Compassion and Christianity

7 April, 2008

Tysdaddy had an excellent comment on my post Atheist Morality.  I think it deserves a little more than just a comment back.

He stated: 

It’s a shame you’ve not come across some truly compassionate Christians. They exist. I am friends with many, despite my own skeptical attitude toward all things religious.

I thought about his comment through most of the evening (my allergies are acting up (I do not get along with red maples) and I’m not sleeping too well). I have met many people who are compassionate and happen to be Christians.  I’m not sure I have ever met anyone who is a Christian who happens to be compassionate.  That sounds like a strange pair of statements, doesn’t it?

The way I see it, compassion requires empathy.  How can I show true understanding, warmth towards another human being, if I cannot empathize with that person? 

The ability to put oneself in another’s position, to see the world through another’s eyes, is not easy.  Empathy requires an open mind and an ability to consider new ideas.  I may not agree with the idea, I may think the idea incompatible with my life (or with reality), but I can consider the idea.

Christianity, though, frowns upon new ideas.  The formation of Christianity (in the centuries leading up to the promulgation of the Nicene Creed) was a war of ideas.  Was Jesus a man?  a god? both? a man with the spirit of god? pure spirit?  Was special knowledge (gnosis) needed to be saved?  Did one need to become a Jew first, or could a pagan go strait to Christian?

As the founders of Christianity (the Christianity we understand today) fought for the ‘true’ ideas, the one and only right thinking which will save the soul, other ideas (heterodoxy (which (if persistent) becomes heresy)) had to be stomped out and destroyed.  Modern Christianity persists in this resistence to new ideas.  Evolution, scientific cosmology, germ theory, medicine, even universal education and voting rights have been resisted by some, if not all, of the Christian sects.  Christianity has splintered into thousands of sects over arguments regarding the transubstantiation of the eucharist or the omnipresence of the holy spirit.  This means that Christians tend to be frightened of new ideas; if you learn the wrong thing and thus no longer believe the right thing in the right way, you are damned to eternal torture.  If a Christian entertains no new ideas, the soul is saved.

So, if acceptence (or at least consideration) of new ideas is an essential (though not the only) ingredient in empathy (and the consideration of new ideas puts the Christian’s soul in danger), and empathy is an important ingredient in compassion, what then?  I think that, especially for the more doctrinaire Christians (those who identify themselves as Christians first, and everything else is secondary), the more difficult compassion is.  But is there evidence for this?

Take a look at the political stances of the more conservative sects and what do you see?  You see a black-and-white attitude toward such things as abortion and gay rights (their choice created the problem, so why should a Christian be compassionate?).  You see a willingness to cut taxes for the rich and benefits for the poor (their choice to be poor, and god rewards the faithful, so why be compassionate towards a bunch of non-beleivers who deserve their poverty (or, in the current Republican vernacular, they ‘own’ their poverty)).  Conservative Christianity and conservative politics tends to be more concerned with punishment than with compassion.

Compassion is not easy.  Compassion requires an ability to empathize with the person needing help.  Empathy requires a willingness to consider a new idea.  New ideas and Christianity (at least the hard-core type) are incompatible.

People who consider themselves Americans, or humans, first, and Christians second, people for whom Christianity is a support, not the be-all and end-all of life, tend to be more open to the consideration of new ideas.  This is why I say that, although I have met many compassionate humans who happen to be Christian, I cannot say that I have met any Christians who happen to be compassionate.



  1. Very well said. I tried to say something similar to this in a blog’s comments section and was unable to do so in such a clear and articulate way. I couldn’t do it, so I deleted most of it…

    I am just going to sent him the link to this post.

  2. Very well thought out connecting of the dots. Of course empathy isn’t encouraged in ideologies that contain the positive Golden Rule. Such ideologies are self-centered.

  3. Usaconstitution: Welcome. Even un-well-thought out thoughts are welcome (if in doubt, see about 70% of my posts).

    Philly: The tough part is, I am a firm believer in the general form of the golden rule: treat others the way you want others to treat you (and I am convinced that the golden rule is evolution-based, not god-based (variations of the golden rule show up in some primates, some birds, and even in some evangelicals)). Unfortunately, conservatives (including conservative Christians) tend to view the golden rule as: Do unto others before they do unto you.

  4. The “Golden Rule” as I was taught: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That doesn’t mean treat others well so they will treat you well. It is not an expectation of reciprocation but a plea for compassion. So I disagree with the idea that it is a self-centered ideal.

    If I needed help, I would appreciate it if my neighbor gave me help. If my neighbor needs help, I know or should be able to understand that need and be willing to offer it as graciously as I would receive it. Not so he will help me in the future, but because I can empathize with his situation.

