I was overjoyed to watch this video clip today. Finally, an informative (and dare I say entertaining) illustration of how empathy works.
Having taken countless college-level courses on the subjects of anthropology, sociology, philosophy, biology, and so many other -oligies there wasn't anything in the clip that surprised me. My problem has never been with my understanding of the mechanisms of empathy, rather it has always been in trying to explain to others, in two minutes or less, what took me hundreds of hours of -ologies to learn.
Here is my major frustration when trying to explain empathy: I am an atheist. Compounding this frustration is the fact that I live in the South. Living in the South is like living in the Dark Ages. Southerners, for the most part, are an ignorant bunch. Now I realize this was a strong statement but please hear me out. The high poverty level, deplorable national ranking in education and central location in the Bible Belt combined with a cultural aversion to change has made the South stagnate. They reproduce their own ignorance and, quite frankly, those who hold power in the South (the politicians, the corporations, and fundamental Christian fanatics) like it that way. Those who are under the hold of these powerful bastions of greed are not fed enough daylight with which to see their way out of the darkness. It is sad, really. I have lived all over the world and have never seen so much rampant ignorance in my life.
So I go about my atheist way, minding my own business (for the most part- after all, I'm merely human), and trying to lead by example. Yet I find myself in the same experience time and time again: someone I have known for an extended period of time (a Southerner) comes to the realization that I am an atheist. They recoil in horror.
They say they will pray for me. Then they ask me that magical question which makes me cringe:
But . . . but . . . how do you live without morals?
Really? Religion has a monopoly on morals?
The first few times I was asked this question I was giddy with the opportunity to help enlighten someone else's intellect. I believed I was about to share knowledge. I did not answer defensively, nor did I go on the offense, I merely tried to explain myself as simply as possible in the hopes that I was planting a seed of understanding in the world.
Silly me, I am in the South. After several attempts to explain how empathy is the driving force of my moral character, that I follow the Golden Rule and treat the world as I would like to be treated, I learned to just shut up and walk away. (As a side note, I sometimes have the subversive desire to tell these people that I sacrifice black cats during a full moon and fornicate with my dog; but I realize that is just my rage and frustration talking and I need to leave those feelings behind me or else I become that which these people believe me to be. Sometimes I hate being an empathetic being.)
Back to where I learned to just shut up and walk away. The reason I have learned to jsuawa is that they do not listen. They are stuck on "atheist" and their minds are too busy coping with the fact that I "deceived" them for so long. (All Southerners assume everyone else is Christian too because, you know, Jews and Muslims and Atheists and other -ists are so easy to spot. You know, they have big noses and beady eyes, or wear a burqa, or have the number 666 tattooed on their foreheads.) They are horrified to realize that they have accepted me in their sphere of gospel-y goodness and are frantically trying to figure out how they missed the signs.
It saddens me to hear so many times, from people who proclaim themselves to be devout Christians, that I cannot possibly have morals if I do not believe in God. Explaining that I believe in the Golden Rule has done more damage to my argument than good. They immediately point out that the Golden Rule is basically the Ten Commandments and that if it were not for God I would not have ever been exposed to the Golden Rule. Trying to remind them that there were other world religions long before Christianity ever hit the globe and that the basic tenets of most world religions are comparable does not even make a dent in their gray matter. Trying to explain that empathy is a cultural and biological phenomenon is the same as trying to communicate with them in Swahili.
What saddens me the most, however, are the people who tell me that they behave morally so they can go to Heaven. Do you know why I behave morally (using the term loosely, of course, because morals tend to have a variable culture-to-culture construct)? I behave morally because it is the right thing to do. I behave morally in the hopes of a more peaceful existence on a planet torn apart by hatred, greed, fear and ignorance. I believe in a reward here on Earth. I believe the reward is a gift and the gift is this life. In the eyes of these people though, people who are blinded by their own ignorance, that is not enough. They have been told, and so believe, that the reward is Heaven. In other words, they do not behave morally for the sake of being moral, they do so for a reward. In their minds, and hearts, they honestly believe that without that Heavenly reward, there is no point to having morals. Absolutely tragic.
And what about all the wars waged in the name of religion? What about all those religious leaders who have been exposed as frauds? What about the fractious behavior of a Catholic Church that is rife with pedophilia? What about all those anti-abortion fanatics who murder in the name of stopping "murder"? Why should I believe in any religion when none of the world's religions have offered me anything but hypocrisy?
So maybe, just maybe, whether or not one believes in a higher being (or beings), we can all embrace our Homopathic tendencies and accept each other for what we are: one human race.
This life is a gift. Every day is a gift. My loved ones are gifts. I am not greedy so I will leave Heaven for those who think they need it in order to lead an ethical life.