasing here), “Pretend — just for a minute — that there is no God. See what that feels like.”

    Coincidentally, I’m just doing some writing about something similar. I’m re-reading “Phantoms in the Brain” by Ramachandran, who talks about how the left side of the brain is responsible for maintaining a coherent view of the world even if some evidence contradicts it (something that’s necessary to function and not be paralyzed), and the other is responsible for feeding in information regardless of whether it contradicts that belief system. I am now wondering if different people are just wired to be better or worse at revising their belief systems. (I also wonder if this is something that can be learned, or that you can train yourself to be better at.)

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    A few years ago my fundamentalist Christian father told me, “I know atheists can be moral. You showed me that.”

    So… it can be done. We just have to keep doing it.

  • Ktotwf

    I read an article awhile ago on the topic of “Why conservatives are not funny.”

    Believe it or not, I think it was one of the most incisive looks into the conservative mindset I have ever seen, despite its limited breadth.

    In short, Liberals are funny because they savage anyone. Conservatives are not funny because their system has revolved around the need to respect a patriarchal father figure – meaning two things: 1. Conservatives generally have an infantile sense of humor that reflects the sort of mean spirited comments that many young men see as a part of “becoming a man” and living up to Dad’s manliness – essentially questioning other men’s masculinity, silly insults, etc.

    2. The love of the “Daddy” figure, whether it be God or Saint President Reagan, means the rejection of “Mommy” – who is empathetic, caring, softhearted, etc.

    I think that is part of what may be happening here.

  • prase

    D,

    Things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. Of course the attacks were politically motivated. But there are other motivations involved, too – saying “it’s political,” and leaving it at that, strikes me as an oversimplification.

    what I was thinking of was that they certainly wouldn’t attack their own candidate for having empathy. They lack the ability to empathise with atheists for sure, but that doesn’t mean that they are against empathy whatsoever.

    There are some people whom I also find evil and totally wretched (e.g. most of murderers) and I have problems empathise with, and I am sure that this doesn’t imply that I fear empathy. I even don’t fear having empathy with the evil murderers, not everything that I can’t do is because I’m afraid to do it.

    For evangelicals, the group of evil people is bigger and includes all atheists. It isn’t as big problem for them, since they systematically underestimate the number of atheists, and in countries with greater atheist population the described fundamentalist position is rare. But I’m sure thay have some empathy in general and don’t find this general empathy repugnant, only it doesn’t aply to us.

  • prase

    To expand my previous comment, I think what we encounter is more the polarisation bias. It is, the same information would be perceived as having opposite meaning by two opposing parties. In this case, a judge having empathy can be viewed as

    1) truly human, as opposed to those who only literally apply the law, which a robot can do, or

    2) irresponsible person, who imports emotions into trials and ruins the expected objectivity and justice.

    What interpretation you choose strongly depends on your prior attitude towards that judge (prior to knowing about her empathy). My experience with political debates in my country, which are almost completely secular by the way, is that almost every politician is ready to criticize his opponents for qualities he would endorse in his allies.

  • Demonhype

    “What we need to do is to be visible – be outspoken, be loud and proud, and don’t be afraid to introduce ourselves as atheists. The more people get to know us, the more they’ll see that religious stereotypes about us have no basis in reality, and the more isolated and ineffectual the people who insist on pushing those stereotypes will become.”

    That’s what I’ve thought for years, and have been saying constantly. I know a lot of atheists are not joiners, but the least any atheist can do is be open and unapologetic about being an atheist, because ready visibility is the biggest key to protecting our rights at the very least–and even if you aren’t interested in going beyond that with activism, basic protection of civil rights should be enough to motivate you to come out. The religious leaders want us to stay quiet because our invisibility lends their lies a certain amount of credibility over and above what the congregation already wants to think, but when they start meeting all sorts of atheists–or someone they’ve known and respected for years comes out–it becomes very difficult to maintain the delusion that atheists are the people who lurk in alleys waiting to slit your throat or rape you until you break in half, just for the lulz.

    But the more atheists who come out, the more difficult it is for them to punish open atheists socially, not only because of numbers but because the public acceptance of such discrimination is changing. Most people are pretty decent and prone to a certain amount of empathy,even when they have fairly goofy beliefs, and they can’t maintain a demonized and dehumanized view of atheists in the direct face of the friendly, happy, well-adjusted real versions for long–well, not without it being an active effort, anyway. A society that once heard-tell of atheists losing their jobs because someone found out about their atheism or because they refused to pray at a meeting and went “meh, so? if they really wanted to have rights or eat regularly, they would have pretended to be christian. and it’ll do them good if they do because non-belief is wrong anyway”, is now recognizing on a larger scale that that such discrimination is wrong–primarily because they can see the demonized minority. So the leaders and major voices are ramping up their propaganda efforts even more. Because they’re losing one of their best propadandas and they’re scared.

