Empathy is all the rage these days, from studying it in academia to explaining its origins in pop science to bemoaning its absence in politics. The Big Questions seem to include what does it mean to be empathetic, how does empathy differ from compassion and generosity, how do we develop empathy as children or adults, and so forth.
And where, oh where does religion fit in with empathy? I thought this seemed like a great question for Civilized Conversation, since we like to tackle topics that most people already have made up their minds about. Religion (especially organized religion) is either tribal and empathy-smothering or the ultimate source of compassion and love. Everybody can cite religious texts, historical examples, and/or personal experience to prove – prove, I tells you – their POV.
What do you think? I’m not sure yet myself. Here are a few optional background readings on empathy and its possible relationship to religiosity. I will start us off with an amateur’s distinction between spirituality, faith, and religion and working definitions of empathy and compassion. We can blow up those definitions right away if you want to.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Religion and empathy:
- The “Golden Rule” (do unto others…) is doctrine in eight major world religions. Recommended.
- Jesus’s Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor, the meek, the merciful, etc.
- Buddhism: Compassion is its core.
Religiosity and empathy:
- Religious people are more compassionate than non-believers, but reason is not in conflict with compassion. Recommended.
- But, you do NOT need religion to have empathy.
- In fact, empathy is a personality trait and religiosity doesn’t increase or decrease how much of it you develop. Recommended.
- Religious children are less altruistic.
- Religious doctors show more empathy to their patients.
- Politicians: Is contempt for the poor a religious value – or just bad theology?
Is empathy in general overrated?
- Against empathy. Recommended, but long.
NEXT WEEK: #MeToo – What does sexual harassment mean today?
Candidate Donald Trump’s explicit appeal to nostalgia, to “make America great again,” was one of the keys to his victory. We never “win” anymore and he alone (!) knew how to return us to our former greatness. It would be essay to do, actually, since the only thing keeping us from a restoring this glorious past was weak leaders. Political sophisticates laughed it all off, confident that, like other populists, he was just telling folks what they wanted to hear, that the best of a gauzily-recollected past could be easily restored through force of will.
Who’s laughing now? More specifically for Monday’s meeting, what did President Trump mean about making “us” “great” “again?” What did the voters that responded to it hear? Why are so many Americans so nostalgic suddenly and why? A sea of ink has been spilled already trying to answer those questions, so I thought we should take our best shot.
I imagine our main focus will be trying to understand why and how Trump marshalled a vague nostalgia and those beliefs’ ongoing role in our current political crisis. But, I think a close look at the phenomenon could be enlightening in other capacities. The study of nostalgia appears to be its own little sub-field in social science these days. According to Professor Google, experts believe that feeling nostalgic about the past (whether a real or imagined past) is common. It’s normal and even healthy. Every generation pines for the good old days. Even these kids today, with the hair and the clothes and the Mary Jane.
But, a lot of people have commented on the dark undertone of today’s highly-politicized nostalgia. Trump’s vision of an American Carnage is of a glorious past betrayed by domestic traitors and rapacious foreigners. It’s zero-sum and divisive, authoritarian, and pretty much unobtainable the way he promised it. Still, in my opinion voters’ desire to go back to happier times should not be haughtily dismissed as only a desire for restored White supremacy or U.S. hyper-dominance and imperialism. I think we could have a great discussion on many aspects of this topic, not just the worst ones. Maybe using these questions.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What is nostalgia? Are there different kinds of it or motives for it? What psychological and sociological functions does it perform?
- Are Americans really more nostalgic than usual these days? Why? Who is the most/least nostalgic and what does that tell us?
- What specifically do (some) people want back? (e.g., personal/physical security? Economic opportunity/independence? Societal respect? Societal morality or hierarchy? Racial, ethnic, or gender privilege? National prestige/domination?)
- Who and what do they blame?
- How did nostalgia get weaponized for our current political era?
- Can politics really restore any of these things? What do people want our leaders to do?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Nostalgia is good for you. Recommended.
- Every U.S. generation…
- Consumerism drives a lot of our nostalgia. Interesting.
