It is often assumed that the purpose of religion is to shape its adherents into nicer people. However, a quick look at the number and variety of unpleasant people in every religious tradition gives the lie to this idea. If religion doesn’t make people nicer, what is it actually for?
Every religion and philosophy has a shadow side — the flip-side of the ideals it strives for. And there are plenty of people ready and willing to strive for those ideals without being mindful of the shadow that they throw behind them.
- Christianity strives for purity; but the shadow side of that is a sanctimonious and judgemental attitude to “sinners”, especially people who fall outside heterocentric norms.
- Much of Pagan culture strives for sexual freedom and sex-positivity; but the shadow side of that is sex-pressuring.
- Unitarianism strives for tolerance; but the shadow side of that is repressing disagreement and avoiding discussion of theology.
- Atheism strives for rationality; but the shadow side of that is intolerance of spiritual and mystical experience, also known as “woo”.
There are plenty of examples from every religion and philosophy. The examples given above are just ones I happen to be familiar with; I’m sure you can add examples from your own experience. And it is fairly easy to think of people who embody the shadow side of a tradition — but it behoves us to remember that we all carry that shadow within us, and are all too ready to project it onto others.
The thing that generally makes people nicer is the practical exercise of compassion; the choices you make every moment to give people the benefit of the doubt, to listen to their troubles, celebrate their joys and triumphs, and help them out in times of difficulty. People from all traditions and none can engage in the practical exercise of compassion. Our religious traditions may exhort us to exercise compassion, and even have advanced spiritual exercises designed to create it; but unless we actually engage in practical behaviour that embodies it, the exhortations and spiritual exercises will be of little use.
So what are religion and philosophy actually for? Perhaps their purpose is to give life meaning, by providing stories, symbols, rituals, and mythology that create a coherent structure of ideas and values. Each religious and philosophical tradition has a complex system of ideas that allows its adherents to make sense of what happens to them and set it in the context of their community and the world around them.
I am not saying that making people more compassionate isn’t an admirable goal; obviously everyone should strive to be more compassionate. I’m just saying it doesn’t appear to be the primary purpose of religions and philosophies. Perhaps it should be.Giving life meaning is a really useful function of religions and philosophies — without meaning, it’s all too easy to give in to despair and nihilism, and then being compassionate to others can seem pointless anyway.
As the great Terry Pratchett once wrote: “There’s no justice, there’s just us.” Perhaps the universe has no ultimate meaning, and maybe the arc of history doesn’t bend towards justice. But if that’s the case, it’s our job to bend the arc towards justice and compassion, because we are the only ones who can. Having a system of values, symbols, stories, and shared meanings will help us to create community and connection, a sense of shared humanity. Compassion is beautiful, but it’s easier when your value-system tells you that all beings are worthy of compassion; and the more you practice it, the more it becomes a habit.
Compassion to others is easier when you are compassionate towards yourself. There’s an unexpectedly profound piece of advice in the pre-flight safety talk given by airlines: “put your own oxygen mask on before helping others” (this is backed up by science and common sense). It sounds selfish to say “take care of yourself first” but doing so gives you the energy, self-respect, and boundaries that you will need to help others. If you don’t set boundaries, you will end up with spiritual burnout.
Part of self-care is doing things that give your life meaning; examples of which are the exercise of compassion towards others and campaigning for justice. For me, two of these things are doing trade union casework and sharing ways of making Wicca more inclusive. But I also need something to sustain me: love, friendship, walks in the countryside, stories, and creativity. I practice Wiccan ritual, and celebrate Pagan festivals, because they help to give my life meaning. So for me, the creation of meaning and the exercise of compassion are actually rather intertwined.