    A good example of Christians acting this way is the Methodist Church’s activities in New Orleans after Katrina. Every week for the last two-plus years, the Methodists have organized groups to come down and work on strangers’ homes. There is no requirement of faith to receive help, just need. Each group is down for one week and leaves just as another comes in. They sleep in a church and are fed by people in the neighborhoods they work in. Of course, now they can just go out and buy food, if they wish. At the beginning, it wasn’t that easy.

    If you asked any of these people, some of whom have volunteered three or four times, if they expected anything in return from the people they are helping, I’m almost certain they would say no. Do they think they have brought themselves closer to heaven? Do they think that their actions keep them out of hell? Who gives a shit? Even if their compassion springs from the emulation of an man who probably didn’t exist, the results are the same – empathy and action.

    Would that all Christians were like them.

    Now, while they certainly don’t approve of my “decision” to be an atheist and could never understand it, not one of them has ever said a nasty word or snide comment to me.

  5. Bullet: When younger, my wife went on youth retreats to Maine through her UCC congregation, and these were . . . . Well, they were basically required if you wanted to be in the youth group. They helped out families in Maine, and, though there was no prosyletizing, the families knew where the help was coming from (and it was not the kids (the ones doing the actual work)). In high school, my best friend went on a ‘Compassion Mission’ (yes, they actually called it that) to (I believe) Tennessee to build houses. He went in order to qualify for a church scholarship. He later told me that, before a family could be helped, they had to sit through a two-day ‘love bombing,’ at which point, I think they would have agreed to just about anything. When I was down at Katrina (providing security for the IC supporting the National Guard troops down there), there was a Methodist group providing food. However, before the meal, there was a half-hour sermon. There was also a Baptist group in the same area doing the same thing.

    Please note that in my essay, I did not say that churches cannot (or do not) provide useful and needed services — whether food, housing, medical care. I do think that, though the motive of the individual may be pure, the motive of the church is always the same — conversion (a group that is not growing is dying). The individuals providing these services expect nothing in return, but the sponsor wants the reciever to remember where the service came from.

    My point in this essay was to bring up the basic contradiction between Christianity (the most hard-core conservative groups (Catholic or Protestant)) and compassion. Christianity claims to be a compassionate religion, but compassion for whom? If the compassion goes out to like-thinkers, there is no contradiction. If, however, the compassion requires the understanding, or at least the knowledge, of alternate ideas, this puts the soul of the compassionate in danger.

    I applaud the work of NGOs in New Orleans (and other places which the anti-government policies of the modern Republican Party have destroyed). I respectfully disagree, though, with the assertion that no return is expected — if not from the individuals, than from the organization itself.

    Thank you. Very thought provoking.

  6. Read this.

    First off, there isn’t a “general Golden Rule”. There is essentially negative, positive, and one I’m calling “unity” at the moment. The first two are selfish. They are motivated by a want for yourself. Even your “plea for compassion” Bullet can be a selfish want, motivated not by wanting everyone to be compassionate for the sake of compassion, but so that people will be more likely to treat you compassionately. If, however, you’re truly honest about wanting compassion for compassion’s sake, that would be “unity”, the only variant that isn’t selfishly motivated.

    Now negative and positive are selfish. Negative clearly for it’s saying essentially “don’t harm me or I’ll harm you”. Positive sounds nice, “do onto others what you would want done to you” but look more closely. Maybe someone wouldn’t want done to them what YOU would like done to YOU. This is at the root of christian intrusions into all our lives. Prayer in school, abstinence, god on the money and in the pledge, etc THEY see as good and is what THEY want and are incapable of seeing why anyone would object.

    So ok, unity is selfless and negative and positive are selfish. Done? No. Unity and negative share something positive doesn’t, and that’s awareness and respect of others. Positive is oblivious to others, incapable of seeing them outside of themselves.

    So please, don’t go throwing Golden Rule around like it’s singular and PLEASE don’t go throwing around positive as either the best or only version of it.

  7. Billy – I didn’t think of the organization (in this case, the Methodist Church) as a kind of corporate sponsor. It’s an interesting idea. Obviously, if people show up in a van with XXX Methodists blazoned across it and then proceed to help you out it would leave you with a positive impression of the Church and perhaps interest in “finding out more”. It fits well with the idea of churches as competing brands.

    I was approaching the point from that of an individual, which is how I interpreted your argument. Something else I didn’t think of till after I posted was perhaps there was no evangelism because of the assumption that those in need (mostly poor, black and, of course, southern) were already Christian.

    I also hadn’t heard about the sermon-before-you-eat groups. That makes me want to vomit.

