Compassion is a deep-seated value in every religious tradition. Judaism teaches that the world stands on Torah, on prayer, and on acts of loving kindness. Christians celebrate the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke. And a major reason the Dalai Lama is so honored is because of his Buddhist teachings on compassion.
But compassion can also be studied scientifically, and one of the foremost researchers on compassion is Professor David DeSteno, author of the book Out Of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us and the director of the Social Emotions Lab at Northeastern University.
I had an opportunity to ask him some questions about how the science of compassion can inform our religious and ethical outlooks:
GM: Does religion foster or hinder our ability to be compassionate?
DD: It’s a trickier question than one might think. There’s been a debate going on in psychological science for the past decade about the nature of morality. Do our moral sentiments spring from innate intuitions (e.g., ubiquitous evolved responses) or from conscious dictates (e.g., religious doctrines, ethical principles). There’s data to support both sides, and therein lies the reason for the ongoing debate. It’s not simply one or the other. It is true that the challenges of human social life, among which is the question of when to feel compassion and act altruistically, have existed for much longer than we’ve had the cognitive wherewithal to engage in rational analysis. So, it makes good sense that we have moral intuitions that automatically guide our actions. We never would have made it out of the “ancestral savannah” if we didn’t.
Of course, the more recent ability of the human mind to engage in abstract reasoning opened up additional ways for us to embrace (or avoid) ethical actions. The result is that we’re of two minds—an intuitive one and a deliberative one. The trick is to realize that they’re both attempting to solve the same problem—how to navigate the social world optimally. Neither “mind” is more moral than the other, and that’s the most important fact to understand in learning how to live more ethically. You can’t always trust your intuitions or your rational mind. Both are capable of leading you astray.
When it comes to compassion, I think we can all agree that most religions embrace the view that compassion is a virtue and that we should help those in need. So, at a conscious level, I think religion works to increase the likelihood that we will help others. However, religion also functions as a social category; it can divide us into “us” and “them,” into believers and nonbelievers.
What we know from our own research is that, on the intuitive level at least, how much compassion we feel for others is a direct function of how similar we feel to them. For example, our work has shown that simply having people wear similar color wristbands to denote their membership in a recently created “team” alters the levels of compassion they feel for each other. When one individual is harmed, the level of compassion another feels for him is modulated up or down depending on whether the victim is wearing the same color wristband.
Consequently, we have to be aware that while our religious beliefs may be urging us to act compassionately, our religious identities may be introducing an asymmetry into our responses. We may feel the pain of our brethren more and the pain of others less.
An interesting fact here can be seen in some traditions of Buddhist meditation. A basic technique of compassion meditation is to realize that all beings are equally similar. That technique is quite congruent with our findings. The more the mind automatically comes to see all beings as alike, the more ready it is to feel compassion equally for all in pain.