Someone I have a lot of respect for pointed me towards The Charter for Compassion, a document initiated by Karen Armstrong. The goal of the Charter is to convince all humanity to act according to the age old principle of the Golden Rule. I applaud the intentions behind this document and have even added my name to the list of supporters. However, I do have a number of reservations about the language of the Charter which I feel the need to express.
One point of disagreement is an assumption which can be clearly seen in the central core of the Charter itself:
“We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate …”
This seems to me to be an example of what is sometimes referred to as a Golden Age Fallacy or an Appeal to Tradition. It assumes that at some time in the past compassion was at the center of morality and religion but we have somehow lost our way. It encourages us to hark back to an earlier way of thinking which is more moral than modern thinking. While I agree with the Charter that a greater emphasis on compassion in the modern world would be a good thing, I do not agree with the assumption that this would somehow be a return to something that was better in the past.
From Armstrong’s writings, I get an impression that she is an apologist for religion. Not an apologist for a particular religion but for her particular interfaith view of religion which views all religions as reflections of some deeper truth. This view presumes that this deeper truth was somehow more purely expressed in the past at the founding of the major religions, but has somehow been corrupted since then. This interfaith view is generally benign in that it encourages people toward the gentler side of religious doctrine. It attempts to loosen the grip of narrow dogmatic belief systems and open up dialog and understanding between people of different faiths. Though I appreciate these goals and feel that progress in this direction is desirable, I don’t believe this view holds up to detailed scrutiny. Though in the short term it might lead in a constructive direction, I don’t think it provides a firm long-term foundation for morality.
The charter explicitly speaks of “morality and religion“, so it seems on the surface to include secular thought as an equal along side of religion, but the investment in things past seems to me to be much more of a feature of religious thinking than of moral philosophy. Sure, there are those who would say that ancient greek philosophies such as stoicism or epicureanism provide all of the foundation we need for morality, but I seriously doubt even they would coin it up as a necessity “to restore compassion to the centre of morality”. It doesn’t take much scratching of the surface to see that the language of the charter is religious language with some secular window dressing. This harking back to a former time feels like it arises from the religious concept of revelation, where truths are found via the religious revelations which were the source of religions. The purest forms of those revelations is viewed as having come in the past and has been recorded in those documents referred to as “scripture”.
The view embodied in the Charter essentially attempts to have it both ways, since to accept the religious revelations of the past as a source of morality, one must accept just the right amount of religious dogma, but to allow other religions access to the same source one must let go of just the right amount of conflicting religious dogma. In allowing a special spiritual source as the source of religions and morality, this view plants the seeds of its own undoing. This dogma of a common source of religion is easily rationalized under existing religious dogmas. An example is the view among many muslims that though islam, judaism, and christianity share a common mythology, islam is somehow purer and closer to the true source where the other abrahamic faiths have been corrupted. The mormons have a similar dogmatic view of the other abrahamic faiths as being incomplete versions of something only finding full expression in the “latter-day saints”. The catholic church views itself as the true form of a faith of which protestantism has corrupted. Examples abound. So accepting this ideal of a common source still allows religions their dogmas of precedence and superiority. It leaves plenty of room for a condescending interfaith tolerance alongside of honest fellow feeling.
Another problem is the claim that non-compassionate interpretations of scripture are “illegitimate”, which smacks of the No True Scotsman fallacy. This view can only be supported by cherry-picking from any religion or body of scripture what one considers to be valid interpretations. What exactly is the compassionate interpretation of the genocide which the book of Joshua describes in great detail? Other religious scriptures have similarly problematic sections. One cannot just make them all go away by ignoring them. One either has to offer a believable compassionate interpretation or admit that there isn’t one.
The Charter starts with what sounds like an admirable statement:
“The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.”
but this seems like a sweeping assumption to be reached by only by defining as “religious, ethical and spiritual traditions” those traditions which have compassion at their heart. The later statement:
“We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.”
gives us the flip side, where any religious activity which does not have compassion at its heart is defined as not truly religious but a flawed human act “in the name of religion”. We find ourselves back around to the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. The charter insists that compassion be the rubric for judging true religious acts from acts merely in the name of religion, but the only reasons given for this claim are circular reasoning at best. If someone claims that the true expression of his religion includes the persecution of unbelievers, the only argument against the claim is the counter-claim that the “principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions”. No reason is presented as to why anyone should accept this claim as fact.