    So, the way I understand it now – an individual Christian can be compassionate, but only if they are open and accepting of other ideologies, which is (to some, I guess) against their faith. Groups of Christians (churches) can’t be truly compassionate because of the inherent marketing value (whether implicit or explicit)of a coordinated effort. I can see where you’re coming from. I’ll think on that.

    I don’t know what you mean by “the IC supporting the National Guard.” I don’t need an explanation here, but I would appreciate if you could email me and let me know exactly what you did. I didn’t have the opportunity to interact casually with any of the military that was down here. In case you haven’t heard it yet, thank you so very much for helping us. We could not have done it without you. And I mean you, the individual, as well as you all as a whole. As long as you weren’t one of the guys stealing our street signs and water meter covers. 🙂

    Philly: I’ll leave a response over at your place.

  8. Philly: Sloppy and hurried writing on my part. I’ve read your post three times now, and still have to think upon it.

    Bullet: My problem with Christianity and compassion is that, although the various churches tend to really sell compassion as an inherent part of the belief, the beliefs required for heaven tend to negate the ability of a believer to relate to differing belief systems.

    “the IC supporting the National Guard” means that I was the Security Manager (Trainee) for the Incident Command Team which was providing services for the four battalions of National Guard stationed at the Hammond Incident Command Post (which was the JCPennys at the Hammond Mall). I managed the security team which provided physical security for the companies which handled food, bathing, restrooms, supply, and planning for the troops, and also kept the lookie-loo’s at a distance. It means 16-hour days, however, I actually got to sleep indoors (good thing as I was working night shift, sleeping from 10am to about 5pm) I usually work at forest fires, which means tents (even for day-sleepers))). That explain it?

  9. Hey Billy,

    I just ran across this post this evening, and I’m honored to have prompted you toward a thoughtful response.

    In a comment, you wrote:

    “Please note that in my essay, I did not say that churches cannot (or do not) provide useful and needed services — whether food, housing, medical care. I do think that, though the motive of the individual may be pure, the motive of the church is always the same — conversion (a group that is not growing is dying). The individuals providing these services expect nothing in return, but the sponsor wants the reciever to remember where the service came from.”

    This is something that has always rubbed me the wrong way as well, even while I was a die-hard believer. I remember working as a volunteer at an outreach organization in Chicago. We helped clean up neighborhoods, served tons of food, and helped people who needed medical care. The organization was attached – literally and idealogically – with a church that held very welcoming, accommodating services. While no one was ever forced to go to the church to get the help they needed, obviously the helpers hoped they would choose to attend, hear the message, and accept the gospel message. As a part of my week there, I got to talk about the gospel with a man who had come to an evening tent service. When I asked him if he wanted to pray, he said he would. Then, as we were praying those magic words, he stopped repeating after me (the only way to pray ;-)) at the part where he was supposed to say how much he trusted Jesus to help him become a better person. He looked up at me and gave me a look I’ll never forget, as if to say “How the hell is he gonna help me do that?! He’s not even here, and he can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be me?!”

    That moment was a turning point for me. I had never felt comfortable doing that kind of evangelism, and seeing him react that way made me want to say “You know what?! You’re right! This is crap. Let’s go have a coffee, or a beer, and talk about *your* life and *this* life and get to know one another and see where we go from there.” But of course there was no time for that.

    I never evangelized that way again.

    Have you ever seen the movie Jesus Camp? One of the outtakes (I think) shows the kids witnessing to someone and, when he rejects them, walking away and basically saying he must be really lost, or something like that. Evangelism is about results – bottom line.

    If you get a chance, you should pick up the book “Reasons To Believe” by John Marks. He too was once a believer, but abandoned the faith “the american evangelical” version, many years ago. He writes about the overbearing evangelical, “Will you be left behind?” nature of american Christianity. I think you’d enjoy it greatly.

    A Christian band once sang that “the church is not our model of perfection” and the church would do well to remember that.

  10. I also wanted to add that, when I came out as an atheist a few years ago, my old friends suddenly came out of the woodwork and tried to win me back into the flock. We exchanged numerous emails and a pattern became clear – not one was willing to consider that the things I had come to believe could possibly be true. I was simply wrong. A few brave ones were willing to stipulate the fact that the church has problems, but none of them would place the blame at the feet of Christianity. There was no exchange of thoughts or ideas, just the constant, tiring return-or-burn refrain.

    Here’s an idea for something to blog about: Can an atheist still have faith? And I don’t mean the kind of faith that says a chair will hold you up when you sit on it. I mean a faith that would seem religious to some more foreward-thinking types. I came across a book the other day titled “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality.” It’s a fascinating read. Just a prompt – run with it if you wish . . .


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