Empathy, Compassion, and Morality Need No God


A cactus forest in the Southwest evening light

A controversial topic for an essay. Call it Flash Philosophy, if you like. The naughty connotation of ‘flash’ lends some controversy, while this blog post surely qualifies as a brief (therefore, ‘flash’) foray into social philosophy. But seriously, it has become commonplace for people to insist that it is religion that civilized us all, and that God (pick one!) gave us religion. What I’m about to spout will drop not only religion, but one considered its originator as well. Hence the troubling nature of this subject.

But I need help to raise this weighty topic into our consciousness…and who better to assist than that frail old man, a scrappy giant in intellect? See his ears that jut out prominently? A hallmark of one who does not back from a fight. In his life, he won most of them too. Yet, he came to be called, by all those who knew and loved him, ‘Mahatma,’ mahaan-atma, or ‘Great Soul.’


Consider this pithy, meaningful statement by the Mahatma: “GOD has no religion.” Is that not intrinsically true, self evident in a most convincing way? An all-knowing, all-powerful, everywhere-at-once consciousness (do note those wonderful wordy terms avoided: omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent!) has little need or use for any ‘tribal’ (my self, my family, my clan, my religion, my sort of people, or tribe) affiliation. For such a ‘being,’ assuming one (or more?) in existence, is there any purpose to defining a way of life by means of any religion?

Now why did the Mahatma come up with this – arguably controversial in his time – assertion? I think he spoke not against religion, but for unity. He saw the insidious ‘divide-and-conquer’ methods applied by colonial rulers, and hoped to counter (no, fight!) that with self-evident truths. He spoke to unify all those driven to view each other differently, with suspicion and fear, into one people. I think he succeeded, but history evidences that political forces, that saw his unifying efforts, split his country in two.

Generations later, we still fight. And label each other with terms such as zealots, radicals, fanatics…and attach whichever religion to these descriptors that suits us. We continue to differentiate, discriminate, and sow severe social discord. There is, and perhaps always has been, disunity, disharmony, and consequent destruction of peace. What perpetuates all this?

Throughout recorded history, humans have employed ‘God’ for their purposes. Fear God, for God’s retribution is most severe. God has a special place prepared, for those who sin, to suffer inestimable and unending torment. Serve God, for God will reward servants with all sorts of base pleasures. God instructs us to do these things, for they are our contractual obligations. God demands that we do not question or investigate God. What role does all this play in human society? Is it not self-evident that these are nothing but crude methods of control, where humans employ God for their purposes of maintaining intellectual enslavement of a majority they benefit from?

But there are other manifestations of God too. Some see God as a benevolent and tolerant force that permeates all nature. Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it, if God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent? What else, but nature and all life, can one think of that fits such broad definition? When one (often, a culture) shuns personification, models or representations in human persona, one’s view broadens to include all of nature, life, in entirety.

I recall writing this dedication, in my Master’s thesis, two decades ago: “To the benevolence in all that lives, which, in aggregation, I firmly believe, to be God.” I’d moved on then, from God as all nature, to a quality of nature, benevolence.

Nevertheless, life, in its school of hard knocks, teaches us of balance, and of its continuum. Where there is benevolence, there can be as much malevolence too. What we call it really depends – on our perspective, our individual learning, our inclinations.

But what is constant in us all is what we learn, and refine, in ourselves, in those around us, building upon our innate nature. Empathy is innate, and so is compassion, altruism, and growing refinement in our ability to discern right and wrong. I won’t go into all the scientific research that establishes this truth. We reinforce these qualities in ourselves through self-aware application, through our thoughts, actions, and guidance from social consciousness.We manifest culture and civilization.

This is how we grow – from selfish, helpless, babes to selfless and helpful adults. Religion and God may help in early years with guidelines to follow. Yet these are but lampposts along a journey, and are in no way end goals of our life learning. The only discipline needed here, all life long, is continual learning – with the humility that comes from clear awareness of our limitations, our individual scarcity of knowledge and wisdom. I think that is the path to deeper comprehension, enlightenment, and peace within.

So tell me – if you’ve read this far – why do we need God, any God, to empathize, to be compassionate toward all life, and thus to know right from wrong in the continuum of life and nature?


Update Jan. 10, 2016: Rare pictures of the final decade of Mahatma Gandhi.


About Rian Nejar

Rian Nejar is an Indian-American author. He trained and worked as an engineer in India, lived briefly in the Middle East, and arrived in America in the early 90's. After a Master’s degree in electrical engineering in America, he worked as an academic instructor, engineer, entrepreneur, and technical writer over the two decades since. Humbling and Humility (http://goo.gl/FKUnCM) is his first mainstream nonfiction. He lives and writes in the Southwest United States.
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