A lack of compassion

Tonight I am mired in sadness. Perhaps too much TV news, perhaps not.

Beyond the sadness I feel for the people fighting for some sort of Democratic process in Libya without much assistance from the UN, the terrible aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, and subsequent nuclear fallout in Japan, my sadness is deepened by an event closer to home.

Tsunami aftermath

I am saddened by a religious person who commented on Facebook that the Japanese deserved this disaster, and argued that this is some kind of divine retribution for their killing of Whales and Dolphins.

How callous and uncaring can you get?

Simple minded generalisation from some portion of a population, somehow calculated and extended as just desserts for an entire nation of people. One of the problems is that I understand this mode of un-thinking un-feeling, primarily because I employed just such illogic for a period of my life when I was a fundamentalist Xtian.

Because your conception of god involves fear and retribution, so subtly this ekes its way into your processing of just who deserves to be “punished” in your mind. All too easily what you imagine to be the righteous objective of gods punishment is blended with your particular bigoted view of humanity. Your enemies are automatically the enemies of your god – how convenient for you and any possible cognitive dissonance you may not feel. I feel that this is a strong argument for the damage of religious thinking on the potential humanistic compassion possible within, and for a person.

Now I am not saying that all Xtians are like this person who thinks that Japan is being dished out some grand retributive act from some unseen dispenser of Universal Justice – no doubt the particular conception of god that this person has in her head. I am referring only to her comment and anyone else who thinks she is right.

If you equate the decimation of a country’s citizenry and the contamination of their land, as a balancing of the scales of justice, then you are the kind of reprehensible idiot I am talking about.

Atheists are often accused of having no absolute basis for their morality – the accusation is a kind of you can’t be moral or decent people because you don’t have a god on high to prescribe what is and is not moral argument. I am always a little puzzled by that, but I understand it to a degree (or at least the faulty assumptions it is based on, and how someone can make a cursory, surface analysis of those assumptions, and on that basis come to that faulty conclusion), and then it just annoys me deeply.

Franklin Veaux’s great post addresses many of the usual criticisms of Atheism and describes rather well I though, how  religious based systems of morality fail to be consistent, modern systems because of the faulty thinking at their core. I am not saying that religious people cannot be moral, for many religious people are, and can be, but I am saying that there are gross deficiencies and pitfalls for the moral action of a religious people versus people who follow a well formed secular morality.

As it turns out, religion is not the only conceptual framework for the development of a moral code and basis for ethical behaviour. Not only are there other systems, but when stacked up next to religious conceptions of morality, they shine much brighter and express a greater degree of excellence for being a good human.

I particularly like the eupraxsophy of Secular Humanism as described by Paul Kurtz in Embracing the Power of Humanism.

I have come up with the term eupraxsophy, which means ‘good practical wisdom’. Eupraxsophy is derived from the following roots: eu-, praxis-, and sophia. Eu- is a prefix that means “good,” “well,” “advantageous.” It is combined in words such as eudæmonia, which means “well-being” or “happiness”; it is also used in euthanasia, eulogy, euphoria, and so on. Praxis (or prassein) refers to “action, doing or practice.” Eupraxia means “right action” or “good conduct.” The suffix sofia is derived from sophos (“wise”) and means “wisdom.” This suffix appears in the term philosophy, combining philos (“loving”) and sophia (“wisdom”) to mean “love of wisdom.”

Later he states:

Thus humanism is a eupraxsophy. Accordingly, the primary task of eupraxsophy is to understand nature and life and to draw concrete normative prescriptions from this knowledge. Eupraxsophy thus draws deeply from the wells of philosophy, science, and ethics. It involves at least a double focus: a cosmic perspective and a set of normative ideals by which we may live.

Part of employing “good practical wisdom” is to act on a genuine state of caring. To see the pain of another creature and to do whatever is in your power to mitigate that.

Weeping Japanese woman

A woman learns that her mother was successfully rescued from a building in Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan. KYODO / Reuters

There is a hardness to the comment that Japan somehow deserves this disaster, it speaks of a deep lack of compassion and caring for others.

Other human beings do not deserve to be raped, to be murdered, to get AIDS, or to die in some natural disaster. It is not a deserving thing; no universal justice is served in suffering. There is no grand plan of retributive justice.

It is always regrettable and sad when bad things happen to people, or the other creatures that inhabit our pale blue dot with us.

Besides that, extending this line of illogic, if some other group of people engage in acts which she deems to be wrong or offensive in some way, her idea of a just and measured response is for their populace to be wiped from the face of the planet.

If religion has the potential to help people to be moral (which is a flaky, weak argument at best) then it seems to have failed in this instance, and with this person.

I fully agree that Japan has erred greatly in their “scientific whaling program”, and I fully support the cessation of all whaling and killing of Dolphins. Perhaps I am a hypocrite in some ways here – I am no vegetarian, I eat beef which is arguably similar to the killing of an animal which the Japanese regard as food. I make no bold claim to being fully consistent in my worldview, but I regard the level of sentience of whales and Dolphins to be a distinguishing factor exempting them from the food chain. They need to be studied and protected as an intelligent, social species. But that has nothing to do with what Japan might deserve for their whaling program, and it certainly does not and should not prevent one from showing compassion for the suffering of others.

Furthermore, I feel that a nation which undergoes a disaster, and receives compassionate support from the international community, is more likely to be open to persuasion to stop whaling than if we are silent in the face of their suffering with some uncivilised, judgemental inaction. Even if they never stop whaling, they don’t deserve to be afflicted with an immense disaster.

I urge all of you who read this to donate to Doctors without Borders. They are a secular charity and don’t expect to receive some post-mortem reward for the good that they do.

I feel the greatest sadness however for the person who made the comment. How hard does your life have to be, how much suffering does a person have to endure before they are inured to the suffering of others. Numb in the face of tragedy and pain of loss. I fear for your heart in a world like this, I fear for a world like this, with hearts like yours in it.

How soundly she must sleep at night – I cannot because there are people like her out there and I cannot let silence stand in the face of their lack of compassion.

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~ by Fluxosaurus on March 16, 2011.

2 Responses to “A lack of compassion”

  1. Great post.
    You probably know it, but Christopher Hitchens’ “The Missionary Position – Mother Teresa in theory and practice” is another account of where religion has failed profoundly to help people to be moral.

    • Thanks Auke,

      I did not know of the work, but will endeavour to get a copy. The more I read and watch Hitchens (I just watched his debate with Tony Blair) the more I really respect and appreciate his take on things. Truly a treasure of a mind.

      I think that the argument that religion prevents people from being moral in the best way is strong, but I am still unconvinced that it is as simple as that – there are religious folk who act with great kindness, and seem to be inclusive and caring for all creatures – they seem immune from the usual interference by religion on their actions. But I think by far the majority of people are dangerously open to being corrupted by its insidious influence – by objectifying a specific group or person as “other” their philosophy (being generous and implying no insult to actual philosophy) lays the ground work for prejudice and hatred.

      The world would be truly better off with religion relegated to the archives as an historical oddity, placed correctly within the cannon of literature and studied as such, no more than a text among many.

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