Barney Leith Blog #6: “The Religion and Science of Compassion”

Barney Leith Blog #6: “The Religion and Science of Compassion”

Barney Leith

Are we ineluctably selfish, as the excesses of the consumer culture and the brouhaha over bankers’ bonuses suggest? Are the neo-Darwinists and positivists, such as Richard Dawkins, correct in claiming that competitiveness and conflict are fundamental and ineradicable drivers of human behaviour?

Does science “prove” that we humans are always selfish even when we are behaving apparently altruistically? Or is there any evidence for altruism transcending our “red in tooth and claw” nature?

Compassion & the Golden Rule

For millennia religions, spiritual traditions and humanistic philosophies have had, at their core, an ethic of reciprocity known as The Golden Rule:

The Golden Rule requires that we use empathy – moral imagination – to put ourselves in others’ shoes. We should act toward them as we would want them to act toward us. We should refuse, under any circumstance, to carry out actions which would cause them harm.

Mother Teresa

When she delivered her TED Prize lecture in February 2008, historian of religion, Karen Armstrong, called for the creation and propagation of a Charter for Compassion, a document that would transcend religious, ideological, and national difference, and that would remind people of this core value in their own traditions and scriptures. In this lecture Armstrong says:

What I’ve found, across the board, is that religion is about behaving differently. Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God, first you to do something. You behave in a committed way, And then you begin to understand the truths of religion. And religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action; you only understand them when you put them into practice.

Now, pride of place in this practice is given to compassion. And it is an arresting fact that right across the board, in every single one of the major world faiths, compassion – the ability to feel with the other in the way we’ve been thinking about this evening – is not only the test of any true religiosity, it is also what will bring us into the presence of what Jews, Christians and Muslims call “God” or the “Divine.” It is compassion, says the Buddha, which brings you to Nirvana. Why? Because in compassion, when we feel with the other, we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and we put another person there. And once we get rid of ego, then we’re ready to see the Divine.

And in particular, every single one of the major world traditions has highlighted – has said – and put at the core of their tradition what’s become known as the Golden Rule. First propounded by Confucius five centuries before Christ: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” That, he said, was the central thread which ran through all his teaching and that his disciples should put into practice all day and every day. And it was the Golden Rule would bring them to the transcendent value that he called ren, human-heartedness, which was a transcendent experience in itself.

When I discussed compassion with a group of trainee healthcare chaplains from a number of faith traditions recently, they agreed that compassion was at the heart of their faiths and at the heart of their work as chaplains – as, it should be, at the heart of much of what we do in service to our fellow human beings.

What happened to compassion?

Sadly though, compassion is all too often not part of our daily lives. Politics, business, even education and healthcare often tend to exclude compassion as being too soft, not managerial enough. Compassion does not seem to offer value for money!

The belief that human beings are motivated only by self-interest has long provided the underpinning assumption of psychological and sociological theorisation  about human nature and behaviour. The evidence of our ineluctable aggression seems “obvious”, especially when human conduct is seen and interpreted through the lens of positivist philosophy, Freudian psychology, and neo-Darwinism.

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

‘Compassion,’ says Karen Armstrong in her new book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (London: The Bodley Head, 2011), ‘has dropped so far out of sight these days that many are confused about what is required’.

It even inspires overt hostility. The controversy surrounding Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910–97) shows how difficult it could be for a relatively unsophisticated woman, who was making a heroic efforts to address a crying need, to find her way through the labyrinthine and often corrupt world of twentieth century politics. The vitriol of some of her critics not only reveals an uncompassionate tendency in modern discourse … but also a visceral distaste for the compassionate ethos and a principled determination to expose any manifestation of it as “lying, pretence and deceit”.

Ironically, Auguste Comte, philosopher and founder both of sociology and of positivism as a philosophy of knowledge, looked forward to an enlightened age in which cooperation between people would be based on “their own inherent tendency to universal love”. “No calculations of self-interest,” said Comte, “can rival this social instinct, whether in promptitude of breadth of intuition, or in boldness and tenacity of purpose.”

So what about the science?

In their inspiring and informative book, A General Theory of Love (New York: Vintage, 2001), psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Farin Amini, and Richard Lannon set out to examine the extent to which science illuminates our understanding of love.

Although science has risen to take its place as Freud’s successor, it has not been able to sketch a framework for love that is both sound and habitable. Two persistent obstacles block the way.

First, a curious correlation has prevailed between scientific rigor and coldness: the more factually grounded a model of the mind, the more alienating….