    On another note, ya gotta love it when both believers and alleged former-atheists come out with completely unrecognizable, alien descriptions of atheists that are so clearly made-up or at least tailored to religious prejudices. It never gets old–unfortunately. (people less important than trees indeed) It’s like they really really REEEALLY need atheism to be rigidly represented by nihilism or Ayn Rand. You ever get told that if you’re not subscribing to one of those extreme (and from my expreience, extreme minority) viewpoints, you’re just “fooling yourself” and that you’re not actually an atheist because those are necessary results of an “atheistic worldview”? And therefore, you are a hypocrite who actually secretly believes in god and they are just trying to help you admit it?

    Yeah, good times.

  • Demonhype

    Propadanda, ouch. That’s embarrassing.

    Hard to pay attention to what you’re typing when there’s a huge moth in the room who seems to be in love with your face. :( Stupid moth.

  • http://www.sastwingees.org Priya Raju

    Interesting post. For the record, I’m an Atheist.

    While I know about the mud-slinging that happened during Justice Sotomayer’s conviction, I don’t know all the gory details (I don’t live in the US).

    Let’s deal with empathy purely from the stand-point of what a judge should do. Do we want judges to apply the law fairly? Won’t the empathy they feel for some of the defendants (or plaintiffs) color their perception of the law?

    Of course, activist judges aren’t new. Should we add empathy to the mix?

    If we forget for a moment that its the religious right that asked these questions – we are left with this: Are we better off with judges following the letter of the law? Or should we live with arbitrariness, as they use their empathy to guide them in their decision making?

  • Paul

    Everything everyone thinks is biased. I don’t have any more on that, I just wanted to throw it out there.

    And, Greta Christina, yes I believe there is literature out there that supports that exact hypothesis, that different people are differently wired and thus have a “better or worse” ability to reject information that counters their current belief system. Can’t help you find it but I took a seminar on the “Psychology of Belief” and I’m fairly certain I remember reading something along those lines. If you haven’t encountered it check out (with some skepticism, of course) “Religion Explained” by Pascal Boyer.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I feel compelled to say that this whole debate over judicial empathy is another manufactured fight as part and parcel of the same deliberate misinformation campaign from the religious right that seeks to mislead Americans about their own Constitution and their own country. We live in a COMMON LAW country, not civil law. Therefore, judges do MAKE law — it’s called case law. Judges are not merely mouthpieces for the law — they do not merely apply the law as in civil law countries — they INTERPRET the law. I like to say that Americans are not civilized enough for civil law. However, even in civil law countries the degree to which judges are activist or employ legal precedent or make law varies wildly and some argue that they are leaning much more in the direction of common law systems.

    Is this what we want? Do we want judges making law? Do we want judges using their own JUDGMENT to interpret law? Well, we’ve had it for over 200 years, and I, for one, am pretty happy with it. Sandra Day O’Connor has given some wonderful recent speeches and interviews on this subject — how judicial activism is part of the job description, and anyone who says otherwise is just trying to further their own political agenda and strip power from (what I feel) is the most important of our democratic institutions. Any dictatorship can make laws and install a judiciary that merely applies the laws. This is rule by law, but NOT rule of law. Americans, even more so than when they vote, wield the full power of our democracy when they invoke the power of our judiciary. Our judiciary is the venue in which individuals’ voices are heard. If I seem a bit enamored of the American judiciary, I am. And, I have to admit that I just graduated from law school.

    What about empathy? YES, absolutely! We want judges with empathy. Why? Because the first priority of the American judiciary is to protect individual rights against the tyranny of the majority. We want judges who can step outside of the mindset of the moral majority and understand what it is like to live on the other side. A democracy is not merely a majoritarian democracy, whoever gets the most votes wins — might makes right. Any dictator can hide behind an imposed and alleged moral majority.

    The whole notion that the judiciary should simply apply whatever Congress dictates is so unAmerican and contrary to our Constitution that I don’t even know where to begin. And, the fact that this is what the religious right is trying to convince the American public is the case makes my blood boil.

    Of course this is what they would want though — they want exactly this — they want a might makes right, tyranny of the moral majority, majoritarian democracy, which, in my book, is not even a democracy.

    Of course they don’t want judges who can empathize with individuals. Then, the judges would have to uphold the Constitution and protect those individuals’ rights against the moral majority.

    Like I said, I just graduated from law school — actually a law school housed in a rather conservative, Catholic university — I know, weird, huh? I remember being just appalled by the discussions in my first year courses, especially my criminal law course. All of the religious right wingers would want to throw the book at everyone for the most minor crimes and most tragic mistakes. Of course, these were 24 years olds from suburban Orange County in CA who had never worked or known a day of hardship in their lives. I would always counter by telling them that I envied them their certainty, their rectitude, but to get back to me in ten years, once they’d lived real lives and could empathize with these human beings they were so quick to lock up and throw away the key. I think this is the biggest flaw in the American criminal justice system, exacerbated by recent administrations — the lust for retribution and the lack of EMPATHY.

