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 generositythan "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.

  

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.