Science is a newcomer to the business of defining human nature, but thus far it has remained inimical to humanism. Seekers of meaning are turned away at the door.

The second impediment to a wholly scientific description of love is the dearth of hard data….

When he ventures into love’s domain, the uncompromising empiricist is left with little to discuss. A child’s fierce and inarticulate longing for his parents, the torrential passion between young lovers, any mother’s unshakeable devotion – all are elusive vapors that mock objectivity’s earnest attempt to assign them to this gene or that collection of cells.

What is true of the kind of science Lewis, Amini and Lannon are considering, is equally true of dominant strands of Western social and political theory. In The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), political scientist Kristen Renwick Monroe comments:

The Heart of Altruism

Altruism’s significance comes not from its empirical frequency, which is relatively rare, but because its very existence challenges the widespread and dominant belief that it is natural for people to pursue individual self-interest. Indeed, much important social and political theory suggests altruism should not exist at all.

Monroe sets out to present a theoretical framework that could lead to revisions in the dominant self-interest paradigm. As she points out:

The implications for general theory and for the social policies based on the self-interest paradigm can hardly be overstated.

Deep rooted assumptions of self-interest

How is it that scientific arguments and findings that claim to deny the existence of compassion and altruism or that reduce it to an expression of self-interest are so dominant? This has been the normative discourse for so long that it seems “obvious” that humans can only be self-interested. Those who wish to demonstrate the existence of compassion as a fundamental and non-self-interested dimension of human nature and behaviour have to work very hard indeed to overcome the ingrained scepticism of academia, corporations, governments, and the media.

The assumptions and beliefs that scientists hold about human nature inevitably underlie the questions they ask and the kind of findings they expect to arrive at. These assumptions and beliefs shape the kind of work that is regarded as legitimate and which will be supported by the scientific establishment.

This is not to say that there are no studies demonstrating genuine altruism and that there are no scientists who start from an assumption that altruism and compassion are real phenomena, not reducible to self-interest. But they would are in the minority.

Time for a paradigm shift?

Is it time for a Kuhnian paradigm shift? And if so, where would the push for that shift come from? Perhaps the world’s religions and spiritual traditions can take the lead. Perhaps there are scientists who listen to their spiritual sensibilities and who, perhaps, find meaning in poetry and the arts. Will they take their spiritual insights into their science?

This is not a peripheral question. The acknowledgement, the acceptance and the encouragement of compassion by both religion and science have a fundamental bearing on the quality of life of every person on the planet. It will take deep-rooted faith to ensure that this understanding informs decisions taken by governments and businesses and organisations of all kinds everywhere in the world.

If we need an example of one person’s lifelong expression of compassion for the plight of humanity at all levels – individual, families, communities, whole nations – we need look no further than ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Many are the stories of his compassionate response to the materially and spiritually poor. He extolled compassion as one of the great virtues:

Praise be to God, Bahá’u’lláh hath lifted the chains from off the necks of humankind, and hath set man free from all that trammelled him, and told him: Ye are the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch; be ye compassionate and kind to all the human race. Deal ye with strangers the same as with friends, cherish ye others just as ye would your own. See foes as friends; see demons as angels; give to the tyrant the same great love ye show the loyal and true, and even as gazelles from the scented cities of Khatá and Khután offer up sweet musk to the ravening wolf. Be ye a refuge to the fearful; bring ye rest and peace to the disturbed; make ye a provision for the destitute; be a treasury of riches for the poor; be a healing medicine for those who suffer pain; be ye doctor and nurse to the ailing; promote ye friendship, and honour, and conciliation, and devotion to God, in this world of non-existence.

‘We urgently need,’ says the Charter for Compassion…

…to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarised world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries.


This is the 6th in a series of blogs on the unity of science and  religion and its applications by Barney Leith, a member of the UK Bahá’í community and its National Spiritual Assembly. For more of his blogs, see on Posterous.

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2 thoughts on “Barney Leith Blog #6: “The Religion and Science of Compassion”

  1. Many thanks for this inspiring post, Barney.

    I found one expression in Karen Armstrong’s excellent book particularly telling (page 103):

    “[The Golden Rule] is not a notional doctrine that you either agree with or make yourself believe. It is a method – and the only adequate test of any method is to put it into practice.”

    It is also encouraging that, in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘, Michael McCullough, speaking from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, sees both altruism and forgiveness as part of our evolutionary heritage.

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