Religion Does Not Equal Compassion

Religion Does Not Equal Compassion

I have long found it interesting that religion attests so strongly to being compassionate, but needs a supernatural overseer to motivate its followers to do so. The more sensical path to generosity seems to be raw compassion and concern for one’s fellow human creatures, independent of the impression one will make on a supernatural god. Not only does this seem more practical, but also more honorable and truthful. 

So I was excited to find a study in which researchers at UC Berkeley conducted a series of experiments over a period of several years, and found that unreligious people tend to derive their compassion more from actual emotion and concern for someone who is suffering than do religious people, whose generosity is rooted more in “doctrine, communal identity, or reputational concerns.” 

In other words, nonreligious people tend to adhere to the suffering of others based on the very simple emotion of compassion and the concept of altruism. In contrast, the religious tend to to help their brothers and sisters more to impress the overlooking father figure that hovers invisibly in Heaven. 

It’s up to you to decide which is the more dignified, honorable source of generosity, but to me, the answer is clear. Why must our kindness and unselfishness be polluted with doctrine that demands obedience to an omnipotent dictator? It doesn’t. And while it is true that religion has inspired many good deeds, imagine if we stripped those deeds of the name of God and left them to stand on their own. Perhaps – no, not perhaps – undoubtedly, a staggering amount of violence would have been prevented. 

Christopher Hitchens said, “Either our convictions are enough in themselves, or they are not.” No supernatural attachment to these convictions is needed. And as this study from UC Berkeley reveals, true compassion is in fact more prevalent when we are free to connect with our fellow human beings, independent of the burden of pleasing an onlooking Big Brother. 

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2 responses to “Religion Does Not Equal Compassion

  • Kevin McHugh

    Mark,
    People who require a supernatural overseer are not followers of Christ; rather they are the people that Jesus was referencing when he said “I never knew you”. Jesus taught that unless love naturally came from your heart, you were a hypocrite. He scolded the “religious” of his time and told them their reliance on following laws was missing the point. In order to be a follower of Christ you must change your heart; you must be transformed in spirit.

    The Christian God is the opposite of a dictator. He gave us the gift of free will and allows us to make our own choices. It is why people get frustrated trying to understand why an all powerful God could allow so much evil to happen; it is because He has given us free will.

    There is a lot of violence that comes out of people’s religiousity. However don’t think that it reflects the wishes of God both in terms of violence nor in terms of being “religious”. Jesus himself was the victim of violence, death on a cross, at the hands of people acting on their religion. He chastised the apostle who raised his sword when the crowd approached to arrest him. He preached to turn the other cheek and in the midst of dying on the cross asked God to forgive those who had done this to him.

    Jesus warned the religious of his time about following the letter of the law but not understanding the spirit of the law. In keeping holy the Sabbath day the “religious” interpreted that they could do no work including taking care of the needy. In front of them Jesus healed the sick and took care of the poor on the Sabbath. For this the religious called Jesus a blasphemer.

    The Bible teaches that faith without works is worthless, and that it is by your works that your faith is revealed, and it is through true faith that we understand & build a relationship with God.

  • Mark McHugh

    “Jesus taught that unless love comes naturally from your heart, you were a hypocrite.” I find this contradictory to the fundamental teachings of Christianity. Jesus refers to the Ten Commandments as the exemplary set of morals by which all humans should abide. In these commandments we find the concept of compulsory love, a naturally sick and crude idea. For God to establish love of himself as the single most important commandment, as Jesus specifies that it is, reveals a blatant sense of narcissism, insecurity, and jealousy.