    Sorry for the soapbox. I feel very passionately about the subject.

  • Leum

    Let’s deal with empathy purely from the stand-point of what a judge should do. Do we want judges to apply the law fairly? Won’t the empathy they feel for some of the defendants (or plaintiffs) color their perception of the law?

    You’re confusing empathy with sympathy. Empathy is the ability to understand how others think and feel. Sympathy is a bias towards how one person is feeling. And please do try to remember that the opposite of empathy is sociopathy. Yes, we want empathetic judges, not people who think others are insignificant insects.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    If anyone doubts that it was the concept of empathy itself that Republicans said they were opposed to, take this quote by Jeff Sessions:

    Call it empathy, call it prejudice, or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it is not law. In truth it’s more akin to politics, and politics has no place in the courtroom.

    This is a similar viewpoint to the one expressed by Priya Raju:

    Do we want judges to apply the law fairly? Won’t the empathy they feel for some of the defendants (or plaintiffs) color their perception of the law?

    Both these statements suffer from the same misconception, that “applying the law fairly” and “feeling empathy for the petitioner” are two different legal philosophies. That just isn’t true.

    One of the reasons we have judges and courts is that there often are cases where the law is unclear, or we’re facing a situation not covered by an existing law, and someone has to decide what the most reasonable interpretation is. Of course judges are going to use empathy as a factor in reaching decisions on cases like that. What else are they going to do, flip a coin?

    If anything, I think empathy is an absolute necessity for judges. As Sarah pointed out so well, it serves them in undergirding the counter-majoritarian viewpoint that’s a vital part of the reason why we have a judicial branch in the first place. Judges aren’t supposed to rule in favor of the view that’s most popular, but in favor of the one that’s most in accord with the relevant legal principles. If they can’t consider every side seriously, if they can’t put themselves in the shoes of both sides, that will never happen. In that sense, empathy is a prerequisite for true impartiality.

    Empathizing with an atheist makes believing in a just and loving god really, really hard.

    Thanks, Wedge – that was exactly what I was trying to say. The thought of writing off the majority of humanity to eternal torture is going to be very difficult to stomach for anyone with even a little bit of empathy. Genuinely believing this makes it almost necessary that you numb your conscience, for the sake of your own sanity.

  • http://www.sastwingees.org Priya Raju

    I agree with Ebonmuse, where the case law isn’t clear, it should be interpreted. As long as judges can put themselves in the shoes of *both sides*, they’ll not only be fair, they’ll be true to the spirit of the law (not just the letter of the law).

    Leum makes a good point about Sympathy VS Empathy. As long as both sides are heard empathetically, the scales are not tilted & the process is still fair. To say that the absence of empathy in a judge automatically makes him/her a sociopath is an over-simplification.

  • Scotlyn

    The thought of writing off the majority of humanity to eternal torture is going to be very difficult to stomach for anyone with even a little bit of empathy.

    Thanks Ebon for your last comment. I had thought in the OP you were going to get there, but you didn’t quite.

    In my own experience, this was a key reason for leaving my faith. It is all too easy to “walk in another’s shoes,” and be horrified at this doctrine. My personal reply to the Pascal’s Wager types has occasionally been: “if that is the type of god who (against all reason) turns out to be real after my death, and if that sort of god is happy to consign me to hellish torture forever for doing the best I could with the mind he, purportedly gave me, then I will happily accept my place in hell, from which I will eternally proclaim his injustice.”

  • Curtis

    Empathy is obviously a good thing. Judging via emotion (because of empathy) is a bad thing. Empathy should be a good thing for judges and politicians but, in my experience, it rarely is. Empathy causes most judges (and people) to let emotion trump logic.

    I have been involved in local politics. What I have learned is that facts and rules have no effect. If you want to get people on your side, go for their emotions. Tears and thoughts of children are moving. Facts are irrelevant. A good story beats well thought logic every time.

    This is not a liberal failing. It is a human failing. For example, Clarence Thomas is emotional about drugs and will always make the anti-drug ruling regardless of the facts. I find this deplorable.

    BTW, my biggest fear about Sotomayer is that she was a law-and-order prosecutor.

  • baalrahim

    I think it’s more than *just* empathy, though I think it’s being used as code for “liberal”. It’s been my observation that any SCOTUS confirmation hearing in my lifetime (since 1978) has been essentially one question — the question of Abortion. Both sides are careful not to directly question the nominee about Abortion, but they’ll sue a lot of code words — strict constructionist being one of the big ones, as well as original intent — and the Republicans seemed to be implying that Sotomayer might be pro-choice.

    I think between the “empathy” thing, as well as the “wise latina” thing were probably pretty much handed the script. She’s “racist” (read: believes in affirmative action) and “liberal” (read: She’s not a strict constructionist, AKA pro-choice, AKA babykiller). I don’t think *all* the blame can be laid at the republican’s feet. Sotomayor was absolutly STUPID to say these things in public if she had any desire to be a SCOTUS judge.


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