NPR logo Living Up To Expectations: Religion, Evolution And Compassion

Living Up To Expectations: Religion, Evolution And Compassion

Compassion: they call it the best idea humanity ever had. When it comes to religion it seems to be built into the core of almost every attempt to focus human spirituality. Then, alas, it gets almost completely lost.  But what would happen if every religion made empathy and compassion their central and sole focus.  What if every religion put everything else — everything else — aside?

The Golden Rule — that simple call to make empathy central to one's actions — is obviously not as golden as it might be. While every institutional religion speaks highly of it as a model for human behavior, far to often it is institutional politics and power that determine institutional behavior. Hatred, predjudice, neglect and horror can follow. That schizophrenia is what turns many people away from religion.  And yet human spiritual endeavor's ability to inspire such deep reservoirs of compassion its also what makes even atheists like myself recognize its enduring power.

The counter to the long history of organized religion organizing away compassion comes The Charter for Compassion.  Founded by a group of religious thinkers from across the spectrum of beliefs (including scholar Karen Armstrong) the Charter reminds us what all spiritual endeavor should aim for.

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. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

The Charter's goal is to get world religions to pony up, walk the walk, so to speak.  Will that be possible?  Before you answer no, consider the role evolution might play in it all.


It is likeley that the Golden Rule has some basis in evolution.  It may be that altruism in individuals (based on modeling others as oneself) confers evolutionary fittness.  That would be a fascinating result if true.

It is a rather obvious fact that we have just made the transition to a truely global species in terms of our impact on planetary systems. That is clearly a step in our evolution. So, perhaps, now there is an evolutionary imperative to both deepening and widen the Golden Rule.

As those systems are stressed to points endangering the human hability of regions perhaps evolution, in its cultural guise, will make an ecological Golden Rule the basis for fitness.  Empathy for others, including other living systems, might just make so much sense now that it does become a rule.

The Charter for Compassion might be just what we need right now.