- Technology could change nostalgia A LOT. Even more interesting.
- Don’t panic over nostalgia its’ mostly harmless. It’s a misplaced yearning by both Left and Right.
- Panic. Trumpism is…
- The traditional family: “The way we never were.” [link fixed]
- Let’s not yearn for the Cold War.
NEXT WEEK: Sanctuary cities.
Let’s call this one another “David bites off more than he can chew” topic. I got the idea from reading a wonderful little book – Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World. The American Buddhist author gently defends religion from both fundamentalists and atheists by arguing that the world’s major religions are compatible with modernity. She says that, stripped of their archaic baggage and recent fundamentalism, the major global religions have plenty of room for tolerance, human rights, social justice, and democracy. Great book.
Still, upon further reflection, I think we have to be a little careful here, for two reasons. First, “Are there any universal religious principles,” begs a lot of questions. When is a principle a religious one? When people or doctrines say it is? How do we know a value or principle isn’t a product of something else, say, evolutionary biology or psychology or socialization? Similarly, how much universality is enough? When a principle is common to all/most/many/certain faiths? What about modern or still-contested ideas, like church/state separation or human and LGBT rights? Can they be both recent and controversial and justifiable by ancient religions?
Finally, the idea I originally had in mind would ask: Universal principles about what? About God’s existence and nature? About whether some truths are revealed rather than empirically-verifiable? About how to lead a moral life, or treat other people (ethics)? About sex and family, murder and war? Do any of us know enough about world religions to compare them so? Not eye.
A second reason to be cautious in the way we generalize about universal religious values is that a lot of people are not very cautious when they do this. We are all aware of the “Islam is inherently evil” tidal wave being surfed by Donald Trump and religious Right’s insistence that upholding LGBT civil rights violates their religious freedom. But, progressives can be lazy, too, like when they say all religions are deep down the same. I agree with the scholar I linked to below tat says this trivializes religion. Also and as Jim Z. can attest, whether human rights principles are universal values or a Western invention being imposed on developing countries is a big issue these days in its own right.
Anyway, below are a few articles that make claims about the universality of religious values, plus some simple statements of faith from a few well-known religions.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Universal Moral Values?
- There are 10 universal human values. Reasonable to you?
- The basics of whether a universal human nature exists.
- More links from our 2015 mtgs on a universal human nature and what science tells us about good and evil.
Universal Religious Principles?
- There are seven of them, says this guy. Not bad.
- The Golden Rule is universal to all major faiths.
- All religions are NOT the same and it harms us to insist they are. Recommended.
- Long, highly optional article: Are human rights universal rights?
Some specific (but simple) faith statements –
- Judaism’s 13 Principles and 10 commandments
- Islam: Its 5 Pillars and Fundamental Articles of Faith, from Islam 101.
- Buddhism’s 4 Noble Truths.
- Hinduism’s 5 Principles and 10 Disciplines, part of Hinduism For Beginners.
Next Week: Fixing our juvenile criminal justice system.
No matter what else happens in this train wreck of an election, experts will spend years trying to understand what happened and why. There are a lot of causes and culprits. But, the causes and consequences of political fear-mongering might be subject number one. How big a role has Donald Trump’s appeals to plain old fear of foreign and domestic enemies (immigrants, foreigners, traitorous U.S. elites, etc.) played in his rise, and why have his incitements worked so well?
The answers, in my view, are complex and go well beyond Trump to some core issues warping our politics. Yes, Trump fear-mongers a lot, it’s ugly, and it’s working. But, two things. First, fear is not the only basis of the man’s appeal. Polls reveal that his supporters are not just mindlessly seeking a strongman to crush our enemies, although support for Trump does correlate strongly with authoritarian personality traits. Trumpistas are more pessimistic in general about their own future and the country’s future than any other group of voters. They express zero trust in our political or corporate elites. Many seem to harbor deep resentments of recent cultural/demographic changes in our country and feel that “political correctness” has delegitimized their fears. None of these beliefs are likely to disappear when Trump does. The Donald is the punishment, not the problem.