My preference is for a view rooted in a scientific world-view rather than a religious one. I see compassion, or to use the word preferred in scientific circles, empathy, as a natural component of human behavior which arose long ago in the evolution of social animals. It exists in human behavior alongside many other behaviors, viewed individually as good, bad, or neutral, such as competition, violence, sharing, stealing, monogamy, promiscuity. Contained within every human there is a complex set of these tendencies. Every human culture is a complex balance of these natural human tendencies. Any religion arises from a particular culture and contains within it a rationalization of that cultures characteristics. Religion is not the source of culture, it is a product of culture. The jews had cultural taboos concerning killing, stealing, and adultery long before origin stories were written to explain the taboos as arising from tablets handed down from god. Of course, once a religion is established there is a complex feedback between religion and culture, and when religions travel between cultures both the cultures and the religions shift. To view compassion, or empathy, as arising from religion would be to get the cart before the horse. Religions and ethics are explanations of human behavior.
Of course this perspective is often seen by the religious as yet another dogma and opinions of the primacy of the scientific view over religious views seen as yet another form of dogmatic condescension. That would be fair enough, however this scientific world-view is built upon empirical knowledge, not on modern interpretations of texts written in dead languages from long dead cultures. There is a wealth of information becoming available to us, whether it be from neuroscience (“The Ethical Brain” by Michael Gazzaniga), or primatology (“The Age of Empathy” by Frans de Waal) , or from any number of different fields of scientific study (“The Origins of Virtue” by Matt Ridley, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker), it is pointing at an ability to learn about and understand human nature, the way humans and their societies evolved, and the way humans act as social beings. The picture of human nature emerging is based on a mature understanding of evolution, not the early shallow misunderstandings referred to as “Social Darwinism”, but on a realistic understanding of how social cooperative species could evolve and thrive.
These secular sources seem to me to be a much firmer foundation for a modern ethics of compassion and empathy than ancient “scripture” and unsupported claims that compassion is at the heart of all traditions. Not everyone will accept ethics based on a scientific world-view, so a document such as The Charter for Compassion might be a worthwhile effort. We need to get somewhere from where we are now. We cannot leapfrog into some secular future while much of the world still runs according to religious belief systems. It seems useful to find roots in existing traditions which resonate with that which can be learned from empirical study. I wish the Charter offered more help with this and were expressed in language I could agree with whole-heartedly instead of unsupported presuppositions and circular logic.
In the end, it doesn’t seem to me that the Charter could be very effective. To accept it one has to accept a priori the primacy of compassion. Those who don’t accept the primacy of compassion would not accept the Charter. It’s possible that the existence of the Charter and the presence of some prominent names connected to it could encourage some to think in terms of compassion who might not otherwise. I wish I could feel more hopeful about that than I actually do.
Compassion can be cultivated and it would be good for us to do so. As the world gets more and more crowded, there will be less and less room in it for many of the human behavior patterns which blot our history with violence and cruelty. There are religious traditions which have explored the cultivation of compassion, probably the strongest such traditions would be those arising from buddhism. We should welcome any such practices which any religion has to offer. However any religious tradition should be able to stand up to scrutiny in the light of modern knowledge. Religious scriptures are full of examples of behaviors which are no longer considered acceptable in modern societies such as slavery and misogyny. To adapt to an increasingly crowded planet, humanity needs to get over the idea that religious traditions should be accepted merely because they are religious traditions. We need a rubric for determining which religious traditions are worth keeping and which need to be discarded or revised. Compassion or empathy could be a good choice for such a rubric, but we need a stronger justification for choosing it than the weak circular logic of the Charter for Compassion and we can’t just pretend, as Armstrong apparently does, that all traditions fit the compassion rubric if you just squint your eyes properly.