12/08/2012 | Share this article:By Susan G. Bonella ~
Empathy plays an important role in humanity. It can identify someone who is hurting or simply create a platform for peaceable relationships. It requires a certain level of intelligence, but we can see the process of empathy in the face of a small child who watches her friend’s pistachio ice cream fall to the ground and says, “I hate it when that happens.” It doesn’t matter if the child hates pistachio and would have chosen chocolate for herself; she still feels empathy for her friend because she knows what it’s like to have something she wanted and then lost.
When I was a child I practiced empathy pretty well in school and with neighborhood friends. My class and I swarmed the first wheel-chair using kid to enter our tiny school and let him know he was welcome. We swarmed the first black girl to ever enter our tiny white neighborhood school and showered her with hair compliments and friendship. When someone cried, we were on it. When someone was absent, we were on it because we all lived close together. Empathy was easy. I don’t know the reason it was easy for the other kids, but I’m sure I was able to do this because I knew I was adopted and I didn’t quite fit in my family. My skin was a tad bit darker as a child leaving my uncle to use interesting names for me. My hair was curly and course and my mother didn’t really know how to manage it. I wanted to play drums and go camping, but those things did not fit the family criteria and neither did empathy. Situations are not always real as they seem when you’re a child, but the feeling of exclusion is very real. The memory of the feeling is valuable.
I believe, as ex-fundamentalists turned humanist or naturalist, etc., many of us have a grand scale problem with empathy toward believers. I assume the problem stems from the very personal sense of loss we feel from having given over a great portion of life to what now seems like a fraud and the need to place the blame somewhere. I know that I felt that way for a long time until I remembered where I came from… again. Once I was a child who felt empathy for others because I identified with a feeling of exclusion, and then I was a Christian who felt empathy toward the excluded “sinner” and wanted to save them.
There are no people groups who stand without preconceived notions, and so we should keep ourselves in constant check as individuals.Except for certain power mongers here and there, the ultimate goal for a born again Christian is to show empathy through the spread of life saving information which leads to Heavenly inclusion. Someone who truly believes that the person next to him will die without this knowledge does not show empathy by withholding the lifesaving information. Instead he throws it out there like a life preserver on it’s way to a drowning man to be drawn up to the safety of the ship. The God experience is real to them, and it was as real to me as the childhood feelings of exclusion which, importantly, were not justified in entirety. I propose that Christian empathy is real, regardless of the source or lack of source that drives it, and regardless of the prejudices and idiosyncrasies that may accompany it.
While Christianity has it’s quirks, the grass is never greener on the other side. There are no people groups who stand without preconceived notions, and so we should keep ourselves in constant check as individuals. Whether we choose the label of Humanist, Naturalist, Atheist, or anything else, empathy is essential in our quest to be on top of our truth game if our goal is to critique ourselves into the best humans we can be. Fact-addicted people like me get into conversations about truth and perception all the time. Is the mind a world within a world? Is truth what we see or is the truth so big that our human eyes only allow us to see a miniscule portion? (Quantum physics, String Theory and M Theory usually come up right about there in the conversation if not after comparing our view of the park with that of an ant’s view.) But a more useful truth may be that if our empathy is stunted by personal offense, we can no longer critique ourselves and may in fact hinder the positive characteristics that we longer for during our time as fundamentalists. This is not to say that religious-affiliated human rights and freedoms attacks are not worth the fighting over. But that the anger over bigotry may be better directed toward the institution instead of the individual.
You’ll recall hearing that Satan (“the opposer”) hates humans because we were created in the image of God. It can be said that he has no empathy for humanity because humanity represents his adversary. But are Christians really the adversaries of all the “ists” mentioned above? I think it should be easy for a human to, if not completely love, empathize with another human being’s intentions. As very philosophical and scientific people, I would think that more of us “ists” would be inclined to examine what drives human behavior – not withholding Christians – and empathize with it. Whether we view ourselves as God’s creations or the product of the stuff of asteroids, here we stand on the same rock – looking for truth. Maybe our empathy for fundamentalists is as simple as demonstrated by the girl who hates pistachio ice cream. Maybe it’s as simple as saying, “Hey, I’m a truth seeker too.”