    “In order to be a follower of Christ, you must change your heart; you must be transformed in spirit.” Can it be inferred, then, that only through Christ can one find the proper kind of spirit or the purest form of love? If so, I find that not only narrow-minded but also arrogant and insulting. I would like to think that my natural inclination to love and be compassionate is good enough, and that if there is a supernatural creator, he would not need his subjects to believe, follow, and obey him in order for them to be able to love in the purest fashion. It’s disrespectful to all the good deeds that have been done not in the name of God, but for the sheer purpose of helping fellow human beings. It is overwhelmingly clear that extraordinary compassion and love are alive independent of Christ; I have experienced it myself. Additionally, why must one be transformed from his natural condition in order to be a follower of the entity that created him? It is a contradictory idea and implies nothing but the flawed nature of the creator himself.

    “The Christian God is the opposite of a dictator.” He is actually the epitome of a dictator, which is why religion is the origination of totalitarianism. He has the power to know what you’re thinking and demands that your thoughts adhere to his standards. He bullies us with the threat of eternal damnation if we do something as innocent as refuse to believe something on insufficient evidence, essentially reserving the power to convict us of thought-crime. Jesus said it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Interpret this as you may, but it seems to put God’s dictatorial nature on full display. You say that Jesus came to transform the people’s thinking from their dogmatic ways to something purer and more loving, but only in the New Testament is the nightmare of Hell introduced, and in fact by Jesus himself. I cannot possibly think of a crueler or more power-driven precept: that if one simply does not believe in Jesus’ divinity, then he will suffer for all of eternity. In North Korea, at least the people can escape their subjection through the freedom of death; in Christianity, there is absolutely no escape from God’s wrath.

    “He gave us the gift of free will and allows us to make our own choices.” This is often used as a demonstration of God’s kindness, but I struggle to see how. To say that God gave us free will is to claim that there is a plausible universe in which one does not have the power to make his own choices. Unless you can imagine such a universe, I don’t think this claim means anything. Also, in bringing up free will, you are toeing the line of science. In fact, according to many neuroscientists, free will is indeed an utter illusion. Scientists now have the technology to track your thoughts before you think them and determine their behavioral outcome before they reach the level of consciousness. Therefore, one has no actual control over the thoughts that arise in consciousness and, in a sense, no control over his own actions (despite the illusion that consciousness creates). Even the thought that causes one to make a decision is formed before it reaches consciousness, through a variety of factors that are in no way in one’s control, but are actually the product of chemical processes in the brain that can sometimes be traced to one’s earliest experiences as an infant. And to link God’s prescription of free will – an overly simplistic solution – to the evil that happens in the world is to disregard the complexity and diversity of human relationships and the achievements of science in discovering the practical reasons for people behaving in “evil” ways.

    I will conclude by saying that the goodness or badness of Jesus’ teachings contributes nothing to the notion that he was the son of God. Countless moral teachers, many of whom came before Jesus, preached the same ethics he did. In Jesus’ demand that we believe that he is the son of God and the only true source of eternal life, he is asking us to sacrifice our faculties of good judgment and our entire understanding of how to seek and establish truth, and instead submit to fear and uncertainty. This is most apparent in his scolding of “Doubting Thomas” when Thomas refused to believe that Jesus had been resurrected because he had not seen it with his own eyes. Thomas had every right, as we do today, to doubt something that is simply implausible. Yet Jesus demands, as religion does today, that we believe things off of blind faith, without regard for our admiral faculties of common sense. In accepting this demand, you are disabling yourself from criticizing those who commit acts of violence and destruction in the name of their gods, because they too are merely acting on blind faith. But if we establish moral standards that are independent of any supernatural phenomena, we can actively denounce these people’s actions, because they have no reasonable foundation for doing them. When we legitimize the idea of faith – the precept that we don’t need evidence to believe something to be true – we are legitimizing every act of “evil” that is done in the name of religion.

    On a final note, ask yourself this question honestly: What is more honorable and admirable? To help someone in need because you care about your standing with an authority? Or to help someone in need because you care about the person himself? Make no mistake: believing in Jesus is not a necessary ingredient in harnessing the finest aspects of the human spirit. Just because he may influence someone to do good does not mean that one needs him in order to do good. I think the link I posted supports this.

    I greatly appreciate you taking the time out to consider and respond to my post.

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