The Compassion Problem

Why do some religious people fail to live up to religious teachings?

Posted Jul 16, 2019

Richardr/Flickr
Source: Richardr/Flickr

The teachings of religious leaders such as Jesus and the Buddha set a high bar for human behavior that their followers have often struggled to meet. It’s not easy to love your enemy; it’s not easy to turn the other cheek when someone insults or injures you. It's not easy to refrain from lying or harming other living beings (as the Buddha advised).

Nevertheless, it is puzzling that many people who call themselves religious act in ways that are contrary to the basic teachings of their faiths. 

The essence of both Jesus’s and the Buddha's teachings is empathy and compassion. At a time when the Romans were oppressing and murdering his people, Jesus advocated his followers to “do good to those who hate you” and “if your enemy is hungry, feed him.”

At a time when human life was full of brutality and war, Jesus stated that “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and advised soldiers to “Put your sword back into its place; for those who live by the sword, die by the sword.”

In a similar way, in the Vimalakirti Sutra, Buddha says that in times of war one should 'give rise in yourself to the mind of compassion, helping living beings. Abandon the will to fight.' In one of the most beautiful Buddhist texts, The Metta Sutta, the Buddha advises that "Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings."

And yet, the actions of many modern religious people are difficult to understand in light of these teachings. Why are some Christians and Buddhists (in Myanmar, for example) suspicious and hostile towards marginalized groups, rather than being charitable? Why do some Christians advocate conflict and aggression towards other countries rather than pursuing peace? Why do they support a president who seems incapable of empathy and compassion, and whose policies are leading to increased xenophobia and conflict?

Religion and War

Of course, there has always been a massive gulf between religious teachings and the actions of religious people. Hundreds of millions of people have been killed in the name of Christianity. From the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazis, violent psychopaths have used the Christian religion as a pretext for mass murder, or at least seen no contradiction in committing atrocities whilst professing to be Christians.

Buddhism arguably has an even stronger emphasis on compassion than Christianity, but has been associated with brutality and murder too, as shown by the recent persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.

During the Second World War — in spite of the first precept of Buddhism to “undertake to abstain from causing harm and taking life” — Japanese Zen masters declared that killing could be an act of compassion since it led to a greater good. They stated that soldiers were free to kill, since if one lives mindfully, the future and past don’t exist, and so there can be no consequences for actions in the present. 

In 1942, Zen master Kodo Sawaki argued that military aggression was in keeping with the Buddhist precept of non-harming, arguing bizarrely that "Whether one kills or does not kill, the precept forbidding killing [is preserved]. It is the precept forbidding killing that wields the sword. It is the precept that throws the bomb.“

Similarly, there are a number of passages in the Quran which appear to advocate peace and compassion for all human beings and yet terrorists routinely invoke the name of Allah while killing innocent people. 

The Function of Religion

So why is there a tragic mismatch between religious teachings and the actions of religious people? I think it's too simplistic to accuse religious people of hypocrisy, of not being real Christians or Buddhists or Muslims, or of twisting the teachings of their religions to suit their own ends.

There is some truth in all of those accusations, but I believe that there is a more fundamental reason: While religions may teach compassion and empathy, actually being religious often leads to a diminishing of the capacity for empathy and compassion.

For many people, the function of religion is to strengthen the self, bringing a sense of certainty and superiority and group identity. Feeling that you possess ‘the truth’ and that everyone else who has different beliefs is wrong, provides a very strong sense of identity, which is bolstered by the feeling of belonging to a group.

And a strong sense of ego or self often equates with a low level of empathy and compassion. As our beliefs become stronger, the boundaries of our self become stronger, and we find it more difficult to connect with other human beings. We become ‘walled-in’ by the strong structures of our identity.

As many studies have shown, religious people find it easy to empathize with — and be altruistic to — members of their group, but are much less empathic and altruistic towards members of other groups. 

Another way of putting this is that for most people, the actual teachings of religions aren’t so important. The paramount thing is the psychological function of religions — that is, the sense of certainty and identity that they provide.

The psychological benefits of religion are so great that some believers are able to ignore and contradict the essential teachings of their religion, without experiencing any cognitive discord. Their need for belief outweighs their need for self-authenticity. 

Spiritual Religion

To put it more simply, compassion depends on the capacity to emotionally and spirituality connect with other human beings, and religious belief (particularly in its fundamentalist form) reduces this capacity. The function of religions is to strengthen the ego, and a strong ego is separate and disconnected and so can’t feel empathy and compassion. 

Of course, I’m aware that I’m painting with a very broad brush here. For example, there are obviously many Christians who do attempt to — and even manage to — follow Jesus’s teachings. As hinted above, I’m discussing religion in its dogmatic, fundamentalist form.

As described in my book Back to Sanity (and in a previous blog), it’s important to distinguish between two basic types of religion: dogmatic and spiritual. While dogmatic religion has led to some of the most heinous acts in human history, spiritual religion has led to some of the noblest and most altruistic acts, such as those of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Florence Nightingale.

It is ironic that the true function of religion, in its spiritual form, is the opposite of its function for fundamentalists: to soften the boundaries of the ego-self and transcend separateness, so that we can sense the essential oneness of all human beings, and work together to alleviate each other's suffering and make the world a more harmonious place.