Why Religious People Really ARE Compassionate AND Why Atheists are (more likely) Codependent

About a year ago, the media was all abuzz with a study that purported to show that religious people were less compassionate than non-believers.

You can imagine why the press loved this research.  It showed the moral superiority of the godless against the godly.  I wasn’t blogging here at the time, but I remembered the study well because I discussed on my radio program.  Based on the methodology of the study–which involved participants watching an emotionally manipulative video (a’la that cloying,  Sarah McLachlan stray dog commercial that even the dogs thought was over-the-top) and then being asked to give a certain number of phony dollar bills to a stranger–I surmised that there was more to the story than meets the eye.

I hypothesized that the reason non-believers gave more in the study is that they don’t have as well-developed a set of principles and are more prone to emotional giving.  Believers, I guessed, would be more likely to be more consistently and reliably charitable as a matter of principle than non-believers.  I suggested that the study really showed that it was easier to emotionally manipulate agnostics/atheists into giving whether it did any good or not as opposed to believers who probably tended to give to causes they actually believed in and thought mattered.

Well, a year later, Popcak’s First Law* was, once again, borne out.

Today, a new study was released showing that indiscriminate compassion is associated with poor self-control.    Traditionally, psychologists believed that people’s default response was selfishness and that being “pro-social” (doing selfless things) took self-control.  It turns out that we’re actually wired in such a way that compassion–not selfishness–is the natural response, but it takes self-discipline to wield compassion in a manner that is healthy instead of merely…codependent.

Codependency is a word that is thrown around a lot.  It’s gotten to the point that anytime someone does something they don’t really want to do for someone else, they think they’re being co-dependent.  That’s not true.  Codependency is insidious compassion.  It is compassion that makes bad things worse.  If I am married to an alcoholic and she comes home and passes out in a pool of her own vomit I may feel the urge to clean her up and put her in a nice warm, comfy bed but if I give into that urge, I take away her ability to see the seriousness of her problem.  If she wakes up covered in her own filth, she has to confront the fact that there is something seriously wrong in her life and she may actually seek help.  But if I–out of misguided compassion (i.e, co-dependency)– let her wake up in a warm bed, all she remembers is partying hard and waking up in a warm bed.  What’s the problem?Let’s party!

Being authentically compassionate take self-discipline and courage.  It requires a willingness to do hard things and, sometimes,  tick people off–if truly working for their best interest requires it.  Codependency, by contrast, is just doing what your gut says is compassionate whether it is helpful or not.  It is little more than a survival reaction.  Why?  Because If someone is hurting, they are more prone to lash out and behave erratically.  If I behave sympathetically and deferentially–whether it actually helps anything or not–I’m less likely to get hurt.

I submit that what the original study showed was not that religious people were not compassionate, but that that religious people have  a greater incentive to develop better control over all of the primal impulses, including the primal impulse to self-preserving pity.

None of that is to say that religious people are never co-dependent. That wouldn’t be true at all.  But it is to say that someone, like a seriously religious person, who has good reasons to think through moral dilemmas and examine their conscience on a regular basis, is probably at least somewhat more likely to have a more sophisticated sense of compassion than someone who didn’t.

Aside from any academic interest, the takeaway from this is that co-dependency isn’t the same thing as compassion.  Compassion is intentional and, sometimes, it is hard.  Co-dependency is simply an unsophisticated, primal urge that employs pity as a means of self-preservation.  Likewise, one’s tendency to indulge an impulse to indiscriminate, self-preserving, pity also probably runs a fairly high risk of being unable to resist other drives (anger, sex, hunger) as well.

Knowing the difference between real compassion and codependency can make all the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy relationship


*Popcak’s First Law:  The tongue-firmly-in-cheek axiom that states, “Given enough time and enough information, everyone will eventually come to see that Popcak’s been right all along.”

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