Second, it’s not just Trump! His fearmongering has fallen on fertile ground because the Republican Party’s leaders at all levels has spent years priming its own voters to be paranoid. Especially lately, from ISIS to Ebola to China to our disloyalmuslimkenyantraitor president, the GOP – and the conservative news media – has become The Party of Fear. Democrats are starting to use some scare-mongering tactics of their own, IMO, arguably including some of the stuff that Bernie Sanders says. (Our democracy is “dead?” Really?)
My point is that a high level of fear and fear-mongering is a loaded gun in politics. Eventually, somebody will pick it up and, deviously or innocently, start blasting away at the fabric of our democracy. Trump is just really good at it.
As for us, I think a discussion of fear-mongering has to ask the right questions to be useful. I propose we start on Monday night by asking the first couple of discussion questions, below: What does and does not constitute political fear-mongering, and under what conditions is it effective? Then, I’m sure we’ll have ample time to debate how one of our political parties – and maybe, eventually, the other – came to use fear-mongering as a central pillar of its existence.
I will be brief in my little opening remarks, summarizing the 3-4 main theories of why appeals to voter anxieties (which are used in every election, obviously) are so much more prominent/prevalent in today’s political environment. I definitely will give a few jaw-dropping, sky-is-falling quotes from the Republican presidential candidates this year. They are amazing to behold; they’re just not the whole story or the only thing to worry about.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- WHAT: What is fear-mongering? Is it about (a) fake/exaggerated threats, (b) scapegoated culprits, or (c) phony solutions?
- WHAT NOT: How does fear-mongering differ from what politicians should do: Raise awareness of our problems, criticize the other side’s failures, and proposing solutions?
- WHO/WHEN: When does fear-mongering work and on whom?
- When: Foreign threats/war? Rapid social change, in times of rapid social change and economic stagnation?
- Who: A vulnerable psychological type? People on the botto of our society? On the top but losing their privileged status?
- What are people afraid of? Legit fears?
- Who is doing the fear-mongering? Why?
- ON/OFF: Is fear-mongering controllable? Can politicians turn it on an off at will, or is it like riding a tiger? Does it make our politics hostage to events?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Why/when does fear mongering work?
- There’s a fine line in politics between responding to fear and exploiting it. Recommended.
- The key role the Internet and news media play in fear-mongering.
- Trump, fear-mongering and the authoritarian personality. A must-read.
- A Black president and a deep recession catalyzed White fears of a “racial inversion” of political and cultural power. Recommended.
- Demanding absolute, 100% security from all foreign threats has caused a permanent sense of dread.
- Trump, the GOP, and fear-mongering.
- Liberals, Democrats, and fear-mongering:
Next Week: Political Correctness – A serious problem, an excuse, or a little of both?
This is Filip’s first topic idea and he will run the meeting if I can’t make it back in time from out of town. We have discussed atheism several times in the past. (Here, for example.) But, I like Fil’s wording because it cuts to the heart of atheism’s challenge to religion: That people believe in God because they want to, based on some psychological or biological need.
Many of you all are practicing atheists, if that’s not an oxymoron. So, no need for me to set up the topic idea, either here or on Monday. Instead, I’m taking this week off after all of the recent long, complex topics and weekly intro posts lately. I’m sure it will be a great meeting,, like all of our religious-themed ones are.
Still, out of habit, here are a few readings on the subject of the basic arguments for and against God’s existence, plus a few dealing with one author’s idea of what needs a human-created God might fulfill for society. It’s a pretty good read, IMO.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- “Existence of God” entry at Wiki.
- A 1-hour video debate on whether God is a human invention.
- In a 6–minute video, a Christian Apologist denies God is a human invention. Note: “Apologetics” means arguments in defense of religion.
- A good defense of atheism, from an economist I admire.
- The Evolution of God – A book positing that our idea of God’s nature keeps changing as humans’ psych/sociological needs for God evolve.
- UPDATE: How likely you are to believe religion is useless as opposed to useful depends on what kind of an atheist you are. Which one of these 6 types are you?
Next Week: Who is to blame for Iraq and Syria?